A tip to the wise: waitressing is hard work, at 54, no less

True tales from everyday living

Real life


When I applied for the job as a waitress, I was 54 years old, grief-stricken, and a little crazy.

I thought the busyness of that sort of work might save me. I had no experience, but apparently that was all right with the manager.

He handed me over to Adrienne for training.

Adrienne was in her early 20s, and therefore she addressed me as "Miss Madeleine," with the same deference she no doubt extended to the elderly friends of her grandparents.

We made an interesting pair. She was large and graceful, black and striking. I was small and unnerved, white and faded.

I followed her around like an orphan duckling behind a mother swan. As far as I was concerned, Adrienne was my mentor and probably the best waitress in all of Baltimore. As far as she was concerned, I was a challenge.

Here are only a few of the things Adrienne taught me:

Cross your apron strings in back, and tie them snugly in front.

Extras add up: Recommend the soup; place the dessert menu at the proper angle.

Religiously pre-bus your tables.

Concerning the cooks: Do not cower, but at the same time, show respect.

Remember: It's only food.

One evening, at Table 5, I served a couple about my age and their two young grandchildren. Something went wrong with the order, something that would take time to fix. I ran to Adrienne in a panic, and she headed for the kitchen to sweet-talk the cook. I was relieved that I didn't have to face the cook, whose scowl had always made me weak in the knees.

I returned to Table 5. The mistake in the order had not been mine; nevertheless, it was my job to apologize. The meek grandmother wouldn't look me in the eye. The fierce grandfather coldly stared me down. The wide-eyed kids watched my every move from the moment their grandfather declared, just as I turned from the table, that they were looking at a very bad waitress. It was a long and terrible time before I could settle the plates on Table 5.

In the meantime, Adrienne enlisted the manager, who made his customary peace offering -- dessert on the house. The grandfather said they weren't interested in dessert.

When at last the people at Table 5 were fed and out the door, I cleared the table and retrieved the charge slip the grandfather had signed. The cashier rang it up for me, smiled grimly, and handed me the change: one dime.

"He did that on purpose, you know," Adrienne said matter-of-factly. "If he'd entered no tip at all, you might have told yourself he just forgot to leave it on the table. This way, there's no mistaking what he thought of you."

I burst into tears. Adrienne took me into the back, and gave me a paper napkin on which to blow my nose. "It's only food," she said. "Don't take it so personal."

I continued to bawl. The loud-mouthed young dishwashers, suddenly quiet, looked over their shoulders at me.

"If you cry, you can't be a waitress, Miss Madeleine," Adrienne said. She glanced through the doorway at Table 8 and asked if I was up to a run with the coffee pot, because if not, she'd do it for me.

I made the run with the coffee pot. I made it through the rest of the shift. At closing time, beautiful Adrienne was humming as she sashayed from table to table, gathering up the ketchup bottles to be refilled.

I wanted to fall against her bosom and weep, but I managed not to.

I untied my apron and counted the dollars in the pocket -- 40, probably half what Adrienne had made, but that seemed more than fair.

When I got home, I fell at once into bed, into a deep sleep. It was the sleep of the exhausted, of the saved.

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