Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Better at Being Me

I haven’t written here in a while.

(Thank you to the handful of people who have messaged me to make sure I’m okay and to say you miss me. I promise to show up more.)

It’s not that I haven’t been writing, however. I’ve actually been writing a lot. Just not here. I’ve jumped with both feet into the world of freelancing. People are actually willing to pay real money for my words.

I know! I was shocked, too!

In fact, this writing gig pays well enough that I’m now doing it full time.

Last Friday, I said good-bye to what many people have considered my “real” job.

On the Square has been like a second family (although a highly dysfunctional one). I’ve been there for almost a decade, and I am eternally grateful to Stephen and Inez for letting me be a small part of something really awesome. Working at this restaurant opened up a whole new world of food and wine I never would have experienced otherwise. Where else would this redneck Southern girl have had the chance to try foie gras and uni (that’s fattened goose liver and sea urchin for the unrefined) or sip Bordeaux that cost more than her first car? (But just the one sip that was left in the bottle... and only after the customers left.)

There is no argument the experiences of wine and food are things I will never forget. However, the restaurant business isn’t all exotic eats and interesting spirits. Working in customer service will slowly suck the life from your soul.

It is draining to witness the worst of human behavior shift after shift.

It is draining to be grabbed, pushed, pulled, and even slapped while you smile and pacify and pretend that all's right with the world.

It is draining to have rich male customers proposition you right in front of their wives.

It is draining to overhear a prominent lawyer brag about shooting people with a pellet gun on the other side of the Princeville bridge. Just to see them dive in the ditches. Just for fun. But only in his younger years.

It is draining when someone calls your black male co-worker “Kunte Kinte.” To his face. Because he thinks it's funny and he can.

It is draining to listen to drunk men claim women are only good for sexual pleasure.

It is draining to deal with customers who complain about poor service, especially when you’re doing everything you possibly can. Like when those customers just watched EMS attend someone who suffered a heart attack in the dining room.

“Gee, Karen! I don’t know why your wine glass is empty. Maybe it's because I didn’t want to step over the elderly gentleman fighting for his life on the floor.”

The ugliness of humanity often dresses itself up and heads out for a nice dinner.

And while most customers are happy, polite, and pleasant (special shout-out to Frank and Dana!), it is the rough ones that stick with you long after you clock out and head home.

Each night before my shift started, I would grab a styrofoam cup and fill it with ice and water (or Coke if I needed caffeination. Which was often). On any given night, there would be half a dozen styrofoam cups in the server station, all lined up like soldiers, conveniently placed for the staff to grab quick sips between taking orders, silvering tables, and running food.

Most of those cups would have scribbled names or initials on the side, so we could easily tell them apart in the rush and bustle of trying to make people happy.

No one wants to accidentally take a swig of unsweet tea when they are expecting something else. Actually, I don’t know why anyone would want to take a swig of unsweet tea.

Every night I worked, I wrote a different name on my cup. Some nights I would be Helen or Jessica or Kristen. Some weekends I followed a theme. I might masquerade as dead queens of England and be Anne, Mary, and Catherine. Other times I would scrawl a string of literary heroines and be Hermione, Katniss, and Jean Lousie for the weekend. I was never the same person twice.

It started as a joke. One night, I was serving a large group of old women (probably about 20 of them) with perfectly coiffed hair, all carrying garish handbags and wafting floral perfume. The group consisted of members of the local Garden Club and their guests, all in town to learn how to properly trim their hydrangeas and complain about their neighbor’s yards.

The woman in charge of the event  approached me with special instructions concerning their bill, time constraints, drinks and appetizers, etc. I filled her in on how I would take orders and split the ticket. I told her not to worry about anything, that I would make sure they enjoyed their outing.

At the end of our conversation, she smiled. ”I know you’re going to take great care of us. What’s your name?”

I smiled and told her, “Alice.”

She immediately turned to the group of women and introduced me, ”All right, Ladies. This is Jennifer. She’s going to be taking care of us this evening.”

I didn’t correct her, because it wasn’t worth it. It was much easier to just be Jennifer, especially if that’s who she wanted me to be. Most customers don’t care one iota about who is serving them, so long as their drinks are cold and their food is hot. Most look right through us as if we are completely invisible. They don’t realize we have homes and families and lives outside of pouring wine and properly placing their bread plates. They don’t understand how we smile and act like they are the most important people in the world, even when we have sick children at home... or our father died just last week.

I never wrote “Alice” on my cup because it was easier to pretend to be someone else. It hurts less when someone treats you like you aren’t really a person. Someone whose ass can be grabbed when the customer had too much to drink. Someone who can be cussed out because a salad was too small or the steak too rare. Someone they can write bad Yelp reviews about if my smile isn’t wide enough or doesn’t quite reach my eyes.

If I wasn’t Alice, it didn’t matter as much. Then, if they snapped their fingers at me or slapped my hand as I reached for a near-empty glass, they weren’t demeaning me. It was just Jennifer. Or Melissa. Or Julie. Or whichever name was written on my cup that night.

The moral of the story here is treat your servers better. Although it’s easy to look right through them, they are actually human beings with lives and families, hurt and heartache, hopes and dreams.

And now I am following mine.

If you’re interested, you can keep up with my writing at AliceJonesWebb.com. Just a heads up, as a professional writer, I specialize in shooting, hunting, and outdoor skills. Which is a far cry different from expensive wine, proper serving etiquette, and smiling when you don’t feel like it.

I know it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s mine.

This cup has my name on it, and the tea is most definitely sweet.

I’m really much better at being me. Much better than I am at pretending to be someone else.
I got the corner office!
(And the cup has my name on it.)

No comments: