If you’ve ever woken up in a cold sweat realizing you forgot to bring mustard to table 3B, you may have waited tables. If you’ve ever paid for your own birth control pills with a roll of nickels, you may have waited tables. If you can read faces, memorize legal documents, calculate complex equations in your head, juggle time management for a small empire, run in heels and make the happiness of others your number one priority, you have definitely waited tables.
My first job at the age of 16—beyond my mother’s metaphorical apron strings—was as a Waffle House waitress. I had been in my mother’s employ for some time but she’d gotten the idea that my “attitude” might be improved by working for someone else. She was right. The summer after my junior year I was hired by an actual man named Bubba and even though he’d be busted and fired on drug related charges before the summer was out, I was to learn a lot under his care. For example, almost immediately I learned that it’s possible to smoke through a tracheotomy while frying eggs and flipping bacon, that themed juke boxes are the second cousins of water torture and that you can actually wear a bonnet and an apron at the same time without dying of eternal shame.
As the months passed surrounded by that smoky orange, yellow and brown décor, I learned some other stuff, too. I’m now of the opinion that just as nursing students are required to attend AA, sociologists, anthropologists and students of the mental health field should be required to work in food service. Because nowhere is the truth of human nature more apparent than between a fork and its mouth. Serving people from every walk of life—or at least those willing to eat potatoes that have been smothered, covered and chunked—I learned how to make small talk, big talk and when to hold my tongue. I learned how to keep my head above water even when it felt like I was drowning in the weeds, what it meant to serve and the importance of withholding judgment—at least until after dessert. And, as an aspiring writer, I learned how to pay attention to detail, that what I remembered and what I said mattered and how to get by on what I could bring home each day
My next stints waiting tables were with the aid of a liberal arts degree—on a dude ranch in Colorado, at a five star resort in Arkansas, on a cruise ship in Alaska and then, lastly, at a small tavern within walking distance of my own house back home. Each was a continued education in communication skills, life lessons, gratitude and humility. And when I finally met my future husband I was relieved to discover that he passed muster: he’d waited tables at Pizza Hut on
Jeff Davis Highway during Little League season. And I have no
greater respect than for anyone who could survive that.
It’s been a long time since I’ve worn an apron, bonnet, tuxedo, cowgirl hat or life preserver but every time someone brings me hot coffee or a plate full of dinner, I know I will never forget what it felt like when the tables were turned.