Friday, July 10, 2009
6. Do Unto Others
Good evening, my name is Sarah, and I’ll be your server for the evening. Here’s a menu of our drinks and appetizers to start you off; our soup of the day is Crème de la Mushroom. If you’d like some suggestions on your wine for the evening my boyfriend Allan will be around in a moment with some recommendations. He’s not really my boyfriend. Hi, my name is Sarah, can I refill your glass? Allen passed me in the kitchen and told me you might be running low. No, he didn’t. Good afternoon, my name is Sarah, and I’m here to make your own marriage look like crap. Not really, but that’s what I think I’m doing, sometimes. My job is to pretend that Allen is my boyfriend, and to let you know that fact whenever it looks like you might be about to make a scene over your breadsticks, and it’s my job to look like I’m head over heels while I do it. My manager had this idea, see. Well, let me backup. I work in a “family-style” restaurant that’s part of a national franchise. Foreign food with American flavor; the kind of place that aspires to have separate forks for meat and salad, but knows you can never remember which is which, so you’ll open your rolled-up napkin to find two forks of the exact same size. But they stay away from being too rigid about the franchise bit, trying to keep from feeling too much like a chain. We’re thinly spread enough that a lot of people don’t realize we’re a chain at all. Anyway, corporate lets the individual managers have a fair bit of wiggle-room in how they set up and operate, floorplan, décor, menu, etc, it all gets some slight tweaks from restaurant from restaurant. So the manager of the place I work at had this bright idea. Wouldn’t it be great if, whenever you sensed some conjugal tension developing at a table, you could send out some glowing reminder of how great it all really could be, how it used to be when you first started dating back in college? Then so reminded, you would amend your ways and embrace a kinder, friendlier stance, all aglow in remembrance of simpler times, like you’d just walked out of a Frank Capra marathon at the theatre. Yeah, he thought so. You can’t spring this on waitstaff all of a sudden, though, it’d probably count as some kind of harassment (“Local Manager Urges Sex Play Among Employees!”), I don’t know, so he phased it in slowly, hiring people with the understanding that this was what they’d be doing, and not asking the waitstaff already there to change anything. Eventually enough people left that he had a fair-sized couple’s army hired up. I was a theatre studies minor in college, so I guess it fit me okay. Allen’s a not exactly my type, but we keep it together. Everybody, when they were hired, has to go through some interpersonal communication courses at the community college, which the manager actually pays for up front; if we stay a year, he keeps the bill; otherwise, we pay him back. The idea is that we’ll be able to recognize the signs of an impending argument and be able to prevent it. It doesn’t take a lot to work in a reference to your significant other, not with enough practice. Allen’ll engage them in some small talk; yeah, he just came up from California, his girlfriend and him are going to get engaged as soon as they get enough saved up from working here. That’s a little heavy, but Allen likes it because it has the bonus effect of leaving larger tips. He says. Allen refills your icewater and thinks it’s, whew, quite a scorcher out today, huh? Doesn’t even wanna think about what it’s like for his girlfriend, over by the grille; yeah, your shrimp kabobs’ll be right out. I’m going to get you a new fork, and, just to ensure you have even faster service, sic my boyfriend Allen on getting you a new basket of endless steak fries at the same time. Oh, you like my hair? Yeah, I got it cut for my boyfriend, he’s serving over there at the next table. (You don’t think I don’t get random compliments from patrons? Hells yes; we women need to stick together, and if you think your husband’s ignoring you, first thing you’re going to do is random-nicety the pants off everyone you meet.) So what’s the point of all this? Cueing. Letting people know how it could be. Monkey see, monkey do. And the point, for my boss, isn’t really getting those two people happy--it’s keeping the atmosphere of the entire restaurant peaceable, preventing a blowup that could ruin someone else’s enjoyment of a platter-sized onion blossom. You get paired up randomly--no picking your partner. That’s the irony of it: if we were friends we couldn’t always be nice. If we were really dating we might really have fights, bad days, shifts where we can’t smile at each other. But we’re not, so we don’t. To be honest, Allen’s actually kind of a douche. But like I said, we keep it together. There are six other couples on staff, and we’ll have maybe three or four out on any one shift, in addition to the “single” waitstaff. Usually you get assigned right at the outset--the concierge identifies problem parties (she’s been through training too) and specifies to the kitchen to send out the first half of a couple. It tends to be families with young kids, but we have college-freshmen-home-for-Christmas-break meals, newly-engaged-and-you-didn’t-tell-us meals, old-fart-and-longsuffering-biddie meals. Separate codes for each one of ‘em, plus a few more. If a family looks okay and doesn’t get assigned a couple, then starts freaking out over whether Mary is too fat to order the shrimp entrée, we have to Go Polygamous (or polyamorous, I suppose), our own pet term for sending out a couple player who isn’t actually paired with the waitstaff already out there. It’s tricky, though--if Kelly claims to be Ryan’s girlfriend, she better hope she hasn’t already claimed to be David’s anywhere within hearing range. Our manager’s a forward-thinker. For those rarer but still possible parent-child spats, like the one I already mentioned with the freshman home for the first time, or a kid telling off her mom to shut the hell up about her being a stripper (it’s happened), for those--the boss is contemplating father-son and mother-daughter waitstaff pairings. Maybe gay and lesbian couples for those most awkward of spats (the more unusual the fight, the more our innocent bystanders’ potential embarrassment). They wouldn’t have to be full time--they could do double duty as hetero couples, only turning into other combinations when the situation demanded it. And why stop there. I’ve only been here nine months, but I’ve seen arguments or the starts of arguments between fledgling entrepreneurial partners, religious leaders (you should’ve seen that one time the Lutheran pastors’ convention descended on us), foster- and birth-parents, you name it. And my boss is pretty popular at the BBB; I’m pretty sure the idea will spread to the other businesses around here before long. Waiting rooms, church pews, concert halls, high school auditoriums for your kid’s first play, golf courses, poolsides, soccer games--anyplace you’re sitting around with other strangers, you could be surrounded by other strangers who know how to always act polite to each other, always turn the other cheek, always do what they know they ought to do. Then their shift will end and they’ll go to be surrounded by other actors, also doing their turn at making nice. I don’t know. It could happen.