WHY IS A WAITER?
CHARLES CHRISTOPHER JENKINS
AT LAST I had found the Perfect Waiter. He had, I observed, a pleasing appearance combined with trained skill and born aptitude. Urbane, smiling, obsequious when addressing himself to the work of serving guests at his table in the diner of this fashionable hotel, one was convinced that this man’s keenest enjoyment lay in the satisfaction of those whose needs he catered to. During inactive moments, when he stood statue-like a few feet from his table, he assumed the colorless, unobtrusive personality of a shadow. His eyes were fixed on space; even his breathing seemed scarcely
perceptible. But at the proper moment or at the slightest indication from a guest that he was needed he was on the spot in a noiseless flash, his face lighting up with humble pleasure.
On this particular day he happened to be serving a honeymooning couple to whom the whole world in general and this popular hotel with its exquisite appointments and smartly-dressed inhabitants in particular presented a heyday of joy and gladness. The waiter’s efforts to portray the role just such a couple could wish for did not go unrewarded, for it was not silver but a small green fold that the groom slipped under his plate before he and his shy little bride left table.
Next morning I observed the Perfect Waiter serving a man and his wife who were quite the antithesis of the guests he had had the day before—a couple in the backwash of their sixties, wealthy undoubtedly, but thoroughly disillusioned, robbed of all that golden glamor of youth that in rare instances, in spite of inevitable adversities, is carried into •middle and after life. Lightness of spirit was no longer theirs. Existence, one would judge, was no more to them than so much drab routine which it was a stern duty to carry on. They spoke little and then only in grave, monosyllabic undertones.
What of the waiter? At first I could scarcely believe it was the same man.
He was going about his work with the soft measured tread of one under the weight of tremendous sorrows. The smile that had wreathed his clean-shaved features when he was addressed by the happy honeymooners of yesterday was absent. Instead, when he smiled at all, it was the scarcely perceptible, lugubrious smile of an undertaker and every now and then he echoed the funereal sighs of the gloomy pair at the table with a gentle tapping of two fingers at his lips.
Again his superb acting captured a tip—this time a silver half-dollar.
W hat manner of man was this, that he could so supinely transform the
color of his personality to conform with the moods of patrons? Could he have any real personality of his own, or was he just a human chameleon—a Perfect Waiter? He was a bright-looking chap with an intelligent forehead and the slightly hanging under-lip of a talker. That promised something, so when the opportunity offered, I asked him: “How long have you been
“Twenty-two years -since I was thirteen,” he replied. His shoulders slumped dejectedly quite as one’s might who confesses to a prison
“You don’t like the business?” I pursued.
The Perfect Waiter glimpsed covertly first over one shoulder, then over the other. When he leaned forward a metamorphosis had assailed him. The mask of
the waiter was swept away, and, for a fleeting moment, the Man Beneath stood out in his blazing eyes and quivering lips. “I hate it!” He fairly hissed. “It’s the meanness of it—of having to depend on the generosity of the people one serves for a large part of one’s livelihood. Always playing the role of a supine lackey to some diner— in the hope that he’ll toss some silver under his plate as a tip. Lord, how I detest it! Many’s and many’s the time I’ve wished I’d never seen the inside of a hotel.”
“Yet you stick to it,” I reminded him, “and you seem to have made an art of your work.”
The Perfect Waiter glowed a bit at the reference to hi skill. “One has to stick,” contended he, “when there’ a wife and a family of little kiddies depending on him But why am I telling this to you, a perfect stranger—’
“No harm done,” I assured him. “It seems quiti appropriate that a perfect stranger should learn thesi very things from a perfect waiter.” Before I left hin I had his promise to tell me his story in his first perioc off duty.
He had served time as a waiter in nearly every brand of the calling; in hotels, cafés, railway dining-cars, ord inary eating-houses and on passenger boats. At one time and another he had worked in almost every section o: the Dominion from Vancouver to Halifax.
Hears Life Stories of Others
"\Ä/HY AM I a waiter?” He echoed my question wit!
