Care for a drop of hot coffee, sir?: Lecherous lads, fussy females . . . Being a waitress has its moments, says Louise Quirke

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I cried at work today - only the second time it's ever happened since I started working. The first time was at a plush hotel in the Cotswolds: it was during a seven-course dinner. I took the wrong meat course to the wrong tables and the whole system was messed up.

The chef didn't shout at me as she usually did when angry; worse, she just looked at me with this terrible, pained expression on her face and said: 'Why now? Why?' I cried so much I had to go and sit on the fire escape out the back and put ice cubes on my eyes.

Today's tearful outburst was much more discreet - a quiet sob out in the yard among the cannisters of fizzy drinks. It was caused by a combination of too many irritable customers having a go and someone shutting my big toe in the back door.

They say waitressing is a low-stress job, like hairdressing and being a librarian. I guess that's why it has no standing, no real rights and a low wage (for a 37-hour week I take home on average about pounds 95). It's true that when you knock off you can forget the day's work, but there are other drawbacks; physically, it can do you in (I am just starting to have trouble with the veins in my legs) and the hours are often antisocial.

But there are lots of reasons why someone should want to work in catering. There's the element of surprise provided not only by the range of customers but also by the people you work with. In my experience, people in catering tend to be vital, up-front types who say what they think. That's why the atmosphere in a kitchen can go from everyone having a laugh to daggers drawn within minutes.

And then there are the people from outside, especially the delivery men. In practically every restaurant I've worked, these people have been looked on with affection. They are never referred to by their real names: it's always The Meat Man, The Egg Man, The Salmon Man. There's even a Jam Man where I work at the moment - every Friday he brings us two buckets of jam.

There's one guy who comes in a navy pinstripe suit, looking like he's going to a board meeting, when in fact he's going out the back to check the fizzy drink cannisters. He always wears the suit, even when it's boiling hot or when he's going to get filthy dragging empty cola and lemonade bottles out of the yard.

When I was working as a cook at a greasy caff, an old geezer used to come along in khaki shorts on a pushbike to deliver us sausages. That's all he dealt in: sausages. And in a hotel I once worked in there was a lady from Rentokil who looked like she'd just stepped off the set of a Bond movie: so beautiful, legs up to her armpits. What was she doing killing rats?

One summer I worked for a family company that did nothing but weddings. They had a tiny lorry - it looked like a box on wheels - kitted out on the inside with wooden slats in which they packed all the crockery and trestle tables. There was even an old metal bath for washing up.

Three fat ladies (that's how they described themselves) and I squeezed into the aisle between the wooden slats and were driven, standing up, to the next function. What I remember most of that summer is washing up in village-hall kitchens and spending hours placing books of matches with 'Stella and Sid' on them along the tables.

As for the customers, on the whole I find them easier to get on with the older I get. But even now I meet some who really wind me up. Only last week I served a lady our plate of mixed cheeses on a bed of salad. It looked really appealing but she sent it back, furious because the roll that went with it was a soft one and in the menu it stated 'with a crusty roll'.

Customer complaints are like breastfeeding: all fine and dandy when other diners are unaware of it but when, as happened one Saturday in the midst of the summer heat, a lady whipped off her shirt I thought: 'Am I being intolerant here or is she behaving antisocially?'

A particularly tricky customer is the bloke who thinks that paying pounds 1.95 for a pasty also entitles him to a bit of the waitress. There isn't a waitress anywhere who wouldn't love to pour boiling hot coffee over a lecherous customer's crotch - as Michelle Pfeiffer did in that recent glamorised love-in- a-diner film, Frankie & Johnny.

I once dribbled sizzling duck a l'orange sauce between a man's legs, but it was purely a mistake and I was given a warning and made to pay his dry-cleaning bill. The best way of dealing with a lecherous customer is to smile ever so meekly, go back to the kitchen, get a piece of chocolate fudge cake, imagine it's the customer and slowly pulverise it into mush on the floor. Very purging, and at the end of it you still have your job.