In one of my favorite movies, Party Girl, entrepreneurial but broke Mary gets some advice from her Aunt Judy: "Why don't you wait tables?"
"I am not a waitress," Mary deadpans, and what cracks me up is that it's more an ideological position than a statement of fact. While I have boxed donuts at dawn and frothed cappuccinos for people who complained to the management if the foam was too low, I have never actually waited tables. Don't misunderstand--I have mad respect for the profession. In fact, it's a tribute to my awe that I've always assumed I would be unable to perform the job. The carrying. The remembering. And the people. Because people are so very annoying, especially when they're hungry.
Recently, though, I played a waitress on stage--a bad one, who yells a lot and forgets to thaw the hamburger meat--but a waitress nonetheless. So maybe it was fated that I should try my hand--both hands, actually, not to mention my biceps--at wielding a tray in real life. If you can call what I did this past weekend "real life," Readers.
My theater group put on a musical called Jacques Brel is Alive and Well And Living in Paris. A brief aside to say that it was all kinds of awesome. I wish I had been in it, but c'est la vie. (I'm revving up the French here, since it will be relevant in a moment.)
I was asked to serve as "house manager," which I have heard is a real thing in theater parlance but for us seems to mean "show up early and we'll give you stuff to do." So when I arrived for the preview on Thursday, I was quite surprised to see the room set up like a nightclub, with little tables and candles and dessert menus. I'm not sure what kind of audience they were expecting that night, but what they got was a handsy couple, me, and an old guy whose cell phone played tinny tunes more or less without interruption until someone suggested he turn it off, which seemed to confound him. We didn't serve anything that night, but I was strangely excited about the boxes of tiramisu in the fridge, especially when I heard I was going to be in charge. I like the idea of being in charge...of anything.
I've been asked to "dress like a waiter" but I don't have a white shirt. I compromise with a black dress with white polka-dots. And high heels. (By Sunday, a table will tease me that "real" waitresses wear flats.) Amazingly, there is an actual staff of volunteers set up in the kitchen, ready to hand off sparkling cider (more than one person will despair at the news no alcohol is allowed in the theater) and brownies. Within minutes, we are a well-oiled machine.
The first thing I learn is that people really dig my shtick. As a bit of a lark (it's a French show, after all) I'm greeting everyone with "Bonsoir! Bienvenue, Monsieur et Madame!" Encouraged by the response, I do it some more. Then I get myself in trouble when one guy spews a stream of French at me and I have to respond, "Yeah, I don't actually speak French. What'll you have?" I soon learn a few things. Thing one: the little pad is not just for show. If I don't write it down, I have completely forgotten everything but my own name by the time I get to the kitchen. Thing two: I am a mean tray-carrier. Even with several bottles and desserts on there, I can lift it over my head, spin it around and do some fan kicks, all without clocking any patrons or spilling a drop of coffee. Whee! Thing three: Cleavage helps. Someone tips me a dollar, and I stuff it in my bra. Where it is very visible. After that, everyone tips me a dollar. Or three. One guy: FIVE. And then there is the elderly gentlemen who calls me back every few minutes and crooks his finger, indicating I should lean into his airspace, and has a lot of questions: "When was the theater built?" "What shows have you been in?" Later, a friend of mine suggests that he might as well have been asking "What color is the sky?" for how much he cares, as opposed to how much he is looking down my shirt.
Then I make My First Big Mistake: I brag to the other waitress, Jill, about my tips. Instantly, she insists that we pool at the end of the night. She indicates the kitchen staff, who are not getting tipped but are still working hard. I sulkily agree, kicking myself for my hubris. And to add insult to injury, Dave, who pays for the theater, takes the entire kitty himself, claiming it will be used for the cast party. Harumph. "I'm not even in the show!" I protest. To quote Alexander from The Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very-Bad Day: "No one even answers."
I have to admit, I'm giddy with excitement to get back to the restaurant, um, I mean the theater. I'm wearing a candy apple red dress that was once a costume, and a frilly "French maid" apron from Jill. Calvin brings me a furry pill box hat from his vast collection of vintage clothing. He thinks it looks ridiculous on me, but I get a lot of compliments. I am in character and ready to rock.
This time, I barely have to smile and nod and they are all about plying me with cash. Which I totally deserve, since the popularity of the show has necessitated the jamming in of more tables, and I have to sashay up and down the stage ramp with the full tray in order to get through. On one pass, a man beckons to me and murmurs "Bend over." When I do, he stuffs a bill into my apron sash. "Merci beaucoup!" I trill, and momentarily wonder why I bothered going to grad school--this lifestyle is way more rewarding. Two gentlemen recognize me from the last show and I wag a finger at them and purr: "That's because I played a WAITRESS in the last show, isn't it?" Everyone I talk to is grinning ear to ear from the wonder of me. I don't spill a drop of coffee or forget so much as a sugar packet the entire evening. I am a Food Service Force To Be Reckoned With. Nothing can dampen my glee until I find out that Calvin got more tips than me, and did it without cleavage. "But he's a professional," David reassures me. "This is your first time, and you've already got 80 percent of his skill." Well, okay.
Truly, I feel like a pro by now. I sail into the theater in my black dress and red lipstick, and am quickly kitted out in my apron and hat. Jill adds a frilly arm garter, and I lament that I'm not wearing fishnets like hers. She says I look classy. Mais oui! I am rarin' to get out there and start raking in the dough. So imagine my chagrin when the Sunday crowd seems immune to my charms. No matter how much French I fling at them, or how many smiles I flash, I'm not making any tips. RIEN. I deflate like a souffle with an open oven door. I grow increasingly incredulous as my gleaming "Mercis!" and "Bon Appetits!" are met with smirks. Quoi le phoque? Maybe this is not the job for me. I become increasingly certain when I ask Jill if she's made any tips and she says "Not one." Then I ask Calvin, whose evil grin tells me that not only has he made money, but he's pleased as punch that I haven't.
An even more disturbing trend is the growing annoying-ness level of the patrons. The previous two nights, everyone has been delighted simply to receive a hot or cold beverage and a square of something sweet on a plate. No questions, no requests, just lots of gratitude, the way I like it. Suddenly, a "Princess and the Pea" attitude is sweeping the theater. One woman points at her brownie and asks: "Is this the CHEESECAKE brownie? Because I can't find any CHEESE." One table calls me back FOUR TIMES for more creamers but still doesn't tip me. And the cake is topped by the gentleman who listens to me recite the creamer flavors and then cocks his head as if considering the theory of relativity:
Man: The French Vanilla...is it very vanilla-y, or just a little?
Me: Ummm...it's vanilla-y.
Man: And the Hazelnut...it's made of freshly-picked nuts with a soupcon of heavy cream and the essence of crushed sequins from Folie Bergeres brassieres?
Me: Most certainly, Monsieur.
Man: Can I get the coffee black?
Me: Bien sur!
Man: Well, why didn't you say that in the first place?
By now, I'm ready to pour French Vanilla creamer into his coif, and I'm having similar sentiments towards most of the room. My high spirits do not return when, at the end of the night, a lady pinches my arm on her way out and inquires if I have received the dollar she left on her table. "Merci beaucoup," I nod with an icy smile, and return to my trash collection. That's my take for the night. One dollar.
I'll be sticking to my day job for now. What do you think, Readers? Do I have a future in the service industry?