Wait a Minute

I have known people who have split with a significant other over waitstaff. Specifically, how their boyfriend or girlfriend treated the waiter while they were out to eat.

The reasoning was two-fold. First of all, if their former paramour treated a stranger with a lack of respect, that was already a red flag, just shy of dropping dead squirrels into a bucket. Secondly, it showed that they’d never worked in food service. And working in food service is pretty much a prerequisite for being interesting. Honestly, how many charming people do you know who haven’t ever been prep cooks, waiters, baristas, line cooks, hosts, or busboys?

There’s a reason why Kitchen Confidential was a best-seller.

I’ve always treated my waiters as though they were my captors. In part this was because my mother was like a more sadistic version of Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. “I’d like the pie heated and I don’t want the ice cream on top, I want it on the side, and I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it, if not then no ice cream, just whipped cream, but only if it’s real, if it’s out of the can then nothing.”

Even as a child this made me uncomfortable. I’d look at the pimply, underpaid kid with the pen and the pad and hope that my eyes conveyed a look that expressed both “I’m sorry” and “Can you imagine living with her?!” Instead the waiter probably just figured that my mom was so particular as a result of having a child with a staring problem. Or that being weird was genetic.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the difficult position of having to prevent a very good friend from ripping out the spinal column out of a waiter using her tongue.

The altercation began with a waffle.

When broken down afterward, nearly every conflict can be reduced to inconsequential minutae. But, at the time, the arrival of this waffle at our table was tantamount to Archduke Franz Ferdinand arriving in Sarjevo.

The scenario was simple. On the menu, the waffle was listed as being a waffle topped with whipped cream and berries. My friend wanted her waffle and whipped cream, but with the berries on the side. This, she told me, was because there are some types of berries that she doesn’t like, and therefore she didn’t want them on top of her whipped cream and waffle. It would be easier to sort through the berries and select the ones that she liked if they weren’t all over the rest of her food. This made enough sense to me, a girl who has a checkered food past that includes strict veganism, a hatred of pizza, and an allergy to Chinese food.

“Waffle with berries on the side,” our waiter-slash-actor said. He was clear-eyed, no more than twenty-three years old, with a perfect coif and clean nails. He had a look that breezily conveyed that he was always ready for his close-up.

My breakfast burrito came…and was delicious. But the waffle was nowhere to be found. Minutes passed, first five, then ten. When my friend tried to signal our waiter, he was in The Zone, running to and fro, filling coffee, taking orders, trying to memorize his lines in his head. The patience of my friend melted like a pat of butter on a piece of hot toast.

When her waffle finally arrived, it was accompanied by a side dish of berries: straw, blue, and rasp. She looked at the fruit, looked at her waffle, and then looked up at the waiter, who by this point in the morning was practicing his acceptance speech for the Emmy’s.

“There’s no whipped cream. It said that it came with whipped cream,” my friend said.

“You said berries, no whipped cream,” the future cast member replied.

“No, I said berries on the side. I still want whipped cream,” my friend curtly responded.

“Okay,” the waiter said. “But you said no whipped cream.”

That last little quip, which was stated flippantly as he trotted off-screen to retrieve the whipped cream and probably spit in it, was what did it. My friend’s face darkened. Her New York roots began to show. Somewhere overhead a clap of thunder rumbled, even though we were indoors. Her fangs grew, her claws protracted, and her eyes began to shoot fire.

“He didn’t just say that,” she said.

I nooded meekly.

“He did?” she asked. Pause. “He did.”

I began to heap saccharine smiles and effusive thank yous on the waiter, while trying to simultaneously distract my friend from flaying him with her mouth while he gave her the stink-eye and probably insulted her choice of hair color under his breath. It was ugly. Although I’ve never seen actual cats fighting, or Project Runway, I imagine the whole situation being similar in tone. There’s a reason why I don’t watch reality TV. I find non-fictionalized conflict to be uncomfortable and disquieting, much like dialog in pornography and the band Maroon 5.

Before Sonic put high-school kids on rollerskates and told them to serve sub-par burgers, there were the precursors to the modern restaurant. In Ancient Rome, there were thermopoliae, restaurant-bar hybrids where customers (and presumably gladiators) would go to socialize and get sated. In 11th century Kaifeng, China, during the Song Dynasty, catering establishments popped up, most likely as a direct result of the booming theater, gambling, and prostitution industries nearby, further illustrating the historic link between acting, hooking, and waiting tables. Later, in the 18th century, France took the reins, creating the precursor to the modern restaurant. Snooty waiters have been on the scene ever since. But at least they have an excuse. Their service charge is included, they’re not air-kissing your ass on each cheek for change.

The term waiter originated in the late 14th century, when it was synonymous with a watchman. Then, in the 15th century, it came to reference to the servants of a household. In the 17th century the word became more broadly associated with inns and houses that serve food, with the term “waitress” first being recorded much later, in 1834. But let’s go back to that first definition, shall we? Watchman. Think about that for a second. The word for the ditzy cheerleading squad reject wearing Silly Bandz and taking your order at TGIFridays traces back to the person who would make sure that your manor wasn’t attacked and that you and your wife weren’t slaughtered, your heads left on pikes. Do not insult your watchman.

I have had friends tell me too many horror stories that include urine, phlegm, unwashed floors, and worse for me to get angry at my waiter. If I’m neglected or my order is incorrect, a sort of Stockholm syndrome occurs. “She’s probably having a bad day. She looks like a student, maybe she’s having a rough time. Isn’t it around finals?” I’ll think when I wind up with Salisbury steak instead of spaghetti. “He looks preoccupied, I don’t want to bug him,” I’ll say about the waiter after I’ve already drained all the water glasses and finished swallowing the dregs from the table’s flower display.

My waiter is my owner for the time that I’m inside of that restaurant. I want them to be happy when I leave, and not because I’ve tortured them and made their life hell for an hour and twenty minutes. From briefly trying – and failing – at working in a restaurant, I know how hard it is. I wasn’t a good enough waitress. Didn’t have the patience, the coordination, or the headshots. I love waiters. They are busting their ass and they’re usually cute. I give them credit, with pity on the side.

Think about it, have you ever heard anyone ever say that they wanted to be a waitress when they grew up? Have you ever been to a party and asked someone what they do for a living, only to have them joyfully regale you with tales from their career as a waiter, saying things like, “It’s always been my calling” or “I’m so lucky that I love what I do, I never have to work a day in my life!”? If you have, it’s because they are actually actors.

Nobody wants to be a waiter or waitress, I can almost guarantee that out of the over 2.2 million waiters and waitresses who were recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, all of them would rather be doing something else. Waitressing is what you do between doing other things, or to make extra money, or because your father owns a diner. It’s a hard job and a thankless one. Perhaps this comes from a past life owning a really awesome manor, I don’t know. But, needless to say, I won’t be dining out with that particular friend any time soon, unless it’s at a buffet.