Power of Waiting
did you talk to her like that?” a friend of mine leans across
the table to ask me.
asked her for coffee. What’s the problem?”
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:
have fear of waitresses,” I said.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.