It was never my goal to put down my tray, hang up my bar towel, and retire my apron. Oh, my apron—pockets worn thin from tips, ballpoint pens, and guest checks. Stains ranging from greasy meats, hot sauce, and a veneer of coffee—lots of coffee (those black aprons would skip the laundry and receive a cursory cleaning with hot coffee and a strong rubbing). My uniforms through the years—42 years, in fact—ranged from hot pants (first bar gig in 1972); to the diner classic, white-trimmed harvest-gold polyester; to black trousers and tuxedo shirt replete with black tie. Then there were the no-dress-code years that spoiled me rotten, followed unpleasantly by a corporate buy-out with the mandatory company-logo-embossed, formless-fitting t-shirt and blue jeans required even in the summer, thus giving you, as one co-worker so delicately put it, “swamp ass.”
When younger and toting a tray in Mobile, I was embarrassed to wear a uniform as it signified I was “just a waitress” in a town, in a time, when restaurant work was less than respected. But as the years went on and I changed towns to New Orleans, I came to wear with great pride the garments (all but the butt-chaffing ones) that put me in the ranks of the food and beverage industry! We were like teamsters in an insane asylum, and I loved it.
As stated, retiring from the world of food and beverage was never something I considered. Even in my “If I Won the Lottery” daydreams, I always saw myself holding on to at least one shift a week. Like the aging but never fading thespian, the need for an audience motivated my work ethic—heck, the show must go on! When tips were simply not enough to sustain enthusiasm for the multi-tasking grind of serving grog and gruel, I would make ‘em laugh. This would compensate me. The dining room floor became my dance hall, the bar a stage.
Back in my Gumbo Shop days, I would rehearse my “number” before work. Playing my Dinah, Frank, and Ella records, attempting to channel their stylings while memorizing the lyrics, I’d sing, and if my cat didn’t react with a hiss and a piss, I knew I was ready to don my uniform and prepare for “showtime.” My ritual upon entering 630 St. Peter St. was to have John Degue, the restaurant’s clean-up guy, take a moment from hosing the courtyard clean to switch the nozzle to mist and de-wrinkle my (somewhat) white tuxedo shirt, which would be dry (maybe) and wrinkle-free (maybe) by opening time. After this, I would clear my throat and sing off-key randomly all day, occasionally throwing myself across the kitchen’s stainless steel pass-thru counter, since a piano was unavailable for my torch-singing lounge act. Was I a talented vocalist moonlighting between gigs? Hell no. If you ever heard me, you’d wonder why I was ever allowed to sing at work—though my boss once commented that the rodent issue was virtually non-existent during my tenure.
Another thing that would ease me through those not-so-profitable tipping days was my personal Miss Congeniality Contest. I decided if I couldn’t up-sell, as desired by management, or serve tables fast enough to make my tips by the ol’ “turn ‘n’ burn” method, I could put on a winning smile. I refer to this technique as, “Smile like you ain’t got a lick of sense.” Of course, you have to possess some semblance of sincerity. Sure, there are those days when you are just “not feelin’ it,” but generally, if you put it out there, your mood will usually roll with it. Folks respond to friendliness, become nicer customers; you become their new best friend, and the back-and-forth of camaraderie snowballs—or not.
When my burning desire to be loved by all was in danger of being extinguished or my sights upon that Miss Congeniality crown dimmed, I’d enlist help from a higher power—I would go to my inner Yelp. Seeking to be all that I could and should be, I’d ask: what would Yelp do; what would Yelp say? Would the review read, “Our waitress was a real bitch”? Or would I use a filter to soften my rotten mood and garner that 5-star rating? Yep, Yelp lifted me to a loftier standard.
I was afraid that if I left the food service stage, I’d never have an audience again. Face it, folks know we can touch their food—therefore, they are more likely to laugh at comedic turns and indulge me my theatrical antics. A captive audience! But I’ve found a way to turn my charm (okay, I call it “charm,” you call it something else) and my need to entertain upon another venue: our book store (a delightful money pit for Boyfriend and me). Besides, it was about time to retire my voice. Not because I have a dreadful singing voice (which I do), but because whatever volume or range I once had (off-key, of course) is simply gone with age. Now, like a stage mom, I pimp out my little dog’s yapping (reminiscent of my former vocal skills) as backup for the nine feral cats that came with the parking lot to entertain customers.
Do I miss the hustle and bustle of food service? Hell yes. Did I suffer through years of waitress nightmares, poor management, demanding customers, grease burns, a bad back, and little to no benefits/insurance? You bet. So, why do I choose to miss it? There is no choice—it’s in my blood, now a part of my DNA. That apron, albeit in spirit only, will always be tied about my waist, and if you look closely, you might even imagine a pen behind my ear ready to take the next order as I spin a tray above my head. And may my epitaph (many years from now!) read: She was a damn good waitress!