There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
Every job has its own demands. Every job can be stressful. But I think most people would agree that working in the service industry is a particularly nerve-wracking job; it is intense, fast-paced, arduous, and overall physically and mentally challenging. I mean, it doesn’t carry the level of acute stress that, say, a police officer or a brain surgeon is subjected to. It is not life or death. No one is going to actually die from eating BBQ lobster that is less than piping hot (unless, of course, they have a deadly shellfish allergy). But for those of us who earn our livelihood from running around like crazy people tending to our guests’ every whim, and at breakneck speed, it is no easy gig.
I can skip the Sudoku and brain teasers… I keep my brain sharp by trying to remember all of the 15,000 things I simultaneously have to get done as a server, every five minutes. If you think working in the service industry is mindless work, try walking a mile-- or around the dining room a few times-- in a server’s black, patent leather, slip-resistant shoes.
There’s an expression that has become fairly mainstream these days, but it originated in the service industry. When we are overwhelmed, stressed out, can’t get everything done and are falling desperately far behind, we say we are “in the weeds."
And I am so in the weeds right now. So far in the weeds that I can’t see past the green fronds inches from my face with the leaves going up my nose, and this vegetation continues for miles. It’s the kind of weeds that when you chop them down, more weeds sprout up in their place, and five times thicker. The kind of weeds that make you break out in a rash. From the stress. From the irritation. I have poison ivy.
I’m in the weeds right now, and I don’t think I’m ever going to get out.
I am responsible for the care and feeding and happiness of at least 24 demanding people with very diverse needs at any given time. I am The Little Old Woman Who Lived in the Shoe and these are my children. But broth without bread? I should be so lucky. My children want turtle in their broth, and I definitely can’t leave off the bread. In fact, Table 14 asked for more bread. Table 15 wants more butter for their bread. And Table 24 wants to know if we have any other, different kind of bread to bring them. (I suddenly love and long for my gluten-free guests, with their no-bread attitude. Saves me so much time).
I just got quadruple-sat. That means four new tables full of needy people, demanding immediate attention all at once. New tables are the hardest, and require the most care. Greet them, welcome them, bring them menus, bring them water, get their drink order, bring them bread. Make sure they’re happy. New tables are the newborns of the service world. Newly arrived, they need to be coddled, cared for, nurtured. If ignored, they get temperamental and cranky. You can’t leave them unattended. If you take your eyes off of them for even a second, it’s as good as letting them roll off the table and break their necks. But once their food order has been placed, you can afford to leave them alone for a little while. Give them a binky and put them down, and check back in a bit, when they need a drink refill or when their food comes out, to see if they need anything else. Check that they’re clean, dry, and well-fed. Any complaints or concerns? They must be pacified, their discomfort alleviated. Change their dirty diapers and leave them cooing with delight.
I need five cups of coffee, but we’re out of coffee cups. Run to the back for more. I have to have six glasses of water—on the fly-- but there are no clean water glasses. Run to the dish pit for another rack. The cappuccino machine just ran out of milk. So I have to run up to the second floor to get another gallon. That oh-so-precious little boy at Table 25 who is coloring the linen tablecloths and throwing crayons and bread crumbs on the floor wants chocolate milk. But the chocolate sauce is kept on the third floor in the dry storage closet. Run up three flights of stairs, only to discover we’re out of it. 86 chocolate sauce. And I forgot to bring Table 16 that lemon they asked me for ten minutes ago.
Crap, there goes my tip.
All the sugar caddies are suddenly devoid of sugar packets. The napkins aren’t folded. The creamers are dry. I came out of the kitchen with a tray full of the 17 items of coffee service and stopped by Silverware Central for a coffee spoon. Can’t serve coffee without one. But big shocker. None there. Next, I have three hot tea orders to make. At five minutes per order, that will only put me another 15 minutes behind.
No glassware. No linen. No silverware. No time.
Crap, there goes my sanity.
The weeds are growing. Climbing up the wall like a parasitic vine. Ivy sucking the life out of everything it touches. Sucking the life out of me.
For every task I actually accomplish, two more tasks spring up in the meantime. Like that mythological creature the Hydra—when you chop off its evil head, two heads grow back in its place. Because things happen fast, and they just keep happening. Everything moves, everything changes. Serving is a very dynamic job. A restaurant is in a constant state of flux and motion. By the time I make the rounds refilling coffee and water, several people will have drunk theirs down a ways and need a refill yet again. Can’t y’all please sip just a little slower? I can’t keep up. “Keep your eyes on the drink levels,” management harps at us. But frankly, I can’t see their drink levels. The weeds are covering my eyes.
I am stressed. I am running. I am hot, and I am sweating. Which is probably bad. There is a good chance that I will have to reach my perspiring (albeit freshly showered) armpit over you at some point to refill your cup or clear your plates, and I am sure that must be very appetizing for you. Not to mention my uniform shirt is white, and we all know white doesn’t play well with sweat. So, correction. My uniform shirt used to be white.
There are supposed to be something like ten steps of service in fine dining, and I am lucky if I have time for 3.7. So I will go ahead and take your drink order. But you’re pushing your luck if you actually expect me to bring you the drinks you want, too. No time for that. I’m in the weeds.
Weird Nose Hair Man wants more iced tea. Sauce on the Side Lady just asked me to switch her cream out for skim milk. Apple Martini Guy let his coffee sit there and get cold, and then has the nerve to ask me for a new, fresh cup. It’s hard enough to get things done the first time around. But now I have to repeat my labor.
And then, as I’m flying past a table doing ten things at once, a hand suddenly reaches an iPhone into my path. I almost spill my entire tray of mimosas. “Excuse me, do you mind taking a picture of us?”
You’ve got to have the patience of a cat trainer in order to do this job, but this is getting on my last nerve.
The weeds are growing out of control now. They have morphed into that giant, man-eating plant from Little Shop of Horrors. Audrey II, isn’t it? He’s about to swallow me whole. Meanwhile, my ravenous guests, waiting impatiently for their entrees to come out of the kitchen, are glaring at me with that “Feed me, Seymour!” look in their eyes.
I’m in the wrong line of work. Maybe I should have been a horticulturist. Horticulturists kill weeds.
I appeal to the sympathy of my co-workers, pleading with them for help. “Hey Buddy, can you give me a hand?” But they have succumbed to the weeds as well. Larry the Table Guy, as we affectionately call him, is racing around so fast I can’t even catch him to ask for assistance. The bartender is in tears. There’s a big guy who is dripping so much sweat it could likely fill my tables’ near-empty water glasses. And yet another server says he won’t help, because he needs to go call his grandma. (That’s code for go smoke a cigarette). And then he leaves me hanging.
Eventually things calm down. They always do. People get fed, they pay (we hope), they leave. It is the end of the shift, and closing time is really the only Roundup for the weeds. The green monsters shrivel and die, for now…Just in time for us to do all our many cleaning and closing duties. A server’s work is never done. The list of our obligations just keeps growing. Like a weed.
Everyone knows weeds have a reputation for being hearty and tenacious. Then again, anyone who can make it in the service industry kind of does too. So we’ll be back for yet another shift tomorrow. And, alas, so will the weeds.