Waiting Tables Makes You A Bitter Person

by Judy Greer
Originally Published: 

Did I say bitter? I meant better. I really believe waiting tables, and service industry jobs in general, make you a better person. I’ve had several jobs in the service industry. I got my start when I was fifteen at a “Greek” chain restaurant in the local mall called Olga’s Kitchen. I used quotation marks around “Greek” because it had a Greek name, was named after a Greek lady, and served Greek salad, but other than that the menu consisted entirely of American variations on the gyro, unless they serve Chinese chicken gyros in Greece. (Maybe they do! I have never been to Greece, so I can’t really say for sure.) I started working at the cash register at the front, seating people, cashing them out, and selling these crazy- huge delicious muffins out of the muffin case. Whatever muffin image is in your brain right now, triple it and add a bigger top. They were gorgeous, and many customers would come just to have coffee and a muffin. Again, not super sure they serve muffins in Greece, but no one in Livonia was complaining about the authenticity of our menu. The muffins were our secret weapon at Olga’s Kitchen because they could be used to bribe unhappy customers into submission. If someone was disappointed with how a gyro was prepared or the temperature of the soup, all we had to do was deliver one of these Fiat- size muffins to his table and say, “We are so sorry you weren’t totally satisfied with your meal today. Here, breakfast is on us tomorrow morning.” We’d add in a huge fake smile with manufactured undertones of sympathy for his hard life, and he would beg to pay his whole check. Free muffin = secret weapon, if only life were that easy everywhere else.

Once I turned sixteen and paid my dues as a hostess/cashier, I was promoted to the coveted position of waitress. That was where you made the real money. Jo was our head waitress. She was one of those people who could have been thirty or sixty— it was impossible to tell— but she was a classy broad, I could make her laugh, and she helped me out when I was in the weeds, needed a break, or was having an emotional breakdown in the back. Jo had worked there forever and seemed to like it. I think they tried to make her a manager at one point, but she wasn’t into it, because she made more money, had less responsibility, and could take more smoke breaks as a waitress. Plus, she had seniority, so she didn’t have to do the hard shit like mop the floors or clean the bathrooms. Well, maybe she was supposed to, but we respected her too much to let her. She looked out for the rest of us girls, and I was always happy when I showed up for work and she was just getting there too, because that meant it would be a fun shift. She taught me to work hard and do a good job but not take it all too seriously. After all, it was Olga’s Kitchen, not the UN.

In addition to our monochromatic, wrinkle- free polyester uniforms, we all had name tags made with our names on them. But if we forgot ours, there was a drawer under the cash register filled with random leftovers from previous employees that we could just grab. It was exciting to have a different name for a shift. Some days I was a Carol, sometimes a Nancy. I was a way better waitress as a Carol than as a Nancy, though. When I was Nancy, all I cared about was smoking on the upside- down bucket by the back door and finishing my shift. As Carol, I was much more concerned with customer satisfaction and restaurant cleanliness. It was ultimately a bad idea to wear another name tag because when a customer called out my “name,” I wouldn’t notice, and therefore I’d walk right by. On those days my tips usually reflected this bad choice.

Other highlights at Olga’s included flirting with the kitchen staff, who were either seniors in a nearby high school or attending the local community college, and free food. We weren’t allowed to have free gyros, but sometimes the cooks would make one for us and lie about it being a mistake. We were, however, allowed to eat all the pita, salad, and soup we wanted. I was especially clever with my free pita and salad. I made salad- stuffed gyros for myself every day and dipped them in the soup. I mean, the soup was hot and free, and I especially loved the way the free part tasted. To this day, I blame Olga’s Kitchen for my obsessive- compulsive need for feta cheese on a daily basis. I don’t think I’d ever had feta cheese until that job, and now I can’t give it up.

I loved working at Olga’s and acquired some real life skills in my time there. I learned how to smoke cigarettes, how to make a bathroom look clean without actually cleaning it, the art of playing dumb, and how to just add more lettuce to a Greek salad when the customer sent it back complaining there was too much dressing. It was an easy job, and thankfully, in the Midwest in the late 1990s, there wasn’t the influx of food allergies that there is today or extreme dietary restrictions. Not everyone was a gluten-free vegan. No one cared where their cow or egg came from, and the letters GMO didn’t exist in that order. People ate their BBQ pork gyro, got a muffin to go, and went back to shopping.

My next food service job was in a restaurant called I Tre Merli in Chicago. I was a freshman in college and was working at Express in a strip mall near campus. I hated it, but they worked around my schedule, it was money, and I needed that. I had been banned from working the floor for telling customers the truth about how the clothes looked on them and had been delegated to the stockroom, where I was in charge of attaching those safety tags to each and every garment before it went out on the floor. My manager had a nervous breakdown one day when she found a pile of security tags in the corner of a dressing room after a thief had pried them off the clothes. I think she secretly blamed me for those tags being ripped off, but she had no proof, so she just gave me the silent treatment, which I preferred anyway. I also didn’t mind the stockroom, because our Express shared a storage room with the men’s equivalent, Structure, and there was a guy who worked there who looked exactly like Kyle MacLachlan, a.k.a. Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks, and since I didn’t think I’d ever get a date with Kyle MacLachlan, this guy would do. There was a radio in the back that only got one golden oldies station. I learned all the words to “Leader of the Pack,” even the spoken word section. Well, despite my TV- character look- alike crush working next door, and my conviction that I could win a Guinness world record for the most times listening to the song “My Girl” during a six- hour window, I was not very committed to my job.

