By: Susan Olding
Celery with cream cheese
Angels on horseback
Pigs in blankets
Your career begins early, before your head even clears the kitchen counter. The crystal dish that your mother places in your hands feels much heavier than you expect. Pressing it to your chest, you look down at your red patent party shoes, nervous you might skid on the kitchen’s vinyl tile or trip on the lip of the living room carpet. Music greets you, music and smoke; clinking ice cubes and the smells of mingled perfumes. The women’s faces glow. Their dresses rustle like the plumage of exotic birds. Like birds, they coo and sing at your offerings, pecking and cooing while watching you with bright eyes. Someday you would like to join their dazzling flock. But for now, you observe them observing you.Passing your plate of savouries, you pause in front of one guest, whose jewel-encrusted bracelets jingle when she reaches for a morsel of sausage. She takes a bite and turns to her companion with shining lips. Your mouth waters. Your tongue craves the pastry’s buttery caress. You are so hungry. Will anyone offer you a taste? Will anyone notice if you serve yourself? You stand, hip-high, amid the throng of grown-ups. Waiting.
Cream of mushroom
Mostly, for your part-time job in the old folks’ home, you crouch over a cavernous sink to scrub industrial- size pots, or stand within plumes of dank steam at the service counter, where you dish out Salisbury steak, watery beans, and instant mashed potatoes. But every seventh shift, your boss assigns a special task, such as pushing a snack cart to the residents’ rooms or pouring out tea and coffee at their lakeside tables. The residents shout or whisper their orders and sneer or slip shiny quarters into your palms. Some entertain their families every weekend; others never greet a single visitor. Some play cards in the great room; others do their best to ignore their neighbours. All old people look alike at first, there’s no arguing about that. But over time you come to know most of them. Mrs. Mary Harrison is your favourite. Haughty and imperious, one day she shows up at breakfast naked except for her mink and pearls.
You serve them soup, they ask for crackers. Where are my Saltines? If you please, I’d like a packet of those oyster wafers. How they lick their lips, craving the salt they are not supposed to eat. Salt, and its evil sidekick, sugar. The snack cart overflows with that stuff. Nothing homemade, nothing “healthy” there—all Rowntree’s chocolate and Peek Frean biscuits, and you’re not supposed to give those to anyone who’s on a diet plan or diabetic. You carry a list of all their names. You are under strictest orders. But this is the generation that survived the Great Depression, not to mention several wars and many years of rationing. They will not go gentle into that good night. Deaf or no, they hear the rattle of your metal cart even before it exits the elevator; focused, despite their failing vision, they scan their shelves and shuffle through their drawers, searching for trinkets they might use to bribe you. Just a taste, my dear, just a taste won’t hurt, they say, in tones as wheedling as any toddler’s. Waiting all their lives for this small indulgence that the fates deny them.
Shredded red cabbage
Sliced green pepper
Tinned black olives
French, Thousand Island, oil and vinegar, or blue cheese dressing
At the pizza chain where you go to work at age eighteen, the kitchen is a long, narrow corridor, one side lined with ovens and the other a counter for prepping dough and salads. Under the dim yellow lights of a cramped staff bathroom, you change into tThe Uniform. The Uniform is not a getup that you, or anyone else, would ever wish to wear in public. It starts with a dress, whose puff-sleeved bodice is constructed of a crunchy white dotted Swiss that soon stains yellow under the armpits and gapes whenever you bend, the better to show your nonexistent cleavage. The bodice is sewn to a gathered gingham skirt in red or blue that would make even the thinnest girl look broad in the hips. On top of the dress you add a matching gingham apron, tied at the waist; a black velvet choker, like an Edwardian lady’s; and a cap.
Cap. That bland and innocent word does nothing to conjure this ruffled white monstrosity; it’s a frilly, poisonous pillowslip that, throughout your shift, will drift lower and ever lower on your forehead. What is the purpose of this thing? Again and again you will push it back into place, again and again it will slide towards your nose, wreaking havoc with your hairstyle and leaving you frazzled, frowsy, and pissed off. Still, at least you don’t have to pay for it—unlike your shoes, which the restaurant doesn’t provide. Yours come from K-Mart—white vinyl slip-ons that you picked up cheap but will come to hate for the way they attract and hang on to smells, no matter how often you spray them with Lysol.
Out front, you take your station at an antique hutch and wait for the rush to begin. You roll the knives and forks into paper napkins, count the number of side plates, fill the salt and pepper shakers. In your pocket, you carry the waiter’s timeworn tools—an order pad and pencil. Personal computers have not arrived yet; the world is still waiting. You have to do the math yourself.
