"Your Main Course Will Be Out In Just A Minute…"

Lots of stuff going on this week, so I don’t have time to post a full-blown entry.  That and I’m just a little lazy and well into “Vacation Mode,” which starts tomorrow.  I’m excited about a spring vacation that will refresh and revive; but I’m also a little worried that by mid-June I’ll be totally fried again and staring straight into five more months of “season” with no possibility of relief, as my vacay days will be gone until next year.

Being in the restaurant business dictates that I work when everyone else is playing and vice-versa.  I have gotten used to going out to dinner on Tuesdays instead of Saturdays, working on every significant holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas; and I kind of enjoy the luxury of never having to wait in line for stuff like going to the movies, because nobody is there for Monday matinees in March.  But because we have a daughter that is in 8th grade, we are subject to taking our  vacations when the school calendar says to.  So it’s Christmas Break, Spring Break, and June-July-August, right when all the people with the “real jobs” are all in line at the Airport Security Checkpoints and on the freeways.  Not fair.  I should get a special lanyard to wear at airports that says “Works Every Weekend and Holiday.  Please Step Aside!”  I should automatically get to be one of those “Cart People” in the airport, whisking by all the losers who actually have to walk to their gate and are forced to jump out of the way when the little golf carts with the flashing yellow light goes beep-beep-beeping past.  “Restaurant Guy!  Coming through!  Get your ass out of the way!  Restaurant Guy!”

I’m not sure if it is a sign of being totally relaxed and ready for vacation, or worrying about what shit will hit the fan at work the minute I buckle into my airline seat next to the single mom with the two screaming kids; but I have been taking some deep-sleeping coma-naps in the afternoons lately, complete with the attendant “Waiter Nightmares”.  Some are from the “Greatest Hits” archives in my brain, some are new.  But they have all been fairly vivid and disturbing.  My fellow blogger, Waiternotes, who has lived the same life as me, but in a parallel universe in Southern California, wrote a couple of blogs on the topic that are hilarious and also frighteningly unnerving in their familiarity.  You can read his posts here, and here, and here.

"Oh my God! Six Hot Teas!!??"

So in the interest of laziness and a general lack of mental stimuli, I am re-posting one of my very first entries, from back in June of ’09, on the Waiter Nightmare topic.  I didn’t have what you might call a huge readership back then so, to my wife and the other three people that have seen this before, my apologies.  To the rest of you out there (and Waiternotes this is especially for you):  Enjoy!

“To Sleep, Perchance To Dream…”

The long hours and high stress of the restaurant business can lead to a lot of things. Drug abuse, failed relationships, and bad eating habits are some of the many side effects of the tense situations we can find ourselves dealing with at work. But, God help us, we love it. I think about Harry Dean Stanton in Repo-Man, looking at a group of civilians emerging from a church on a Sunday morning: “Ordinary fuckin’ people, I hate ‘em. They spend their entire lives avoiding tense situations; Repo-Man spends his life getting INTO intense situations.”

One of the things this life has led me to is a nap. Like most kids, you could not get me to even think about a nap when I was 8. When I turned 30, I lived for them. This was partially due to the late hours I kept, working as a bartender, and all the attendant lifestyle choices we denizens of the bar and club scene made back then.

Naps became an important part of the routine and remain so, but for different reasons now. These days, I usually get home from work around 12:30am, sometimes later, sometimes earlier. After winding down by watching a little TV, I crawl off to bed around 1:30 or so. Several years ago, my wife went over the wall, making her escape from the restaurant world. She now has a “real job”, 8:30 to 5:30. My daughter is in junior high. So if I didn’t get my ass up at 6:45am, I would see them only on my days off. As an investment in my relationships with them, I get up, have some coffee, chat, and when they go off to work/school I do a couple of things (like writing this) and then crawl off for at least an hour’s worth of nap time before I head to work at around 2:00pm.

In my experience, naps need to be either 20 minutes or more than 1 hour; anything in between makes you more tired than if you had stayed awake. Twenty minutes will refresh and revive. Two hours will give you the chance to hit that really deep REM sleep stage. Although you might be groggy and drooling with a wrinkled face when you awake, the long nap gives you that “starting a brand new day” feeling and that can be a pretty good thing. A little more coffee, a shower and I’m out the door.

One side effect of the long nap, however, is the Waiter Nightmare. These are generally disturbing, stressful and always recurring. I have talked to former waiters who have gone on to be doctors, and lawyers, and business executives, and many have had Waiter Nightmares years after they finished their last shift. Maybe subconsciously they are wishing for a return to simpler times. Maybe they long for the adrenaline and go-go-go of a busy restaurant, or the camaraderie. Maybe they are just twisted.

