This Is Us

Front of the House

Lessons from a season of table service

I told a lie to get the job. It was 1981 and I said I was 18, old enough to legally serve alcohol. I was 17. I needed cash and something to fill the time that wasn’t school or the bad boyfriend. My place of employment — my first real job — was a mid-range French restaurant on the fringes of Washington, D.C. For a few years, while in college, I worked six days a week, serving lunch, dinner, and private parties. The experience started with a lie and ended up being a richer education than I found in those classrooms.

For service, the waitresses (all girls, the boys in the kitchen or bussing tables) transformed into a small identical army, with our hair pinned up, wearing black skirts, white tops, and Capezios. The black Mary Janes with the smart stacked heel made me feel like a French dancer. We were allowed no jewelry and little makeup. No personality. Pre-service, however, we all crashed in with personality to spare, bringing our noise and color with us.

Elizabeth was an opera singer. She swept in with wide swing skirts, dragging bags of perfume samples and hard candies, trilling bits of arias. She dated a swashbuckling Argentinian three times her age who said he was royal in his country and unable to sustain an erection due to a bullfighting accident. I saw her once in his topless car near the National Cathedral, a long scarf trailing behind. Platinum hair, red lips, starlet sunglasses — she waggled her fingers at me and laughed. The memory makes me think of Gertrude Stein’s comment on Isadora Duncan’s famous end: “Affectations can be dangerous.” Elizabeth was a walking affectation. She believed him about the bull.

Sylvie would arrive late, breathtakingly beautiful, pissed off and out of breath, her mane of dark hair driving us all wild with envy. She would impatiently drag a brush through the tangle and yank it into a messy bun straight out of a Renaissance painting. I went to bars with her after hours and men would flirt with me, only to eventually ask if I’d introduce them to my friend. She had no use for any of them. Baby drinkers, we’d order Brandy Alexanders, White Russians, or Dubonnet on the rocks, spending our tips on sickening sweet pretend sophistication. It was delicious.

There was neat and practical Martha, who would arrive with her own ketchup couplers to consolidate condiments for lunch service. Martha’s little sister, Jane, with her hip-length hair and broad girl-next-door smile. I went to a party at Jane’s house and remember nothing about it but the avocado fridge and red Solo cups. Carla, the volatile redhead, and Robin, the promiscuous hippie. Evelyn was in her seventies and had worked lunch service forever. She chain-smoked between shifts, hanging around the tiny back bar teaching me to mix cocktails and answering all our questions. Agnes, even older than Evelyn, remained as a charity case of the owner. Very slow and slightly batty, Agnes had her regulars who loved her and we gladly covered for her otherwise.

Alice was an actress, hyper and theatrical, an excellent and beloved waitress. She was a decade older than me, married to a professor. We went to her apartment after work to eat giant hard pretzels and drink very dark beer, slicing bits of Vermont cheddar from a great white wheel and talking about books. I felt very grown-up there. Marylou was kind and quiet, with a wicked wit. I pegged her immediately as best friend material. We went to Mexico together, my first real vacation, paid for with my first credit card and ruined by my first boyfriend, the bad one. It’s a long story.

I had a crush on one of the chefs, a sweet smart Irishman who never looked my way. Never, not even after work when we were all drinking in loud, smoky bars and I was shooting teen dream eyes at him. José, a gentle, studious boy from Mexico, was the best busboy and fixed everything for all of us. There was a Guatemalan dishwasher, younger than me, who would walk his eyes all over my body and whisper Spanish nothings. I laughed at him and he blanched. He was somehow not threatening, a harmless boy, and showed me kindness on occasion. My boyfriend was more of a threat.

The owner, Michel, was a tiny dapper Frenchman with an accent so thick I had to struggle to understand. He was prone to unpredictable, explosive fits of temper and would drag his arm down the long steel service shelf, the whole length of the kitchen. Plates and pots and food went crashing to the tiled floors and we’d scatter like mice. If it was pre-service, we’d hide in Elizabeth’s hostess closet and try her perfumes. Elizabeth was always trying to beautify her tribe.

