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The Power of Waiting

‘Why did you talk to her like that?” a friend of mine leans across the table to ask me.

“I asked her for coffee. What’s the problem?”

“No, you asked her for coffee when she had the time. You said there was no rush. You talked in a little-girl voice. Like you were about to get into trouble.”

I nodded. I was about to protest, but then I figured if he was just noticing this after years of being my friend then I had done a pretty good job of covering it up:

“I have fear of waitresses,” I said.

“Fear of waitresses?” he looked incredulous. “You’re not afraid of anybody. What do you mean you’re afraid of waitresses? You call her back here right now and ask if that coffee is ready yet.”

“No,” I said, “You do it.”

It goes back a long way, I’m sure, my fear of waitresses. Maybe it’s one of those neurological pathways etched into my cortex by early bad experiences with Shirley Temples. Or maybe there’s a fear-of-waitresses gene, the way some geneticists now think there’s a gene to explain our president’s brand of religion.

Whatever the case, I’m afraid of waitresses. They stand between you and the salt shaker, you and the coffee refill, you and the extra-smidgen-if-it’s-not-too-much-trouble of Hollandaise sauce. And they often stand there with perfect make-up, sculpted butts and lots of attitude.

Not all restaurant experiences are bad, of course. Waiters don’t bother me much. In fact, I kind of like waiters. They don’t seem to think I’m a vile wench for wanting a glass of water without ice. And I don’t ever feel less glamorous than they are.

But by and large waitresses make me feel chastened.

My 17-year-old daughter, Madeleine, takes what I think is a needlessly hard line with me. She says—unsympathetically—that it is simply untenable for a woman of my ability and station in life to be afraid of the person bringing you the ketchup.

“That’s just it,” I try to explain, “By what right do I deserve to have her bring me the ketchup? I shouldn’t even be eating ketchup.”

“It’s a restaurant, Mom. That’s the way it works. They bring you things. There would be mayhem if everybody thought they should get up and get their own ketchup. Just act your age.”

With her looks and that attitude, she’s well on her way to waitressing.

You see, it’s not about guilt or class-on-class oppression. It’s just the opposite. It’s about intimidation: Waitresses are just more ontologically cool than I am. The coffee-shop type ones are invariably tough and wise. And the nice-restaurant type ones are generally some threatening blend of glamorous, artsy, aloof and superior. Then they flirt with your dining companion, all the while pretending the chair you’re sitting in is empty.

(OK, one time I was in Northampton with a man I was seeing and the waitress flirted with me so obviously, so fetchingly that I wanted to reach across the table and say to my beau—something of a waitress-flirt, himself—“Hey, buddy, she thinks I’m a hottie. She thinks you don’t even exist.” Alas, I don’t think it ever crossed his mind that he might not be her type, so sure was he of his own sex appeal.)

My ex-husband was a big champion of waitresses. To him they were brave souls, like Doctors Without Borders volunteers, worthy of a kind of respect he seemed to think I failed to give them. On top of that, he acted as if it was some kind of moral or perhaps existential failing that I had never been a waitress: How could I lay claim to any kind of artistic skill and not have worked for tips?

It has crossed my mind that maybe I’d be a successful author today if only I had taken that job at Pelican Pete’s in Denver. But I didn’t. And what I’m left with is a social handicap characterized by obsequious behavior and generous tipping.

Hard to know what my mother would make of this. She had been a waitress, after all. And maybe that’s what it all goes back to.

Mom worked at a restaurant called The Homestead. In spite of the name, I’m not sure it was really a family place. She made the work seem both vaguely dangerous and glamorous. She’d come home late smelling of night, looking, to me, movie-star perfect in her tight, white uniform, her red hair a gleaming corolla around her shoulders.

She’d fix me hot milk and I’d sit at the kitchen table listening to her stories about local politicians carrying guns and men trying to make time with her in the linen closet and what she’d sung at the restaurant that night.

Francie, with her peroxided hair, cupid’s bow lips and flashy muumuus was her accompanist. Mom would sing “I Don’t Know Why I Love You Like I Do” “Sentimental Journey” and “Where Is Your Heart?”

She sang a Spanish song that meant “kiss me a lot” and loved to joke—in that superior waitress way—about some woman she didn’t like, some woman with a gravelly voice and extra padding on her hips, who said “Oh, Mrs. Page, I didn’t know you could speak French!”

My father, I suspect, was a rather patient man. And my mother set the glamour bar kind of high.

But I bet I’m not the only woman out there pleading for decaf or a second napkin. There may be a whole subculture out there of silent, envious women. So waitresses, listen up: We just want your air of weary glamour, your steely gaze, your snotty gait—and your easy access to coffee and Hollandaise, oyster crackers and grated parmesan, Bombay gin and extra olives.

—Jo Page

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