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Jewish World Review Jan. 8, 2002 / 5 Shevat, 5763

Michelle Kennedy

Michelle Kennedy
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Consumer Reports

How the tables have turned | Once upon a time, my husband and I would walk into a restaurant and would be seated almost immediately. No longer.

Now, when I approach the hostess and inform her of our needing a table for six there is much waiting involved, usually while the hostess and two or three busboys - perhaps even a manager - move tables together, steal chairs from other customers and acquiesce to the requests of other diners to "please not seat all those children near us."

Finally, the table is prepared, the hostess returns and our tribe winds its way through the maze of tables to the large round top (usually covered in and placed over a plastic tarp) near the kitchen and away from the "good" customers. But I hold no grudges, because I spent too many years on my feet waiting tables and cleaning up after families just like mine.

My first job waiting tables was in a Denny's-type restaurant near downtown Washington D.C. and I loved it. In fact, I left college for it, so enthralled was I by the constant plume of cash - a thick stack of one dollar bills - in my pocket. Working just the Sundays in a restaurant notorious for breakfast easily paid my rent and the rest was, shall we say, gravy.

This was no ordinary diner job, however. I had been fully and completely trained for almost a month to become the perfect waitron.

I knew, for example, without having to bat an eye that Huevos Rancheros came with a "dollop" of sour cream and a "pinch" of chives and not a smattering more of either. For the rest of my life, though, I will always remember my Czechoslovakian counterpart - a chain-smoking man of 40 awaiting his Green Card who looked way too much like Mikhail Baryshnikov - who was forever calling the chives, "chi-vees." Now, I can't call them anything but.

I also learned to serve from the left and clear from the right (or something like that), how to place the check quickly, but not obviously so as to maximize turnover and because the restaurant did not "believe" in tray service, how to pile six scalding plates in my arms, up to the bicep, and at least one in my hand, without dropping a thing. I also, somehow, managed to set it all in front of the proper customer without having to "auction off" the food ("Who had the…?"), something else I learned in server school.

This skill was attained easily by learning how to take an order by starting from the same point at the table each time and going clockwise. This way, even if someone else delivered my food, they too could place it correctly.

I must admit to having been inordinately prepared for waiting tables - not for a job as a lawyer or politician as one might expect - by being a page in the U.S. Senate, where being present but not obvious was a major concern, and dare I say, the total reason for my being.

Waiting tables has, however, taught me a great deal about dealing with difficult people. Forever engraved in my brain is the man who complained incessantly about two scrambled eggs and had me running back and forth to the kitchen for almost an hour trying to get them right. He insisted each time on keeping his toast and, as you can imagine, he sent me back for warmer toast and colder orange juice when his eggs were finally right.

But did I get angry? Not visibly. I was seething, of course, but on the outside I was all smiles and "yes, sirs" - a demeanor which has kept me in tips as a waiter and gotten me out of many a late fee and even an occasional traffic ticket.

And yes, I must admit to slight embarrassment when I would head to a table in my characteristic cheeriness only to find my peers at the table, having breakfast before heading off to their jobs as superior court judge's clerks or senate interns. At first, of course, there is the cute small talk: "How are you?"

"What are you doing now?" (Not to me, of course).

"You look so good…"

"Blah, blah, blah…"

But after the pleasantries, the inevitable must take place and I must step into my server role and ask, "May I take your order?" It puts us all back in our place, though: me as "server," they as "the served."

Although it has been several years since I made my living at the mercy of others' disposable cash, I have not lost a sense of the job. My feet still hurt when I stand on them for too long, remembering a time when I was never off them and my shoes were too cheap to support them. I don't miss that. And I don't miss people sending me back to the kitchen or people changing their orders or cooks who yell or bartenders who can't remember, or never knew, how to make simple drinks. I do miss the cash. And the feeling of being completely in control over my eight-table domain. And many times I could brighten someone's day - or they could brighten mine. But I don't miss the work. Not really.

But I remember all of it when I sit down at a table. I always tip well, unless the waiter was exceptionally rude. I do my best to teach my children how to be polite customers. I can't help but think, though, that the tables may have been turned on me once again. Maybe it's an inferiority complex, but often when I sit in restaurant with "all of these children," I end up feeling like I am putting the waiters out.

It could be worse, though. At least I am sitting at the table. I could be waiting on it.

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JWR contributor Michelle Kennedy, who reads and responds to all of her mail, is a reporter and columnist for the Green Bay News-Chronicle. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Michelle Kennedy