Last night I had a work dream. Like most of my work dreams, it did not involve my current employer, but, instead, centered around working in a restaurant.
Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant knows what I am talking about. The dreams where you can’t bus tables fast enough to meet the demand, where you are double-triple-quadruple sat and can’t reach your tables in a timely manner, where you are taking orders at a table that spans an eternity… The list goes on and on. I, once, even dreamt that I was working a special event in the restaurant’s party room which just happened to be in the sanctuary of my church.
These dreams are always nightmares. I wake up in a panic like I’ve forgotten to do something: forgotten to bring that iced tea over to table 106, forgotten to greet a table, forgotten to throw myself off of the roof deck of my restaurant before one more person comically mimes signing a check in midair with an exaggerated nod and ginormous air-pen.
These dreams make sense, I guess. I did work in the restaurant industry from the ripe age of fourteen until I was twenty-seven. Thirteen years of experience, if you’re counting. And I have… I have counted every single one of those years, even the brief stints of non-restaurant work that fell somewhere near the end as I graduated to “real world” jobs. Regardless, thirteen years of restaurant experience is a lot, one that, I believe, allows me to form an opinion on the industry as a whole.
“Eats your soul” comes to mind. “Akin to being pushed down a flight of steps and then having to say ‘thank you’ to your attacker” is another.
You think I’m exaggerating? Clearly, you’ve never worked a brunch shift.
In my thirteen years of experience, I have been grabbed at, arms, legs, ass, whatever the guy wanted. I had a drunk patron take the scarf I was wearing and tighten it around my neck (my worst fear) because he wanted to talk to me and I had to get back to the host stand. I’ve been commanded to “take off my top” during a shift and, when I complained to the general manager about it, ended up still having to serve the pervert businessmen for the next forty-five minutes. I was screamed at until I cried because a ketchup bottle fell and cracked, splattering on some guy’s shoes, shoes he claimed that were worth more than my “pathetic life.”
In addition to the objectification, I was also ignored, typically by women. I was not looked at, disregarded, shooed away, made to feel less than human, which is sometimes worse than the groping and sexualization of a person in an apron and jeans with beer spilled down one leg and tartar sauce down the other.
But what’s worse than all of this is the attachment to money it brought into my life. The feeling of worth that was tied to the amount I had been tipped. How a small black line could destroy me or bring me one step closer to paying off my medical bills.
One person at my hometown country club used to put several twenties on the table at the start of the meal.
“That’s your tip,” he would say. “Get me everything I need and it’s all yours.”
What he didn’t say was, “Piss me off, irritate me, or don’t answer my every whim, and I will take the money away. One by one.” Which is exactly what he did.
There I was, at the age of seventeen, trying to figure out why this guy was pulling “my” money away from me, what I had done to anger him, what was wrong with me that I couldn’t keep the money that belonged to me. What’s worse is that I learned that being subservient pleased him and allowed me to keep my money.
Another such instance at the same location included a man who regularly sexually assaulted the female servers and bartenders, sticking his golf club into their crotches while they worked, sticking hands down their uniforms if he cornered them alone, or, as in the case of me, told me I was the reason men got in trouble for statutory rape.
He was one of the wealthiest men in the county and used to hand the girls and women who worked there $100 bills upon entering. Sometimes upon leaving too, if you looked extra pretty that night. So many of the women remained silent, permitted the abuse to happen.
When I complained about him, the general manager told me I couldn’t file a complaint. He had just bought the club a brand new $1000 cappuccino maker.
I didn’t receive any $100 bills after that.
Keep your head down, allow the abuse, and you can pay for gas was the lesson I learned that carried me through all of the other restaurants I worked at.
This is not to say that being a host, food runner, waitress, and service manager didn’t support me, because it did. I tended to make good, albeit very inconsistent, money. A fourteen hour shift could garner $500 or $95, you never knew how to guess. A lunch shift could bring in $100 or $15. There were even a handful of $0 days.
But the thing I hated most was how I learned to place value on myself and on my patrons based on the amount they tipped. Over those thirteen years, I became surly, self-conscious, ageist, sexist, racist. Sometimes I was all of those things in one shift!
I didn’t like who I was when I waitressed. Didn’t like anyone else while I waitressed, either. I was the exact opposite of who I was supposed to be and that resulted in more anger and frustration directed at myself, which then spilled over into the patrons who didn’t tip enough or showed up at 11:59 when we closed at midnight. A never-ending cycle of anger and hatred.
So, when I hear that many restaurants are moving towards a no-tipping policy, I have to say I support the move. Joe’s Crab Shack is the first, national chain to try out the policy, while smaller restaurants have been flirting with the model in cities like Philly (GIRARD, William Street Common) and New York (Union Square Hospitality Group).
Do I agree with it? Yes! Do I wish it could end the problem with disrespect and objectification of food service personnel? Of course! Do I hope that this will end the cycle of racism/ageism/sexism/abuse? Dear, God, please!
Will it? Probably not. Removing that dotted line from your receipt won’t change that – These issues lie within us to change.