VV a puzzled grin. “Well, that is rather a tough question to answer. Never having been in any othei business, I guess I have to assume the appearance of being contented, although I must admit that away from mj table I am engaged in what sixty per cent of my fellowwaiters indulge in—grumbling and wishing I had learned almost any other calling. However like myself, the rest of them stick to it year after year, serving the public. Daily I listen to the enthusiasm which guests manifest when talking of their work and how much pleasure they get out of it. Candidly, there is no such fascination to my calling, though I judge from the comments of others I am up to or a little better than the average waiter in efficiency. I think too that I voice the sentiment of the majority of waiters when I say that our greatest joy is getting out of the place where we work.
“It is a much more fatiguing calling than most people imagine,” he continued. “In the first place, the hours are long, and I wonder does the average customer realize that every time a waiter leaves and returns with an order in a hotel diner such as this he has to walk about two hundred yards and when an order comes from a room he has the stairs to climb as well.
“What chance has a waiter to get any pleasure out of life? It seems one long round-of work and sleep, because, when our duties are over it is too late to go anywhere. Of course, every other day we get off for a couple of hours in the afternoon, but what is there for a man in the way of recreation then? Usually he’s so tired he’s glad to go to his room and take a rest. Yet you seldom learn of a waiter becoming anything else during the course of his lifetime. Once a waiter, always a waiter, it seems. If a waiter does save a little money and gets an opportunity to launch into business for himself you will invariably find that business is serving the public—and he has to work harder for himself than he ever did for anyone else.
“Searching my own mind, it seems to me the principal reason why I remain a waiter in spite of the manner in which I detest the business is that I have always made a good living from it and there is nothing else that I can do well. A good waiter in a house such as this can clean up an average of fifty dollars a week out of tips and wages.
In Youth He Was Courageous
‘“~pHERE WAS A time when I used to dream of spring-
A ing clear of this dreary sea of routine and servility, never to return. I used to ask myself: ‘Isn’t there something else I could do that would bring me in as much money each week as this job—all clean, crisp wage-money from the banks, not tips left as a sort of scornful tribute by fellow-beings who look upon my social status as little better than the black’s?’ But I was always swamped by a conviction that there was to be no such opportunity for me. Now I no longer dream—except of big tips and what cunning roles I’ll play to win them. I have become a hardened sycophant, a subtle parasite. In moments of repose my whole soul revolts in heaving disgust against the manner of living I glean. But back of it all a grim, intangible Something—I suppose it’s Fate—mocks me. ‘You can do nothing else,’ it warns. ‘You must go on as you are, or starve.’ ”
“But how can a man put the skill and appearance of heart into his work that you do, if he actually detests it?” demanded. “One cannot understand a man being so efficient at a calling in which he declares there is no fascination.”
“There is one fascination,” the Perfect Waiter amended. “Every day is a gamble and begins with a personal guessing contest as to what financial returns it will bring. Every morning when I go to work the conjecture uppermost in my mind is: ‘How much money am I going to make today?’ and I fervently hope the house will be filled with guests with bulging purses, for, of course, that
means my living. Waiters are not highly paid, not even the best of them. They depend largely on the tips they receive. How liberal the tips turn out to be rests on the waiter’s own efforts, because, as a general rule, the better pleased the guest the larger your tip will be.
“Can I size up a guest and guess pretty accurately what his tip will be? Yes, I pride myself that I can. An experienced waiter becomes a shrewd judge of human nature. But I must confess that the tip, though a mighty important factor, is not everything in life with us. There are people whom it is a pleasure to serve and there are others one cannot help inwardly detesting. So soon as I seat a party at a table I have pretty well determined whether he or she is well-bred and civil to serving-folk or a rough-neck in fine linen who takes a delight out of making those who come under his power feel mean and miserable. Oh, when I think of the ‘dirt’ we have to take without a whimper, often for something that is not our fault, it makes me very bitter. If a guest complains, there’s no argument about it— the waiter is to blame. He gets short shrift if he persists in trying to prove that he isn’t. Somebody has to be the goat and usually he is selected for the sacrifice. As a rule it is not really the waiter’s fault, because his best efforts are put forward to make the diner enjoy his meal, knowing as he does that it is his only chance to get a tip.
