Never Burn Your Apron
I know you’ve thought about it. I have. But five, 10, 20 years from now, I’m betting if you need it, you don’t have the money to go out and buy another one.
When my little sister was 17, I got her a job as a hostess. Elated that I got to work with her, I thought we would be able to gossip and hangout together even more. She would know who I was talking about when I mentioned Sam, the dreamy bartender who my sister decided upon meeting was a player. It turns out she was right.
In my fantasies, we were this amazingly fun duo. We would party all night and later trade drunken tales of the same nighttime adventure, filling in each other’s missing pieces. But as it turns out, she’s not much a of a people person, she doesn’t have much of a taste for alcohol and she absolutely hated smiling when she didn’t feel like it. In fact, she preferred bussing tables to seating them. Even though she would be covered in other people’s leftover filth, at least she didn’t have to trade false pleasantries.
On her last day, two months, two days and 16 hours after she first started, she celebrated her release from the gallows of the food industry by tossing her white polo shirt into a campfire. She watched as the restaurant’s emblem was slowly consumed, thread by thread, while the hungry yellow flames gorged on the fabric, much like restaurant patrons gorged themselves on salads — thinking it was still healthy despite pounds of dressing.
She did what I’ve always wanted to do. No matter how many times I heard a relative, a friend or a parent say: “It’s a skill you’ll always have to fall back on,” I never believed it. Or I just didn't want to.
At the end of the day, you may have money in hand but you have endured slights and degradation. You smell like food and grease; it’s not only on your clothes but it seeps into your pores. Even after you shower, it clings. I once dated a guy who worked in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant. Despite showering and dowsing cologne on himself, he always managed to smell like food. Years later, I think of him whenever I smell a whiff of Italian food and grease.
After 12 hours of being on my feet, I can no longer feel them or they hurt so much I walk around claiming to everyone who is near that I’m the Little Mermaid – and not Disney’s happy version. This is the Hans Christian Anderson version, where with every step she takes, it feels like she’s walking on broken glass.
I may have eaten the buffalo chicken sandwich with fries, but I’m not worried about getting fat. That period between 5 and 9, when I had 10 tables who didn’t think that maybe it would be courteous to say, “Yes, a refill would be nice,” when I asked the first time, had burned those calories. No, these people wait until I’ve come back with their dining partner’s drink and then say, “You know what, maybe I will take a refill.” Nevermind the seven other tables with double the eyes, looking at me expectantly for their food or check.
Or my personal favorite is when I walk up to a table and say: “Hi, my name is Katri-“
“I’ll take a coke,” says the gentleman in his business suit, promptly cutting me off. My smiles tightens, I bite my tongue. Hi to you too, I think. My imagination slips away into a world where I tell him to kiss my ass and to get his own damn coke. But that’s in a perfect world.
Or even better I walk up to a table and say, “Hi. How are you doing today?” But instead of a greeting in return, the two people talking back and forth continue their conversation as if I don’t exist. They don’t look at me, they don’t say hi, or pause in their conversation even. Ten seconds, 20, 50. A minute can seem like a very long time when you’re the elephant in the room and the only one that realizes it. I either stick around until they get some manners and say hi, or I run to the bathroom or to a fellow co-worker to make sure I’m still visible. Am I suddenly Patrick Swayze in “Ghost?” I wave my hand back and forth in front of my face. I can still see it. I turn to the skinny little new girl with the extra tight shirt and the cleavage busting out from the-obviously-not regulation shirt.
“Umm. Did you deliver food to table 45?” I ask breathlessly.
She looks at me with her large, heavily made-up eyes like a 17-year-old struck dumb on her first day on the job. “Where’s table 45?” she asks.
“That one,” I point efficiently and turn.
Hallelujah, I’m alive. Time to return to those people who don’t have any manners.
Now, as I approach the table they’re looking through the menu, quiet, subdued. Could they have possibly realized as their server ran away, that they had been impolite? One of the ladies’ looks at me, “Hi!” she says.
My smile, when it comes, hurts. I am a pro at smiling when I don’t feel it. That’s why I’m good at this job. I have been able to fool my friends, family and lovers for years. Surely, I can fool perfect strangers into giving me their money. It’s not too hard. But I’ll need some sugar when I’m through to counteract the bitters.
“Hi,” I respond. They do not get the pleasure of my name.
At the end, they’ll leave me a decent tip because they realize, if not in some vague, sort of offhanded way, that I am also a human being. God made us all equal did he? I am surely superior because I actually know what that means. Me, the lowly waitress.
Servers, more than bartenders, are bitter. There is a big ‘ol chip on our shoulder that ain’t growing back. Why? Well, there’s a certain culture in the restaurant and the position one holds is equivalent to a social class. As a bartender, you’re more respected. It’s seen as a more prestigious job, a skill. In addition, bar guests tend to be more laid back, they’re chilling, having a drink. Or else they’re regulars, and naturally, you’re then their best friend. Cha-ching.
Servers, on the other hand, are often treated as if they’re hard of hearing or just too daft to understand the difference between medium rare and well done. What the customer doesn’t realize is that the server has little control over what happens to the food once the order goes in. We can bitch all we like, but if the kitchen is backed up, yelling at the cooks just makes them take longer and do a worse job than they’re already doing.
Once when I worked at a diner chain, there was a cook named Wayne. He used to smoke cigarettes while he fried the food; his grease-stained white t-shirt barely covering his gut, thinning hair covered up by a trucker’s baseball-style cap. He was a complete cliché, but the literal truth. Despite all that, he could be all right some of the time, but when he was pissed at the servers, they better beware. He used to put the plates right down on the flat top grill and let them sit there until they were nice and hot, then he’d throw the food on them. If you didn’t already know better, you’d grab the plate and let out a shriek as you felt your skin sizzle. The bastard would be flicking his ashes on the floor and hiding a smirk behind his stringy brown mustache.
This is what I think of as I fold the freshly washed apron. Despite the sounds and smells of summer that waft in through the open window, my hand shakes with the memories — shakes with a pyromaniac urge. But I stay my hand. This apron has scars. It has been my constant companion when there was no one else. My story is entwined with the apron. To burn it, I know, would be foolhardy, and I’ve come too far for that. Instead, the apron sits deep in a drawer, waiting for when it is needed. I hope that day never comes.