Sometimes, I have pangs of nostalgia for the symphonic perfection of a great night working at a busy restaurant; gorgeous plates sliding from the kitchen, a dining room filled with clinky glasses and laughter…the speed, the dance, the grace. Really earning the cold beer that comes after, and the exhausted relief of sitting my ass down.
I remember a week of being a college student and a server at the lovely Hell’s Kitchen cheese and wine bar I helped to open. I was working the late shift. How late? From five until we closed at 2 a.m. Or rather, until we finished cleaning up and filling out paperwork, so more like 3 a.m., maybe later.
I had been up all night the evening before, writing an epic anthropology paper, and up the night before that, drinking convoluted cocktails with giant ego’d mixologists. I am a person who loves my sleep, and I was running on empty. Or running on caffeine and the toxic fumes of fancy gin and steamy pho from the place on the corner. But none of that adequately substitutes for shuteye.
The night was relentless. People kept coming and coming and coming. At 1 a.m., they were still coming full speed ahead, wanting lambrusco and bruléed blue cheese and chocolate cake.
Sometime around midnight, I crashed.
There had always been on-nights, when I sailed from table to table and poured wine and talked about ramps, when the whole thing was glittery and gratifying. And then there were the off-nights, or parts of nights, where a semi-creepy regular made my skin crawl, and I dropped a glass or two, and I felt like the last ounce of niceness had been drained from my soul. So I faked it. I took breathers and polished silverware and fantasized about making a swift and dramatic exit. I hung in there.
This late, busy night was not like that; I transcended grumpy or stressed or groggy. I hit a wall, and big time.
I had a million tables all at once, and I started to forget stuff, which I pretty much never did. I was the queen of dropped plates and shattered glasses, but if I said I would bring you some lemon or a glass of pinot blanc, I was good for my word.
But not that night. I had to take an order for an entire table again, because I forgot. Everything. I popped a Champagne cork across the room and hit a tiny woman square between her shoulder blades. She gave me the look of death.
My tables asked for checks, which I failed to deliver. They asked for stinky Meadow Creek grayson and hazelnut truffles, but their orders were lost on me. My head was swimming, and simultaneously empty. The room was spinning. I was on the brink of tears.
And then, lo and behold, my tables had their cheese, their wine, their checks. I was falling deep into the shits, and someone had my back.
It was Jamie. Jaime was a super experienced server, a former dancer who told the strangest, dirtiest of jokes, and brought in her mom’s pumpkin seed brittle to share with the staff. She saw I was struggling and came to my rescue.
“Jamie, thank you!!” I said.
“No problem,” she said, “you look terrible.”
Jamie was the angel of the day. “Go home,” she said, with receipts still to tally, chairs to stack. “I got this.”
(P.S. Now Jamie and her husband own a supremely cool cheese and wine spot in Jersey City called Third & Vine, which you should visit as soon as humanly possible.)
I gave Jamie a big hug that night, and stumbled half asleep into a taxi. The cab driver had to wake me up to drop me off at home.
There is a unique brand of exhaustion in the restaurant biz, different from cramming for a test, organizing a project, marathoning through meetings, or writing into the wee hours.
It’s physical. After a long day, your feet are sore and your back is achy. There is distance to cover, and plates to carry, and trips downstairs for wine or gelato. And it’s emotional. Being constantly nice and hospitable is draining, especially when it’s not reciprocated. You’re always on. All the smiling wears on you. All the patience. It’s mental, too. Waiting tables may not be rocket science, but when things are flying, you have to think and act fast, faster, without a moment to breathe — always a dozen things at one time, always something else.
So at the end of the night, I wanted to avoid all human contact and read stupid magazines in my PJs. I craved some quality time with absolutely nobody. The next night would be another long one. I would need my game face and a good answer for the angry dude who was moved to rage by the disappointing size of his duck breast.