The name of this place is Mother’s. Famous for its family meals, its towering stainless- steel pizza stands, its big pitchers of pop, and its silent black- and- white films that loop continuously on large-size screens, it is also known for its reclaimed furniture, including tables made from ancient sewing machines—tables that rudely scrape the knees of anyone taller than four feet who is foolish enough to try to sit at one. Most people come here for the pizza and the inexpensive beer. The draft is served in heavy glass tankards. You pull them, chilled, from a special fridge and place them strategically on cork-lined trays. These you balance above your head as you dodge unruly children and swerve between the tightly angled tables. Friday nights can be crazy here. Parents and noisy kids; nervous couples on first dates; big, boisterous groups. Guys show up in clusters of eight or ten, already six sheets to the wind, determined to make a pass or pass out in the attempt.
On this particular Friday, your section fills up fast with exactly the kind of rowdy crowd you dread. They lumber in, laughing and catcalling and ogling, then sprawl at one of the larger tables, demanding beer. One guy sneaks a peek up your skirt and gloats when he gets a glimpse of thigh. Another grabs a draft from your tray, almost upending you in the process. Worst is the one who wants to untie your apron. Glazed eyes, red face, slurred words—something isn’t right with him. He’s not just fooling around. He can’t take a hint or even a no. He paws at the gingham strings, laughs when you slap his hand away. For all you care, he can have the damned apron, but you’re not taking it off here, and you hate his drunken sense of entitlement.
These guys. Think because you’re hired to serve them they can do and say whatever they want. Just once, you’d like to answer rudeness with rudeness. Just once, you’d like to get the last word. No. Scrap that. Forget words. They’re useless. Right now, you’d like to stab that jerk with a fork.
Up on the screen, Charlie Chaplin plays the Little Tramp. Here on the floor, there’s not an empty seat in the place, not a spot to stand at the pizza pickup counter. You scrape leftover crusts into a garbage bin. It’s going to be a long night. But at least this group won’t stay forever. Thank goodness for the one guy who looks like he has a little sense. Enough, enough, give her a break, he says, pulling his friend’s hand back, trying to get him to focus on something different. Let’s get some dessert, he says. Coffee. Tea.
Tea. Damn. Those metal pots with their poorly designed spouts, always dripping and spilling and sloshing. There’s no predicting where scalding water from one of those things might splash. The saucer, the vinyl tablecloth, the floor, your foot…almost anywhere except the cup.
Wait: to watch with hostile intent.
Hot water can be a weapon.
Who would object? Who would suspect? Everybody knows the direction of those drips is uncontrollable.
The trophy-hunter wears jeans. Their heavy fabric will offer just enough but not too much protection.
“Hey!” He jumps. “You spilled on me!”
“I’m so sorry.” Your eyes make Oo’s, your mouth is a round of spicy pepperoni.
“Nice move,” says the quiet one as they pay the bill and beat a hasty exit. Clearing the table later, you’ll find an extra dollar under his plate.
On break you load your salad with black olives, red cabbage, and plenty of blue cheese. Bitter tastes, to act as a homeopathic remedy. It’s okay, you tell yourself, it’s really okay. You won’t be working in this place for long. You’re just waiting until it’s time for you to kick off those stinky shoes and toss that stupid cap and untie those apron strings forever.
Oysters on the half shell
Jamaican conch chowder
Prawns in batter
The oyster bar is a cut above. Near the city’s waterfront, it is the upstairs, more casual sibling of a fancy seafood restaurant. Here, you wear black shoes, black pants, and a crisp white shirt. Here, you serve columnists and publishers and actors and producers. No gingham, no frilly caps, no crowds of drunken louts. Which is not to say you’re safe from all harassment. For starters, take your boss. His name is Jake. He’s tall, curly-haired, London-born. He invites his buddies to join him at the bar. After closing, they drink brandy and smoke Cuban cigars while he comments in Cockney slang on the shape of his servers’ asses.
Yours, apparently, is just a touch too wide for Jake’s taste. But some of your customers disagree. At any rate, they seem eager to flirt despite your flaws. Susan, says one man, peering lasciviously at your nametag through progressive lenses. He turns to his female companion. Both wear wedding rings. Don’t you think that is a beautiful name?, he says. She looks you up and down—a long look. Long, and sharp as a razor clam. A bit common for my taste, she says.
To succeed in your duties, you learn to let this and similar insults wash over you like a tide. And after all, it isn’t so difficult. Because customers come and go. Your co-workers are the constant. Together they enclose you in a protective shell of camaraderie. Victor and Grant and Mark, fellow servers, back you up when your section overfills and teach you the waiters’ tricks and shortcuts. Maggie and yes, Sue, who happen to be a couple, oversee the bar. They know when to tell someone their drink is on the house; they know when it’s time to cut somebody off; often they can sniff out those customers who’ll try to sneak down the stairway and out the main door without paying.
