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From “On Waitressing,” which was published in September by The Stinging Fly.

Before I was eighteen, I found talking very difficult. I was a really shy kid. I lacked ease, and craved it more than anything. I was extremely attracted to people who seemed to glide through the world, who kissed cheeks and touched arms and delivered jokes over their shoulders without stopping. People who had naturally good timing, who didn’t jerk or stutter, were miraculous to me.

Waitresses seemed to personify this kind of social grace. I admired them the way another kid might have admired Disney Channel stars or basketball players. I probably didn’t admit or even realize this admiration at the time. Still, I have really clear memories of watching waitresses in restaurants, my first prepubescent crushes. Growing up in Florida, I remember being in Olive Garden or TGI Fridays or IHOP, and the waitresses being nice to me when I tried to say “chicken fingers” or “pancakes” and suddenly felt a gut-wrenching terror, like I’d never made a noise in my life, let alone anything resembling words. I liked the terms of endearment that seemed as natural and necessary as punctuation to the waitressing language: being called “honey,” “sweetie,” or “sugar” made me feel as if I’d earned these names, and was as much of a reward as getting ice cream. The waitresses always seemed beautiful and unafraid. I admired their jokes as they scuttled past one another, the shout of the chefs from the kitchen countered by their laughter, the little looks that made me think, even as a kid, that they all loved one another.

At eighteen, I moved to London, got my first job in a pub, and finally learned how to talk. I learned to set the pace of a conversation by hurrying along my: “What can I get you?” I learned that a question could be formed from one word alone: “Double? Ice?” I learned gestures for clarity, using my thumb and forefinger to spell out wine sizes. “Small? Medium? Large?” I learned to time my “How is everything?” so that tourists wouldn’t struggle to swallow a bite of their microwaved steak-and-ale pie. Then, as a hostess, I learned how to set a scene for conversation to flourish: always seat the corners first; never put a six-top in for less than two hours no matter how fast they promise to be; don’t sit a couple next to kids at brunch. In late-night bars, I learned how to appease drunk people who wanted to fight, how to talk my way away from someone without them realizing, how to apologize, and how to tell someone to fuck off. I learned to sound exactly how I was supposed to sound (like a waitress-robot) and how to get tables to tell me their life stories by dessert (like a waitress-therapist). And alongside all this, I worked with dozens of colleagues who I spoke to more genuinely than anyone I’ve ever known. I soon learned—and fell in love with—the kind of unpressured chat that accompanies a Tuesday lunch shift, when there is nothing to do except empty the fridges as a team of two, scrubbing out the insides while simultaneously disentangling everything that’s ever happened in your lives.

Working in restaurants is an excellent place to fall in love or have an unsustainable crush, especially when you are young. Behind a bar or in a kitchen, there are so many opportunities to be kind to each other, which is a lovely genre of flirting. Being given flowers is nice, maybe, but my first boyfriend remembering to turn off the Guinness tap for me as I struggled to fling three tonics into glasses was the kind of repeated act, particularly at eighteen, that really made me swoon. There was a forced closeness to the shift patterns that lent itself to a strange excitement: like, okay, we’re together on a Wednesday morning shift and it’s just the two of us behind the bar, what are we going to talk about for seven hours straight? There was a coziness to it, time seemed endless and infinite, it never had to be grabbed for or organized or earned through a text. It was decided randomly by rota; the managers, careless matchmakers, like God. If I stood beside someone for long enough, I ended up having a crush on them just to pass the time, even if it only lasted the duration of the shift. It illuminated conversations, made the dullest observations shine. We talked about everything: our mothers, our moon signs, every date we’d ever been on. And when we were bored of ourselves, we could not look at a phone or computer, so instead we could only watch the diners and drinkers, and talk about them. Our entire job was to interact with a particular focus group of humanity during their rituals of intimacy (dates, celebrations, gossip). It’s a beautiful thing to watch and discuss, like a movie you think about for weeks after, remembering all the details.

Most of the time, waitressing made me love people, in all their insecurity, their vulnerability, and their attempts to be impressive or attractive to the person sitting opposite them. I loved how they tried and mostly failed but kept trying anyway, over and over, every night of the week. It actually made me feel a bit sick with love, the same kind of nausea as when I watch reality TV shows where people try with their whole being to sing but can’t hold a note. Maybe in my more powerful days as a waitress, I felt like a movie director, or a kid bashing two dolls together to make them kiss, leading couples on with my lines, inflating their egos, advising them on the nice wine, the liqueurs, the lighter dessert they could share. I laughed at their jokes that weren’t really funny, because I appreciated the effort, the way I’d laugh for a friend if they suddenly took up stand-up comedy.

Sometimes shifts went especially well. People were lulled into a pleasant tipsiness, and tables would start asking about one another’s food, which led to them asking about one another’s lives. Couples would hold hands, their eyes turning gooey, and they would start giving the waitstaff compliments on our outfits. When people were happy, they were grateful and kind, like people who were slightly stoned. Running between the kitchen and the floor felt like crossing between two worlds, between the tension in the back where something was on fire, and the front, where I pretended everything was perfect. And sometimes it did feel that way, like a loud, noisy, messy version of perfection: a lot of people who liked each other talking at the same time.

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February 2023

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