Even though it’s been many years since I worked as a waiter, I still have them. Hell, I still have Kitchen Nightmares. I still have bits and pieces of a recurring Kitchen Nightmare wherein I am a grill cook at a very busy bar and grill in Carmel back in the 80’s. This was in the olden times, before the widespread use of computerized POS systems that print orders in a neat, uniform fashion. Back then it was hand-written checks. Trying to decipher the hastily written scrawl from 10 different waiters was a nightmare in itself; plus the fact that the Guest Checks we used were made of three parts you could tear off. Designed so you could separately order apps, mains, and desserts, all the tags were different sizes: little tiny skinny stubs for the apps, larger squares for mains, and small rectangles for dessert. My dream was usually that I had dozens of plates in the window ready to be picked up and cooling rapidly, but I was always missing one item on a ticket, so nothing could go out. I am frantically looking through the tiny scraps of paper that are my tickets; and as I look down the line asking “Where’s the Chinese Chicken Salad for Table 16?” the hot line is stretching out and away from me like the upstairs hallway in the haunted house in Poltergeist. And no one else is there to help me. Cue the alarm clock!

Lately, though, I have unintentionally began employing a kind of “Directed Dreaming’ technique when I have the occasional Waiter Nightmare. I have somehow developed the ability to realize in my dream-state that even the biggest idiot to work the door at any restaurant, anywhere, would not seat me 10 six-tops in a parking lot with a foot of standing water in it; and that the people at those tables would surely notice something like that. Or that I no longer work at the place I am dreaming about, and that there is no way I would not know the table numbers, or where my station was; and I always wore shoes to work, didn’t I? And I never wore a big bow tie like Dianne Feinstein used to wear. I would also think that if I just ignored some of these tables, maybe they would get up and walk out and be gone by the next time I came by. There was no way I was getting to all of them anyway.

"I know my station is around here somewhere..."

I have worked shifts in my career that were living Waiter Nightmares. Once, while I was a waiter at a very expensive local hotel, I was working a Thanksgiving Day shift. My friend Mitch and I were the waiters assigned to a downstairs banquet room that was set up to take all the large parties that wouldn’t fit in the main room upstairs. On Thanksgiving, it is nothing BUT big parties. Sixes, eights, twelve tops all began appearing in my station. The host/manager would walk these people down the stairs, seat them and disappear. I had a food runner, a back-waiter and the two of us shared a busser; but the computer to ring all our orders into the kitchen was UPSTAIRS. So every time I needed anything from the kitchen or had to run a credit card, there was flight of 22 stairs to be negotiated. I was so busy, I remember at one point thinking, “I know SOMEBODY in my station needs an Iced Tea, but I can’t remember who”.

Hamlet was bat-shit crazy and driven to the brink when he uttered those lines about dreaming. Maybe he used to be a waiter?

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One Response to "Your Main Course Will Be Out In Just A Minute…"

  1. waiternotes says:

    Great stuff! I know it’s corny but, LOL. I actually laughed out loud when you mentioned how the computer was upstairs. A *real* nightmare on a super-busy night.

    Your line about the iced tea actually is the mark of a really good waiter. At least your mind was working, and it remembered you had an iced tea somewhere to deliver. The bad waiters just show up in the room, and then they are actually surprised when a guest reminds them they forgot the iced tea.

    So do tell: I always actually thought Cook/Chef Nightmares would be much worse than Waiter Nightmares. It seemed to me as a cook you were so much more powerless because you couldn’t do anything to control the tide. An order comes, and it’s supposed to be out in x-minutes. A waiter has ways to fudge and massage his/her critical time window. But when a cook hears, ‘Hey, look at the ticket. I fired this 25 minutes ago,’ there’s really no recourse. Don’t get me wrong, I understand how people and systems can get backed up, and I have sympathy for cooks/chefs in that position. But it must be a real bummer that there’s not much they can say.

    Waiters get to blame stuff on everybody and every thing: ‘We cooked your salmon, but when it came out it just wasn’t right. So we’re cooking a new, perfect fillet for you right now. And because we want your dinner to come out properly, we’re cooking a new lobster for you, ma’am.’ Translation: “We” didn’t actually screw up anything. I forgot to fire the order, and it will be ready in about 12 minutes, but in the meantime I’m making up this scenario like we are late with your food because we really care about you.

    In my experience, the only thing a cook can fall back on is saying to the waiter: ‘You screwed up the order.’ For instance, as you mentioned, in bad handwriting on the check, or lack of/misleading modifiers in the computer version.

    Oops! Here I go again. I want to write my own post about this funny situation.

    Again, great stuff, NativeNapkin!

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