Thursday, April 26, 2012

My Server Manifesto

Tonight was one of those nights in the restaurant industry where I pray to Jesus that I won't have to be waiting tables much longer, that my indentured servitude to the service industry might soon be coming to a close. I'm 31 years old and I have a master's degree. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, LET IT END.

Let me explain where I'm coming from and clear up some possible misconceptions you might have about what I do (specifically what I do 3 nights a week to pay back my student loans; I also teach college freshman how to write at a private, expensive college, but wouldn't you know, that doesn't pay the bills).

First of all, servers get NO respect, except from other servers. And I'm not just talking about the customers, like the man tonight who tried to "correct" me and convince me that arugula was a kind of cheese. The back-of-house, the cooks? They think we're morons, too. Lazy, stupid assholes who have it easy -- we just have to sell the food they are making. I know, line cooks and sous chefs make paltry salaries. When you're eating at Tom Collichio's restaurant, it's some no-name dude back in the kitchen sweating to make your food. And he makes about minimum wage to do that, despite what you're paying for that filet mignon. It's not fair.

Here's something else that's not fair -- servers make less than minimum wage, based on the assumption that tips will make up the difference. People who have never worked in the industry have some vague notion of this, but I don't think they know the actual math: $2.65 an hour, folks. Minimum wage in the state of Massachusetts is $8.00. I make, per hour, about a third of that. Yup.

And what I do isn't as easy as the cooks who disrespect servers think. Because I'm not just writing down orders. I'm good at what I do. And there are servers who aren't good at what they do. I encounter them all the time. If you don't know what the soup of the day is? FAIL. Hi, I work in a restaurant where we print our entire menu daily. And while not every dish changes every day, it's common that 30% of the menu will have changed. Or, for example, we still have salmon, but instead of coming with a celery root puree, quinoa, and a shaved fennel salad, today it's served with pearl pasta, foraged mushrooms, on top of a citrus-infused glasage. Oh, you don't know what a glasage is? Guess what, I didn't either, but I had to learn and memorize it so I could explain it to you when you ask about it.

As servers, we hear all the time how great the food is and we regularly relay that information back to the kitchen. But how often does the kitchen hear how good we are? Well, never. It's not like patrons wander back after eating to tell the kitchen how well we described their food. How they were going to just order the burger, but then heard how the Maine lobster pasta is a hand-cut pappardelle and changed their minds. They prefer to think of us all as idiots, or as this internet commenter (and presumably BOH, or back-of-house) wrote, "the fucking idiot waiters [who] are making double their weekly intake while they get to giggle through service, snack, and have their free staff drinks while the cooks are cleaning up the kitchen."

#1 -- I don't get a shift drink. I occasionally am offered dregs of wine that won't be serve-able the next day. Whoopee. 

#2 -- Giggle through service and snack? Where the F do you work? I am usually working my ass off and am in the equivalent of a mute fugue state during service, except when tableside, when I'm charming the shit out of people by answering all their questions and making sure they have everything they need. P.S. I not only have to know everything about the food, but also be familiar with and able to describe about fifty bottles of wine and more than a dozen signature cocktails that feature things like chamomile bitters and Skinos ( which, if you're wondering, is a savory Greek liquor).

Here's what to you need to keep in mind the next time you're considering tipping less than 20%: I have PTSD from this job. I have server nightmares almost every night. It's stressful work. And it's largely thankless. And that's why, even when the service I receive when dining out isn't top-notch, I still tip 20%. Because this industry can be wretched. And there is nothing worse than leaving work on the verge of tears and knowing that no one knew how hard you worked, or how your table almost didn't get their appetizers because the kitchen lost the ticket but you noticed in time to correct it before too much time had passed. (Yes, that happened to me tonight). 

Yeah, the customers can be annoying and treat you like dick. But what hurts more is when the kitchen folks, the ones who are supposed to be on your team, fail to recognize the challenges of we do, of how much the difference between an adequate server an excellent server can make in terms of a dining experience. They must recognize it when they eat out, but somehow, once in the vortex of the kitchen, it sometimes feels like us against them. 

