About Waiting

Anyone who prides themselves on their patience and understanding should wait tables for a week or so to find out just how patient and understanding they really are.

Many people are notoriously insensitive to workers in the food service industry; just ask any waitperson, bartender or cook. Any given one of them doubtless has several stories to tell of rude and insensitive if not to say vulgar treatment at the hands of a patron. The business of food and drink is a service industry, and it’s no coincidence that the word service comes from the Latin root servus, meaning slave. The food industry trains people to be servile, to cater to customers (and management) in an overtly deferential way because so much of a restaurant’s livelihood depends on steady patronage. I’m not suggesting that anybody who works in the business is at the beck and call of every s.o.b. with enough money to buy a hamburger, but some people certainly seem to think so. These customers, either out of ignorance, stupidity, or a delusional sense of self-worth, will exhaust and demean a waiter, detracting not only from their own enjoyment of a meal but also (far more critically) from that of others.

In her autobiography, My Life as a Restaurant, Alice Brock, owner of Alice’s Restaurant, describes the situation well and offers a very human response:

I am often accused of being rude to customers. Well, it’s true, I am as rude as they are, only they don’t always realize their behavior is inhuman: after all, I am in a restaurant and THEY are hungry, THEY drove all the way from Florida, THEY just want a sandwich, THEY just want to see Alice, THEY just want to look around, and take a picture, get an autograph, use the bathroom, introduce me to their dog, who is named Alice, have a cup of coffee, SPEAK TO THE OWNER…because this food-covered lady in work boots, who is so rude, can’t possibly be the OWNER. I guess I have a temper…good! I won’t stand for being treated like a piece of public property or a freak and I will never allow a customer to get away with giving an employee a hard time. The customer is NOT always right.  Being a “service industry” makes people think we are just computerized slaves.

One of the high-lights of an evening is to hear of a customer bringing a waitress to tears…I rush out to the dining room, pull their plates off the table and point to the door: “OUT…OUT…GET OUT AND LEARN SOME MANNERS!” To try to please the “difficult” customer at the expense of my fellow workers is ridiculous. Some people just have an attitude. They upset the waiter or waitress, who in turn upsets me, who in turn upsets the whole evening. It’s not worth it to try to please or placate these bitter, unhappy people, better to put them out at the first sign of trouble. This is something I have to be there to do…it’s hard to tell or expect someone else to do it. Sometimes I’m wrong, or the waitress is wrong, but better to lose a customer than a co-worker. (p.119)

Ms. Brock is a notable exception, since most managerial-type people treat their waitstaff as expendable. And, to be fair, most people who eat out frequently learn how to deal courteously with waiters, but I’ll be the first to admit that it is a learning process. Nowadays, dining out is almost always coupled with another experience (a movie, a play or some other sort of public entertainment) but at one time dining out itself was often taken as a singular occasion to be enjoyed on its own merits rather than as an appendage to another event. This happy time was when restaurants were successful not merely on the basis of turnover, but more on the quality of the foods they offered, the comfortable atmosphere they maintained, and the genial clientele they accommodated. Great care was taken not only with the menu, which usually involved many courses designed to fit the season as well as the particular talents of the cooks and the general style of the restaurant itself, but also with the presentation, the service, the table, seating, lighting, and atmosphere. Such staging demanded a great deal of planning as well as much care in the execution.

I have seen some degree of return to this tradition, but it is still rare to find a restaurant that does not cater to some abominable god of expediency. I’ve often encountered difficulty when dining out and trying to take my time between one course and the next with a pause to have a bit of beverage and conversation because waitpersons tend to interrupt with an insistent, “Are you alright?” as if to say that by not yelling at them for not bringing the food immediately that they were falling down on their job. The reason for this is that waiters are programmed to turn over tables as quickly as possible and since most patrons have had the “20% tip” rule-of-thumb drummed into their heads waiters are eager to get the tip and get you out in order to get the next. Me, I tip as well as I can; just want you all to know that.

