Once, while waiting to sit down for dinner at a local bistro, I realized something unprecedented had happened: I forgot to bring a book. As I dine alone whenever I dine out, this is a relatively serious problem. In the pre-smartphone era, I didn’t have the option of fiddling with a clever cellular app. I remained stranded in my booth, alone with a guttering candle, and effectively marooned with very few options for entertainment. Thus, I chose to cope by studying fellow diners. By meal’s end, as I ground my teeth and hurriedly paid my check, I found myself fully enraged. When my rancor abated as I stormed away from the place, I was forced to make an uncomfortable admission: I’m absolutely mortified by the dinnertime behavior of most folks, especially those eating in public. And while this is an odd affliction, sure, it wouldn’t necessarily be problematic were I not myself a waiter.
Relating this realization, I was interrogated by a non-waitress acquaintance about what one can do to avoid incurring the wrath of any given food service employee, to not be subject to such loathing. To, perhaps, even earn some actual adoration. The subsequent harangue lasted as long as Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King felt; it ranged from macroscopic suggestions (never seat yourself, unless there’s not only the absence of an obvious placard reading “hostess will seat you,” but also the presence of a giant sign that says “SEAT YOURSELF”) to microscopic ones (do not, in an attempt to acquire the last dribblings of diet cola or water shake the ice in the bottom of your glass, lest it be mistakenly presumed as an all-too-commonly used passive-aggressive request for more beverage).
At the conclusion of this tirade, it was remarked of me that, after a decade of table-waiting in low- to mid-class family-style establishments, the sole strategy for avoiding my particular wrath might be a prayer or two to St. Jude. I was a cantankerous misanthrope to begin with and more than half a life spent in forced servitude hasn’t helped matters., I minored in African American studies during my undergrad years and read a text called Notes of a White Black Woman, by Judy Scales-Trent. About life as a black woman pale enough to “pass,” she advises all African Americans to assume outright that any white person they encounter will be, to some degree, a bigot. Despite the fact that every white American who reads that sentence will react with umbrage if not outrage, and then quite probably leap immediately to the stock phrase “I’m the least racist person I know,” it’s sage advice. In America, after a lifetime of media saturation, even if your conscious mind knows better, it’s impossible not to be at least a little bit prejudiced. I mention this because, based on years of a far more optimistic approach, I’ve discovered that far less crushing disappointment occurs if a waiter lives by a similar proviso and assumes outright that it’s virtually assured that, at some point during food service, the customer will—intentionally or not—belittle, demean, insult, or otherwise make unpleasant the life of his or her respective server. This observation will seem hyperbolic to those who have never waited a table. Ask any long-term server: it is not.
As such, I must also admit that, yes, when in service uniform, my instinct is to hate you the instant you lope across the threshold of the front door; my gut tells me to loathe you on sight, on principle. Regardless, I’ve always been considered by customers and coworkers as rather sedulous and extraordinarily hardworking. Willing to be proven wrong (which means that I would love for you to make me love you). Despite the above claim to instant hatred, I’m forced here to toot my own horn and say I’m good at what I do: sitting at a table in my station, you would never know this of me, you’d never guess my instinctive sentiments. I’ve worked hard honing my craft to be attentive, but not intrusive; friendly, but never one who would overstep his boundaries; entertaining, but efficient; and capable of anticipating needs without being presumptuous. I’ve always felt that good servers are like ninjas: efficient and extremely effective, but also invisible unless it’s important they be seen. Hence all the black garb.
Regardless of my discontentment and learned abilities, for the time being, it remains the entirety of my job description to bring food—soon scarfed & squeezed out asses as scat—from folks who’ve prepared it & resent me for making them do so, to often ungrateful others who resent me first for not being a silent psychic, then again because of the bill: a sum of money always too much. Both owners & angry eaters have reached a queer détente, each agreeing to chip in minimally, creating a near-living wage. For peace of mind, it’s usually best not to look at life too closely.
And, of course, I must force a smile through the whole charade, as if I personally enjoy this experience of attending to the whims of a stranger—something which is rarely easy to do, especially for someone who’s heavily medicated for depression and anxiety; something that produces a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance and which generally leaves me far too emotionally exhausted off-shift to have anything left to offer actual friends or lovers. The emotional toll of table-waiting on this misanthrope has, no joke, ended more than one of my romantic relationships. Strategies for the mitigation of such stress like meditation, deep-breathing, talk therapy, martial arts, or jogging haven’t been a bit of help for me, and I’ve tried each. These stress relief strategies, in fact, usually only served to make me want to slap the living crap out of whomever invented meditation, deep-breathing, talk therapy, martial arts, and jogging.