I'm lucky -- I've enjoyed a largely positive experience working in a well-run restaurant for over two and a half years. But after nights like tonight, it seems like a wash. I really wish that part of culinary school was compulsory training as a server. Just one night on the floor, I think, would make all the difference. You try and keep a straight face when someone asks if they can get/only be charged for half a cup of coffee and then have their half cup perpetually refilled to the half way mark. JUST TRY.          

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Every girl needs a hotdog boyfriend

Really, it's not as dirty as it sounds. 

I have written before about my close proximity to Spike's Junkyard Dogs in Allston. When looking at apartments, I remember noting it in the "pros" column that I would be living near a place where I could procure a hotdog after midnight. Is the neighborhood quiet and safe? Eh, ish...BUT HOTDOGS LATE NIGHT?  Sold. 

But aside from being a regular patron, I have a special bond with Spike's. Or rather, one particular employee of Spike's. I jokingly refer to him as "my hotdog boyfriend" but really, it's not a joke. What else would you call a hotdog salesman who calls you by name and gives you free fries occasionally?

I know his name, too: John. He was actually one of the first people I met after moving to Boston. I moved a whole month before my grad program started and it was a fascinating experience because I got to see what it would be like to have no friends. I don't really recommend it.  But I did get very comfortable chatting up strangers in bars just out of sheer raging loneliness. 

So a day or so after settling into my studio in Allston, I ventured out to lunch. To Spike's. And John instantly pegged me as a newcomer to the area. He commented on what I was wearing and said something like, "You don't look like you're from here." I told him I had just moved from Brooklyn. "Well, you look very New York," he said.  I took this both as an insult and a compliment. 

And so our relationship blossomed. We have discussed everything from the novels of Charles Dickens and Obama to our various sleep disorders (he's an insomniac, I tend to oversleep whenever possible) and hot sauce preferences (me: Sriracha; him: Cholula). Once, I drunkenly invited him to come to my a cappella concert in Cambridge and he actually showed up. My friends were like, "How do you know that guy?" And I was like "He sells me hotdogs late at night."

You might wonder if our hotdog romance ever became a real romance. The answer is no. I think at one point he might have asked for my number and out of awkwardness, I gave it to him and he texted me once and I didn't write back and then we never spoke of it again. Because as nice as he is, I like the dynamic of our relationship as is, that of hotdog seller and hotdog consumer.  

It's been 4 years and a lot of hotdogs and curly fries. When I move to Chicago this summer, I will miss John. Fortunately, I am moving to a place famous for their hotdog culture. A total coincidence? Perhaps not. 

(Yes, major disclosure slipped in there -- I am moving back to the Midwest! A post about this is forthcoming)

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

So You Think You Don't Like Poetry

I was sitting at a bar having dinner by myself the other night (which now that I'm over 30, have no shame about doing and actually rather enjoy) and the two girls next to me were venting about the men in their lives. One girl asked her friend to hold on to her phone until they left the bar so she couldn't text her boyfriend. "I'm going to want it back after I have a few drinks, but DON'T LISTEN TO ME, no matter what," she instructed her friend. "I am not texting him until he apologizes."

In honor of those two girls, and girls struggling with men everywhere, I offer this untitled poem by D.A. Powell.

dogs and boys can treat you like trash. and dogs do love trash
to nuzzle their muzzles. they slather with tongues that smell like their nuts

but the boys are fickle when they lick you. they stick you with twigs
and roll you over like roaches. then off with another: those sluts

with their asses so tight you couldn't get them to budge for a turd
so unlike dogs: who will turn in a circle showing & showing you their butts

a dog on a leash: a friend in the world. he'll crawl into bed on all fours
and curl up at your toes. he'll give you his nose. he'll slobber on cuts

a dog is not fragile; he's fixed. but a boy: cannot give you his love
he closes his eyes to your kisses. he hisses. a boy is a putz

with a sponge for a brain. and a mop for a heart: he'll soak up your love
if you let him and leave you as dry as a cork. he'll punch out your guts

when a boy goes away: to another boy's arms. what else can you do
but lie down with the dogs. with the hounds and the curs. with the mutts

R.I.P. Diesel, who passed away on 3/28/2012