When I signed on to help out at a dinner to raise money for a community food bank recently, I envisioned myself greeting patrons and passing out name tags. What actually happened was that the kitchen was short of servers, and within minutes of arriving, I had doffed my dress-up jacket and was waiting tables.
Even before this memorable evening, however, I had never taken service personnel for granted. I say please and thank you, pay attention when the specials are announced and err on the side of overtipping to acknowledge the servers' work.
What I never understand before my night as a waitress was all that work involves. In addition to being sheer grueling physical labor, it is also a graceful ballet of anticipating needs, timing appearances and tuning in to the personalities of the customers.
The owner of the restaurant where the event was being held had posted a short list of instructions for those of us who hadn't a clue about what we were doing: Take drink orders, serve the drinks and take food orders, dress and serve the salads while the entree is being prepared, serve the dinners, clear the plates, present the bill.
It all sounds simple and straightforward enough, except that it isn't.
I arrived at the first table full of confidence and enthusiasm - so much, in fact, that the diners hadn't yet sat down and weren't ready for me. They said they needed a minute, but by the time I returned they had spotted friends at nearby tables and dispersed.
When I finally served their drinks and took their food orders, a whole new set of issues arose: I had to repeat the salad dressing options for each person, the children couldn't make up their minds and one man insisted on white meat only, despite the fact that the precooked portions of chicken had been identically prepared earlier that afternoon.
The rudest awakening came when the vibrating beeper in my pocket signaled that the meals were ready and I returned to the kitchen to retrieve them. I had never thought about what a huge oval tray bearing six loaded crockery plates might weigh, but I couldn't have guessed it would be so heavy. The pros who were working that night hoisted theirs up to their shoulders and sailed into the dining room. I staggered under the weight of mine, so ominous and pathetic that the customers milling around the room parted like the Red Sea to let me go through. The unexpected slope between the kitchen and the main floor didn't help matters, either.
When I got the food to the table, I passed around the six meals from one spot as if I were dealing cards rather than serving them individually to each person's place. In such a crowded room, I could see it would be midnight before they ate if I followed the rules.
The next group arrived with a member missing. Naturally, just as I'd served their salads he arrived, so that now everything was out of sync. To add to my frustration, they decided to expand to two tables, so that my careful mental picture of where they were seated and what should be served to whom was for naught.
The customers at my first table were clearly ready for more drinks, but they were deep in conversation and didn't seem eager for me to interrupt. When I tried to clear away their empties, someone shrieked that she was still nursing a half-full glass of melted ice.
When I delivered their bill, they left the little black leather envelope lying on the table while they visited with each other and friends in other parts of the room. Now I had to pretend nonchalance as I walked past their table and checked to see if they were ready to pay.
My other group settled up promptly enough but then decided to stay on for another round of drinks. Ultimately they were the last table to leave, despite all of the wait staff hovering around, eager to clean up so we could eat our own late dinners and go home.
The people at this event were kind, polite and friendly. They had come to support a cause in which they believed, and they were more than happy to overlook this beginner's mistakes. Real-life servers also have to deal with a layer of rudeness and impatience that must make their job exponentially more difficult.
At the end of the evening, the good slacks I had worn were dotted with grease and chocolate, and the white blouse under my silk vest was drenched with sweat. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything, but I was bone tired and immensely more appreciative of the people who do that job for a living.
And just for the record, in case you weren't counting, here's the number of parties I was serving: two.
Glenda Winders is editor of Copley News Service.