Tonight at work, a handful of things clicked for me in a way that was totally humiliating and made me sweat balls for like an hour. This was, like, profound. Bear with me.
Working in the service well downstairs. Basically, a little man hole (affectionately nicknamed “rape cave” and on the bad days “Satan’s asshole”) where all the drinks for the dining room floor are made. There are a few tables near the service well, but generally, zero attention is paid to the bartender behind here. These shifts rock because it’s all just volume bartending of the robotic variety and the only people you have to talk to are the servers. Who I like. Peachy.
Setting up service well and shooting the shit with Dan. Dan’s an Irish dude in his early forties, an experienced and very knowledgeable server, and has two gorgeous half-Korean children with his wife. He’s also got a giant potty mouth. We had this hilarious moment when I first started working when he told me that he once dated a Jenny Chan (my mom’s name) who grew up in Chinatown (like my mom) and we thought for horrifying millisecond that he could be my dad. He likes talking shit and so do I so we get along fantastically.
Anyway- I’m coming up on a year of working at the restaurant, so I’ve been reminiscing on how I felt the first time I walked into the place for an interview. I remember looking around and thinking that everyone was old as fuck. Fresh out of college and then Europe… last thing I wanted to do was work in a restaurant, if it had to be a restaurant, that wasn’t hip and cool and and a laid back place where all my friends could come and play.
HA, a year later, my coworkers, drinking buddies, and roommates are all ten years older than me, and I am constantly humbled by how much life experience and knowledge they all have. I learn from them every day and am reminded that I am a total child. It’s weird and I find myself in an identity crisis sometimes. My friends never come by because they don’t care/can’t afford to. But the people I work with are awesome, making work feel alot less like work every single day. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So we have a new guy come in and Dan asks me if I have any idea who he is. I tell him I introduced myself to him but didn’t really hear what he said because I realized I didn’t really care. Dan goes, “The longer you work here the more I like you.” Because the industry has made me jaded as fuck and on some days I come in fully expecting to be surrounded by idiots, and then, especially then, I speak the language Dan does. This is a recurring theme, and to anyone who works in a restaurant this is not news- service can make you pissy and dismissive and generally unmotivated to invest in new relationships unless you have to or feel like it. We talk about how nice I was a year ago when I started at the front desk as a bubbly hostess, and joke about how restaurant life has destroyed me. Hehe yeah it’s totally true.
OK SO service starts and the new guy is in the hole with me now because someone decided it would be best for him to see what’s going on behind in the service bar. I’m a little annoyed because the bar is already JUST size of my wingspan and having two people in there is hard especially when it’s already HOT AS BALLS and he’s talking A SHITLOAD and now I have to narrate everything I’m doing and he could be an idiot anyway so ughh whyyyyy do I care again???
Ticket comes up for a Chispa Verde (specialty tequila cocktail), and Dan saunters up going, “Chispa Verde is such a fun word to say,’ to which I respond, “Because you’re white,” which he counters with ‘Okay, Lani, I think you’ve hit your limit with the racist comments for the evening’ which I ignore and go back to flipping out all the drinks.
So next thing I know my MANAGER comes up to me with full serious face on and says, “Hey, Lani, table 40 just pulled me aside and said they overheard you making some racially insensitive comments a second ago? I don’t know what you said but maybe dial it back a notch?”
So I start cracking up, but then he doesn’t smile, so I ask him if he’s serious. He goes, “Yes, well they were obviously offended enough to talk to me about it…”
Then I get all flustered and go, “What??! OK. OK. I’m so sorry. Omg. Ok.” Thinking that I’ll go apologize directly to the table whenever I have the chance and that while I didn’t think anything I said was that offensive, the customer is always right, and that’s pretty damn unprofessional, and I’ve become such a fucking salty person recently that they really could have been referring to anything that came out of my mouth within the previous hour, and now I’m awkwardly stammering these things as the new guy is staring at me while I get a wave of forty cocktail orders and find myself in the weeds within three minutes because I’m so embarrassed.
