Kingdom of Sand

It’s the tail end of the lunch shift and Café Machiavelli is empty. Josie, the assistant manager, and I are both working double shifts. Taking advantage of the lull in customer traffic we decide to caffeinate our blood streams with several double espressos. Some waiters do coke, I do coffee.

“Another double,” Josie sighs as she stirs three sugars into her espresso. “I can’t take this shit anymore.”

“How many doubles are you working this week?” I ask.

“Five.”

“Ouch.”

“You?”

“Two.”

“That’s all?”

“Yep.”

“How’d you get away with that?”

“I told the owner if he overscheduled me I’d leave.”

“That’s balls on.”

“Yeah,” I reply. “But remember, I have another job. You don’t.”

“What do you do again?”

I give Josie my cover story. It’s a good one, but sometimes telling it makes me feel like Donnie Brasco.

“I wish I could trim back my hours,” Josie says, “The owner’s always got me working.”

“That’s because he doesn’t have enough waiters,” I reply. “We need at least two people to plug the holes in the schedule.”

“He put up an ad on Craiglist,” Josie says listlessly.

“I hope we get some quick answers.”

“Me too,” Josie says. “I can’t work these hours anymore. My boyfriend and I are fighting because we never see each other.”

I look at Josie. A skinny blonde who seems to subsist on coffee and cigarettes, she always seems to be in a foul mood. While working long hours and sexual frustration may be partly to blame, I suspect her drinking and late night partying also contributes to her pissy disposition.

‘Did you ever think of working somewhere else?” I ask.

“I’ve got too many bills,” Josie replies. “And starting over at a new place would fuck up my cash flow.”

“I hear that.”

“So,” Josie says, changing the subject, “You’ve just gotten back into the restaurant world. Have any waiter dreams yet?”

“They started again a few weeks ago,” I reply, plucking two sugar packets out of the plastic holder. “Last night I dreamt that Table 13 complained about getting spinach with their swordfish instead of broccoli rabe.”

“Don’t you hate those dreams?”

“I used to,” I reply, stirring some sugar into my espresso. “Now I realize those dreams are just the mind’s way of processing nervous energy leftover from a shift.”

“What do you mean?”

“Waitering is like juggling several balls in the air at the same time,” I explain. “Your brain is so busy keeping track of what the tables need – cocktails, desserts, spoons, refills – that not all the balls come down and you leave the restaurant with some still banging around inside your head.

“I never thought of it that way.”

“That’s why waiter dreams are usually about little things – forgetting to order sodas or firing a table’s food.”

“My dreams haven’t been about small stuff,” Josie says. “They’ve been nightmares actually.”

“What kind of dreams have you been having?”

“I had a really bad one last night,” Josie says. “I was working here but the restaurant looked completely different. The menu was in Russian or something and the hostess assigned me thirty tables and I went into the weeds. The manager kept yelling at me. It was awful.”

I look at Josie with a start. When I worked at the Bistro I had a similar dream. I dreamt that Fluvio bought a new restaurant across the town – complete with heavy leather bound menus written in Cyrillic. Inside the restaurant’s phantasmagoric interior, Claude, the neighborhood homeless guy, was the French speaking maitre ‘d. Dressed in a three piece suit instead of his usual rags, he sat me two hundred people and started cursing me out when I inevitably went into the weeds. Now that I look back on it, those dreams were my subconscious prodding me to leave. Maybe the same thing is happening to Josie. Man, talk about Jungian archetypes.

“What was once familiar becomes unfamiliar” I reply. “A sort of disconnection.”

“Exactly!” Josie says. “Like I’m not supposed to be here anymore.”

“What do you want to do after waiting tables?”

“I have no idea,” Josie says. “But I’ve been here three years and I feel like my life’s slipping though my fingers.”

I’m familiar with this particular bit of server angst. Eventually most full time waiters realize they have to trade in their aprons for a steady paycheck, health benefits, and Saturday nights off. But the restaurant industry can be like comfortable womb. Sometimes the only way out is to be pulled out – kicking and screaming. It’s a messy process, hence the dreams.

