[Steven Cleghorn / Unsplash]

Tales from the Quarter: Proud to Wear the Uniform; Proud to Serve

October 14, 2021
By: Debbie Lindsey

Finally I would find solidarity within the ranks of fellow Blacks and Whites—no, this had nothing to do with racial harmony; it simply was the standard uniform of polyester and cotton blends. Black trousers (or skirt) and a white shirt, often tuxedo style, and, of course, a black bow tie. We were referenced by our uniform and its old school monochromatic black-and-white. Server, waiter, waitress, also served as titles. This was 1989, I had just moved here, and was delighted to wear the ugly uninspired uniform as it signified that I was a member of a respected trade.

Now before my fellow waitrons (another title for us) rail about the lack of respect this industry receives, know that I'm there with you. An hourly minimum wage of $2.15 and little to no benefits does scream "Let's Unionize" and it is backbreaking work. Yet when I left Mobile to move here, I knew I would belong to a culture, subculture, of working stiffs that were/are integral to New Orleans's economy and fame as a dining destination. This was in contrast to Mobile, which was not dependent upon her cuisine or modest offering of restaurants. So after waitressing in Mobile where my livelihood was belittled overtly and subtly, I found in New Orleans strength in numbers. Watching the ebb and flow of black and white uniforms heading into the Quarter for work and the camaraderie amongst those same folks as shifts ended with a migration to the nearest bar to unwind made me proud to belong to this motley crew.

Being tipped workers did make us vulnerable to muggers, especially back then when most of our tips were cash. So it was suggested that we change from our uniforms before hitting the streets looking like drunken sailors and targets for opportunistic thieves. But I was so damn proud to be a part of this federation of tray toting, food stained, restaurant foot soldiers that I wore my uniform, apron and all, straight into the many bars that catered to us. Those god-awful black pants and shapeless shirts covered with splashes of gumbo identified me as a local and someone who would be a good tipper. We were welcomed by bartenders as valued customers. Therefore, screw the punk mugger, I was wearing my badge of honor—my bow tie and sweaty uniform (note: this was not a smart thing to do—sheer luck protected my silly ass). Point was I loved belonging to this tribe of tray toters.

My first New Orleans job was at a small café on Royal Street and it was, like all restaurants, staffed by a variety of personalities. There was a wickedly surly head-waitress who would profile a customer, assume they wouldn't tip, and give that table to me. I'd turn on some charm and friendliness and get a tip, which I flaunted back at her. And even if they did stiff me, I would lie and tell her greedy ass that I scored a 30% gratuity. She and I got along nevertheless, but the café manager was a real piece of work—in hindsight, I suspect the manager was bi-polar but, back then, all I saw was an unholy terror. The rest of the staff were delightfully gay men that blessed me with their friendships; and they introduced me to all the best gay bars.

The wicked manager (who made the surly head-waitress seem sweet as pie) fired me when I pinched a nerve in my neck while lifting a plastic glass tumbler to the Diet Coke dispenser (I suspect the 12-ounce soda was just the final movement to cinch the nerve. The likely origin of injury: the night before I had, after many cocktails, carried my friend piggy-back in a rodeo of sorts, up and down Esplanade). Any hoot, I was out sick with pain, a neck that wouldn't move, and even had a doctor's excuse, yet this was grounds for dismissal—like I said earlier, health benefits and employee rights were rare.

I healed and also gave up the rodeo circuit. But 20-plus more years of restaurant injuries awaited me. As much as I have never regretted a single stint as a food server or bartender in this town, I wish I had been able to avoid the backbreaking, joint inflaming, hip and knee wear and tear that this career inflicts on everyone from front of the house servers to the chefs and dishwashers in the back. It is not a job for the faint of heart. With 20/20 vision in my rearview mirror of life, I would do some things a bit different—better shoes, back-brace, insist on floor mats, and learn how to lift and move ergonomically. And forgo drunken rodeos!

My next job was at an establishment I am proud to have served at. Not an easy place to work but it gave me the braggin' rights to say I worked one of the highest volume joints in town and, to their credit, they offered health benefits, which were appreciated beyond words. Also, more lasting friendships than I can count were made there and these friendships were the best company benefit I could ask for. I happily consider myself alumni of The Gumbo Shop.

Next, I had the privilege of working for Olivia, an amazing vegan chef and owner of Old Dog New Trick Café. I then made my way to Café Maspero. This would be my last hurrah in this greasy, aromatic, loud, fast paced, and amazing world of restaurants. Perhaps I would still be there until my last breath but the remarkable father and son team, Charlie and Bobby Malachias, that owned the café and managed our gang of reprobates, retired and sold the café along with its 40 plus years of memories. Thanks Charlie, Bobby, and my Maspero bartending partner in crime and dear friend, Dawn—three of the many folks who made me proud to serve.

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