I started working at the restaurant where I still work when I was 17 years old. I lived a couple blocks up the street with my mom and sister, and my mom insisted that I get a job like my sister already did and help pay the rent. I came to the restaurant six different times attempting to get hired; it was right down the street, I didn’t have a car or a driver’s license, and I was in high school so I didn’t even have a diploma yet. Restaurant work was the only type of job I could hope for in my situation, and I wasn’t going to give up easily.
Showing up at the restaurant so many different times may lead to you to believe that I was an ambitious, confident girl, but in fact, I was just desperate. At the time I was painfully shy, unsure of who I was, and scared witless of talking to people outside of my circle of friends and family. Even when I spoke to crowds of kids at different schools in the area (I wrote and had published two children’s books by the time I was 12, but that is a different story), I broke out in a cold sweat and had to take herbal remedies to soothe my nerves.
When a busser happened to leave the restaurant they were in desperate need of someone to fill in, even someone without any experience, like me, and my false chutzpah was noted. One Friday night I was called and asked to come in to train. Essentially, I was thrown to the wolves. Friday nights were, then and now, madness. The reservation book was full, walk-ins kept coming through the front and side doors, and I was expected to fulfill every duty with the utmost precision, despite my lack of expertise. Needless to say, after that first night of training I went home to my mom, cried, and told her I would not be going back. But even though I desperately wanted to give up, I did not want to leave my new employers in the lurch. So I went back. And 12 years later, I am still here.
After two years of clearing plates, wiping and resetting tables, and buffing glasses and silverware, I was once again brought to tears. I had told my manager that I wanted to be a hostess should the position open up. The position had, and he had hired a server’s sister instead. When I came to work and saw her training, answering the phone, greeting patrons, and gliding about the restaurant with an air of authority and ease, I went to the bathroom and cried. After cleaning myself up, I went back to work; the tables weren’t going to clear themselves. I, being the shy girl that I was, bided time until I found the right opportunity to talk to my manager. Eventually they needed a hostess for Tuesday nights, and my new adventure began.
As a child, when most little girls were pretending to make cakes and serve guests in their plastic kitchens, my sister and I would take turns playing “secretary.” This role involved answering the phone, taking messages, and being as efficient as possible. Little did I know that this imaginary game would be what I did for a living many years later. I was, indeed, essentially the restaurant secretary. But that is not all, as many people assume of restaurant hostesses. The job does not entail just answering the phone and taking reservations. It also requires an all-seeing knowledge of what is happening within the restaurant, from the level of who is clearing what table, to what ticket is up in the kitchen, to placating customers, diffusing arguments, and all the while maintaining an aura of calm and authority.
As crazy as it sounds, this job was for me. It wasn’t just that I was no longer a busser, that I was giving orders more than I was taking them, but that the restaurant was “my” domain. I knew what was going on, I knew what needed to happen, I made it happen. With this new knowledge also came a new set of job-related tribulations. Rather than enduring the rudeness of diners — one table wanted you to clear their plate though everyone else was still eating, the other thought that was rude and wanted you to wait to clear their meal until everyone else at the table was finished — I became intimately aware of the rudeness of potential diners. People wanted that table, not this one. People were offended if I did not have a table for them, or if the wait was over 15 minutes. People argued with me about whether we took reservations or not, what our hours were, what server would be serving them, that the air conditioning needed to be turned off, that they needed to speak to the manager, that I didn’t know what I was doing.
There is something that some of the people who have never worked at a restaurant sometimes don’t seem to know: those of us in the industry are not servants. We are human beings, just like anyone else, who are working for our living. We laugh, cry, have friends and families, have dreams and aspirations. What many diners don’t know is that one of us graduated from Cal Berkeley, that many of us are world travelers, that one of us wrote two books before she started high school. Some of us are career servers who did not finish high school and love what we do and will do it until we can’t anymore. And really, does it matter? We are surfers, artists, writers, singers, actors, mothers, daughters, sons, activists, photographers, models, guitarists in touring bands. We are people.
All that being said, though it could be all too easy to lose my faith in humanity with this kind of work, I know, after 12 years, that it has given me a voice. As a busser, I blushed, agreed, and kept my head down. As a hostess, I had to get comfortable with saying no. I don’t say no unless I have to, I am not drunk on the little power that I have, but I have the opportunity to say no. The ability to keep in mind what is best for the restaurant and my fellow teammates.
At first this was a lot of pressure. At first the stress of greeting an endless flow of faces, of keeping track of who was waiting for a table, of the phone ringing and to-go orders coming in, was absolutely nerve-wracking. But now I know that to keep calm under pressure is the only way anything is going to get done. If I freak out, it doesn’t help anyone, including myself. This crazy job of mine has shaped my mentality, it has given me the tools to go out in the world and be able to feel confident in many different kinds of situations. I know how to talk to people, to rearrange, to finagle, to hold my own, to manage a multitude of people, both coworkers and customers alike. If I can handle being a restaurant hostess, I can handle anything.
One of the gifts that being a hostess has given me is more confidence. I have gone from a shy little girl to a woman who can speak to anyone. I have become a person who loves human interaction. I know regulars by name, I know who has had a baby, what their baby’s name is, where they went for vacation. Knowing all this may not seem meaningful, but if someone comes to the restaurant and has a good time, they will be back. And when they come back that creates the opportunity of building a relationship, which I believe is what being a human being is all about: making connections with one another despite ethnicity, sex, or creed. We all want to feel closer to one another.
I have fostered some incredible relationships working at the restaurant. On my side of the fence, I have built a family who I will greatly miss after I finally quit and move on to the next chapter of my life. Some of my best friends work alongside me. I have watched my coworkers get married, have kids, get drunk, cry, throw up, dance, laugh. I have been witness to heartbreak and new love. I have been there when coworkers’ family members have died, I have experienced another get diagnosed with cancer and survive. I have seen injuries, both physical and mental, and seen everyone, thank God, come out okay on the other side. Every single person I work with would be invited to my wedding (if I ever get married), and I know I will cry when I am gone for good.
As far as customers go, I have encountered people who I can’t imagine ever not knowing. I have experienced genuine interest in who I am and what I am looking forward to. I have been offered opportunities to meet friends of friends who are in the line of work I am interested in, I have been entrusted with people’s children and homes, dogs and innermost hopes. I have seen and encountered more than I ever thought was possible.
So even though I have witnessed the ugliness that dwells within all of us, I have seen the virtue that resides within all of us as well. I have found, for the most part, a voice and a backbone, a confidence that I never had before I started working at the restaurant. I have learned to trust others, and, most importantly, to trust myself. I have learned more about real life than I ever could have at college. To quote Melville, the restaurant was, and continues to be, my Yale and my Harvard. And for that, I will always be grateful.