“You’ll figure out what to do,” I say, reassuringly. “You’ll eventually get some of the things you want.”

“I hope so.”

“Just hang in there.”

“Thanks.”

The long shift eventually ends and I go home. Josie goes out partying with her boyfriend. The next night I come in to work the dinner shift. All the scheduled servers are present and accounted for – except Josie.

“Where’s Josie?” I ask Willem, the general manager. “On break?”

“Uh,” Willem says, looking uncomfortable. “Josie is no longer with us.”

“What happened?”

“She left to pursue other opportunities.”

I grimace at Willem’s clumsy use of corporate double speak but don’t press him for details. Later the bus boys tell me that Josie stormed out crying in the middle of a crowded lunch shift. That’s one way to do it I guess.

Since we’re down a server the night’s crazy. Despite the stress Willem’s walking around like he’s king of the hill. He’s obviously happy that Josie’s gone. I always suspected there was a power struggle going on between them. Willem doesn’t know it yet – but he’s inherited a kingdom of sand. He thinks he’s indispensable but he’s not. The restaurant world can be a comfortable place, but it also chews people up and spits them out. Managers are a dime a dozen. The moment you think your irreplaceable the owner’s already looking for your replacement. I once lived in that kingdom. Willem’s a nice guy but he’s headed for trouble. One day he’ll be the one having nightmares. One day it’ll be him crying.

It’s inevitable.


Comments

Kingdom of Sand — 10 Comments

  1. Wow. I’m so glad you mentioned server dreams. Those things are the devil’s work. I like your idea about them. I love reading your blog and can’t wait for the book. It should be required high school reading so people know how to be proper adults and tip appropriately.

  2. I worked in festaurants for seven years. I’ve now been out of the industry for 2 years.

    I still sometimes have those crazy dreams. I these I’ve gone back to work for my old job and the rest me being in the weeds and quiting or wanting to quit.

    I think it’s strange that after all this time I still have them occasionally.

    Maybe it’s from reading this blog.

  3. I haven’t waited tables in nine years but I still have waiter dreams occasionally. Usually it’s the one where I’m visitng my folks’ house (the one they moved out of 15 years ago but of course in the dream they still live there) but there’s a restaurant set up in the living room and the expediter yells at me that I have food in the window but I have to get in my car (the one I sold when I moved to California in 2000) and drive to the restaurant to get it.

    There used to be a postcard up in the coffee station (for all I know it’s still there) from a waiter who joined the peace corps. He wrote from South America about a nightmare he’d had where he too was waiting tables in his parents’ living room but all the customers were South American and they were trying to order corn liquor for the adults and vicuna milk for the kids.

    I think some anxieties never leave you. My Dad hasn’t had a cigarette since 1979 but he still sometimes wakes up in a panic from a dream where he’s bought and smoked a pack.

  4. I tended bar for 15 years, and stopped 15 years ago. While I was bartending, and still after I stopped, I would get anxiety dreams like this. It always involved getting in the weeds at a place where I didn’t know the system in some way. The worst one ever had me serving drinks like a carhop at a traffic signal on a huge highway, four lanes in each direction with a median. I had to run from car to car, get their drink orders, and make their drinks before the light changed. The memory of that one still makes me sweat.

    But it’s hard to leave the restaurant business. The money, cash in pocket every day. The adrenaline high. And, I can tell you, just from reading through your blog entries, I’m envious of the cameraderie that develops among restaurant staff; you get wise or you get out. You’re right about it keeping you in–I stayed about 5 years longer than I should have simply out of inertia, and then only left because I was starting grad school and couldn’t spare the time…

