It’s been a bit since I’ve revisited my list of crappy jobs; where I last left the topic was at the not-all-that-disillusioning occupation of factory worker. Reflecting upon all the bullshit I’ve endured in life for a paycheck, factory work was something of an inflection point (assuming the axes are shittiness level vs. compensation) – most of the other higher paying jobs had a non-linear increase in the amount of BS to be tolerated. The final three gigs on my list were my (relative) favorites, and are my fallbacks if being a free internet content provider doesn’t ultimately prove to be more lucrative than being a highly paid Wall Street jackass.
In the timeline of my life, I was a waiter in the period between failing out of college (GPA: 0.0) and enlisting in the military. This was a beyond bizarre period for me, as I was having some financial difficulties after I was ignominiously dismissed from my dependable spot in the TBell rotation (a story for another day). And then the sweet-ass 280ZX starting smoking like Evel Knievel’s rocket bike at Snake River canyon. And I didn’t have a clear-cut place to live, sometimes crashing on the couch at my then-GF’s house (much to her parents’ chagrin) and sometimes crashing in the 280ZX. (I would pull into a used car lot that was off the beaten path, luckily was neither raped nor murdered. Although that was probably unlikely in town of 15,000, despite what my mother would’ve had me believe). So I was pretty fucking poor. The opening of literally the nicest restaurant in town was a godsend. Despite a lack of waitering experience, I was motivated, available and had some food service experience that hadn’t resulted in any criminal charges. This was a veritable match made in heaven.
There were a couple of things that I would learn much later in the gig. For one, the chef, a true Cajun from coonass Louisiana (this isn’t racist, though it certainly sounds that way to the untrained ear, that’s what real Acadinia Cajuns called themselves, at least back then) was insane. Literally insane. Luckily, his antics and crazy diatribes prepared me well for a life less ordinary. Much as the whole “yell at me as much as you want, you won’t compare to the shit the Engineer said to me on my boat” carried me through the Wall Street years, the boot camp drill instructors and evil upperclass bastards at the Academy never worried me much after the hell that verbal abuse/hell that Dan* put me through.
There was a pretty steep and painful learning curve at The Cagin Station. It was pretty fun once the kinks were worked out though, as the staff was entirely comprised of Dan/Sue, a bunch of other young guys and of course a couple of hot hostesses. But, man, the other waiters were indefatigable. After a couple of paychecks I moved in with another waiter, who lived in the basement of his girlfriends’ parents house (we kept it all in the family in the south back in the day. Although this arrangement ended after a month when (most likely) my roommate swiped (the then unthinkable sum of) $50 from me.) I was beginning to wonder why my colleagues never, ever went to sleep, and then someone tapped me on the shoulder and said – “um, dumbass, all those motherfuckers are doing coke, didn’t you know that? I think someone is selling it out of the restaurant.”
Now, many of you would probably consider that not that big of a deal, but I went pretty aploplectic and got the fuck out of dodge. I continued working at the restaurant out of necessity until boot camp started, but kept my distance and my force fields were up big-time. Althought I’ve consumed more alcohol than some small European countries in the last twenty years, I’ve always steered clear of the illegal stuff. These days that makes me a bit of an anomoly, but I listened to what Nancy Reagan had to say. And, anyway, I’m basically operating on the outer limits of societal norms with alcohol, why push it? Other than that bullshit, waiting was the perfect gig at the perfect time for me.
*Names have been changed to protect the guilty.
Attire: White shirt, black bow tie, red apron/smock, dark pants. It took me like three hours per day to tie that fucking bow tie. Wait, no, that was a $7 clip-on from Wal-Mart.
Score: 2 (Pretty great actually, and since I wasn’t that near the kitchen, the overriding smell was probably sweat, and since my sweat smells like Drakkar Noir, that was good)
Prevailing Smell/Aroma: Fried alligator (tastes like chicken), fried shrimp wrapped in bacon, pizza subs
Score: 3 (The food here was pretty great. In this era, most meals were under $5 and we had some shit on the menu that was $12 or $16. Led to some most unfortunate tipping situations since inbreeding was still fairly rampant. I recall getting $0.75 on a $40 tab once where the three little kids had all taken dumps under the table and scattered their food in a three foot radius around the table. Also, even though it was a nice play, they still sold pizzas/subs as an artifact of the takeout place it started as. The pizza sub at the Cajun Station was beyond perfection, haven’t had one in the same ballpark since. Inexplicable. Small downward nudge for the disgusting remnants of crayfish though)
Humiliation Factor: In this case it was really a prestige factor – this was the nicest restaurant in town, and we were making some pretty massive stacks. I quickly recognized the need to generate repeat traffic, the people who would ask for you and leave you hefty sums each time. I had the doctor with the RX-7 (he may’ve wanted more than just eater/waiter relationship in hindsight) and the owner of the local throwback movie theater (he was a good dude). They would leave me essentially 100% tips. I was making mad bank.
Dan, though? The owner/cook? He brought the humiliation to a new level for me. I remember on the first day getting tied up with a couple tables (there was line out the fucking door and halfway down the street) and forgetting to submit an order for a couple who were already irate. When I told him what I’d done he let loose a stream of obscenities that I am still ashamed to repeat, at a volume that could not be replicated outside of a Pratt & Whitney’s testing grounds. (No, this isn’t a fucking Hills reference) If I’d had any self respect/other prospects, I would have quit on the spot. Eventually I realized he was bark/bite ratio was extremely high, and his antics largely served to reduce his own stress levels (in some insane way).