“Í make mistakes, but I think I could surprise you with the mental forecasts I make of just how a new patron will act and how big his tip will be. An experienced waiter sizes up a guest pretty well right after he has given his order by the very manner of the man in ordering and what he orders.
While I am off to the kitchen with a guest’s order I seldom fail to hazard pretty accurately how much in the way of a tip he is going to give me. Of rourse because I figure that a guest will leave no tip it does not follow that I give him poor service. I owe it to the house to see that he is satisfied. Not only that, but the head waiters and captains are always on the lookout for signs of inattention or incivility on the part of waiters, and there is mighty little they miss.
1. Every Type Grist of His Mill
“TN A HOTEL such as this we serve nearly every A type of humanity; retired millionaires, active capitalists, captains of industry, business and professional men, politicians, newspapermen, sporting men, judges, lawyers, doctors and the general what-not of the upper and middle classes.
“There is a vast difference in types. There is, for instance, the man you simply cannot satisfy. It makes no particle of difference what pains you take for him—it’s useless. You finish your work with a knowledge he’s been well served both from the kitchen and by yourself, and you congratulate yourself he has no possible opening for a kick. But when he is paying his check he looks with an ugly frown at the sugar-bowl, lets go his money as though it hurt him and growls. ‘Waiter, that was the toughest steak I’ve ever had offered me.’ The waiter knows that statement to be untrue and that the guest prevaricated in order to justify himself in leaving no tip. He need not have degraded himself before the servingman, who, on lifting the cover, has noted that only a small bit of fat is left on the dish.
“Then there is another fussy type who orders a half chicken. Soon afterward he calls to me: ‘Waiter how much longer have I got to hang round here for that chicken? I’ve been sitting here twenty minutes now.’ He pulls out his watch and glances at it to make his statement look good, but I know that it is not the truth; that he has been waiting scarcely ten minutes.
“What do I do in such a case? I smile and try to be pleasant, but make no attempt to contradict him. Possibly he refuses to be humored and says some more ugly things. Under the smart of his sarcasm I turn and hurry to the kitchen—talking to myself. It’s self pity trying to camouflage itself as ire against this particular individual, when, as a matter of truth, I know that, this is only a sample of the unmerited abuse and ridicule I have to put up with every once in awhile.
King of all the Hotel Pests
«/-VNE OF the most irritating pests is the man who, U from the time he sits down at table, opens a loud vocal barrage on the high prices prevailing, informing poor, unsophisticated me the choice menu he gets in cer-
tain big New York hotels for less money than our bill of fare shows;' also how much better the service is in such places. This type, of all the disagreeable ones, represents the guest I hate most to wait on, principally because he actually thinks I believe what he says, while I know from his bearing and certain tell-tale mannerisms that he has
not been used to first-class hotel service and probably has never seen the inside of a large New York hotel.
“But a waiter’s life is not all gloom. There are many, many people whom it is a pleasure to serve. There’s the sunny-dispositioned gentleman who seems to radiate good-will. He takes it for granted that I am a fellowhuman, even if I am a waiter, and when something goes wrong he is always willing to listen to reason. That gentleman is always sure of the best that is in the waiter when he calls again.
“The most difficult class to serve, you ask? I’ll say without hesitation it is the commercial men. They want the best, and they are looking for it at the very lowest rate. At the same time, I must add, there are some very fine men among the travelers, though, taking things all in all, I believe they are the hardest class to please.
