The Glamorous Life: Waiting Tables on the Upper West Side

In the summer of 1994, broke and increasingly desperate, I roamed New York City, or rather, just Manhattan, looking for work as a bartender. I had worked as one before, in Newark, and hoped that I would find an employment venue which would provide me with the Holy Grail of bartending work: an interesting bar scene and plentiful tips. I could have looked for other kinds of employment; I did possess a graduate degree in computer science after all. But I was unwilling to take on a job that might suck me back into the world of nine-to-fivers, and part-time consulting gigs, after looking plentiful in the earlier part of the summer, had dried up again.  There was no campus employment to be found; my savings had evaporated; I had been reduced to being the recipient of handouts–leftover sandwiches–from a friendly waiter at a local diner. (Thanks Joe!)

So, I bought a copy of the Boston Bartenders Guide, refreshed my memory in case anyone subjected me to a quick viva on cocktails and set off. A week later, I was exhausted, a few pounds lighter, and sadly lacking in leads. It was summer; every bar-tending job in Manhattan seemed to have been taken.

But waiting tables was still possible. And indeed, one afternoon, as I walked through the Upper West Side on Amsterdam Avenue, stopping in at one restaurant after another, I was asked by the owner to turn up for work the next day, making sure to wear a pair of black trousers and a white shirt. I didn’t ask about wages or tips. Work awaited.

For the next few weeks, till classes began again in the fall, I was on call for waiter duties. I shadowed a veteran for a day to learn the ropes, made two dollars an hour, and contributed a percentage of my tips to the busboys (from Honduras and El Salvador). The waiters were allowed one free meal from the kitchen during our shift. The trade was simple: the veteran and I alternated in picking up customers from the front door, took ours to our side of the seating area, tried to get them to order drinks, wrote up food orders and rang the kitchen bell to let the cooks know, checked in at the table after serving food, pushed drinks again, kept an eye out for the check call, and so on.

It was tedious and tiring though, and our customers were often rude, impatient and cranky. I expected poor tipping at times, and I got it. I did wait tables on Al Sharpton once, and he was an excellent tipper. My boss had a sharp tongue and she used it quite often, making me feel like a cross between a poor student and a shiftless layabout. Despite these irritations, I was never compelled to spit in anyone’s soup. My biggest earnings came on a weekend when I worked 22 hours over a Saturday and Sunday and took home 110 dollars. Somehow, bizarrely, when all was said and done, I was earning five dollars an hour.  The busboys had it much worse; they worked longer hours; they had longer commutes; they made less money. This was a fool’s game. For all concerned.

A couple of weeks before the fall semester (and my partial assistantship) began, I quit abruptly. Rather, I simply didn’t turn up for work, and refused to answer calls. I was exhausted and worn out. I would never wait tables again. I still don’t understand how the restaurant industry functions.

3 comments on “The Glamorous Life: Waiting Tables on the Upper West Side

  1. awbraae says:

    How does the industry survive? Because even in your desperation, there would have been, and always will be people far more desperate than you. Don’t take this the wrong way but you clearly had options and a degree to fall back on, most in the industry don’t. Most hospitality work forces aren’t unionised either, meaning workers are more vulnerable to losing hours or jobs at short notice.

  2. Samir Chopra says:

    Awbraae: No doubt. The busboys clearly were, and there are many more like them. And as you point out (and as I did on Facebook) the hospitality work force is not unionized!

    • Barbara Ehrenreich also described these problems in ‘Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.’ But NYC has one of the most exploitative environments for workers, based on my personal experience.

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