Her answer to my question was "just a waitress". These are three words I never enjoy hearing. This is a response that doesn’t begin to give meaning or full credit to one of the hardest jobs a person could ever take on. A college degree is not required and perhaps lives are not saved, frontiers not conquered, a medical break-through not forthcoming as result of toting a tray, but skills are nonetheless needed that the average person might find they have in short supply.
44 years ago, I dropped out of high school, a mere three months from graduation. But I was 18 and not utilizing the brightest bulb in my head. So of course, I grabbed the first job available, which was slinging cocktails. Back then I was called a barmaid, and even then I knew the term was demeaning, despite the fact that most men I knew couldn’t begin to deal with the stress and certainly wouldn’t have looked as good as I did in those hot pants. Yeah, it was 1972 and certain jobs in the food and beverage world were more about selling sexy servitude rather than the actual drink or dish.
So, I didn’t really choose the profession I would come to love years later. I took to it rather shyly, begrudgingly and with not one ounce of skill. I didn’t even learn how to carry a full-sized dinner tray and tray jack until nearly 20 years later. In fact, I would apply for waitress jobs only where large trays were not used. I became quite good at arm service but would go weak in the knees at the thought of toting a large tray on the tips of my fingers. I learned this skill only because once I forgot to case a joint (during an interview) for tray service protocol, got the job, and it was too late. I had to learn.
My father once told me to be the best at whatever job you take. I agree, you have to “own it”. You have to have your own “personal best” to aspire to. It ain’t rocket science, but there are so many important areas in food and beverage that you can make your specialty/your niche. I was never an up-sell server, and my wine knowledge was weak then and still is. Yet, I can entertain and I can go above and beyond with service. No, I am not now nor have I ever been good at anything remotely resembling fine dining (do not even care to receive fine dining treatment when I dine out), but I can give my heart, humor and kindness to my customers. I might serve from the wrong side of the table, but I will remember their names and we will part as friends.
Back in the day, we were called waitresses and men were waiters. In fine dining, only males could wear the tuxedo, African Americans generally worked the kitchen (and rarely as the chef) or bussed the tables. There was no hard and fast, written-in-stone formula for restaurant hiring, but there was certainly more gender and race bias going on—be it for or against. The terms to describe our job positions have improved with the times and women and minorities do now have a better and stronger presence in restaurant hierarchy. But one hang-over from the “day” that I still embrace and always have a fondness for is the word “waitress”. Call me old school, and yes “server” does sound more modern professional, gender- neutral, but I am a dye-in-wool, tray-totin’, apron-wearing, “Hi honey, whatcha ya havin?” waitress!
I take great pride in belonging to the World of Food & Beverage. It took many years to “own it”, and living in Mobile until I was 34 and working in a profession that then was considered beneath most jobs didn’t help with the ol’ self-esteem. I remember taking a breakfast shift gig at the Best Western Motor Lodge, and when they handed me the polyester gold and white uniform replete with the little white apron that tied in a big bow in the back, I just about died. I was mortified. Remember, this was Mobile 1985, retro/kitsch was not cool yet. In this town, we servers were not part of a “real profession”. We were considered low on the social food chain—unless, it was a means to an end. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I heard “when I get a real job…” from some college student working to get through her tuition. All fine and good to tote the tray for a summer job, but don’t go insulting us by calling us “lifers”.
Your average servers/waitresses/waiters (your choice) wear many hats and must excel in numerous categories. Depending upon the table and its needs, they act as: hosts, dietary restrictions/special needs advisors, concierges, sommeliers, babysitters, happy birthday singers, mixologists, and they are legally responsible for your alcohol intake and ability to drive. Behind those kitchen doors, your wait person totes, lifts, flames, microwaves, washes, rolls dozens of hand-polished silverware, scoops, slices, and garnishes your salads and desserts, warms your bread, chills your wine, fights with the cooks for your meal, and possibly has his or her paycheck docked for any mishaps to your order. Then he or she is expected to be your cashier and mathematician when some idiot at your table says “separate checks”. All this must be done with a smile on her face. And all this and more for less than three bucks an hour (forget benefits unless it’s a corporation). So yes, those tips are more than a kindness.
My back is damaged from years under the tray. My hands, arms and legs scarred from grease and hot coffee burns—yet for some crazy reason, I have loved the restaurant life. I respect the work that all of us who wear the apron do—whether we be a cook, bartender, busser or “just a waitress”.