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A Glimpse Inside Restaurant Life

Scrimp on scrimp on scrimp.

Eureka – spelled like the vacuum cleaner and the magician’s exclamation – is the portly, short-and-stout (cadence wise, think “surf-n’-turf”) African American woman who dresses food in the Red Lobster kitchen after it has been cooked by the microwaves chefs. I imagine her as a Thanksgiving turkey filled to the brim with cornbread stuffing, each crouton of stuffing containing a smile and a sagacious quip as it spills out of her hole. When I first arrived at the restaurant, I was instructed by a white coworker to call her “Mama.” She being the amiable (grand)mother figure who has worked at the restaurant for 26 years. Me being the cocky young whippersnapper who has a thing or two to learn about how many lemon wedges accompany the Ultimate Feast before earning the title of “Seafood Expert” printed on his namecard. In the alley (area of kitchen where waiters come and go) is a metal cave that contains nugget after nugget of golden cheddar bay biscuits ™. So golden are these biscuits in the eyes of the Red Lobster customer, that the cave is often completely excavated by prior customers demanding refills before subsequent customers have a chance to sample the fare for the first time. When the cave empties, a microphone hovers above the cave for communication with the kitchen. “Communication” typically entails “Low on bread,” or “Out of biscuits.” I try to mix it up when I call for extra bread, usually affecting a baritone and saying “We are loooow on cheddar biscuits. I repeat, we are low on cheddar biscuits.” Sometimes a “May-day! May-day! We’re down on bread!” suffices. You have to do these little things to keep from crying and/or stealing coconut shrimp from every 8-piece appetizer plate that passes before your face.

A few days ago, when burdened with the task of requesting more bread, I went with the former communication option, and then repeated it a few minutes later out of urgency. Eureka happened to be the employee in charge of scooping and baking biscuits. After dropping off some food, I walked briskly back into the kitchen in time to hear her deliver the words “Where’s Griffin at? I’m gonna choke that motherfucker,” to an African American coworker, who had just chided her about a fictional (? please God) fetus in her uterus. Apparently only white coworkers call her “Mama.” Black coworkers use “Eureka” and tease her like she’s one of the guys. So to write.

The Motherfucker walked casually into the kitchen to refill his drinks, acting as if he hadn’t eavesdropped on the conversation. But Eureka don’t play coy, boy. I 180’d from the drink station and she glared at me from under the lining of her hair net. “I’m gonna choke the shit outta you.”

Why?

“Because you won’t quit calling for that damn bread.”

Liking my size advantage but not my experience in fist fights with angry black women, I attempted to navigate the comic route, you know, the one that involves shielding yourself with a pleasant puzzle of words.

Is choking somebody over cheddar bay biscuits really worth the years of hard time you’re gonna serve in prison?

“Yep,” she said with no sarcasm in her eyes. “I ain’t afraid of no prison. I ain’t got nothing to lose.”

I thought about this for a second. She really did have nothing to lose. I took my tray out of the kitchen and avoided Eureka and cheese biscuits for the remainder of the day.

Fast forward with the aid of that time machine composed of hours of mindless labor and oversleeping to the present. Lunch today at the Lob was slower than Texas. I spent time hovering near Eureka in the kitchen, calling her by her actual name, asking how everything was going. She told me that she could quit her job whenever she wanted and claim disability. Her doctor had informed her a couple of years ago that she could stop working and claim disability, but she wanted to wait for the right moment to claim that shit. Then she could quit, sip Aristocrat screwdrivers at home, and come back to Red Lobster to work only part-time.

I said, Yes. Good. You wait for the right moment to spring that bitch on them.

To the 60-year old grandmother figure.

She now confides in me and once again calls me “baby” when sprinkling parsley on top of my mashed potatoes.

Bill McGinnis, a fellow server in his 30’s, brought a newspaper to work with him today. On the front page of the Decatur Daily, above the fold, was an article and accompanying photograph featuring Bill McGinnis. The only differences between the man by my side and the man on the page were discrepancies in physical appearance and career success. The paper fellow had been frozen, preserved with a pair of giant scissors in his hands, cutting the protective ribbon of some important new building. Bill explained that the two men only appeared to be different, and that Future Bill graced the newspaper cover. Note the positioning of his body in the photograph to block the clock tower from the photographer’s lens. Bill also said that he was like an old, overweight black lady (Eureka perhaps?) in that the only thing he had going for him was his personality. He said this while we were discussing an attractive girl who was eating Mother’s day lunch with her…mother…at one of my tables. Well, my only table. Slow Friday. I informed him that being a man was actually the perfect gender for his dilemma, because the physical appearance of women is entirely more important to men than the physical appeal of men is to women. Note the conversation we’re having right now for evidence, I said to Bill. Many homely men have pulled stellar beauties by talking their way into affection. Personality before looks, in our situation, I said. I remember my former girlfriend telling me this paradox of looks/personality one time. I argued at that time, because it’s a hobby, albeit one I don’t enjoy. But she was correct. Bill concurred.

Bill and I have our own little sets of jokes we deliver to tables, using the prompts provided to us (various menus, cheese biscuits, straws, the refilling of glasses). They’re kind of like our personal, intimate stand-up routines. Bill had recently utilized the restaurant label maker to place a “party rock” label on a stone he found outside the establishment. I told him it was sure to be a steady wingman for him at the bar. He set down his party rock to watch the legs of my 25% tipping customer leave the restaurant.

The people I typically befriend are (usually) males who have a penchant for creating absurd scenarios through the give-and-take of conversation rather than traditional small talk. It’s a creative process, of sorts, in which a friend makes a comment, I add something ridiculous, he contributes something even more ridiculous, etc. Imagination and a lack of political correctness might be the most basic components. One of the hosts at Red Lobster named Tyler happens to be one of these people. In a smoke-free restaurant where a conversational nebulous composed of tip complaints lingers in the air, his comments are a breath of fresh mountain air, an inhalation of Febreze. Today the topic of a dead body hanging by a noose from the rafters of the Red Lobster entrance worked its way into our dialogue. Then we discussed simultaneously tazering the hanging body, just for the spectacle of excess. Then we discussed also beating the hanging body with a pinata stick and filming it for somewhere close to 30 minutes – excess being the entire point – in order to make an artistic statement (the logistics of a body double and possible mannequin usage were discussed as well). The potential ending entailed the corpse expelling shit from itself, showering onto the carpet like candy. Final shot: close-up on the shit. We planned on placing a checkmark next to the “experimental” category on the Sundance submission form. (Last week we discussed a grizzly bear waiter named Grrrrr who often faced difficulty writing down orders due to lack of opposable thumbs, and who had been written up by the manager on three separate occasions for mauling customers.) The most important thing for these conversations is to keep the dialogue flowing naturally, to act as if nothing is abnormal, to continue to contribute and discuss without stating that something is farcical or funny. Laughter is OK, though. Laughter is the goal.

As I was disinfecting tables and counting sugar packets at the end of my shift, a blind, possibly mentally retarded, customer entered the restaurant with a couple of ladies who I assume were kin. The young man spoke in tongues, unintelligible (yet deliberate) moans, i.e. “eh deh ah eh nah”, with the whole phrase being monotonal, except for a fall in the final syllable of the utterance. It was chant-like, consistent, intriguing. There was a seer in our presence, Tiresius, if only the people granted vision would open their eyes to witness his presence, attune their ears to pick up the patterns in his chants. Many of these chants were drowned by the mollifying coos of his female companions. John Mayer sang about a wonderland somewhere near the ceiling.

I earned 10 dollars today for 2 hours and 30 minutes of work. I believe that’s half of minimum wage.

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