It's 4.30pm in Marcello's, a midtown Manhattan bistro. Half-eaten salads, empty coffee cups and copies of the Daily News litter the bar area. The serving staff are sprawled around the side tables clad in the regulation uniform of black chinos, white shirt, ankle-
socks and sneakers, puffing on last-minute cigarettes before going on duty.
Hugo, a hefty six-footer, ambles into the kitchen, affecting not to notice Mikey's sour expression. Beside me, Lucky the barman and two of the kitchen staff are making plans to go partying after the shift.
Sharon, the restaurant manager, introduces me to the rest of the staff as 'a total Irish rookie, so show her the ropes and be nice to her, huh?' The barmen smile a welcome, and two of the waitresses muster a handshake. Breaking in a new table server is a regular process in the summer, when extra staff are hired to cope with the increased tourist trade. Nobody wants to be the one to have a rookie assigned to their station. It's just extra work and reduces the night's tips.
Barbara draws the short straw. Built like a stick insect topped off with a lot of blond hair and red lipstick, she sighs and dumps a stack of paper into my lap: a list of drink prices and descriptions, a seating plan, details of the regular menu items, and my on-shift duties. 'Don't worry about that stuff for now. Come and help me set up the tables, and 'trail' me through the evening's work. It's mostly a matter of picking it up as you go along.'
'Picking it up' is the operative phrase. Barbara sets me to work fetching beer supplies for the upstairs bar. Half a dozen journeys dragging crates of Budweiser and buckets of ice up three flights of stairs leave me winded. And this is before the real waitressing work begins.
One hour into the night-shift, and I begin to understand why long-term servers all have big arm and shoulder muscles, a lot of low back pain and varicose veins. Food orders have to be carried to the upstairs dining area on enormous circular trays, held above shoulder level. After delivering the first batch, I am sent back downstairs to the kitchen, hoisting a heavy bus tray (a basin full of dirty dishes). Then I pick up the next food order and hare back upstairs again under the weight of another stacked tray.
No matter how fast I unload the dirty dishes and pick up the fresh orders, it's never quite quick enough to meet Barbara's standards or to avoid Mikey's wrath down in the kitchen.
Marcello's is a popular post-theatre haunt, and as the restaurant becomes busier, my serving mistakes multiply. One customer ends up with more bordelaise sauce down his bib than on his beef, as I tip the hot plate clumsily on to the table. A woman who keeps clicking her fingers to my attention and snarling 'Gimme a seven and seven, willya?' gets a double 7-Up soft-drink and not the Seagrams whisky and mixer she was expecting.
Then Big Alice, serving the section next to mine, barks at me: 'Get down to the kitchen fast. Your orders are congealing on the service shelf.' I skid downstairs to face Mikey, who bawls at me: 'Server number 15? You're causing a traffic pile-up down here. Willya try and pick up your food orders before they pass the sell-by date?'
Even Barbara is getting short-tempered with my hapless efforts. 'Tell the diners this is your first night,' she hisses. 'Go for the sympathy vote. It's your only chance of improving your tips.' I do, but it doesn't seem to make much difference. When the last customers finally leave just after 1 am, I hand over my puny take in tips to Barbara: all of dollars 31.50. She has pulled dollars 75, but that's less than she usually makes solo.
I trail downstairs to change out of my uniform and sign off. 'Where ya goin'?' Barbara yells. 'We still got all the side work to do.' I put my apron back on and help clean out the fridge, the espresso and ice-cream machines, then wipe down and reset the tables. At 2 am, I totter downstairs to join the rest of the staff at the bar. Lucky the barman grins at my fatigued face and says: 'Don't worry kid, the first 10 shifts are the toughest. After that, you stop feeling the pain.'
Manhattan restaurant workers can be cutting about what they call the 'attitude problems of Youro-Pean kids' - British and Irish students doing summer work in the city's bars and restaurants. Our 'cute' accents and 'cultured' background may be popular with the customers, but as Barbara says dryly: 'Culture ain't a substitute for good American service.'
As the weeks go on and my skills improve, the other waitresses grow more friendly. The worst tippers, Barbara warns, are groups of working women, on a 'girls night out'.
They order undressed fish and salads. Afterwards they get you to recite the entire dessert menu giving the calorie and fat content of each item. They keep you running back and forth with refills of coffee, and then leave a lousy low-cal tip of 5 per cent.
Successful actors and directors are usually decent tippers because most of them have done some time in restaurants and bars. But the best tippers are undoubtedly seasoned businessmen. On my first 'solo' shift, I receive a dollars 40 tip for serving a 7 am power-breakfast to a party of business executives. 'That's for your help - and for having to turn in to work so early,' smiles the dapper gent who hands me the money.
He adds sweetly that if my attitude to making it in show business is as dedicated as my waitressing, he predicts 'a bright future ahead, yessir'. 'But I don't want to be an actress,' I reply. The exiting party grinds to a halt, stunned. 'But everyone who waits tables is on their way to Broadway or Hollywood,' the businessman insists, grinning broadly. 'This is where you first learn what performance is all about.'
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