“The twelve months I spent in the railway service were the happiest of my experience,” continued the Perfect Waiter. “In the ordinary run of this dining-car service in my time we used to go from Montreal to Vancouver. On the way back and forth across two-thirds of the continent I have met some queer people and had some odd experiences. You know the system on the railway diners? The steward goes through and presents each guest with a menu and a writing-tab. On the latter the guest is supposed to jot down his order. Waiters on the trains are forbidden to take verbal orders. Numerous times I have noted some guest fidget with his menu and look about in wild-eyed fashion. When the waiter comes along the uneasy one leans over and requests in a nervous undertone: ‘Get me something to eat—anything at all.' The waiter knows at once that the man is illiterate and can’t write out his order. To avoid making a show of the guest he usually complies with his request, though he is taking the chance of getting into trouble for breaking the rules.
“Waiting tables on the railway was quite a change for me from hotel life. I had quite a time of it getting used to being bumped and joggled in the aisles while moving about with a tray of dishes above my head. It is surprising the number of people you can serve in a given time in such small space. 1 have known days in the railway service when we have worked without let-up from six o’clock in the morning till ten at night. Did you ever
take a peep into the kitchen of a dining-car? It is so tiny you’d scarcely believe three men could stand in it comfortably. let alone work there for hours on end. Yet three chefs do work there and serve the guests quickly and well.” When the Perfect Waiter paused I said to him: “You have referred to the most difficult people to serve.
Now will you tell me what class is the easiest to handle?”
“Blue bloods and men of big affairs,” answered the Perfect Waiter without hesitation. “The bigger the man the more natural he acts and the simpler are his tastes,
I find. ‘Panning a waiter’ is too plebeian a pastime for a real aristocrat and too picayune a job for a man of big affairs; they’re slow to do it even when they have cause. I refer to men of the type of the Duke of Devonshire, ex-Premier Borden, Premier Meighen, Hon Mr. King, Sir Herbert Holt and President Beatty of the Canadian Pacific, all of whom I have served in this or other diners. Men of that type have a way of making you feel quite at ease; of letting you see that all they want is simple service and no frills. Often they will ask a waiter to suggest a dinner for them. Notables get exactly the same menu offered them as other guests, but they are usually slower to make a fuss about a real or fancied complaint. Once, when the Duke of Connaught was eating on a railway diner after a round of city luncheons and dinners, the waiter brought him lamb-chops, apologizing for the fact that all other meats had given out at the kitchen. When H.R.H. lifted the cover he said: “It’s fine to get back to something plain and substantial to eat, waiter.”
“We had Lord and Lady Jellicoe as guests at a hotel where I was a waiter. Lord Jellicoe was then in Canada on business for the British government and he had so many affairs to attend that we did not see much of him. But a little incident occurred one evening that goes to show how simple in their tastes are noted people. Lord and Lady Jellicoe and two of his staff sat down at table. Just after I had taken their orders, I heard Lady Jellicoe say to her husband: ‘Isn’t it fine to get away from all the fuss and tobe alone again, Jack. Now'we can enjoy a meal in peace.
“Well, sir,” concluded the Perfect Waiter, “a waiter’s life is a hazardous one. He never knows what is going to happen next and he’s always in trouble. When something goes wrong he gets the ‘gaff’ from every direction; they all find a way to prove it was the waiter’s fault. That’s the way it will always be till the end—and when most waiters come to the end of their tether as waiters they have usually acquired flat feet, an ugly grouch and very little cash. Lots of them are glad to end their days washing dishes or silver to earn the wherewithal to keep body and soul together.”
Sees New Faces Every Day of Life
NOT ALL waiters tell so cynical a story of a waiter’s vicissitudes and problems as the one I picked on as the Perfect Waiter. A captain of waiters in the diner of one of Canada’s biggest hotels claimed that there was a fascination to the work of a waiter that he could not imagine in any other calling. “It is the scanning of strange faces every day,” he explained. “In such a hotel as this we meet and are in close contact with notables of all descriptions and from all parts of the world. I could not follow' any other calling and feel satisfied. There is art and skill to this business —and good pay as wages go too. A good waiter must be a born salesman. He sells his smile and his urbanity. One of his greatest assets is an ability to remember names and faces. Guests are always pleased to find out that you remember them and have even memorized their whims. That does not mean that a waiter should ever attempt to get familiar. Familiarity on the part of a waiter w'ith guests is fatal for the waiter. He must know and respect the line which he must under no circumstances step beyond.
