There are a lot of things I could say about working in a restaurant, and things that I already have. Most things you notice about restaurants, whether you eat at them or work in them, are obvious. The food, the service, the tips, busy nights and slow nights and late nights. There is good service and bad service. People leave good tips for good service, or bad tips because they were never taught otherwise. Or no tips, I get those too. But I don’t want to tell you about tips. I want to tell you about people.
Servers are there to make money. Let’s not step around that fact. We are there for the tips. The good ones, that is. But sometimes, every once in awhile, you get a chance to slow down a little, you step out of the kitchen and away from the computer. Your tables are happy and no one needs anything. And when you look around you, you get a chance to see the moments of other people’s lives. You get a glimpse into other people’s worlds. You can see what other people are going through, or you can imagine what their lives might be like when they get home to their kids. And this is something that I have found spectacular about working in a restaurant. You see so many kinds of different people, so many people, all the people. You say a few words to these people and watch them for a few seconds. You see them eat food for a few minutes and a whole world opens up behind them.
On busy days, there isn’t much time for people-watching, but sometimes there is the rare day when it’s a slow afternoon and at several tables are seated just the most intriguing human beings.
There’s the e-Harmony date. A man and a woman walk in and sit at a table near the bar. They sit across from each other and order a bottle of red wine at 12:30pm. The woman is rather loud, the man is more soft-spoken, with a kind face. They’re leaning in to each other and laughing a lot throughout their conversation. It’s probably a good date, maybe there will be a second. They sit there until 5pm, three bottles of wine later. Definitely a good date. She had mentioned several bad first dates she had been on, so maybe that’s a good sign. Maybe she’ll go home after the date and call up her girl friend and talk all about the kind, gentle guy she’d gone out with and how he’s completely different from the other guys she’s dated and she’ll talk about possibilities. Maybe he’ll go home and Google-search her for a third time. Make sure she’s not too good to be true. Or maybe not. But I saw that they were on a date and enjoying each other’s company.
There is a table with a very young couple. Probably about 17– at least driving age. At first the boy looks mad; it looks like they’re fighting. The host told me he had slammed the car door shut and walked in about 10 feet in front of her. But then they’re at the table and while we’re speculating what the fight is about, he starts crying. Maybe his uncle was diagnosed with cancer. Maybe his grandmother died. His girlfriend is comforting him as best she can and they are clearly not fighting. They have a quick lunch and leave together. Just a glimpse into someone’s life while they eat.
At another table sits an older couple. It’s the end of the night, the crowd has died down and they’re sitting next to each other in a rounded booth, clearly still in love after 40, 50, 60 years but quiet, as if maybe they’ve said all they needed to say out loud over the years and now words aren’t needed. So when I greet them they are anxious to talk and they tell me about their lives. The man told me that they were from Delaware, since I’d mentioned that I just graduated from school there. He said he went to school at Duquesne and it took him thirteen years to graduate, taking night classes, because he was already married with kids and working a full-time job. But he did graduate and he is still with his Mrs. having dinner.
Every table has a story. But as waiters and waitresses, all we see are the minutes when they’re sitting at the table and all we can do is speculate. But each table, each snapshot is unique. Each family looks different and acts differently. Some families are loud and messy, with lots of children. Their lives are probably hectic and they probably don’t get out to eat very often. Maybe they’re like my family and celebrating a good report card. Other families are quiet. The kids are older and don’t want to be seen with their parents but their parents love them anyways. Some tables contain old friends that haven’t seen in each other in years. They order a drink and wait hours to order their meal, just to make the time pass more slowly. They pay the check and sit for a few more hours, their glasses of water all but empty. Maybe they were college roommates, or maybe they both got screwed over by the same guy and found a common bond that lasted all their lives.
These are the moments that make up these lives. Their trip to the restaurant might become part of the story they tell their grandkids. Their moments are special and brief, for us, but maybe for a few minutes I can live vicariously through them. I can be at their business meeting or their jewelry party and be part of that moment. I can take a picture of the old friends and I can make small talk and smile. I can give them that because they all have given me these small glimpses into their lives.
Maybe this is what makes people like working in a restuarant so much. Seeing a moment of another person’s life, speculating what the rest of it might look like. It’s just a snapshot, but sometimes, a picture equals a thousand words.