Sunnyside down

A new book gives waitresses a chance to say what they really think of their work -- and their customers.

By Suzy Hansen

Published October 14, 2002 5:02PM (EDT)

Thanks to the tequila, the night turned out just fine. At the Washington, D.C., Mexican restaurant where I waited tables, it was Thursday night happy hour, when cheap margaritas and 99-cent appetizers brought in hordes of Capitol Hill interns. Over the course of my shift's first three hours, I'd managed to crash into a co-worker carrying 10 Coronas on a tray and to lose several of my thin silver rings in a garbage can-size vat of multicolored tortilla chips. I kept five tables waiting while I scrambled to retrieve them. We were slammed.

Still, at that point, 20 years old and working nights to make up for an unpaid internship, I was a decent waitress. My major failing -- and I felt pretty bad about it -- was that I couldn't carry plates on my forearms. Every night, I'd enviously watch the Salvadoran busboys, half my size, speed past me with four plates of quesadillas perfectly balanced on their strong, wide arms, from their wrists all the way to their biceps. On both arms.

My own mistakes and personal inadequacies, however, didn't bother me as much as did the behavior of the clientele. They poked me, they grabbed me, they yelled at me from across the room. They'd say things like, "I'll have a beer," and turn away, as if I could just pick any brand. Some (usually women) didn't acknowledge me at all; it was weird -- they ordered their meals while facing their friends. Others (usually men) acknowledged me too much, confused about whether they should flirt with me, insult me or both. "Do you aspire to go to college?" one young guy inquired meaningfully.

So at around 9 p.m., when I went to the bar to collect my drink order and found a shot of tequila tucked between my customers' frozen margaritas, I felt instantly better. I looked up, sweaty and beleaguered, and the bartender, a veteran of the restaurant world, winked at me. It wasn't so much the alcohol that helped. It was that in that moment -- and during future covert exchanges -- we bonded. Us vs. them.

Them who? You, me, all of us. Anyone who's gone out to eat has been "them." Waitressing can often be fun, even exhilarating work. But it's also very hard, and not only because you're on your feet for hours. People -- who may be nice, polite individuals in their own homes -- treat waitresses terribly. These days, when I go out to eat, I watch for these missteps almost obsessively, horrified when friends or acquaintances fail to say even "hello" to a friendly "Can I take your order?" You can tell a lot about people by the way they treat a waitress.

But how much does restaurant etiquette really say about a person's character? As Alison Owings points out in her new book, "Hey, Waitress! The U.S.A. From the Other Side of the Tray," for a couple of hours, restaurant customers become employers -- the waitress works for them. Most of these women are paid $2 an hour by their legal employers so their livelihood depends on tips, the generosity of strangers who happen to sit in their sections. Therefore, as you might logically imagine, most try hard to do their job well.

Many waitresses love their jobs, too. Owings profiles dozens of lifers -- women who've fled financially comfortable but unhappy marriages and found independence in restaurant work, Ph.D.s who won't give up their waitressing ways because they like it too much, a woman who worked at the North Carolina Woolworth's during the famous civil rights sit-in. There are 20-somethings and senior citizens, Southern belles and Native Americans. There's even a nun. Through their eyes, we get a glimpse of how Americans -- and sometimes Europeans -- reward and punish waitresses for their service. After reading Owings' oral history, I'd say that waitresses' often lacerating assessments of American manners are more disconcerting than the prospect of them spitting in the soup. (In her introduction, Owings explains that she hasn't included waiters in her survey because waiting tables is stigmatized as a "remedy for financial desperation" when women do it, and "let us not even address the sexual implications of the work. Waiters, believe me, have it easier.")

Some might call "Hey, Waitress!" a tribute, but it's much better than an earnest celebration of the downtrodden working class. For the most part, Owings is confident enough in her subjects to trust that, beyond working their asses off, they have something insightful to say about the behavior of ordinary Americans. Thus, while some of Owings' more famous subjects offer a fresh perspective on history -- who doesn't want a front row seat at Woolworth's during the famous North Carolina sit-in? -- their stories end up being less eye-opening than the goings on at an ordinary greasy spoon.

Owings' book isn't the first on waitressing. In 1917, an American journalist named Frances Donovan went undercover as a waitress, the turn-of-the-century version of Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed." Donovan found that "the girl who is good looking has her pick of the jobs," something Owings' subjects would echo.

A 1912 report called "The Girls Employed in Hotels and Restaurants" noted that "people think they can say almost anything to a waitress." Greta Foff Paules, in her study done 80 years later, used much stronger language: "Virtually every rule of etiquette is violated by customers in their interaction with the waitress: the waitress can be interrupted; she can be addressed with the mouth full; she can be ignored and stared at; and she can be subjected to unrestrained anger."

And, believe me, waitresses know it. According to Owings, "American waitresses, so intrinsic to American life, are proud of doing well what they know they are dismissed for doing at all." The clincher for me was Wendy, a part-time film studies lecturer who also makes hundreds of dollars in tips a night at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. -- one of the most revered restaurants in America: "I'll sooner come out to the class as a lesbian than as a waitress." We haven't come very far from that 1912 study that reported that waitresses' "greatest number of complaints, after health, were related to 'bad treatment by the public.'"