One day in the spring, when I was riding my bike to Express, I heard two guys revving their motorcycles, and when I looked over at them, one called out to me and motioned for me to come over. I did. In hindsight, I see that this was not a smart move, but it was daytime and they had motorcycles and they were cute and they had motorcycles . . . The one who yelled to me was called Lionel, and he told me I should come to their restaurant when I was finished working. They needed a new waitress, and I should meet the manager, Alistair. I hated Express and had already gotten Agent Cooper look- alike’s phone number, so I was really just looking for an excuse to quit. After work I rode my bike to the restaurant. It was in a very hip part of town, although I had to ride my bike through the projects to get there. I saw what I was getting myself into. That place was fancy. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before— rich people in their late twenties, early thirties, seated shoulder to shoulder, wearing black and drinking wine and martinis. And it was so crowded! People were waiting out on the sidewalk to get in; the bartender looked like a supermodel. I immediately felt totally out of place in my white T- shirt, plaid mini-skirt, and white Keds. When Lionel found the manager, Alistair took one look at me and said, “Oh, dear. How old are you?” I answered him honestly and replied, “Eighteen.” He said, “No, you’re twenty- one. Come in tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. You’ll start on lunches and Wendy will train you.” And that was it. I had my next restaurant gig. I was in way over my head, and I knew it right away. I didn’t know how to open a bottle of wine. I didn’t know anything about fine dining. I wasn’t sure what half the food on the menu was, and everyone seemed so much older than me. When I think back on how old they must have been, they were young too, but I felt so immature around them. Everyone was so beautiful and experienced. They all drank a lot and did drugs. I drank and smoked weed now and then, but in a college way.

This was different, and even though it was just a couple miles away from my campus, it was another world. We were a team, we pooled our tips and went out to nightclubs together after work, and then, when the nightclubs closed, we would go back to the restaurant, open it up, and hang out some more. We would listen to music and sit on the bar and drink until the sun came up, and then we would all take cabs home in the sunlight. We were like a little dysfunctional family, and we took care of each other, I thought. Years later I found out that everyone was cheating on everyone and stealing everything from everyone, but at the time I felt like I had something that everyone at school didn’t have— an exciting life outside class. Acting wasn’t yet everything to me, and I was still planning on leaving school and getting a real education at some point, but time was passing and I was having fun. But like everything, it had to end at some point. And finally the restaurant slowed down. Alistair left for London, another trendy place opened up where all the black- clad Chicagoans started waiting for hours for a table, and I decided to focus on school, finally.

It took a while before I got another restaurant job, but this time it was at a nightclub called Stardust. It was a huge warehouse looking place with several levels, several different rooms, a lot of dark velvet draped everywhere, and very dim lighting. It was downtown, and my friend Marcia (the beautiful supermodel bartender from I Tre Merli) got me the job. I was hired to be a cocktail waitress, but it was an impossible job, and I knew immediately I wasn’t pushy enough to make it through the crowd of sweaty dancers to deliver drinks. People would bump me and I’d spill, customers would move away from where they had ordered so I couldn’t find them, and as soon as I would find them, they would order another round. I felt like Sisyphus from the ancient Greek myth, but instead of having to push a boulder up a hill, I had to deliver seven vodka cranberries to the same seven girls, over and over, forever. No way. I just didn’t have it in me. After a few hours of this, I found my manager hiding in the office and told her I had to quit immediately. Turns out it was my lucky day because the coat check girl had just OD’d (not in a dead way, just in a stomach- pump kind of way) and my manager wanted to know if I would be willing to check coats for a few nights. It was actually a really hard job, and after my first night doing it, I understood why someone would need to self- medicate during a shift. There were so many coats I had to crawl on my hands and knees underneath the racks and come up in the middle to try to see the tickets on the hangers. Luckily, I didn’t mind crawling through coats as much as through gyrating humans, and the previous coat check girl never came back, so the job became mine. I lost a coat almost every night that winter, and the club owner was always trying to fire me, but it never took. This was, after all, Chicago during the winter, so there were a lot of coats. And they were mostly black leather. Tip: if you don’t want your coat to get lost in a nightclub coat check, don’t wear a black leather coat. Get a pink one. Or red. Or anything that is memorable, because here is a fact: You will lose your ticket. You just will. And when you come to me all drunk at the end of the night with no ticket, telling me it’s a black leather jacket, I simply cannot help you. I won’t help you. Another little- known fact about the coat check is that it is where the (no offense) losers hang out. We have no way of escaping. We work in a black hole with no back door and nowhere to hide. I can lie and say I have to organize the coatroom behind me, and honestly I will be doing just that, even if I don’t have to. I get it, coat check girls are less intimidating than bartenders— bartenders are hot and they have a lot of alcohol behind them. We’re just guarding leather, and we get busy in the beginning of the night and at the end of the night, but for the middle bits we’re just standing there too. Last tip, don’t wear a scarf, hat, or gloves to a nightclub; just don’t bring your winter accessories at all. You will never see those items again. There is no way to really deal with accessories back there, I tried to stuff them in a sleeve, but honestly, they’re never going to stay there. Just leave them at home.

