May I Take Your Order?

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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
  • apologizing*
  • apologizing**
  • apologizing***

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.

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22 responses »

  1. Love this post, Katrina!
    My fifteen year old daughter just started her first job waitressing a couple of weeks ago and she has had a few difficult shifts. I am going to get her to read this! Thanks.

  2. what a delightful and reflective post. I too have had the underwear experience… not fun to realize that people actually let you go on like that…

  3. What a sweet story. I too feel an uncontrollable urge to be a generous tipper, having been a waitress for over 6 years. I strongly believe that all teens should be required to serve at least a year or two in the food service industry. It builds character and they learn to respect people for what they do.

  4. The story about the girl getting college money is great. If, I mean when, I’m a millionaire, I want to do things like that. And buy all my friends new cars! 🙂

  5. It frightened me a bit how similar our waitressing apologies were for.

    I agree with Jules!

    I’m a generous tipper but if my waiter/waitress left something to be desired, I will often write a little note to tell them so, but I still tip.

    Great story about the waitress. Goes to show that you never know when or where you’ll touch a life or yours will be touched.

  6. I was a waitress and the mere thought of it makes me shudder to this day. It was such thankless, messy work. Today I tip very well because of it though, so some good came from it– for other people, I guess.

  7. Addendum to K’s story: When she began working at the restaurant, many of us who had before regularly spent our Friday nights finding some new way to abolish boredom with Katrina in tow would find not having her around was, frankly, not nearly as much fun as when she was. This made boredom abolishing much tougher. So after trying unsuccessfully (or successfully) to entertain ourselves without her, we would march to Shoney’s and pool our money to buy just a couple of items off the menu. But even as 15, 16 and 17 year-olds, we always saved some of our communal treasures to make sure she got a decent tip. Even then, Katrina could light up a room, and we all loved her for it.

    Honestly, I’m surprised she never got a newspaper-worthy tip.

  8. I agree with Jules about everyone being required to spend time working in food service, especially when I see someone being rude or impatient with a server. In the waitressing jobs that I had, I always had more than enough to keep me running all shift. However, I also think that everyone should have to be a teacher at some point in his/her life, and lately I’m thinking that everyone should have to be a receptionist. So I guess that the main idea here is for people to be patient and understanding.

    The best thing that I learned while waitressing was how to be efficient and make every step count. If only I could still remember what I was going to get when I went into the other room!

    I’ll take and MG Midget convertible, Jen.

  9. My first night of waitressing (a rite of passage for all women, I think) a family came in and asked what section was mine. I told them and they promptly sat down in my section. I went over and said, “but this is my first night,” and the mom said, “we don’t care how bad you do on your first night. ANYTHING is better than the other girl.” with the pressure off, I was an instant hit!

    Oh, and a girl getting a tip using it for college is so much better than the last story like this, where the guy gave a $10K tip so the girl could by this jeep she had her eye on!!

  10. You are to be commended. I lasted waitressing one day and I didn’t even tuck my skirt in my Hanes! Great post.

  11. I’ve never waitressed and I’ve always been thankful that I never had to. My first job (at 18) was an office job with Equifax Services and I’ve been an office-dweller since then. My parents made the rule that while we were in school, we weren’t allowed to work, so that’s why it took me so long to enter the ‘real world’. But, I am definitely a good tipper when the service is good; if we get bad service – and I’m not talking about from a newbie, but from someone that obviously could care less about giving good service – I tend to be a little more stingy – I’ve been known to leave a note with a penny when the person has been downright rude! But, I always have compassion for the new waiters/waitresses on the job 🙂 It’s tough, thankless work most of the time.

  12. I never knew I had so many aproned compatriots! Sisters of the serving tray unite! *raises fist of solidarity in the air, then puts it down after realizing that everyone else is looking at her as if she’s slightly unhinged*

    Anyway, how sweet are you, Scotty Ramone? I was so blessed to have you among my treasured friends in high school. Remember the night with the lampshades at Dunkin’ Donuts? Good times…

  13. We had some wild times considering I didn’t even start drinking until college (and to my knowledge you never did). Good times, indeed. Like Saturday nights at Briscoe Park on the swingset, seeing who could get the most distance jumping out of a swing.

  14. What a cool post. And the whole serving thing? I figured I’d love it, since I’m a huge people person and worked great as a cashier for five years growing up. But I hated waiting tables. Ugh! I never did it longer than a couple months at a time, so maybe it wasn’t long enough to get good at it. I didn’t have a choice, though — my school schedule didn’t allow for waiting tables. And I was totally okay with that!

  15. Katrina,
    Wonderful post. Why, exactly, aren’t you writing for a magazine or newspaper?! (Don’t get me wrong…I love your blogging.) I think you should submit some of your creative writing to magazines. Maybe you already have and I just don’t know about it. 🙂
    I laughed out loud when I read about spilling the drinks in that man’s lap and then getting a big tip from his friends. Too funny!! Great story about the big tipper at Pizza Hut. What a great opportunity for her!
    Keep writing, my friend…and let me know when your work starts getting published.

  16. I cut my teeth at the local McDonald’s, which turned out not to be as bad as you would think (good management), but my most hated assignment was going outside and gathering up all the balls that had fallen out of the kiddie ball pit. Slithering around underneath tables to find errant plastic baubles was humbling.

    And the drive-through window – oh my word – I still have nightmares about that. Thanks for sharing your experience! It brought back memories.

  17. I was a waitress for a month and loved it but only worked lunches so I made NOTHING. But I have a special place in my heart for waitresses.

  18. Sarah, thanks for being such an encouragement! That is my dream job, and a few prayers to that effect would not go awry!

  19. Katrina,
    I have nominated you for a Blogger Reflection Award. I wanted to share about the impact your blog has had on me. Check out my Saturday post to read about it.

  20. Hello, my old friend. I beg the use of your blog for an assignment in Writing for the Web…yes I’m learning this devil machine. One of the weekly assignments is to post a comment on someones blog. Who else would I pick, my dear? They will all check out your site as a bonus.

    All my love. I’ll give you a call soon and we’ll catch up.

  21. Your story is a great one. I’m a teacher who serves tables during the summer for extra money, something we teachers need. I have more horror stories about my training behind the bar than serving. I bartended for TGI Fridays for a number of years, and one of the job requirements is to be able to twirl the bottles, Cocktail style. In learning to do so, I threw an empty bottle of Malibu Rum into the face of the most faithful regular that store ever had, breaking two teeth, and knocking another completely out of his mouth. Yes, I stuck with it and eventually became quite good at throwing the bottles, but I never really became friends with that regular. He hates me to this day.

  22. Hey, my friend! I’ve wondered what you’ve been up to! Since we talked last, I took your recommendation and read Shogun–awesome story, and full of amazing detail and twists and turns of plot, but I admit to being a little glad to return from feudal Japan to my “barbaric” Western society, where human life is cherished and protected…lol! Call sometime and we’ll talk it over. 😀

    Good luck in your class! (And I LOVE the story about breaking the guy’s teeth with the bottle–didn’t he see the “bartender in training” sticker on your bumper?)

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