“A waiter of average intelligence becomes a shrewd judge of human nature. An old waiter can tell the minute a guest takes up his menu card what the guest has been used to. In a diner such as this waiters protect illiterate guests from the embarrassment attendant upon a display
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of their short-comings. A good waiter should be quick to perceive that a guest is unable to read or write and then help him out in such a way that nobody in the neighborhood is any the wiser. When I was ‘on the tables’ there was a wealthy old fellow who started to take meals here regularly. I happened to be taking care of him the first time he wandered in. He was staring intently at his menu. ‘Waiter,’ he said in an undertone, his eyes still in mock study of the menucard, T can’t read. Would you mind getting me up a good dinner?’ I did so, camouflaging all the time as though I were really taking his orders. I won him as a permanent customer for the house for a long period; not only that but he proved quite generous with his tips.
“One day he asked me: ‘George, most of the waiters I run across are not as quick to see through a thing as you are. Supposing I happened to run into a lunkhead waiter that I couldn’t afford to take a chance on, what would be the safest thing to do?’
“ ‘Order roast beef,’ I replied. “Roast beef is always on the bill of fare. You can safely order mashed potatoes to go with it, tea, coffee, bread or toast, pie or pudding. The waiter is almost sure to ask you which sort of pie or pudding you prefer, naming what’s on the menu.’
“The old gentleman seemed very grateful. He was absent from our diner for some months after that, and I began to think he had left town. Then one day in he came peering to right and to left. I knew he was making sure of where my table was located. ‘Here comes Roast Beef McGinnis,’ whispered a fellow-waiter who had but recently joined us.
“ ‘Why do you call him Roast Beef?’ I asked.
“ ‘Because he always orders a roast beef dinner. I figure the old gent can t read and he orders roast beef to be sale.
“So it seemed the old gentleman had adhered strictly to my advice while eating at other hotels and restaurants. He finally searched out my table. I stepped up close to him in order to catch the guarded undertones he invariably used while ordering. ’George, get me a good dinner,” he requested; then he almost moaned: “Give me anything on the bill of fare, George—anything but roast beef.’
“Evidently he had been quite fed up on the roast beef menu.
The Doctor Who Fooled a Waiter
“'T'I-IERE ARE all sorts of diversions A in this business for the «discerning waiter with a sense of humor. Some years ago I was captain of a squad of waiters at a summer hotel. We had a middleaged house doctor, a jovial, open-hearted sort of chap you couldn’t help feeling attracted toward. Frequently he used to say to me in a jocular sort of way: ‘Well, George, one of these times I’m going to bring my wife here to eat. Then you’ll have to be real fussy to make good.’
“The doctor went away, on a short vacation, we understood. Then one day he unexpectedly turned up with Mrs. Doctor. She was somewhat younger than he but they seemed an ideal pair.'
“Now we had in the dining-room of that summer hotel a section we called ‘honeymoon corner.’ It was partially screened off from the rest of the room with palms—just enough isolation to give a sense of privacy to newly-married couples, of which we had many stopping at the hotel. I thought to have a joke on the doctor—one that would give offence to neither him nor his wife, but would still be a ‘horse’ on the doctor, who was something of a practical joker himself. So without batting an eye and in the best form I knew how to assume I seated them in the heart of ‘honeymoon corner.’ where they had blushing brides and their grooms all around them.
“I had thought I would hear from the doctor on the subject sooner or later— but never a word did I hear. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the doctor had been married just the day before and was really on his honeymoon. His previous reference about ‘bringing his wife to eat at the hotel’ was but a bit of his characteristic spoofing. So the ‘horse’ was on me instead of the doctor.”
