Everyone should wait tables

Restaurants may be eliminating servers, but I think all of us should spend a year on the front lines

Published December 14, 2013 12:00AM (EST)

  (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-140512p1.html'>Jiri Hera</a>, <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-1504559p1.html'>morrison77</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Jiri Hera, morrison77 via Shutterstock/Salon)

When I was a teenager waiting tables in a series of Italian eateries of wavering quality, I would have leapt at the chance to replace myself with an iPad, as Applebee’s has recently rolled out. The meals I served back then were generally not “cooked” so much as they were “poured from a slit in a bag and reheated,” and the only thing that made me sadder than people ordering the food was people liking it. That flashing electronic device at each table may sound disheartening, but it’s less depressing than an actual human pretending she likes working at Applebee’s.

But there is much to be learned in the service industry, and at 23, I finally got a job at a restaurant I adored and admired, a Madison, Wis., farm-to-table place named L’Etoile that was trumpeting its local sourcing about 30 years before everyone else except Alice Waters. Surely the guests at such a restaurant would be gracious, even blissful. Surely we would bond over the love of fine food that had brought us together. And with many guests, this was indeed the case. But the grander truth I take away from my decade in the restaurant business is this: We would all be better people if restaurant work were compulsory. We might at first be more ragey, baffled-by-our-peers people, yes, but I submit that as time went on and a wave of restaurant-educated people burst forth, we’d benefit.

Chopping away in the back of the house does not count for these purposes, by the way, difficult and demanding though that work is. In the kitchen, the worst you might do is grievously injure yourself. In the dining room, you face humanity.

And this is humanity at its most oblivious, tetchy and petulant. We’ve all heard about the snooty, demanding restaurant guests, but snootiness was not generally a big problem in Madison. When the arena is a friendly college town in the Midwest, you’re not really achieving much by getting your way — it’s Wisconsin! We were probably going to do that for you, anyway. The occasional celebrity strolled through, visiting a kid at UW or playing a concert, but they were invariably low-key and unobtrusive. No, it was the regular folks who drained me of my will to stay in the restaurant business, and at times my will to breathe.

When I was still working for a restaurant that made pizza by unwrapping frozen dough-discs and running them through a glorified toaster, I expected little of my fellow humans. Were we not all there because we’d agreed to settle? They wanted cheap food and I wanted a job staffed with my friends, where management was not too eagle-eyed about the wine spigots. (Oh, yes: spigots.) But at an upscale, serious restaurant, the occasional rudeness and unalloyed weirdness of my customers seemed almost personal. This was my place, a place where I had saved my money to dine many times before I dared to try and work there, a place that introduced me to vaporous local cheeses, luscious, dripping moonglow pears and crisp-skinned sweetbreads I can still recall tasting to this day.

And yet when people climbed the stairs and entered our dining room, many relinquished some crucial awareness along with their winter coats: of their bodies and others’, of social norms, of the laws of time and space. Either we have taken this “customer is always right” approach way too far, or else we have absorbed it far too greedily. I too love the fantasy and the sheer theater of a good restaurant experience, but it can feel so divorced from daily life that people take it as the opportunity to enjoy a total meltdown of the social compact. Eye contact, replies to direct questions and protecting your progeny from obvious dangers all fall by the wayside. A restaurant guest intent upon his own coddling is an alarming beast.

Parents set their babies free to crawl in the treacherous aisle where the servers carried great trays of dishes. People would plunder our expensive flower arrangements, drunkenly requesting “a rose for each of the ladies.” Some felt so freed from the drudgery of cooking and serving a meal that they forgot that humans with bodies were involved in the process of feeding them at all. These were the people who gestured madly and unexpectedly, flinging their elbows into a server’s solar plexus and sloshing martinis off of our trays.