Even so, this happens. It happens quite a lot. The design of the bar makes it tempting. The bathrooms are downstairs, near the main door. People do have to pee when they drink beer and wine; you can’t exactly stop them. And sometimes, when it’s busy, instead of returning right away, they stay gone for a longer than usual time. In the midst of the weekend crush, it can take you a while to sniff out something fishy.
Night after night you find yourself clattering out to the street in your clogs. Night after night you race after sheepish or defiant patrons. Wait, wait, you forgot something, you shout. For you’re the one who suffers when this happens—not Jake, not the restaurant, not the corporation. You pay the bill if they get away, and with all the seafood and wine on these tabs, you certainly can’t afford it.
One night, everybody boils. Maggie has to eject two drunks in a row. Three of Victor’s tables and one of Mark’s try to sneak out without properly settling. And Jake rags on everybody, switching and cancelling shifts without explanation, barking at Grant when he ventures to complain. After close, you cash out, all of you feeling misused.
Who needs this?
What if we all just quit?
They’re never going to treat us any better.
Maggie and I have already made a list of places to apply.
We could quit and not even tell them.
Next weekend, Jake can deal with it all. On his own, the bastard.
Things move fast. The others have totalled their bills; they’re sorting their tips. And you, always the slowest to cash out, you’re still counting.
Are you with us? Are you coming?
This job pays your rent and tuition. You have no idea if you’ll find a better one, or even another one.
They’re buttoning their coats. They’re heading toward the stairs. You leap to your feet, waving and shouting as if they’re yet another group of errant customers.
Meat and Fowl
Pâté maison avec cornichons
Tarte de chèvre
Confit de canard
The Basque-inflected restaurant on Baldwin Street serves tapas, wine, and meals. You carry a corkscrew in your apron pocket. The customers do not grope you; your boss does not leer. Like Jake, Alan is British-born, but his accent is less Cockney than Cambridge. Calm and controlled, he never raises his voice at the chef or messes with the schedule. He understands you are a beginner—of course he does— but he assures you they can train you, if you’re willing to make a commitment. Will you commit to a year? Preferably longer. How soon can you start? Friday would be fine; tomorrow would be better. Bien! You will take over for Cassandre, who leaves next week for an extended holiday to visit her family in France.
Years of reading your mother’s Gourmet magazines have given you some second-hand knowledge about food. A Book-of-the-Month Club Encyclopaedia of Wine has taught you to recognize the names of various grapes. You purchase a new white shirt. You invest in an excellent corkscrew. You memorize the menu. And after your shifts, you sit down with the others to enjoy a delicious plat du jour and a tumbler of red or white. Later, you cross the street and mount the steps to your new walk-up apartment. It is the perfect job, n’est-ce pas?
En fait, it is not. For here, you don’t fit in. And the harder you try, the more you feel like une poule qui a trouvé un couteau. A headless chicken. The other servers hail from France. A decade older than you, they work here full-time to support their families, while you are only working part-time to pay your way through school. Still, that’s no call for them to treat you like some kind of enfant stupide. It shouldn’t licence them to laugh at your accent , or tease you when you trip on the basement stairs. They tell you the flan is all finished, then mysteriously find some for their own customers. When the chef backs up on busy nights, they steal your orders for their tables and c’est dommage if you complain. Dominique is the worst, with her assessing eyes and her mouth perpetually pursed in that distinctive French pout. “Ah, quelle vache —clumsy cow— elle ne sait rien faire,” you overhear her mutter. Sure enough, you start spilling the soup and forgetting the coffee under her exacting stare.
Hélas, you are so vulnerable, such an awful innocent. It almost makes sense to you when your boss pulls you aside one night at the end of your shift to fire you. Bien sûr, you understand. He simply can’t afford to keep someone as clumsy and ignorant as you. Tu n’est pas au courant. You make more work for the other staff. You lower the overall tone of his fine establishment. Yet somehow this fails to add up, because your tips are as high as Dominique’s, and several of the regulars have started to ask if they can sit in your section.
The next day as you return home from class, who should you see walking toward the restaurant but Cassandre. She wears a white shirt, a black skirt, and a furtive expression. Bonjour, you say. I didn’t know you were expected back in Canada so soon.
Weeks pass. You watch out your window. Dominique and Cassandre and your old boss come and blithely go. They never display the slightest hint of embarrassment. Your firing was illegal. Alan never said there was a problem. He never gave you any kind of warning. So why are you the one who hesitates to leave home in case you should run into him? Why are you the one who feels ashamed? It’s months before you muster the courage to write a letter, months before you ask Alan for the severance he owes you along with your vacation pay. A different person would march across the street, stare him in the eye, and demand to be paid tout de suite! But you, pauvre petite, you can’t. Instead, you write, rewrite, write again, send by registered mail. And wait. And wait. And wait.
