servers are not servants

I waitress on the weekends, like I’ve done before, many moons ago and then again not so many moons ago. I keep coming back to serving because it is fast cash and I am good at this job of taking orders and refilling drinks and running food and making small talk for an hour with strangers. I have it down to a science, the time management and juggling required. It has become an extension of me, like the tray on my right hand. Also, and most importantly, it is a job I can do in the evenings, when Steve watches the boys.

I didn’t know that I would go back to the restaurant I quit last year, but I did, once I finished school and the hard of finances hit me like a bag of bricks. I am now, an old waitress. My body doesn’t like the hours of walking and stooping and carrying heavy trays. When I get home, I plunge my howling feet into a foot bath, roll my tight tendons over a golf ball. I look forward to my chiropractic appointments when I feel adjusted back to normal again.

Along with the changes in my body I’ve noticed a change in the clientele I serve. They react to me a little differently now. Before, when I was a waitress and a college student, I was nondescript as a server, just one of many kids who hadn’t found their callings, pursued careers yet. We were on our way to something and people understood that, it seemed. But now, I am given long looks as customers estimate my age, counting my the wrinkles that crinkle the corners of my eyes as if they’re tree rings. One woman said to me, “can I ask you a question? Why do you work here?” and she said it disdainfully, as if certainly, I must have some neurological disorder that kept me from a more traditional job for someone my age.

Last week, I had a customer who treated me as if I were his servant, asking me to mix his olive oil and balsamic for him, constantly telling me exactly how he wanted everything, expecting me to fill his every request. There was a class difference in us that was palpable: an ugly unspoken thing seen between his expensive shirt and my uniform. He told me he had just come from the Bentley store opening, asked what kind of car I drive.  Before I could answer said, “let me guess: a Toyota.” He was meeting with his banker and the table shared two bottles of wine and after my impeccable, attentive service, they left me only 15% which is not enough for the way I was treated, for the verbal abuse (I will not list it here as my blood still boils to it) I endured.

What people I serve don’t know is that I’m supporting myself and two kids and pursuing my dream of writing while paying off my student loans. What people I serve should but might not know is that I don’t receive checks and work only for tips and when they don’t tip me much, I have worked for free or sometimes a deficit if I have to tip out more to the busser and bartender than they tipped me. While most people are kind, sometimes, there are people who are not. People who think they are better because their bank account is bigger or because they’re sitting down to eat while I’m standing to serve them. I remind myself, as I leave, smelling of steak, my white shirt stained with cabernet, that I am not their opinion of me, I am something else entirely, something they don’t know, something I’m glad is my own, that no one can’t take from me.

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