June 20, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we asked you to share your best, worst or funniest dining-out experiences, from the perspective of either the served or the server. Our first essay reveals just how educational a job in food service can be.
Dana Bate is a writer living in Washington, D.C. She has produced, reported or written for PBS, Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and others. You can learn more about her at danabate.com.
What About Bob?
By Dana Bate
I should have known there was something odd about Bob from the start. When I met him in the summer of 2003, I was fresh out of college and looking for a part-time waitressing gig. Bob managed a small, upscale restaurant in suburban Philadelphia, and he agreed to meet with me on a hot and muggy June afternoon. I had never interviewed for a position as a waitress before. I didn’t know what to expect.
When I walked into the air-conditioned chill of the restaurant, the room lit only by a sliver of light from the glass block windows, Bob emerged from the back. His skin appeared almost translucent against his thick eyebrows and jet-black hair, and his eyes sunk deep into his skull. He looked a bit like a poor man’s Jonathan Rhys Meyers in vampire form—and I mean that in the worst way possible. Why I didn’t immediately head for the door I will never know.
Bob sat me down, and after chatting for a few minutes about my waitressing credentials (or, rather, my complete lack thereof) he offered me the job. Then he proceeded to extol, in a very animated fashion, the virtues of a macrobiotic diet—as one does when hiring a woman to bus plates and memorize daily specials.
Although I had recently graduated from an Ivy League school and prided myself on my book smarts, I lacked street smarts, and so none of Bob’s quirks raised any red flags. Maybe all restaurant managers dressed in black from head to toe and wore silver and onyx rings the size of Cerignola olives. Maybe all restaurant managers offered prospective employees a copy of An Instance of the Fingerpost. What did I know?
Bob promised to show me the ropes, and as the weeks passed, I picked up tips I surely wouldn’t have gathered on my own. For example, when a couple is on a romantic date, it’s a good idea for the manager to pull a chair up to their table and talk to them for a solid twenty minutes. The couple will love it—or so Bob assured me.
Also, disappearing in the basement to “check on the walk-in” every half hour is totally normal – nay, expected. I had so much to learn.
A month or two into my waitressing stint, a new waitress named Beth joined the team. She had fiery red hair and had waitressed for many years at another restaurant down the street. Beth took grief from no one. To her, my naiveté must have been painful.
One night, as we rushed to flip the tables for our next set of reservations, Beth looked up at me.
“Where the hell is Bob?” she asked.
“He’s checking on the walk-in.” I paused. “He kind of does that a lot.”
Beth chuckled. “Yeah, and I’m sure he comes back with a lot more energy, right?”
Come to think of it, Bob did always come back with a little more lift in his step after his trips to the basement. I knew he smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. Maybe it was a nicotine high?
Beth cackled at my ignorance. She tapped on her nose with the tip of her finger and sniffed loudly. “I think we’re dealing with a different chemical here.”
Wait—Bob did cocaine? Could this be true? I considered it. A drug addiction would explain his chattiness with customers and his frequent disappearances. It would also probably explain why I came in one Monday to find that Bob, on a whim, had spent the previous day buffing the copper siding of the bar, alone, just for fun.
As I let this information sink in, Bob emerged from the basement, his lips and nose caked in white powder. My eyes widened. It was true: Bob was doing drugs.
I realized then how naïve I was—how college had broadened my horizons intellectually but had done little to prepare me for the realities of life outside the ivory tower. Sure, I had friends who’d dabbled in illegal substances here and there, but I’d never known an addict. For me, those people existed only in movies and books and after-school specials. But this wasn’t some juicy story in Kitchen Confidential. Bob was real, and so were his problems. I had even more to learn than I thought.
Beth smirked and shook her head as she watched my innocence melt away before her eyes.
“Welcome to the real world, honey,” she said. “It’s one hell of a ride.”
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