It’s Wednesday afternoon and I show up to work early. I want to get my prep work out of the way so I can enjoy some quiet time before the customers arrive. During the holiday rush I was taking tables eight seconds after I walked in the door. That’s not good for a waiter’s mental health. To safeguard my sanity I’ve been trying to ease into my workdays. I find I’m less cranky that way.
As I enter the restaurant through the kitchen door off the back alley the sound of Spanish music immediately fills my ears. The smells of garlic and baking bread compete for attention inside my nose. The kitchen guys, sitting on upturned milk crates and dish racks, are eating their midday meal. Tacos are on the bill of fare today.
“Hola amigos!” I shout in greeting. The cooks respond en masse with the usual friendly catcalls and curses.
“Hey gringo!” Octavio, the sous chef calls out. “You want something to eat? We got extra.”
“I had lunch,” I reply. “But I’ve always got room for tacos.”
“Help yourself man.”
I pluck a warm taco off the serving plate and take a huge bite. This isn’t a Taco Bell taco mind you – it’s a soft tortilla stuffed with spicy chicken, onions, peppers, and beans. Delicious.
“Mmmmm,” I mumble though a mouthful of taco goodness, “Muy bien. Gracias Octavio.”
“De nada brother.”
Finishing my taco in three bites I head into the dining room and start doing my side work. Slipshod preparation is one of the primary reasons waiters go into the weeds. When you’re juggling ten tables at the height of the dinner rush nothing will screw you up like wasting five minutes in the dry goods area looking for drinking straws, paper doilies, or, my favorite, herbal teas. Some waiters alleviate pre work jitters by smoking a joint or popping a pill. Me? I do prophylactic side work.
The first thing I do is hit the coffees. I make sure there’s enough espresso, American java, and snooty teas to last the shift. Of course, the lazy lunch waiter didn’t make any lemon peels for demitasse so I get four lemons, cut of the ends, insert a table spoon between the rind and the pulp, hollow the lemons out, make a single cut in each rind, flatten them out on the cutting board like yellow ribbons, and slice off fifty perfectly even peels. After wiping down the cutting board I put the peels in a container and then take inventory of the service fridge. Of course we’re missing everything dairy. That lunch waiter is a lazy shit.
Grabbing a milk crate from the kitchen I head down to the walk in fridge in the basement and load up with gallons of milk, a hunk of Parmesan cheese, whipped cream, bottles of mineral water, extra lemons, strawberries for dessert garnish, and chocolate sauce. Hauling everything back up the stairs I get a glimmer of what it must feel like to assault Mount Everest. Arms and legs still quivering from the effort I put the milk, water, and fruit in their respective places, cut the Parmesan into uniform cubes, and pour the chocolate sauce into a squeeze bottle. I then turn my attention to the dessert cart. The lunch waiter left the trolley out in warm air instead of the fridge. The chocolate mouse and the cheesecake look a little grim so throw them out and replace them with fresh pieces. After making sure everything looks presentable I wheel the cart back into the kitchen fridge. Then I check under the soda machine to see if we have plenty of syrup, clean off the counters, refill the sugar containers, put out extra straws, fill the toothpick glass, make sure there’s enough takeout containers, check the paper levels in all the printers, get backups of register tape, and replenish the business cards by the hostess stand.
Satisfied that everything’s done, I take my dry cleaned uniform shirt and head into the men’s room. I smile when I see that the bus boys have already filled the urinal with ice. Call me crazy, but I’ve always that was the sign of a classy place. After I melt some ice cubes I put on my shirt, knot my tie, strap on my apron, and double check that I have pens, crumbers, wine opener, and a dupe pad. Looking at myself in the mirror I feel like a priest vesting for mass. After I finish my ablutions I head back to the dining room. Two of the evening waiters have already arrived and are kibitzing by the espresso machine.
“Hey,” Willem, the head waiter says, “Did you do all the side work?”
“Yeah,” I reply. “I wanted to get a jump on the day.”
“Thanks man,” he relies, “I appreciate it – but I’ve got some bad news.”
“I’ve got to cut you from the floor tonight.”
“There aren’t enough reservations,” Willem says. “You’re the junior man so……..”
A flare of anger surges up my throat. I need money. My rent and health insurance went up, gas and food prices are going through the roof, and the bills from Christmas need to be paid. I feel like telling Willem to send someone else home but I can’t. I managed a restaurant once. I know how it feels to cut servers from the floor. Sometimes, especially in summer, waiters are eager to go home so there’s no problem – but during the cash strapped months of January and February no one wants to lose a shift. Everyone’s hurting for cash. It’s during times like these that a manager’s got to be a bit heartless. A couple of waiters can make money or no one makes money. It’s that simple.
“I know Willem,” I sigh, “That’s the business.”
“Thanks for understanding.”
“And thanks for doing all the prep work,” Willem says. “Tomorrow you won’t have to do anything. I’ll make that asshole lunch waiter do it.”
I smile. Willem feels bad about cutting me. He’s got to get to the point where it doesn’t faze him – but he’s new to the job.
“Thanks Willem.” I reply. “Should I call before I come in tomorrow? I’d hate to travel up here just to go home.”
“No,” Willem says. “You’ll be on no matter what.”
“Cool,” I say. “See you tomorrow.”
I change back into my civvies and secure my uniform so I can reuse it the next day. I look at my watch. An evening of unexpected freedom stretches out before me. Since I’m cash strapped I’ll have to do something low cost like cook something simple at home and read. I shake my head and walk out the door. Just coming into work cost time and money. I’m operating at a loss for the day. That sucks. I guess I could try looking on the bright side.
At least I got a taco.