On Being a Waitress

from Womankind (1972) An experienced waitress explains what it is like to serve your food. Not always an appetizing job. (Editors Note: A true life adventure about real life in food service work. The author was a community college student on Chicago's Southwest Side.)

After doing waitress work for seven years, I've come to the conclusion that restaurants are all alike. I used to think I could escape intolerable conditions by quitting. But, after doing that many times, I found that each new jobs presents the same problems.

The first problem encountered is usually the bartenders and cooks. They will chase you around the kitchen, try to corner you in the stockroom, and accidentally bump into you and touch you every chance they get. If you don't cooperate, they have ways of getting even with you. They can hold back on your orders so when your customers see other people who came in after they did getting served faster by another waitress, they think that you are goofing off and don't leave a tip. Sometimes the cooks even get violent. I have had cooks threaten me with butcher knives, and a few times they have thrown hot mashed potatoes at me.

If you can make it past the cooks; they next problem is the customers. I guess they think that because they 're paying you, they have the right to grab your leg while you're taking the order. They make lots of remarks, pat you on the ass, and always want to know if they can have you for dessert. Almost as bad as being a sex object is being a work object. People talk to you as if you're a computer. They rattle off a bunch of stuff that they want and expect it to drop magically out of the ceiling. They are completely oblivious to their surroundings. If the place is really busy, and you're running around like crazy, they don't even notice. One time a man was harassing me constantly about where's his soup, where's his salad, and I finally told him, "I'm sorry but I'm not God." After that he was very nice to me, but before that it never occurred to him that I am a human being with limitations on how fast I can move. He only knew that he wanted his food, and it's my job to get it to him.

There is a tremendous amount of pressure being a waitress. First of all, you might have seven or eight different tables going at once. The customers are in a hurry, so they demand their food immediately. When you go back to the kitchen to ask the cook for it, he is snowed under with orders, so he screams at you to come back later. Then the hostess comes to you and hollers about your not having given so and so their rolls and butter yet. By this time, you're extremely nervous, so you drop something and the owner comes over and screams at you. Everything is high tension. No one talks in a normal tone of voice. You are not a human being, but a machine to get people their food. In the midst of all this, some moron wants to know why you're not smiling.

Obviously, this constant tension is very bad on your nerves. To make matters worse, you never get a break or a lunch hour. You just have to grab a sandwich on the run. And your day is usually longer than eight hours. Because you only are paid 75 cents per hour, the owner doesn't mind having you stay extra, and it's very difficult to get out when you are supposed to. It's even harder to get a day off. They never hire enough waitresses, so if a special party is scheduled, you have to come in on your day off.

Why anyone would put up with all this must be a mystery to those fortunate enough to be on the outside. One example is a waitress named Margie. She is 27 years old, divorced and has three children. She has only a high school education and no marketable skills, because her life was geared toward becoming a wife and mother. She can make more money being a waitress than working in a factory or office. Also, she can work nights so she can be home with her children during the day.

Cathy lives only a few blocks from the restaurant and can't afford a car. She also is divorced and has six children. Because the owner knows her predicament - that she can't quit, he harasses her constantly. She is given all kinds of extra work, made to come in on her days off all the time and is always being pawed.

Some women are only waitresses on the low-paying regular jobs. Theresa is a widow with five children still at home. She works downtown all week for a multi-million dollar insurance company, rides the bus home, and is gone from 7 am to 6 pm every day. On the weekend, while the men who sit next to her doing the same work are out playing golf, she is working in a restaurant.

Besides the fact that women put up with this kind of oppression, we are considered stupid if we are waitresses. We're not even supposed to know how to read and write, let alone add. Some women even find themselves lying about their job, because it automatically stamps you as stupid.

In conclusion, I guess the actual work of waitressing is okay. It's better than pounding a typewriter all day because you get to talk to people. But if people would accept the fact that waitresses are people and not machines, our lives would be much more livable. The reason that people can't accept that fact is probably because they have so much pressure on their own jobs. If cooks had more help on the job, they probably wouldn't scream so much. The owner could hire more help of he weren't competing with huge corporate chains. And even the customers would be less demanding if they weren't always in such a hurry and pressured by their own jobs.