Soufflé au fromage
Coquille St. Jacques
Tarte au citron
Gâteau au chocolat
In theory, you are a socialist. Not for nothing did you study the Theses on Feuerbach last semester. The point, you understand, is not to interpret the world but to change it. But with a chef screeching obscenities and shoving scalding plates into your hands, customers returning their wine just for the sake of impressing their dates, your co-workers smoking on the back steps when they should be overseeing their own tables, and the pool of tips that you divide at the end of the night shrinking smaller and ever smaller, this is alienated labour. The restaurant serves decent bistro fare and better sweets. It stands not far from Honest Ed’s and the self-same family owns it. Honest? Maybe. The manager told you when he hired you that when a team works well, splitting tips works out, and you would love with all your heart to believe this. But it’s been months now. Your work shoes are getting worn down at the heels. You have never once earned what you earned in your previous jobs over the course of a month, and you need to buy a winter coat. You are getting awfully tired of waiting for your just deserts.
Long Island Iced Tea
I’ve got a blonde here, the interviewer says to his in-house phone. About five-four. Experienced. He tells you to buy yourself a white bathing suit and hands you the rest of the uniform—a pair of floral harem pants, slit up the sides but sufficiently voluminous to disguise your too-wide ass. You will wear this get-up at the poolside bar of the upscale Four Seasons Hotel. Even your mother is impressed.
This is the first unionized job you have ever had. When you peel open your first paycheckque, you let out a long sigh. For once, it’s going to be easy to make your rent. Shifts are regular, and you never work later than eight in the evening. The customers are rich and many of them are famous and they’re liberal with their tips. Some are movie stars. Some are producers. A few are writers. They never harass you or treat you like a servant. They never tell you that your name is common. They never leave without paying. Sometimes they ask you what you are studying, talk to you about politics or plays or books. You bring them burgers and beer, or colourful cocktails festooned with strawberries and lime slices and pineapple. Sunny afternoons on that patio rarely even feel like work.
That summer, you plan your wedding. Walking home along your city’s Golden Mile, you peer into glittering windows. You’re making more money than you’ve ever made at a waitressing job before, but it isn’t enough. You can’t afford a real trousseau. No stylish wedding gown for you; you’ll be wearing your mother’s. You won’t have an engagement ring. You can’t afford a honeymoon. Yet you pick out china at Ashley’s, register at Birks, think about the ideal table service. You ask for a cocktail shaker, a soufflé dish, a vegetable steamer, an oval platter, a good teapot, a soup tureen, and crystal serving dishes. You have no idea, really, why you suddenly crave these things, why suddenly they seem so important and even necessary, when in the past, any tendency of yours towards greed found its focus in your growing collection of books. All you know is that you fear going unequipped into this new state of life. You feel as if you need some kind of armour. It seems so easy for your customers, signing for fifty dollars of drinks without blinking an eye, ordering more for their friends, coming in day after day and signing their room numbers with a flourish. You can’t imagine such ease, such largesse. Someday, you hope, instead of scrimping and saving and worrying about your future, you’ll be able to do the same. You can hardly wait.
For years after your final service job, you dream about waiting tables. Sometimes, in these dreams, you’re at the pool, but sometimes you’re back at the pizza place or running down the stairs at the oyster bar. The kitchen is slow and the customers complain; they tell the manager you’re useless and rude. Tables are turning over every five minutes and there’s not a way in the world you can keep up. Somebody pinches your butt. The fire alarm goes off while you’re standing directly under the bell. You forget a customer’s order and he starts screaming at you. You get to the restaurant and discover that you are supposed to work a double shift but you have a paper due. Your uniform is filthy and wrinkled. The schedule’s been changed and your boss is on the phone demanding to know where you are. You pick up another server’s orders by mistake and the chef throws a pan at you. You’ve forgotten to charge for half the meal and now you’ll be responsible. You get to your section and realize that you don’t recognize a single person there and you have no idea what any of them ordered. You can’t make the bills add up. When you cash out, you are hundreds of dollars short and you will have to pay.
When do those dreams about waiting begin to fade? When do you cease to be always alert, always on guard, always dancing attendance? When do you stop expecting others to pay you back for every favour? When do you begin to imagine a way of being in the world that involves walking forward with deliberation instead of rushing around in senseless circles? When do you give up on the idea that your only purpose in life is to satisfy other people’s desires? When do you stop to consider the meaning of your own?
Sense of adventure
Distrust of authority
Serves you right.