So why do people treat waitresses badly? And does their surliness make them bad people? Based on Owings' collection, it seems that there are two kinds of offenders: those who rely on waitresses for an ego boost and those who just treat waitresses like shit.

The first camp is made up mostly of men who joke and flirt with the waitress, or use her to impress their dinner party with their supposed kindness and witticisms. Have you ever seen someone deflate when a waitress doesn't laugh at his joke? "People expect you to smile all the time, but they don't realize that when they're at work they're not smiling all day long," said Rosie, a waitress at a Maryland diner. Apparently, some customers want waitresses to like them and it's a low-risk scenario: If she doesn't react favorably, it's easy to dismiss her as bad at her job.

Still, when a customer is alone, affection for -- or harassment of -- a waitress can be somewhat more poignant. "People come to waitresses for all the assorted stereotypes and cliches, of telling their troubles and being heard," explains Joanne Mulcahy, a Portland, Ore., folklorist with a Ph.D. who has waitressed since she was a teenager. Jack Nicholson in "As Good as It Gets" is the hyperbolic version of this type: a lonely guy living in an alienating metropolis, trying to reach out. Who else does he talk with regularly? Who else caters to his wants and needs, flashes him a smile, asks him how his day was? For many Americans -- recluses, truck drivers, widowers, traveling salesmen -- a waitress is a dependable friend.

Waitresses' most common complaint is that customers fail to acknowledge their humanity. Hence, the second group. Melinda, a 35-year-old California waitress, recalls a customer who once snapped: "What do you want? Eye contact? Do we have to look at you?" What's fascinating about this exchange is that it suggests that the customer knows that society expects him to treat everyone with a minimum of respect, but with waitresses, gosh darn it, he's going to buck the system.

A Hungarian waitress in New York suggests that it's up to the waitress to take control of the situation. Sociologist William H. Whyte, in his 1948 study "Human Relations in the Restaurant Industry," echoed her sentiment: "The customer senses her uncertainty and seems to feel uneasy himself. This is likely to lead to trouble." Diners feel ambivalent and unsure about the power that comes with having someone serve them. They want the waitress to establish the tone of the employer-employee relationship first.

Then there are folks like the poor slob who asked whether I hoped to go to college, as if anyone who waitressed needed a fairy godmother to do so. In a wonderful scene in "Hey, Waitress!" a pleasant server asks her customer about his Galápagos Islands T-shirt. He can't contain his surprise that she's heard of the islands, let alone of Charles Darwin and the HMS Beagle. It seems that some customers feel better about themselves if they can believe that their waitress is bad or stupid or careless, just as others feel better labeling all welfare recipients as lazy. Anything else disrupts the theory that the world is a fair place where everyone gets what he deserves.

What fuels this melodrama of power is the tip. "There's something inherently honest about doing a job and going home with cash at the end of the day," said one waitress. Yet, it's a bind: The waitress feels as though she can't say no. (One smart waitress observed: "Even prostitutes, with whom some waitresses ruefully identify, get the money first.") One waitress describes putting up with being literally prodded and jabbed all night because "my tip depended on staying meek." Owings herself writes, "I end by thinking that tips are unfair, soul-robbing, or, as social workers of past generations have said, 'pernicious.'" Personally, however, I can't imagine waitressing without tips. It's half the (admittedly masochistic) thrill.

It's always interesting when rich people tip badly, and they do it just as often as the poor. According to the ladies of "Hey, Waitress!" Jesse Jackson had notably poor manners. Vernon Jordan and Yul Brynner were sweet as could be. Liza Minnelli stiffed one New York waitress. Arthur Miller left her only a quarter. Jimmy Carter tipped well and asked for a doggy bag. His waitress thought that was weirdly beneath a president.

So what is it about eating out that brings out our least savory character traits? It's money, of course, and appetite, which we're all fiercely preoccupied with, whether we love food or stress over how it's affecting our figures. (If you've ever eaten out with an anorexic, you've seen how terrifying a restaurant can be.) Having been a waitress myself doesn't entirely explain my extreme, almost bizarre, sympathy for them. The waitress stirs up every personal problem we have with class and power -- whether being served makes you feel ashamed or resentful or like the king of the world. Whether it reminds you of your mom, your maid or yourself, age 15, at the local beachfront hamburger stand. It makes sense that those with the biggest senses of entitlement don't have a clue about forces at work when they order their hangar steak.

Of course, waitresses aren't perfect and the women interviewed in "Hey, Waitress!" would be the first to admit that. I'd imagine that after reading Owings' book, many readers might still be confused about how to treat a waitress well. Make jokes, or not? Call her by her first name, or no? Some questions I would have liked Owings to turn on her interviewees more often include: What are the cardinal sins of waitressing? What does a waitress have to do to merit a bad tip? Does she deserve 15 percent even if she's slow, if she's hanging out at the bar, if she's licking her fingers in plain sight?

It might help if patrons at least started things out on the right foot. Suz, a waitress whose new husband had been a horror to wait on, offered this simple instruction to him:

"You will sit very quietly. You will give your order, completely, clearly, succinctly. You will never harass the waitron and will be very grateful and tip twenty percent even if she forgot your order completely. Maybe she's having a bad day."

It doesn't sound like a tall order to me.

Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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