Oh, not all people were violent or hazardous. Some were simply odd. Diners occasionally rose from their tables to stand by the windows and gaze out at the starry winter night, sipping their wine and posing in the light from the adjacent capitol building, so that the servers could feel them feel us watching. I understood the impulse — we’ve all seen those movies in which closing down a restaurant is the height of romance, and in those scenes one never sees a server. But we were there, our backs to the dining room floor that now doubled as the living room in someone’s personal romance novel, rolling our eyes.

I confess that, these days, I get it. It’s been a long time since I waited tables, and as the years have passed I have slowly stopped identifying with the house and started identifying instead with the guests. Now that I’m the one so delighted to get the hell out of the house and have a glass of wine, I too am sometimes tempted to regress to loud adolescent gaiety, or to allow the staff’s illusion of effortlessness to overcome the part of my brain that says, These people are working, and working hard, and it’s nice if you do not actively sabotage them. But it happens to me, too, that urge to make my rare night out exactly what I’d hoped, even when I know it might annoy the staff. The older I get the less embarrassed I am to be the lightweight requesting a half glass of wine instead of a full one, or to flout a restaurant’s refusal to fill that wasteland between drinks and first course and, like some Dickensian waif, express a desire for a crust of bread. (I know it’s very now to charge six bucks for a few slices of bread with hand-molded local butter, but seriously, people: if you know I can’t get out of your establishment without dropping a hundred dollars, throw me a bone, or a single Sungold stabbed with a pine nut, something.)

The funny thing is, during my years of working in a restaurant that demanded a great deal of its employees, not least of which was graciousness in the face of rudeness, I loved my job. I loved immersing myself in the world of food, learning about wine, quizzing the cooks on technique, introducing people to ground cherries or foie gras. It was not an easy job to obtain and I was proud to be there. But the cumulative effect of well, people, eventually took its toll.

Here is where I find myself turning an about-face of sorts. I have long thought everyone should have to wait tables, but for years my goal was collective comeuppance or just to scare them straight. Now, the more I consider the effect of my own experience, the more I become the consumer instead of the provider, the more I realize what unsettles me still about restaurant life isn’t the bad behavior. It is the moments when the empathy is too unavoidable and too painful, when guests arrived hoping to enjoy the public intimacy of the dining room and ended up regretting it: the proposals that were not accepted, or the girl who got up to visit the restroom before the main course arrived, leaving her date and the servers to slowly realize she wasn’t returning.

A required year on the front lines would not just be a refresher in simple good manners, but the reminder of the underlying purpose of those manners: Even in a privileged dining room, this is a crowded, uneasy world, and being considerate of each other at the moments our lives unavoidably intersect can smooth the rough edges just a little bit. A former server is more likely to treat wait staff as sentient beings, yes, but I’d like to think we also retain some measure of empathy, too, much as we try to squelch it. A lot of lives came into my orbit when I was a server, drawing me in at moments that were joyous, sorrowful, nerve-wracking and all the more delightful or harrowing for occurring so publicly. You can’t live in your own hermetic world if you’re a server; you can’t avoid learning about the lives of others, not when those others arrive in your life each and every night, bringing with them a bundle of hopes and worries and celebrations and rifts.

I still think of that girl who ditched her date and wonder what spurred her to do it. They seemed uncomfortable at the restaurant, too young and uncertain to enjoy it, perhaps. She had long blonde hair, bangs, and wore a black dress with flowers on it. He had on a beige shirt, brown tie, and parted hair. I’m sure neither remembers me and that both hope I don’t remember them. But I do. I remember trying to be brisk and unobtrusive when I cleared her untouched plate — is it possible I wrapped it up for him to take home? I only recall that it was hard to bear, the machinations we all had to work through, complicit in pretending this was not humiliating — the table-clearing, the pointless but obligatory offer of coffee or dessert, the bill, the signing — before I could step back and release him, both of us hoping we’d never see one another again.

By Michelle Wildgen

Michelle Wildgen’s third novel, "Bread and Butter," will be published by Doubleday in February.

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