I was sixteen and hadn’t been a waitress for long when I realized that I was acquiring a very unique set of life skills. Things like:
- fending off unwanted male advances with such charm and wit that they still wanted to tip me afterwards
- making greasy fried steak smeared with lumpy, gray gravy sound magically delicious
- French braiding my hair (the only alternative to wearing the dreaded hair net)
- petting the fragile egos of temperamental cooks
- carrying nine full plates at once
Not that those skills kicked in right away.
My first night on the dining floor, a crotchety octogenarian with eyebrows drawn down into a permanent scowl had to wait ten extra minutes for his steak, and spent the time amusing himself by making me cry. He called me an idiot, asked if I could do anything right, and demanded that I get him a waitress who knew what she was doing. It cut my people-pleasing heart to the quick. I had never had a grown-up be so mean to me before (and yes, at sixteen, I still thought of them as “grown-ups.”) He was like the real life version of Old Mister Smithers from Scooby Doo. I stumbled back to the line and managed to tell my supervisor that my customer wanted a new server before I burst into tears and ran for the back room, where I sobbed and swore to myself that my first night of waitressing would be my last. Fortunately, one of the battle-hardened, apron-clad warriors of the Shoney’s front lines came and found me there. She assured me that it would get better (and so would I), and by the time the sobs had subsided to sniffles, I was ready to give it another try.
Six weeks later, my order times were considerably shorter, and my skin was considerably thicker. I could remember who ordered what for eight different tables and balance the bus pan on one hip while I juggled two water pitchers with the other. As my abilities increased, so did my confidence. Then the impossible happened: I started to enjoy my job.
Late nights were my favorite. The dinner rush long over, most people who came through the door wanted dessert, coffee, and some friendly banter from their favorite waitress. After a couple of months, I, too, had my “regulars”—customers who would walk through the door and seat themselves at my station, content to place their order and wait until I had a spare moment or two to chat before leaving me a generous tip. They knew my college destination, the name of the boy I liked, and my dreams of traveling the world, and I knew the faces of their grandchildren (photos whipped proudly from wallets, thrilled to have another interested admirer), their vacation plans, and their troubles at work. It’s amazing what people will tell you over strawberry pie and Maxwell House.
It’s been over ten years since the last time I put on a little apron and ran around in orthopedic shoes filling tea glasses. Aside from an inclination to tip liberally, I rarely think about my time waiting tables anymore. But a few days ago, this story about one lucky waitress and one very surprising tip caught my eye and made me smile big. Such generous hearts shine like jewels in this world.
It’s enough to make you forget all about Mr. Smithers.
*for accidentally pouring milk into a lady’s open purse. It was right under the edge of the table on which her glass was resting, and the hand I was using to hold the pitcher strayed a little as I was talking to her.
**for toppling a tray holding eight large, iced soft drinks into the lap of a very inebriated man. The casual observer might be forgiven for thinking I did it on purpose, as the fellow in question had been drunkenly propositioning me in a very ungentlemanly manner while I attempted to take his order, but I assure you that it was, in fact, an accident. He was quite irate. However, I managed to console myself when I saw the large tip left by his dining companions, along with a note thanking me for the best laugh they’d had all night.
***for flashing my underwear to the entire dining floor, including several small children, when I came out of the bathroom with my skirt tucked into the back of my panty hose. Actually, I think my fellow waitresses owe me the apology for that gaffe; they let me wait tables for five minutes with my Hanes exposed before I returned to the line to find them all doubled over in laughter at my expense.