Visual art by Sara Sage
“The bathrooms are the smallest room you have ever seen. The toilet is very low and the paper is very high. Unless you’re tall and skinny, hold it.” –Melanie S.
In Fell’s Point, a tourist-trap neighborhood pulsing foot traffic through Baltimore, the major appeal of each restaurant and bar lining Broadway appears to be antiquated, “rustic” aesthetic. Sure, the floors might be stained with decades of drunken blunders and the bleached brick walls might be crumbling, but they have character. So much character in fact, at the dive bar where I serve ordinary American fare, actual skeletons were unearthed in what is now considered the basement, which is just tall enough for me to stand comfortably at 5’ 1”. At least twice every shift, I’m elected to journey to the terrifying cave to hunt for more plastic cups, or restock bottled beer. For customers chatting idly in the dining room, nothing’s amiss; meanwhile, I return from yet another nightmare conference meeting in the underworld.
Everything about the design of this restaurant contradicts convention. It’s small, dark, and smells like mildew. Plus, situated at the base of the harbor, the years of sewage slowly leaking into the urban estuary add a signature fragrance to thrill visitors for ages to come. After months of spending my weekends running food and drinks to customers in this corner of nowhere, I still haven’t come up with a reasonable explanation for why people continue to return to a place where reaching toilet paper in the bathroom is a struggle.
Consider the details of managing a restaurant in order to maintain the illusion of spectacular service and cleanliness. Potted succulents on patio tables, glossy menus with professional photos, local sports memorabilia on the walls, a server’s smile as she listens to you complain that the Coke doesn’t have enough carbonation. (Which she will promise to fix but then continue serving her 6 other tables because there’s nothing wrong with the Coke—except that it doesn’t come in a factory sealed bottle, and it’s dispensed from the nozzle of a bar gun that every other drink is also dispensed from.)
These objects are carefully placed for the sole purpose of making functionally anonymous people quiet enough for 45 minutes so will they pay and leave without hassle. Restaurants want your money, not your opinion. And yet when an opinion inevitably surfaces, whether verbally, through an angry note on the check, or in all caps on a Yelp review, someone in the restaurant has to acknowledge it. Even if it is a monotone apology and a 15% discount, the work of the server is to mollify unhappy customers in the most appropriate, cost-effective way.
When I initially decided to serve food, I resolved to maintain the most pleasant disposition any customer ever encountered. Sometimes it worked, but it usually didn’t. It came to pass that, especially in a place like Baltimore, kindness is a weakness. If something isn’t going exactly how a customer wanted, I was well within my right to simply not care. This was revolutionary.
I spent an embarrassing amount of time mentally vacillating between the tenants of good service and the tenants of good business. If it’s easier to give people what they want, I would think to myself, we should just do it to avoid the headache. But that same pattern of thinking contributed to the Anschluss. So I decided maybe telling the customer that no, they are not always right, is the better option for humanity as a whole. Instead I’ll debate on the best ways to approach telling customers why they’re wrong and construct a list of suggestions detailing where they can take their business instead.
Am I a bad server? I wonder this, a lot. I spend most of my time on the clock wondering rather than serving, and I suppose to some that’s answer enough. But does one person really need 8 ounces of ranch dressing for 6 buffalo wings? Can a person pay attention to three different football games at once? And if I pour a Miller Lite instead of a Natty Boh will someone actually notice?
The answer to these questions is almost always no. So I keep wondering and I keep questioning until I come across a situation where the answer will be a yes.
“Came in today alone for a light lunch. Waitress…barely took my order and I never saw her again until it was time for the check. I guess now I’m supposed to leave this awesome tip?” Lakia B.
It’s perhaps more controversial than the Donald Trump presidency if you ask the right people. (Given the outlook of it, too, I fear the necessity of it is more important now than ever before.) But truthfully, we’re all tired of hearing about tipping.
It’s exhausting to log on to Facebook, because I know I’m about to witness the evidence of a famous athlete, actor, or You-Tube makeup artist under-tipping, of people writing bible verses on the backs of receipts as a “tip for the future”, and small little rectangles arguing in comment sections about the nature of tip-based employment. When I worked an hourly job, I had no doubts about the size of my direct deposit and carefully tracked my hours to make sure there were no complications with my paycheck. Yet I was still kneeling at the altar of capitalist dogma. Regardless of my performance, I received exactly the same pay for every single action I did. My time was being sold more than my labor. And still here, even under the illusion of financial autonomy, there is the powerful force of greed that leaves hard work at the mercy of opinion.
For a moment I reflect on the Bachelorette party that, to my misfortune, decided to sit in my section on a particularly slow Friday night toward the end of autumn. I had the entire restaurant to serve alone, and when I saw the tribe of stumbling, screaming women in sequins, I immediately felt a sense of urgency to flee the dining room and never return. With inflatable phallic paraphernalia and blinking jewelry, I watched 10 bad omens take a seat at the table, waiting to share communion. Actually, two tables, which they demanded I move together as they stood and watched. It took the party five entire minutes to give me a drink order of 8 Long Island Ice Teas and 2 waters.