New guy is actually quite experienced and not an idiot and makes me feel better about slipping a faux pas within earshot of a table and helps me pour all my wine while I mix cocktails. At some point when my head is down Dan comes by and says, “Lani you heard you got a complaint?” and I go, “Yeah” without looking up because all I can do is think about how I’m likely going to be written up at my bartending job. For being racist. I let that hang and realize how sad and absurd that is and just start visibly sweating. I guess hot flashes as a stress response are here to stay, cool. Love me some hormones.
Wave of tickets finally subsides and I have a conversation with new guy (whose name is Patrick) about how I have to apologize. Not going to feel better unless I do. But! He reminds me. I can’t just go over there and stand there stuttering because that would just make things way worse. (And that’s totally something I would do.)
I step out from behind the bar, walk up to the table (of five Latinos) and say, “Listen, I understand one of my comments may have offended you earlier. It definitely was not my intention and I sincerely apologize. It won’t happen again.”
The table sort of pauses, nods and says, “It’s okay. It’s not your fault.” YAY ALL BETTER. I go back to my man hole.
Manager Nick comes by and I say, “Nick, again, I’m really sorry. I apologized to them personally. I think it’ll be okay.” Please let this go because it’ll be the most retarded disciplinary write-up ever.
He blinks and goes, “Wait. You went to the table?”
I go, “Um, yes?”
He starts laughing hysterically and I have this stupid realization that he and Dan are just being TOTAL DICKS and didn’t think I’d actually take them seriously. I punch Nick a bunch of times because violence is the answer. He’s having a giggle fit because it’s SO hilarious that table 40 never complained in the first place and therefore had no idea what I was talking about when I came out of the hole and apologized.
I can see the Yelp review now. “We had a great time at Epic last night and the view was to die for. We scored an awesome booth for the five of us and each of our steaks were cooked to perfection. It was a little weird, however, when a delusional Asian chick we hadn’t noticed before appeared at our table during the appetizer course and apologized to us for being racist. It was mildly confusing and perhaps she was special. Other than that, pretty spot-on dinner experience.”
After establishing a safe word for the next time I have a feeling my superiors are just fucking with me, Dan tells me in all seriousness that I have “restored his faith in humanity.” The restaurant hasn’t totally destroyed me! There’s hope in me still.
I’ve thought a lot about this over the last couple of months, about how I’ve reduced the hundreds of human beings that come into the restaurant on a daily basis to simple moving parts that make up my job; the easier it is to make them happy, the better. It’s a constant game of juggling the ongoing hordes of guests with a perpetual ‘turn-and-burn’ mentality that makes serving and bartending go round.
It’s interesting how the nature of the work you do every day changes you. As a writer I used to listen to people. I used to pride myself on my ability to sit down with a total stranger and craft just the right interview questions to get a total understanding of their being for the purposes of whatever profile or feature article I was working on. I’d leave having made a new connection and a memory of a great conversation. Those interviews used to be my favorite part. And earlier today, I realized my selective hearing has become so good that I don’t even hear what people in the restaurant are saying when they are talking directly to me.
I’m digressing. As I do in every single post. Bless you for sticking through… as silly and pointless as it was to apologize to a five-top on the dining room floor for being racist, it was nice to have the thought that a fraction of me still genuinely cared about the feelings of others enough to not be lost completely in the (ironically) empathy-free hospitality industry. More simply put- I still give a shit! Yes!
Paired with the consistent age-checking I get from my colleagues is also the consistent encouragement not to lose sight of my goals. I’ve been warned how easy to get trapped in the service industry forever, despite one’s best intentions. Once the money starts getting good and you spend all night bitching about how service went only to come back and do it again the next day… I can see how it’s a slippery slope. It is hard for me sometimes to look back and wonder where the last year went. Sure, I’ve learned loads, started my sommelier studies, am holding down dinner shifts at two pretty decent restaurants. The difficult thing is realizing that I’m nowhere closer to a career in journalism than I was last year.
But just remembering that completing journalism school is my end game has helped tremendously in getting me through work the past few months. I left tonight, after seeing all these themes come full circle on the dining room floor, feeling happy.
The beat will emerge… says the crazy dude sitting next to me in the café right now. Hope he’s right.