Where I write

Where I write

June 16, 2011

An Expert In More than One Area

This photo was taken the same year I began working as a waitress. I was at a restaurant in the suburbs of Chicago, near my house, celebrating my birthday.  The restaurant was called The Living Room or maybe it was called The Den. I know the place wasn't called The Bedroom, but it was dark enough, with candles and men and women drinking martinis in the middle of the day.  It had dark red walls and dark wood furniture, thick carpet. Upstairs was the dining area, where this photo was shot, and downstairs was a lounge which stayed upon on the weekends until 4 a.m. The drinking age in Illinois was 21, but I was still a few years away. Because I was with my mother, her girlfriends, and their daughters celebrating my birthday,  no questions were asked when I ordered the tall screwdriver you see in front of me, or the champagne being poured into my glass by the restaurant owner in his 1970s era suit and tie. Though it was a perfect place for an illicit affair, it was also a respectable enough place where mothers and daughters had lunch while their husbands were in the big city of Chicago working.

I look at this photo and think I would have also ordered a shot of tequila, maybe three, if I had known how many waitress job I would have from then until now. I started working as a waitress when I was 18. I was reading today that people who get rich are "an expert in at least one area". Being an expert in restaurants has not gotten me rich. I am an expert. I don't say that about much, but I feel I have the right to say it about restaurants. I have to laugh when people say "I worked at a restaurant during college." Or, "I worked at a restaurant when I was first married." Sure. But that was a brief interlude,  an in between job, before their real lives came along, before children, careers, important stuff.  Working in restaurants has taken up a large chunk of my life. And that's hard to admit. I feel some shame around that, as if I should been smarter, brighter, more savvy with my life than just "a waitress."
So what makes me an expert?
I've worked as a server/bartender, first in Chicago, then in Denver, and now in Phoenix. I've served in strip clubs, rock roll clubs, country western bars, fine dining, country clubs,  coffee shops, pizza pubs, hamburger joints, hotel restaurant and a comedy club. To name just a few.  At one restaurant the owner decided not to pay his taxes. One day I came to work and the doors were barred. I should have known when his pay checks kept bouncing.  One of my first jobs, at a Italian restaurant, was for a kind and generous man with ties to the mafia in Denver. I served cocktails for the welcome home from prison party thrown for his brother in-law. I think it had to do with money laundering. Anyway, he seemed like a nice old guy, but what did I know. I was 20 years old, pretending to be 21, so I could  serve liquor. I worked for a father and son who were compulsive gamblers. They were always on the phone and that's before cell phones. I've sat after hours, long after last call, after we herded out everyone from the bar, and sat and laughed and drank with the owner and cooks and the serving staff until the light of day peeked through the drawn curtains, only to go home, sleep all day, and then do it all over again. And I wonder why I have wrinkles.

I helped open a restaurant in a fancy hotel in Phoenix and a neighborhood joint owned by a bipolar drunk.  I've worked for good guys and bad guys, corporate and independent. I've worked for chefs who did lines of cocaine in between cooking. That guy, Mike, always had a runny nose. I've worked for talented chefs who could make even the most mundane dish taste amazing and for chefs who might have a fancy title "executive" but didn't even like to get behind the line and cook, who only knew how to yell and scream at their staff.

And so when I work now with people not much older than I was in the photo above and they tell me they have been in the business "for a long time" I have to smile. If I could, I'd like to sit down with that young girl in the photo and tell her to really consider the choices she makes with her life. Not that I regret the many many restaurant jobs I have. The jobs have kept me afloat through lean years, something I could return to in the in-between times. Oh sure I've had "real jobs" but when people ask me what I'm doing right NOW it doesn't matter if I say I have a journalism degree, was a newspaper reporter, a freelance writer, a teacher. What are you doing now, they ask. I admit I get embarrassed.

So I am a waitress, but I also can write. Maybe being an expert in two areas will be my saving grace.


Rita A. said...

Being a waitress is a big part of who you are...and where else could you get stories like that? You make a difference wherever you go and that's what is important.

Anonymous said...

LOVE your blog! Found you through C.B. Wentworth's Blog and I've added you to my blogroll so I can follow what you write. Thanks!

SunsetCindi said...

You are an expert writer and an expert in lifting people up. Not everyone can wait on people, (look at the schmuck we just had tonight!) It is a gift to be able to serve with a smile when your knees are aching and life is throwing you curveballs. Yet you go on and make people happy, enjoying their time out. There's no shame in what you do, you are an expert.