After I had been in Chicago a few years and worked a few (very) odd jobs, I returned to my roots as a waitress. I knew how to wait tables. The first job I ever had in life was waiting tables at the Northside Cafe in Winterset, IA, right up on the town square. As soon as I was fourteen I marched through the cafe’s front door and asked for a job. The concept that I could do things and be paid for them was exciting. Far as I figured, I’d be doing things anyway; why not get paid for it?
Two women, Vicki and Betty, trained me at Northside. “Training me” meant they showed me how to make coffee and how to write out a ticket for the kitchen. That was basically the extent of their guidance. Vicki would’ve shown me how to smoke cigarettes if I asked, but I didn’t. I learned the front of the cafe first; a few months later I was allowed to take a section in the back room where the Lion’s Club had meetings. You could still smoke back then and I emptied a lot of ashtrays when I wasn’t making pot after pot of Folger’s.
I would work myself to death at that place. The Northside was packed on the weekends: farmer’s needed biscuits and gravy at 6am, the pre-church crowd was there from 7-9am, the late-risers came in from 9-noon, and then it was after-church folks and the typical lunch crowd. When the cafe closed at 3pm, we had to sweep, mop, scour, marry (ketchup), and lock it all down. It’s easy to mythologize about the past; the fish we catch get bigger and bigger every time we remember catching them. But my mom and sisters could attest to my exhaustion after a busy weekend at Northside. I’d drag myself through the back door of our house, throw my apron on the dining room table, kick off my sneakers and sink into the couch. I’d pull out my wad of tips and recount them while my feet went “whomp-whomp-whomp” with achiness.
Because good, god-fearin’ waitressin’ was programmed into me early, I never lost the knack. In Chicago, I took a job at a new brunch restaurant called Tweet. (This was pre-Twitter, by at least five years, I’ll have you know.) A friend of a friend recommended me for one of three waiter positions and I got hired. The owner, a brassy (brilliant) businesswoman asked me several questions in the interview but the two I remember were: “What’s your sign?” and “Are you on drugs?” I replied with “Leo” and “No.” My first day would be that weekend.
Chicagoans love their brunch. We love it. I’m sure there will be a brunch tax at some point. For two years of the three I worked there, Tweet was one of the hottest brunch tickets in town. The restaurant was only open on the weekend, which made it exclusive, in a way. The neighborhood around it was fairly crappy at the time (Uptown East), and the food was really, really good. There was also a bar next door where you could drink if you had to wait for a table and everyone had to wait for a table. On our busiest days, a three-hour wait was not that weird. And people did wait that long. (I’m telling you: brunch tax.)
If I had been tired after a day at Northside, I was a dead woman walking after a shift at Tweet. I made a lot more money, though. A lot more. Upwardly mobile white people from Lincoln Park tip better than sixty-year-old men who ride combines most of the day. Who knew?
I was thinking about my life in aprons the past few days as I encountered hotel staff and waiters working through the holiday. I feel you. I don’t work those shifts now, but I did for years. Working on Christmas, say, ain’t that bad — but it’s not that great. Having fun with the people you work with is the best thing for it, so try to do that.
And cheer up. All around you are members of the Secret Order of Former Service Industry Providers. I carry the card, myself, and we’re fantastic tippers.