I invite you now to stop reading and set a timer for five minutes, then return to this narrative with a fresh understanding of how absurdly long I stood at that table. Fighting to stop their shrieks from dismantling the crumbs of my composure.
I wanted to give these women a good experience at my table, truthfully I did, and I want that for all of my customers, because without question, a bad experience for a customer is always an even worse experience for me. But after spending 20 minutes taking their orders, I had to continue performing my job, serving other tables, placing new orders, and solve the mystery of missing takeout boxes—which included too many trips to the basement. Toward the end of the bachelorette party meal I returned to find one woman face first crying into a well-done cheeseburger, two empty chairs of women who I could only assume were considering signing a lease in the handicap toilet, and the blushing bride herself, except she was red from yelling about how bad of a server I was. The darling mother of the bride stepped 6 inches away from my face and our encounter was one servers everywhere might relate to:
“We’ve been waiting for our checks”
“The ones I put on your table?” I clarify, pointing behind her Loft blouse.
She turns to look at the table, where checkbooks are folded and stacked. After a short pause,
“Well you were extremely unhelpful.”
By this point, I already counted my losses from the group and wanted them to leave as quickly as possible, so I gave a curt reply:
“I’m sorry you feel that way, but truthfully I don’t know how much more I could’ve done than serve exactly what you ordered.”
From behind the woman, her inebriated daughter provides compelling input:
“Just know that you’re not getting a tip!”
I’m not sure what this interaction proves about the future of this woman’s marriage, but to announce to the entire restaurant that you will not be tipping your server is, however audacious, incredibly tacky. The power dynamic that exists between the diner and the server rests entirely in money. And largely, people’s personal tipping guidelines are arbitrary and changeable. Sometimes people don’t tip you because they just don’t like you. As a server you can do everything correctly and when the customer’s draws a line through the “tip” section of their bill, you have absolutely no power to change that. When a bride insults my job performance, or a man decides to tell me how to do my job better, or a child asks why I don’t have a better job, I find myself searching for a meaningful response that never comes. The only retort I’ve ever managed is a reminder to those questioning me that my service becomes necessary the moment they step through the door.
If this job is just for money, leaving the decision for my payment in the ball-point pen tucked between a customers fingers or the number of dollar bills peeking from the checkbook is laughably irresponsible. Servers often talk about financial independence and the gratification of a daily cash payout, but there’s a sacrifice we make every single time we approach a new table of people or a new customer at the bar. Sure we can complain to our bussers and bartenders about how much it sucks to get a low tip after working hard to make someone happy, but no matter how convincing our inner monologue can be, we’re not fooling ourselves. Living off of tips is really fucking awful sometimes. The structure that empowers self-righteous bachelorettes and generally miserable strangers to hold your livelihood in their hand like a glass figurine is, at very best, emotionally draining. The lack of labor protection is inversely proportionate to the bullshit and abuse we endure. But if it weren’t me balancing a tray of hot plates, it would certainly be someone else.
When a salaried employee sits at her desk job, she’s getting paid regardless of how much effort she actually expends on his tasks. Servers sweat and argue and stress, sometimes for 12 hours without more than a 15-minute break, and still their customers feel entitled to demand a service without paying for the labor it requires. In food service, a person cannot “barely” do a job. It’s either done or it isn’t. With all the talk about Millenials and their affection for hand-outs and participation trophies, it’s curious to me that, in my experience, older customers behave the worst and expect the most from someone who is “lazy” or “couldn’t get a better job”. And even more curious—how we all decided this was an acceptable way to employ people.
“I go here […] at least once a week…but this has to end. Every time I go the service gets worse and worse…and the servers get younger and younger. Had a 12 year old girl last night serving us and our food was actually inedible…” Kris L.
The proof of the general population’s disdain for youth has never been clearer than in my interactions as a server. Middle-aged men cannot decide whether they’re disgusted by my youth or aroused by it, women question whether I am qualified to make drink recommendations, and the attempts by customers to exploit my supposed naiveté continue unrivaled from any other job I’ve held. I might go so far to suggest that these exploitations are unrivaled even by disastrous political conversations with my deeply conservative family members.
Kris L either enjoys hyperbole, or he is far behind on the advent of child-labor laws. It’s really not uncommon for men especially to infantilize female servers and find some sort of powerful gain from asking a young woman to do capricious tasks for the duration of a football game. Endure the succession of requests plus sprinkle some unsolicited comments about how much you do or don’t know about the Baltimore Ravens and you’ve created a standard Sunday afternoon working at a sports bar downtown. As the patrons fill the seats of the dissolving dining room it can, at times, feel like a flash mob of insatiable townies looking to passive aggressively bully the first marginalized person they see.
Look, I’m sorry “you” lost, but please don’t yell at me because you drank our last Corona Light, which for whatever reason you decided to pair with grenadine.