Waiting is dancing with  dialogue. I’ve known champion waiters from both sides of the kitchen doors, and I’ve been subject to the attentions of some world-class bartenders.  (Incidentally, bartenders, as a general rule,  just will not put up with a bunch of bullshit; trust me, I know.) Perhaps what I’m describing is simply an example of what is being called a decline in civility, but as Alice says, “Some people just have an attitude,” and in my book as well as hers such people require adjustment.

Thanksgiving with Alice

Thanksgiving has a uniquely American song, not the sort that Lincoln might have imagined when he inaugurated the holiday in 1863, but “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” is revolutionary, irreverent and earthy; in short, as American as pumpkin pie.

“Now it all started two years ago on Thanksgiving, when my friend and I went up to visit Alice at the Restaurant, but Alice doesn’t live in the restaurant, she lives in the church nearby the restaurant, in the bell-tower, with her husband Ray and Fasha the dog. This song is called Alice’s Restaurant, and it’s about Alice, and the Restaurant, but Alice’s Restaurant is not the name of the restaurant, that’s just the name of the song, and that’s why I called the song ‘Alice’s Restaurant’.”

“I think a lot of people who are interested in food fantasize about having a restaurant,” Alice Brock writes in My Life As a Restaurant (1975). “I never did. I was twenty-five, married and crazy. I was a captive in a situation I had very little control over other than the role of cook and nag—being a hippy housewife was not satisfying. I had a world of fantasies; none included a restaurant, but all were based on the assumption that I would be my own person, on my own trip.”

Alice’s mother, who was a real estate broker in Stockbridge and determined to get her daughter out of her “situation”, called her one day and asked her to go with her and look at a little luncheonette for sale down an alley in the middle of town. “It had a counter down one side and three or four booths on the other side, and a tiny ill-equipped kitchen in the back,” Alice remembers. “It was painted two-tone institutional green, and it was definitely not the kind of place where I would eat, much less own. But it was a chance, a chance to escape. Before we left, I was hooked. I was already creating a menu, I was already free. Those moments, when suddenly an opportunity appears, a door opens—they are what life is all about.”

Alice called her restaurant “The Back Room”. “I knew nothing, absolutely nothing,” she admits. “I can’t believe how innocent I was. But it didn’t matter.” Opening night was a near-disaster, “a nightmare”, but she persevered, and soon she and her sister, who was also in a “situation”, were staying up all night cooking things she later wouldn’t consider for hundred-dollar-a-plate dinners and working five hours making thirty portions of some exotic soup that would vanish in twenty minutes the next day. “I was crazy, she said, “but I know that for all our unprofessionalism, we cooked some pretty wonderful dishes, and I established a reputation as a cook.”

The summer of 1966 was a magical time for Stockbridge; the Berkshire Playhouse had reorganized with an eye to becoming more than just a summer stock theater, attracting stars and would-be stars to the town. “Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman liked hamburgers with onion, green peppers, and an egg in them,” Alice writes. “Frank Langella was called ‘Mr. Mushroom Omelet’. Ann Bancroft was wonderful, and when her whole family came, I cooked giant meals; when they stayed late, she helped me clear the table.”

One spring morning a year after opening, Alice says that she walked through the front door and freaked out. “I felt that instead of owning it, it owned me. The plates were out to get me, the pots were planning an attack, the stove was laughing at me. I had a terrible urge to smash everything.” Instead, she called Eastern Airlines and booked a midnight flight to Puerto Rico, emptied the cash box and gave away all the food. “It was a wonderful restaurant. It was a success. I ran it for one year. It turned me into a madwoman. I made enemies of old friends. I broke up with my husband. I left my home. I had actually broken free and become my own person. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I would never have another restaurant. Never say never.”

Alice Brock went on to open not one but several more restaurants; she now lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she owns an art gallery. After Arlo premiered “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” before a captivated crowd of over ten thousand at the Newport Jazz Festival in July, 1967, he performed it live on non-commercial New York City radio station WBAI one night later that summer. The song became so popular that for months afterward WBAI rebroadcast it only when listeners pledged to donate a large amount of money. The eponymous (less the massacree) album was released that same year, with the song (at 18:20) taking up the entire first side, the other filled with a selection of bluesy folk tunes. The ballad has become a Thanksgiving tradition not only for classic rock stations, but for thousands of households across the nation.