Once the winter was over, there wasn’t much use for me in the coatroom, so I dabbled at the door for a minute. I was the girl on the stool in front of the door, holding the clipboard with the VIP list on it. I was terrible at this because I just wanted to let everyone in, and apparently I was supposed to be taking tips from people waiting in line and sharing them with the bouncers, but I didn’t know, no one told me, so the bouncers got pissed, and I eventually got moved to the box. The box is where I sat and would take the cover and stamp people’s hands when they paid and came in. It was the most boring of all jobs because it never ended and I was sort of forgotten about, I would get thirsty or have to pee really bad, but there was no one around to cover for me, so I would just sit there and squirm until I could flag down a fellow Stardust team member. One of the security guys asked me once if I was stealing money from the drawer, and I nearly choked on my own saliva. “No way!” I told him. “I would never do that!” He told me, totally deadpan, I was stupid and everyone skimmed off the top, that it was expected and I was an asshole if I didn’t. I had been raised to believe that I was an asshole if I did steal, so this was really hard for me to wrap my brain around. The longer I worked there, the more it made sense. It was a nightclub, not a children’s hospital. I guessed that the owners weren’t looking to run a completely legit business, or wouldn’t they open a Subway franchise or something? I wasn’t getting paid much to sit on the stool all night, so maybe I could at least slip some cab fare in my bra or something? I was starting to buy my justification argument. I had taken home my fair share of unclaimed cashmere scarves and gloves from my previous Stardust post. Isn’t that kind of the same thing? Yes, it kind of is. If a twenty- dollar bill just happened to fall on the floor while I was taking money that night, and I just happened to pick it up and forget to put it in the drawer, and I only did it once a night for my cab ride home at 5:00 a.m., when no girl should be on the streets waiting for a bus or train, wasn’t I actually doing the nightclub a favor? I was saving them the headache of trying to find my replacement while I was recovering in the hospital from a potential mugging. Yes, taking money would make me a team player! I was going to do it— I was ready to break the law in the name of private business owners everywhere. What I didn’t anticipate were the immediate pangs of guilt I would experience. Literally, the minute after I tucked the bill into my knee- high boot, I was doubled over with cramps. I had no idea how to steal money. Just taking a twenty- dollar bill and stuffing it in my pocket seemed too on the nose. I needed to be stealthy— I needed to remember one of the millions of scenes I had seen in movies where girls were undercover and sneaky and cool, but I was drawing a blank. My method of stealing goes as follows: drop a twenty on the floor and leave it there for about three hours, obsess over it being on the floor, begin mild cramping in abdominal area, drop hand stamp on ground near twenty, bend over to pick up hand stamp, cramps worsen, pick up hand stamp and twenty, slip twenty into knee- high boot, sit back on chair, cramps hit a ten on one- to- ten pain scale, wait for what seems like days for someone to check on me, cramps almost debilitating, the second I see another employee I yell for that person to cover for me, bolt to the bathroom, jump the line of drunk girls, get in stall, no time to wipe down seat, and do something that no one wants to ever do (or smell) in a nightclub bathroom. A thief, I am not. I literally don’t have the stomach for it.

I did use my dirty money for a cab ride home that night, although in retrospect I should have left it in the bathroom attendant’s tip jar— she had a thankless job and no stealing opportunities to speak of. I never stole again, and shortly after I got promoted to bartender. I started working at the downstairs bar, in a more quiet, lounge- type room. I made a lot of money for a twenty-one-year-old, and the hours were perfect for doing theater. I only worked weekends and didn’t have to be there until 11:00 p.m., so I could do a play and then head to work. The weekends were long, but I had a direct line to Diet Coke at my finger- tips, I was making my rent and still able to act, what more did I need?

I was lucky, and once I moved to L.A., I didn’t have to get another job besides acting. But I wouldn’t trade my previous jobs for anything. They played a major part in the person I am today. I firmly believe that everyone should have to work in the food service industry at least once in their lives. Like joining the army in Israel, when all Americans turn eighteen, a mandatory year of waiting tables. Yes, you’ll have your bitter moments. You will cry during a shift; you will snap at your co- workers, customers, and boss. You will eat combinations of food you would never admit to now, some of it off the plates of strangers, you’ll learn to roll silverware in your sleep, go through more bottles of Febreze than shampoo, you’ll learn swear words in other languages, but ultimately it will make you a better person, or at least a bigger tipper.

{Excerpted from I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU KNOW ME FROM: Confessions of a Co-Star by Judy Greer Copyright © 2014 by Judy Greer. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.}

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