Restaurant Employees: Our Shameful Histories

By Sarah Hoenicke for Fiction Advocate

The-Customer-is-Always-WrongIt would be easy to assume that the casual racism and sexism of the characters in Mimi Pond’s The Customer is Always Wrong are relics, representative of a less enlightened time. But, though lead character Madge is stuck at a “meaningless” restaurant job in the seventies, her experience jives strongly with mine, as a waitress in the early 2010s.

Restaurants are where many of us “artistic” people work in order to keep the lights on while we pursue our truer purposes. And they have several standard characters. There are always coworkers slipping off to the bathroom for extended periods. (The guys I worked with would go together, two or three at a time, always with the same Altoids container; Madge’s junkie coworker Camille slips off with a long black purse.) There are coworkers constantly in relationship-related flux. There’s the guy who’s always angry. (A coworker of mine once punched the wall while holding a salt shaker in his fist. Another chased a table out of the restaurant; they’d written “zero” on the tip-line to a bill for hundreds of dollars.)

Madge, of course, wants out of this. She feels too good for it, better than everyone except her boss, Lazlo. A proto-hipster, Lazlo is the person we’re supposed to feel sorry for. He’s a poet, a good listener, the guy holding everyone else’s lives together while his own rips at the seams. I get Madge’s attachment to Lazlo. He’s a father figure. He’s also the person she doesn’t want to be. Desperate to escape to New York City and live out her dream of being a cartoonist, Madge stays away (mostly) from the drugs and drama that drag her coworkers down—that is, until Lazlo needs her car and her savings, to say nothing of her emotional support. (His daughter is in trouble.)

I was attached to the manager of the restaurant where I came of age, but I got out before I could get stuck in the perpetual loop of codependence, lunch shifts, and “team-building” nights out. Restaurants in California are easy places to get stuck. (Oakland, for Madge; Fairfield, for me.) The money is pretty good, the hours are rarely long. They’re not “real” enough jobs to make the people who work them feel as though they’ve forsaken their passions. Even years in the same place can feel temporary.

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