I haven’t waited tables in over 20 years, but I still get the nightmares.
It usually goes something like this. I show up for work a few minutes early. The hostess greets me at the door. “I just double-seated you,” she says. Wonderful. So I haul ass, get my apron on, clock in, and by the time I get to the first table – they’ve already been waiting on me for five minutes – I see the hostess plopping yet another table down in my section. By the time I get back to table one with their drink order a fourth, and sometimes a fifth, table has been seated. I appear to have an entire section of the restaurant to myself tonight, a section that would normally be manned by three or four of us. And it just keeps snowballing.
If I’m lucky, at some point I wake up enough to realize that it’s just a bad dream, and from there I can usually calm myself enough to get back to sleep. If I’m not lucky I don’t wake up until morning, when I’m as mentally exhausted as if I had just worked the shift I was dreaming about.
Most former waiters and waitresses I know endure the nightmares, no matter how long they’ve been out of the restaurant industry. Theirs will differ according to the details of their particular jobs, of course, but the next panic is never further away than bedtime, especially if they had the pleasure of working in a place like I did.
I had another one last week. It was a little different than most, in that it wasn’t set in the usual spot (the now-defunct Darryl’s 1913 at North Point in Winston-Salem, NC). This one was more creatively cast. You know how you have those weird-ass dreams where one place morphs into another and people you know closely are somehow merged with people you hated from high school, and the lot of them are doing things that make no feckin’ sense whatsoever? Right. It was one of those, and I was the waiter. Talk about being happy to wake up.
The next night we went out to dinner with my sister-in-law and her husband, and we wound up at Rock Bottom. At one point we noticed that our waitress had gone AWOL and I asked if anybody had seen her. My wife said “I think they just seated her three tables at once.” Which instantly made me hate hostesses all over again. In my experience you don’t have to be the daughter of Satan to do the job, but it doesn’t hurt anything, either. Most restaurants seem to value looks over brains, so if you’d like to think of hostesses as the cheerleaders of the food industry, there’s nothing I can really do to stop you.
Which reminded me of the night before, so I explained to everybody about waiter nightmares. I don’t think most non-waiters know about this, so it struck them as a little strange and as the sort of thing they were glad they weren’t afflicted with.
Eventually the waitress comes back by and apologizes for disappearing. I asked, “did they just triple-seat you?” She said no, it was actually four tables. In a just world that would be a valid and sufficient defense for homicide (sort of like “he needed killin'” is in Texas). I muttered something about hostesses, I think. I then asked if she ever got waiter nightmares. “Oh yeah – I just had one last night,” she said.
Sometimes I almost feel guilty about making my servers do their jobs, because I know what the job is like. Every person you work with, from managers and hostesses to kitchen staff and bartenders, can cost you money. The food is late, the drink order is wrong, the service is slow because you just got seated eight wedding parties at once, no matter what it is, you’re the face of the failure and when it comes time for the tip, people who haven’t done the job don’t always realize that it wasn’t the waiter’s fault. Food was cold – there goes a couple percent. Over time, that can really add up.
You’re probably hoping I’m working up to a point, and I am. The people who serve you – and I have no doubt that people in other industries (like retail, for instance) probably have their own nightmares – are usually working their asses off for very little money and even less professional satisfaction. In many cases, you’re part of something they will literally be having nightmares about decades later.
Smile. Be understanding. Tread lightly. And tip generously (that means 18% or more unless the server was actually guilty of something significant).
You may be doing more good than you’ll ever know.