Yes, grenadine in beer.
There came a point in my budding career as a server when one of my managers decided to sit down and explain that customers will do anything to take advantage of me, and that if I’m going to manage my emotions working in a city devoid of common courtesy, I had to use my wits to keep customers from thinking they could walk out on an $80 bill—the inciting incident of this heartfelt conversation. My sister, who served tables since she was 18, warned me before I got my first serving job that I might be too sensitive for it. My mother, too, spent many years waiting tables in her youth and encouraged me that this line of work is the best and only option for an overachieving college student. I had no problems maintaining an impressive GPA, or grading hundreds of assignments as a Teaching Assistant, but serving food to people I’ve never seen before and will probably never see again for the rest of my life—problems. The value of my effort was visible in my other endeavors. I searched for the intrinsic reward of working in an unforgiving trade.
Why are people so determined to undermine service? And, in the end, are the customers taking advantage of me–or is the system designed to vilify the customer, not the structure itself, the one that enables such negative perception of our work?
The incentive of working for most people comes in their paychecks, but servers don’t get those. We get conversations with new and interesting people, frustrating glimpses into the morality of past eras, challenging circumstances to juggle, shifts where nothing is happening how it should, and shifts where every single customer gives you a laugh and a good tip. Servers do it all despite the stress, chaos, and arguments.
After some experience you learn how to speak with conviction in a way that matters to people who will never remember your name. To keep careful record of what’s done and when, and to organize everything in the most logical way so that no wayward passerby looking to get free shit from a pushover gets away with it. Months after my $80 walkout, I sat at the bar on a slow afternoon and lamented with the bartender after a group of men neglected to pay a $65 tab of Bud Light and shots of Smirnoff.
“I promise you that person will pay somehow” I reassured him.
Less than 15 minutes later, by coincidence or providence, one straggler from the group walked into the bar and asked whether he had left his Orioles cap on the stool where he had been sitting. After an uncomfortable pause, he asked why we were staring at him so intently and upon explaining that he owed money to the bar, the drunk man ran out the front door in a panic.
In only seconds the two seasons I spent suffering through high school track practices finally found use. The tables who walked out on me, the assholes who ridiculed my intelligence were all present in my head as I trailed this thief in a full sprint down Aliceanna St. with a nearly sadistic grin spread across my face. As the man made a turn down a side street he began to stumble, and in an animalistic fever I lunged for him. With his phone in hand and my legs locked in a power stance, I realized that not only had I tackled a fully grown man at 4:00 PM for a single moment of retribution, but I had also fully embraced the hard-headed, quick-thinking woman this job had trained me to be—a self advocate, a Baltimore bitch.
These moments don’t happen for everyone. They certainly don’t happen if you work a few blocks west at the Ruth’s Chris Steak House. What can they expect from an employee at a bar where we name the rats that live by the dumpsters and argue about who has to change the unreachable toilet paper in the restrooms? Maybe a kinder server wouldn’t think to chase after a drunken man for $65, maybe the pleasant server wouldn’t tell a customer to calm down if they start raising their voice, but a server who’s already relinquished their dignity to pay their rent just might.
“Sure it is a dive bar and took forever to get our food, but what we got was good food. Think of all the other bars you’ve been to that just serve crap garbage. There’s quality junk food out there to be had.” Bonnie W.
Sometimes your customers get it right. They’ve worn your non-slip shoes and eaten too many fries at the server’s station. When they sit down for their meal, they know that their table isn’t the center of your personal galaxy and they might even understand that you actually do work hard, despite all of the people who convince themselves that you don’t.
Regardless of the insufferable tasks that plague food service workers, what drives our interactions every shift isn’t a love of food. It’s a blind, inflexible belief that our work has integrity whether or not it’s always recognized that way. Labor is dignified in itself, even if the system tries to convince us otherwise. Whether a customer’s extra well done burger and fries comes out exactly as they expected doesn’t change the fact that once that table leaves, another one will come to replace it, and if they tell you the food is garbage, you simply tell them it’s the best damn garbage they’ll ever have the pleasure of eating and smile when they make sure you know they’ll never be eating at the restaurant again.
It’s almost comical to me that someone who shouts in public believes I genuinely care whether they return or not. At one point, I had to explain to a customer that I, also, did not want them to eat at my restaurant again.
There are some people who will simply never understand the nuances of socialization that an experienced server notices. From table to table, my map of interpersonal communication grows larger and more detailed. After logging hours of body language examination and creating an expansive dictionary of verbal cues and signals, it’s hard to not say what I mean simply, and to question the convention that leads people to believe that I am not a person. That I am tool for their use. I take pride in my garbage, and continue to wonder about the hundreds of people I’ve yet to meet.
For those of you still willing to see what it’s actually like in my dilapidated corner of downtown Baltimore, Jeffery H. said it best,
“A perfectly ordinary pub food joint – nothing special, but nothing disappointing, either”