Dec 28, 2007

I Am NOT Your Friend

It didn't take me long to understand how waiting tables here in the U.S. is a different task than in Italy. Simply put, the TIP is what keeps the dining worlds apart.

In Italy, when they don't work under the table, waiters receive a regular salary and people who dine out don't have to leave tips. They may or may not, but if they do, it's just an extra courtesy and the small change they leave is not even enough for a bus ride. Good service or bad service, it doesn't matter. At the end of the month the waiter will cash in the same amount of money.

Here tips set the rules. You work for the tip, you smile for the tip, you keep filling water for the tip, you ask:” Is everything OK?” for the tip, you make eye contact for the tip, you offer your advice (i.e. you lie) on wine and food for the tip, you introduce yourself (just to clarify, I've never done that...) for the tip. Even if they hate doing that, waiters end up being all friendly and social, so that their duties begin to resemble more those of a VP of Customer Relations than those of a food runner.

But for some obscure reasons, customers at the dining table love to be fooled; they go out and feel lonely; they forget the obvious even if they've barely touched the wine. It happens all the time: customers do not want to think that you’re there smiling at them because your goal is at least a 20% on top of the bill. They actually like the fact that someone finally talks to them in a nice way; worst of all, some of them may even start talking back and try to engage you in a conversation that is not about the thickness of the pizza crust or the amount of butter in the cream sauce.

As soon as you notice the signs of an imminent too friendly conversation, if you are not smart and fast enough to come up with an excuse to run away, (why the pizza for your table is never ready when you need it?), you are trapped. The friendly customers will start telling you all about their family (and you think: "I don’t care, you know?"), their long day at work ("I don’t care, I am at work, you know?"), their happy children ("I don’t care, those kids at table 5 left a mess and I need to clean it up, you know?"), their new girlfriend ("I don’t care, I am single, you know?"), their ex-wife ("I don't care, did I mention I am single for a reason, you know?"), their social life ("I don’t care, I am here forced to be social and I hate it, you know?"), their last workout session ("I don't care, you should rather stop eating all that cheese, you know?"), their Italian heritage and family traditions ("I don’t care, I was born and raised in Italy, I think I know better, you know?"), their plans for Xmas ("I don' care, all I want is a day off to stay away from this place, you know?").

Why don’t you get it, people? I don't want to hear your stories, I don't want to know your name nor that of all your extended family, I don't want to help you planning your next trip to Italy, I don't want to know what you do for living and where you went to school, I don't want to share my favourite tomato sauce recipe with you, I don't want to hear your movie recommendations and I don't want to teach you italian. All I want is being able to deliver the spaghetti when they're still hot, add meatballs if you like them, and hand you the bill.

Just remember: I am NOT your friend; I DON’T want to be one.

Dec 14, 2007

Back Stock Therapy

A couple of years ago I worked for a while as a salesperson in an upscale retail store, selling yoga clothes to wealthy women.

I used to fall asleep on the bus on my way home after work, my energy sucked away by hundreds of crazy shoppers who would auction their friend in exchange for the latest style of sweats in time for their next ashtanga class. I had never thought that yoga was really all that spiritual anyways.

Few times I even missed the bus stop, as I was too exhausted to wake up and interrupt my sweet end-of-working-day dreams. One day, though, I had a real nightmare; customers were throwing thousands of black stretchy pants out of the dressing rooms, clothes were piling endlessly on the table and I was suffocating. I woke up in panic, sweating and cold at the same time. "That's it", I thought, "I quit". That's how I found myself at the end of the bus line, in an unfriendly neighborhood, scared and unemployed.

Compared to other retail environments, monstrous creations of modern times such as Victoria's Secrets or Abercrombie & Fitch, the job wasn't all that bad. We enjoyed free yoga classes, lots of healthy snacks and some nice massages here and there. But we still had to deal with customers and fake our smiling happy face all day long. One of the rules of our job was that we could NEVER EVER say anything bad about customers while on the floor. People were fired for that. No matter how rude customers were, how big the mess they would leave behind, how snobby and high maintenance. No bad talking. Period.

But as all rules, even that one had its exception. We used to call it Back Stock Therapy. Once a week, everyone had to work his/her shift in the backstock, taking care of the inventory and organizing the new merchandise. During backstock we were not dealing with customers,we didn't have to smile all the time and we could dress the way we wanted. Most of all, we could talk about anything and we were allowed to rant and rave freely. Backstock shifts were heaven, they saved us from going insane and were always a lot of fun.

This blog is supposed to be my personal Back Stock Therapy, my own way to survive after years and years spent waiting tables and dealing with hungry and pretenciuos customers.

Remember: I'm not bad, I just turned that way.