An Autocrat of the Dining Car
WAITERS are not all diplomats, nor are they infallible in sizing up the people they come in contact wtih. Following a trip to a small, out-of-theway town I had to take a suburban train to make connections with a flyer. Most everything on this “local” was in keeping with its speed which was remindful of a snail in distress. As there was a pretty heavy passenger list and the train took most of the day to do its stunt of some sixty miles or so there was a dining-car attached.
The roadbed had evidently got into a bad state of disrepair, and the train lurched in a most threatening manner, making the aged wooden coaches creak and groan as though they’d like to break in two and thus end their monotonous careers. The waiters in the diner were all great, hulking chaps and their captain a truculent giant with hands that flopped about like hams tied to his wrists. He roamed up and down the aisle with an assumption of great dignity, but in reality he was most of the time bumping into passengers or one of his waiters and adding to the general confusion on the lurching coach. Every time the train would sway, as if at a given signal, the waiters would kick out a leg from behind to retain their equilibrium while they held their trays over their heads. The effect was quite as droll as an exhibition of the Teuton goose-step. Nevertheless the service by the waiters was fairly good, which is more than could be said for the cooking.
Across the aisle from me sat a slim young man with a face so mild and innocent-looking one couldn’t help looking at him twice. His features would have been insignificant were it not for their extreme meekness. “Such an individual,”
I was pondering to myself, “must find himself bluffed and imposed upon by every
sharper he comes in contact with.” Just then the young man swung to peer along the aisle back of him and I had a lightning change of opinion. What I saw on the other side of his head was a telltale “cauliflower” ear.
“Waiter,” he called in a pleading sort of way to the big fellow lurching in the
The man in blue approached. “I’m not a waiter,” he informed haughtily. “I am the steward.”
“All right then, Steward,” conceded the meek-looking youth. ‘T just wanted to tell you this deep apple pie they brought me is tough as leather. I can’t even batter through the crust with my knife.”
He “Told it To Him Right”
THE STEWARD drew himself up to his full height and swept the other with withering scorn. “Where d’ you come from, anyways?” He slurred it out insolently. “Now let me tell you.” he continued in a loud voice, “you don’t have to pay for that apple-pie, but I want t’let you know I’m onto you and the likes of you. You’ve never been used to nothin’; that’s the reason you try to pan our men-yew. Like as not you’re some rube school teacher that’s never been on a real train in his life before, but you can’t bluff me by bawlin’ out the men-yew. In this business I meet all kinds,” triumphantly, “and I size ’em up in a minute. I had your number ’s soon as you sat down. Get me?”
Certain that he bad made a complete job of cowing this passenger “into his place,” the steward walked away with a great affectation of official concern. A red-haired young man who sat opposite the meek-looking passenger had once opened his mouth as though to remonstrate but the meek-looking man held up a warning hand. He said never a word himself but he smiled as though something gave him great inward amusement.
Shortly afterwards I bumped into the bumptious steward and the red-haired young man in one of the narrow passages forward of the dining-car. “It was sure too bad to have to bawl out that little shrimp the way I did,” the steward was observing, “but it was cornin’ to him and he was too yellow to even open his yap after I lit into him. I can see his kind cornin’ every time and see clean through them. Didn’t I tell it to him right?” “You told it to him right,” replied the red-haired chap, who, it was easy to see, was boiling over with pent-up rage. “I feel sore at him too that he didn’t let you have one of his uppers to the jaw that would have put you to sleep for the next week and a half. Say, fellow, didja know the man you was handin’ out all that
bluff stuff to was ‘Kid’-? I’m his
trainer, and I can tell you straight that if the Kid had entertained havin’ an argument with you there’d be a room needed in the next hospital we came to and you’d be the patient.”
Gradually an expression crept over the steward’s face that indicated a certain sensation commonly known as “gooseflesh.” As he walked away I thought I heard him murmur to himself: “Well, anyways, he didn’t look the part of a prize-fighter.”
Fortunately for the public, stewards and waiters of this man’s particular type do not last long in the hotel or railway service' of Canada.