September 2008 Issue
Reflections on years spent waiting.
Overfilled squirt bottles sloshed around in a pool of barbecue sauce at the bottom of my bus tub. With each stair I climbed, the bottles slammed into one other and bounced back to their respective corners, sumo-wrestler-style, spraying sauce like sweat in every direction. It was 10 a.m. on the Sunday before Memorial Day in 2001, just over a year after I graduated from college. My uniform, a pair of dark jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with a pig, was already dirty — and I still had at least 12 hours to go.
That morning, the overwhelming smell of barbecue sauce made me nauseous, although it could have been my gut telling me to run. Whiskey’s Smokehouse in Boston was the kind of restaurant where college-age kids from area universities converged for cheap drinks and to play with the lobster tank, which, in most respectable places, would be an issue. Here, however, the practice was encouraged in true carnival style, complete with a coin slot, a claw and a sign that promised to prepare any captured lobster to the customer’s liking. By the end of that shift, I was covered with sweat, grease, drawn butter and yes — more barbecue sauce. I quit the next day, my stint as a smokehouse girl having lasted just under two weeks.
It wasn’t my first restaurant job, nor would it be my last, but it stuck with me the longest. It was a good two years before I ate barbecue sauce again, and even now, I use it sparingly.
Restaurant work is not for the faint of heart — or stomach. I learned that at 16, when I could still recover quickly from hours on my feet.
Back then, I watched lobsters carried off in a more dignified manner at Red Lobster in the suburbs of Cincinnati. I was a hostess/busser (not a server), but I still got my hands dirty and my pride trampled. That job ended just before my second semester of college, after I spent a snowy Christmas Eve huddled in a refrigerated shrimp truck on the busy intersection of Montgomery and Galbraith roads, doling out party trays to rosy-cheeked customers. Clad in thin black pants, a button-down shirt and a tie with James Dean’s likeness on it (the only part of the uniform we could choose), I was far from warm.
That night, infused with holiday spirit, the customers who normally cajoled me into seating them at better tables were the same people who bought me steaming cups of hot chocolate and blankets from their trunks. Still, I decided that I wouldn’t return in the summer. With a steady work-study job in Syracuse and a magazine journalism degree in my future, I figured my time in the industry was over.
Instead, it marked the beginning of nearly a decade of restaurant jobs in three cities.
I would love to say that my stint as a server ended when I was still young enough to get out of restaurants unscathed; before the world-weary lifers I saw in various dining rooms became my own image in the mirror, staring back at me as I got ready for work each day. It was easy to blame the circumstances: a lack of local journalism jobs or entry-level salaries on par with what I made in tips. I threw out these excuses to family and friends, up-selling them in the same way I convinced people to order salads and desserts at work. I still wanted to be a writer and an editor, but I didn’t want to sacrifice the good pay and great hours that I had grown to appreciate. Instead, I haphazardly applied for positions, blaming my lack of motivation on the long days on my feet.
I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a writer. But somehow, I also knew that writing alone doesn’t always pay the bills. When I was little, my aunt served at a diner that I loved, and from a child’s perspective, the job looked fun. For a brief period of time that predicted years of my future, I said that I wanted to be both a writer and a waitress. And for many years, I was just a waitress.
There’s a lot to love about the industry: flexible hours and time off, benefits (sometimes) and the kind of cash-in-hand that most legit jobs don’t produce. Thanks to my time at fine-dining restaurants — like Ciao Bella in Boston and Trio in Cincinnati — I know my way around a wine list, the subtle difference between béarnaise and hollandaise, and I know that, while it’s no substitute for sea bass, tilapia can be prepared in a remarkable number of ways. Many of the people I worked with are still friends of mine, and I met my husband — a fellow server — at a restaurant, thanks in part to Trio’s relaxed dating policy.
Serving allowed me to enjoy being young, even as I watched my peers eclipse me with raises and promotions. They climbed up corporate ladders while I paced landings, cheering them on from a distance. Friends would call me mid-day to complain about a difficult boss or a new corporate policy against sandals, as I was window shopping through Hyde Park Square or buying groceries at Kroger, long before rush hour started. While other people my age were burning the midnight oil, midnight, to me, meant cocktails and appetizers.
It didn’t stunt my growth entirely, though. As my friends dipped into well-padded savings to fund mortgages, my husband and I combined our wads of singles and got financed for a modest house. When my first car died, I reached into the glove compartment, pulled out $1,000 and handed it over to my mother in exchange for a three-year-old Corolla. Within the next two weeks (and with the help of a few extra shifts), I had the additional $1,000 needed to pay off the rest of her car loan. I may not have been saving for retirement, but I wasn’t broke, either. Even though I spent some on-and-off time living with my parents, I also financed my move to Boston (and the subsequent move back to Cincin-nati) with serving money. And although our deal on the house fell through, I was still serving a year later at Dewey’s Pizza when my husband and I bought our first home in Hyde Park.
Ultimately, it was restaurant work as well that led us to sell that house and move so that my husband could open Dewey’s in the Cleveland area. By then, I was a year out of the industry, and into my first editing job atThe Cincinnati Herald, thanks, in part, to ongoing conversations with the publisher and owner, a regular at Dewey’s in Oakley. While I had received many offers from customers in the past (a position with Aflac Insurance and a sales job at
Radio Shack, to name a few), I was too attached to the money and the hours to leave restaurants for anything other than a journalism job. And after a little more than four years of waiting, I finally got my shot atThe Cincinnati Herald.
Our personal histories shape us in ways that we don’t always notice until much later. I doubt I would have gotten a position at The Cincinnati Herald if I hadn’t worked at Dewey’s, since the company rarely advertised their jobs. And I wouldn’t hold my current position atOhio Magazinewithout that experience, especially since I spent another year serving after moving to Cleveland. But at the time, when I was well out of college and still wearing an apron to work, it was tough to focus on the positives.
It’s been almost two years since I hung up my apron for good. The James Dean tie sits in a drawer with a few others I’ve collected over the years, their stained surfaces a reminder of the strange road I traveled to get here.
The Whiskey’s Smokehouse shirt shares that drawer as well, completing a time capsule that represents my life in three cities and two states. It’s silly to keep them, but to me, these items are on par with high-school yearbooks and notes from old boyfriends: sometimes messy and often unfortunate, but in the end, something to be treasured.