  5. This is what I have affectionately dubbed “the wait-mare;” it goes something like this: It starts with me getting to work, and finding out that NO other waiters have shown up, and the only hostess on has already sat me with three tables. They are not happy because they have all been waiting “for a while.” I then run to the kitchen to get the features, to find out that there is no chef, and only one cook, and the dishwasher is nowhere to be found. This means that there are no features, and the junior manager on duty elects this moment to inform me that I will be bartending as well as taking tables, and to get my ass out to my three patio tables, and to greet the new table on the side patio as well. Oh goodie. As I am running to each table, trying to get drink orders from each four top, I am assaulted with questions from each guest, about simple information that is CLEARLY written on the menu. After the most abrupt of synopsises of their questions answers, I finally wrangle drink orders from the tables, to run back to the bar to mix said drinks.
    This is when the hostess seats me with three more tables, without staggering them (telling them to “sit where they like”) all the while doing the “I’m sorry” shrug-dance. This is no longer the “weeds.” You can get out of the weeds with a pitching wedge and a bit of skill. This is some here-to-fore unheard of Hell around which I simply cannot wrap my harried mind. I begin yelling at the manager to get out here and help me make drinks, or get appetizer orders, but he is trying to help the cook prep for the dinner rush. Sixteen drinks and two trips later, I now have all of my tables yelling for service, I am running to (what I believe is) the first table and the hostess is seating four more four-tops. Great. Eleven tables now, for those playing along at home, and only four of them even have drinks. I am now proper fucked. This is when I begin entertaining thoughts of walking out of this parlour with a bottle of Maker’s Mark and a Dr Pepper. But I can’t. The owner is my roommate and if I leave, it means one homeless Pelon. I like camping. Living under a bridge is like camping, isn’t it? “No,” I tell myself, “I’ve lived through worse (though I currently can’t remember when) and I’ll live through this.”
    At this point, customer service/guest relations begins to disentigrate a bit. I rush to the fifth table and explain that I am the only server on, and I will get to each guest in the order they came in, and please, for the love of God, be patient with us. Patience is not a virtue these good patrons possess. Each table is, in their minds, the only; thus most important, table in the store.
    More tables are sat by the hostess and I have now completely lost my mind.
    I wish I could tell you that this is the point at which I achieved conciousness, but alas, it would be a lie. I did not wake up because it was not a dream. The above story is true, and did happen to me less than one year ago. There is no happy ending, either. Some tables walked out, in disgust, the dishwasher got fired, as did a waiter (not me), and I got shit-can retarded drunk on the company’s booze, for free at the end of the shift. I’m sure I would not still have night-mares about this type of shift, if it didn’t happen TWO more times after this incident. Sleep well kids, but the monsters under your bed want a drinks list and to hear the features right now, because they have a play to catch in half an hour.

  6. Pelon, wow, good story and ending. That is some scary shit! I have had dreams like that when I’m the only server in the place and I have like 20 tables and they are all pissed and yelling at me for refills, for their food, or wanting me to take their order, and some are wanting split checks, some have got up with their checks and are waiting by the door. So I’m running around with my head cut off trying my hardest to keep up and make everyone happy. I run a tables food out and it’s the wrong order and I don’t know where it goes so they are more pissed and telling me their appetizer never came out and now I tried to deliver the wrong order to them and that I need to “pull it together.” Another table is screaming at me and waving his glass around wanting a refill, then I realize the table next to them left without paying. All the customers are giving me the “I wanna kill you” look. Finally in this dream I realize I’m dreaming and it’s the greatest feeling in the world that I finally know this, so I stand in view of all my tables, lean back against the wall, cross my arms and just watch everyone having their fits, take a deep breath and smile, just standing there.

  7. Pingback: You know you’re a crazy waiter when… (part 1) « Crazy Waiter

  8. Waiter, I also know these dreams as “wait-mares”. Seems like no matter where you go in the world, some things about this business are always the same.

  9. @Kayla: Yah, don’t you you hate those server dreams?!? I dreamt that I attempted to remotely reboot a customer facing server but it got stuck during boot and it wasn’t coming back up so I had to drive 30 minutes to work and manually boot it. Those servers can be a real pain huh’!

  10. Haha! I wasn’t a runner for long, but I used to get server dreams too! It would’ve been worse if I was actually an waiter, I think.

    My boyfriend is a chef and he actually sleeptalks. He’d always fall asleep before me and within 5 minutes start mumbling “what do you mean they don’t have their food yet?!” I have to wake him up so he can actually take a break from work.

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