The space was made of old brocade and fust, faded gold and burgundy, worn carpets and windows fogged with the breath of decades. It smelled of garlic snails and brandy fires, with notes of cigarettes and dead bugs. I imagine now that music — mid-century instrumental kitsch — was piped into the dining room, but is that true? Memory is fickle. We hustled through the bright rooms, navigating close tables and the din of chatty diners. I was sometimes given large private parties upstairs, in a blank high-lit room that was draped and gussied like an old aunt dragged to the party. It was chilly and more depressing than the gaudy gold-lit warmth downstairs, but I made more money up there. I was in charge up there.

The food was mid-century French flirting with Americans. Lots of baguettes and béarnaise, Duck à l’Orange, Boeuf Bourguignon, Coquille Saint-Jacques. I spilled scalding French Onion soup on my forearm, racing to keep up with the lunch crush. Someone drove me to the emergency room, my burned arm hanging out the window in the hot summer sun. It was agony. Cockroaches would rain down on our heads when we reached up for the bread baskets. As servers, we were limited in our meal choices. Someone observed that I only ate white food — bread, Lorette potatoes, cheese, ice cream. I did eat salad, and dragged my bread around in monkey dishes of green béarnaise, but there was truth in it. I ate a lot of white food.

Many of the customers were regulars. There was a kind Chinese man who came in only for lunch, always alone, and solemnly gifted me a beautiful gold coin on his final visit. He never said why it was his last. I still have the coin. The “duck people,” a couple who smoked and said nothing to one another, staring at separate points in the distance, came in every Wednesday night. After hearing the specials and slowly perusing the menu, one would inevitably say, “We’ll just have the duck.” Every Wednesday.

There was a middle-aged man with crazy hair and crazier eyes who came in frequently with his ancient mother and became increasingly obsessed with me, grabbing my hands and staring like Jack Torrance in The Shining. Once, he said that he had seen me sitting on his windowsill the previous night, winged and tiny as a fairy. He chased me into the kitchen where Michel shielded me, telling the man to never harass his waitresses again.

“The nukes,” a cadre of suits from the nearby Nuclear Regulatory Commission, came every day for lunch and many martinis. They stayed a few loud and leisurely hours, as if every weekday noon was a party. It was a challenge to serve them, given the No Nukes shirt stuffed in my bag. I hated their loud red faces and all that they signified in my budding activist imagination. We’d watch them stagger out in the afternoon, drunk and disheveled, back to regulate the unregulatable.

During lunch service, a woman left a tip on the table and, after she left, her husband dipped back in and took all but one dollar. Alice — strong, straight, wired Alice — grabbed that dollar and ran out into the street after him. “Sir, you forgot this!” She waved it high in the air and gave it back to him with a big smile, as he stood gape-mouthed and furious. When he got home, he called Michel to complain and was told to respect the waitresses or not come back. I grew to love my tiny, tempestuous boss.

I learned about food in that place. It wasn’t always great, but it was all new to me. I learned to smash a garlic clove into oil and vinegar for my salad, and that béarnaise is sublime. Evelyn taught me to bartend, and I was quickly competent with Manhattans, Rob Roys, and Martinis. The Old-fashioned was a favorite, allowing me to muddle and zest, my new secret language. I learned that “give me a light” can mean light my plate on fire, not hand me a light beer. An embarrassing lesson in a Friday-night rush.

I learned about people. The way privilege encourages them to take up more space, to pinch your space and sometimes your ass. The way they sort themselves, when being served, into the gracious and the graceless. The way they can help you, and hurt you. I spilled red wine on a woman in a white dress and she was only kind. I remember her still, just as I remember the chilling encounter with the madman, hiding behind a tiny Frenchman. I learned that food service workers leave the best tips, and the rich leave the worst. I learned that a fiery temper isn’t always the whole truth, and that cartoon boys don’t always mean it. Everyone is hungry, but many aren’t happy.

And I learned about myself. I learned how much I could learn, and how quickly. How much I could carry and when to put it down. I learned how it feels to be trusted and relied on, and what a relief it is to rely on others. Service is a gift you give and, if the served are receptive and grateful, it feels good and becomes a gift that you get. It feels like real work. Hard work, sometimes thankless work, but good real work, connecting through our shared hunger.

Write it down.

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