Saturday, December 30, 2006

Nights in Market Square

by Gina Sestak

The summer before I started law school, I worked as a waitress three nights a week. Unlike Nancy (see her December 26 blog), I didn't work in a bar. My coworkers weren't mobsters. They were Jehovah's Witnesses.

I found that out my first night on the job. I was taking a much needed break when the male cook came out of the kitchen and sat down beside me. "Can I ask you a personal question?" I tensed up, expecting a come-on, but he asked, "When is the last time you praised Jesus?" I'd just gotten my undergraduate degree in Anthropology, with a focus on comparative religion, so I didn't mind the Bible-based discussions. And the coworkers were generally nice people. They didn't rob the customers. In fact, a homeless old woman would come in every night, sit down in a booth, order a (free) cup of hot water into which she'd dip her own tea bag, and nod off. My coworkers would let her sleep in peace for a few hours.

The restaurant was in Pittsburgh's Market Square, at that time the hot spot for the club scene. Drunks would come in after the bars closed at 2 a.m. One man fell asleep sitting on a stool, with his head in a plate of food and his hand in a cup of coffee. We were afraid to wake him, for fear he'd startle and fall, so we left him there to sleep it off. He was quite the conversation piece.

When I say I worked nights I really mean nights. I started at 11 p.m. and worked until 7 a.m. every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. This was the same summer that I had a full-time day job painting walls (see my October 21 blog), so I spent a good deal of it being utterly exhausted. On Fridays I would get off work at 4:30 p.m., go home to sleep for few hours, then go to work in the restaurant. On Sundays I would leave the restaurant at 7 a.m., get on a bus, and start the painting job at 8 a.m. The restaurant's air conditioner was broken for part of the summer, so on hot nights we did little business and got meager tips. The gung-ho head waitress wouldn't let me rest, though; we'd spend the slow time cleaning and refilling condiments.

What did I learn from this job?

I learned that I'm a lousy waitress. I could never keep the customers' orders straight. It's hard to remember who ordered what, and some customers will eat whatever you put down in front of them, whether they ordered it or not. If every customer did that, there wouldn't be a problem, but only some are so accommodating. Say Customer A orders chicken and Customer B orders fish. The fish is done first, and I accidentally serve it to Customer A, who starts to eat it. When I give Customer B the chicken, though, he points out that he didn't order chicken. By then, Customer A has eaten most of the fish, so I can't just switch plates. I have to put in another order for fish for Customer B, who is now mad because it's going to take awhile to cook. By now Customer A has realized that he never ordered fish, and so he wants his check changed. All this dissatisfaction leads to measly tips.

I learned that the most obnoxious drunk can usually be cooled off by spilling Coke or a milk shake in his lap (although another waitress had to go after a guy with a pot of hot coffee one night).

I learned to go without sleep, and to sleep on buses, waking just in time to get off at the right stop.

I learned why restaurants give free coffee and food discounts to cops. It's not a bribe and, contrary to the official line, it's not in appreciation of their service to the public. The idea is that any criminal who sees police wandering in and out at all hours will avoid robbing the place. It seemed to work. The restaurant was never robbed while I was working there, even though it was usually the only thing open in the area.

I'm not sure what else I learned -- whatever it was, I was much too tired to remember it.


Anonymous said...

I want to hear more about your discussions with the Jehovah's witnesses! Would they actually answer your questions, or was it always about selling God?

Anonymous said...

Tory -
It's not so much about selling God as it is about making converts before the last great showdown between good and evil, a kind of spiritual recruiting office for God's forces. Jehovah's Witnesses are very fundamentalist. They rely on a literal reading of the Bible and eschew the trappings of paganism that have crept into most of the rest of Christianity. I found them (and their Watch Tower publications) to be an interesting source of info on the pagan origins of some nominally Christian practices, like Christmas (which they do not celebrate).

Anonymous said...

Gina, I love all your stories about your many, many varied and interesting jobs. Thanks for sharing another one with us!

Anonymous said...


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