Score: 5 (I’m willing to balance out the damage that Dan inflicted with the mad cash I was making and fact that I kept my social standing intact while making the large sums.)
Co-workers/Culture: This was a sitcom-worthy bunch of mother fuckers. A caricature of ethnic owners in the mega-Cajun Dan and *Sue. Eight or so 18-19 year old college dropouts/never-weres who wanted to make some cash and have a good time, not in that order. A couple of pretty hot hostesses that were genuinely hated by all the waiters for perceived snubs in the seating of desirable customers. A financial backer/part-owner that was allegedly on the wrong side of the law at times (but was a seemingly great guy). The whole drug scene that was going on unbeknownst to my naive ass.
Score: 5 (We had some pretty good times, even though we lived in a dry county – “what’s that?” you might ask, if you don’t live in the absolute dead middle of the bible belt? That’s a county that doesn’t allow the sale of alcohol! Dry counties STILL exist! Today! 2009! But we would bend the rules sometimes for private parties and whatnot. I recall, in my innocent days, pinching a drink or two at a X-Mas party and acquiring a completely unwanted case of the spins, complete with the “I’ll never do this again” pleas to a higher power as I sat in a bathtub praying to stave of the vomitus to come. Those coke-upped waiters were very helpful in pinching those seven sips of rum for my never-really-drank-before ass.)
Authority Figures: Dan and Sue were quite the contrast; he was bombastic, mean and insane. His reaction to someone complaining the oysters weren’t fresh? He drank the fucking oyster juice water from the bucket they were stored in. I gagged just watching that show. Sue was mild-mannered and sweet (although apparently if she ever got really mad she would disembowel a motherfucker in a heartbeat – one handy rule of thumb is don’t make a Cajun woman angry). After my rocky early days, I quickly rose to the top of the waiter ranks – I think there was some competitive benefit to my being the only non cokefiend. There was even a tearful goodbye when I finally had to depart for boot camp.
The couple has stayed in the area all these years and have set up shop in a new restaurant in a neighboring town. I went to eat there with a buddy last time I was at the old stomping grounds, fully expecting an emotional reunion with my old bosses and likely a huge meal on the house.
They didn’t recognize me. Even after discussing how I’d worked for them twenty years ago. Blank faces.
Score: 4 (All-in-all, I’d work for Dan again if he was looking for a middle-aged waiter with a depleted work ethic.)
Typical Hours Worked: 30-40.
Score: 8 (This wasn’t arduous work and I don’t really recall the hours adding up in a painful way. I do remember taking my $20-40 in lunchtime tips to the bank every day as I started down the path to responsible adulthood. (I need to revisit that path.) Also, in a pinch we would just snag an uneaten chicken strip as we were clearing tables if hunger struck, so starvation/breaks were never a big issue. Never half-eaten chicken strips though – that’s a violation of the Waiter’s Geneva Convention.)
Education Required: None. A few courses at The School of Hard Knocks and enthusiasm for money a plus.
Score: 2 (This is as it should be, waiting is some Lord of the Flies shit.)
Screaming Obscenities at Top of Lungs Acceptable? Yes – as long as you were in the kitchen. Even if the customers could clearly hear it, whatever happened in the kitchen was a private matter. This mostly applied to Dan as he screamed “goddam stupid ass fuck motherfuck” in your general direction because one of your customers dared order the blackened ribeye medium rare.
Score: 5 (This really prepared me well for several other cursing-friendly “career” paths and is at least partially responsible for my limited vocabulary today.)
Stress Level: Working with a large, and largely volatile, Cajun man involved a tangible amount of risk. A lot of stuff could set him off and it took some time to realize that he wasn’t really going to hit you with a frying pan or neuter you with his paring knife. We were definitely walking on eggshells. Plus it was a good job, there weren’t a lot of fallback options, so you had to put up with some shit.
Score: 7 (Again, this all helped build a solid foundation for my future endeavors.)
Ridiculous Travel Required? None.
Score: 0 (It was like 7 blocks from my $250 month duplex/bachelor paradise. Of course I drove to work.)
What Kind of Dough was Involved? Mad money, son. $2/hr in taxable Uncle Sam dollars, and like $10/hr off the books. (Note to anyone from IRS: I did not engage in any fictional accounting, the numbers cited above reflect the average – my performance in tips was severely below average and resulted in the earned income reflected in my 1040EZ)
Score: 3 (This was like $375/hr in today’s dollars)
I’m certain my fondness for the waiting gig shines through here, as it was perfect for my situation at the time – I needed more money than the $3.45/hour I was getting at The Bell to rectify my “no place to live/car appears to be on fire” situation. And the pizza subs were money. My one disappointment is that I never learned to carry a tray of food over my shoulder, in true old school/gangster style. I used a unorthodox underhanded approach (one hand though, I wasn’t a hostess or anything). But still, waiting tables is an honorable occupation, and allows for significant flexibility (I had another job after we closed the restaurants on weekends at a nascent mobile phone company; my colleagues essentially led two different lives as they never fucking slept at all.)
Verdict? It was pretty sweet.