When I was a younger man, I tried darker paths in hope of finding at their end a pressure release mechanism—1999: I urinated in apple juice; 2000: wiped my sweaty ass with a woman’s coffee spoon; 1997: vomited in a milkshake—they only make for funny stories, they don’t satisfy the doer at all, unless the irritant (read “irritant” as “diner”) is made aware of what he or she has just consumed—which would open the door for a 911 call and a quick dismissal by management. And since I’m no longer nineteen or high, I’m aware that I can neither afford to lose my job nor be whisked away to jail for what is basically bioterrorism.
As a side note (which I’d prefer be more prominently placed in the essay’s body and not footnoted), I have met only one person—besides young, drugged, but unmedicated me—in what is now fifteen years of food service who has tainted food, and he only did so when he found out that he was serving a steak to the man who sexually molested him as a child. Despite what you hear: most food servants would never engage in such behavior because, simply, they wouldn’t want it done to them. Fear not: you’re safe. But back to the topic at hand.
If stress relief for service staff is a castle in the sky, all that remains to do is attempt the impossible: instruct the huddled dining masses on better comportment. Well aware that such a thing as actually bad service exists, I here declaim that this essay is not about that. Sure, your server might be hurried, and mistakes may occasionally be made, but this happens to everyone in every job—there’s no reason to expect your server to be perfect when you yourself are surely not. This essay assumes service is adequate—you get your food, brought by a polite if not excited attendant who, when you leave, cleans up after you, and if mistakes are made, effort is put into correction. So, as my friend asked, what is it, then, that any given diner may do to decrease the chances of being either disliked or, in extremely egregious cases, served feces? What follows is an extremely abbreviated and obviously not all-inclusive list.
Never snap your fingers, whistle, clap, to get the server’s attention. If around the dinner table, you did this to your wife, husband, father, or mother, imagine the hell that would ensue. Don’t do it even if it’s been a minute since you’ve been attended to: though it always feels longer, what’s probably minor negligence is not an excuse for you to get rude. And don’t flail your arms in the air, then make “the check sign.” Actually, any behavior depicted by diners in films from cinema’s aetataureate is generally verboten. The aforementioned four actions—assuming you’re not mute, you and your server speak the same language, and you’re neither a mime nor bound by a monastic vow of silence—are exceedingly demeaning, and they make you look like a petulant child, or out-of-time slavemaster.
In the same vein, do not point at the menu and either command or mumble “Gimme that.” This pointing becomes more offensive when done with the middle finger. If this were any other business transaction, such behavior would rightly be seen as ghastly. Sadly, diners, throughout your experience, you’ll be expected to use your words like big boys and girls. “May I have” is appropriate. But we’ll generally settle for “Can I have,” or “I would like,” especially if it’s accompanied by “please,” “thank you,” or both.
Where seating is concerned, there are some simple principles. If you’re calling to make a reservation for dinner, the latest you may do so is 11:59 a.m. of the date in question—and that doesn’t guarantee there will be anything available, especially if you’re in a group of eight or more. If you’re making a lunch reservation, do so before the restaurant closes the previous evening. The point of the reservation is not only to reserve space, it is to allow for the staff (who will be pampering you, or at least trying to: the more you’re adored, the more tip money we can coerce from you) to prepare and strategize how best to care for you. If a restaurant overbooks, everyone loses: the staff pays less attention to you and your needs, and therefore, in the end, loses money because you will likely dock them for their inattentiveness. We make less money, you leave unimpressed, and either tell no one about the restaurant, or do active harm by telling everyone what a terrible time you had.
Still unclear? Making a reservation, especially one with a lot of advance notice, is always in your best interest. It gives you the best chance to get everything you want. And if there’s one thing waiters and waitresses know, it’s that diners love situations that make them feel like pretty, pretty princesses, like the center of the fucking universe that they already assume they are.
If you’re calling at six-thirty, trying to secure a table for two at seven o’clock, you’re not making a reservation, you’re phoning ahead to see if the joint is busy. Don’t expect the person on the other end to insert you in the waiting list even though you’re not there; I can guarantee that if the situation were reversed and you were there—learning that the people who get to sit down before you, despite your two-hour wait, have just walked in and didn’t have to spend a second in the loud and inevitably semi-comfortable vestibule or crowded bar because they called ahead and had their names inserted into the waiting list while you toiled, bored and hungry—you’d lose your shit. If you’re trying to reserve a dinner table at dinnertime during dinnertime, don’t waste your bile on the restaurant’s receptionist: you’ve failed yourself.
In the same vein, if you show up without a reservation during dinner hours on a Friday or Saturday, don’t be surprised if you’re told that you have to wait for an hour or more for a table. You see, not only are there other people who planned their dinner and phoned days or weeks ahead to reserve space in what is likely to be a bustling dining room, there are a hundred other people in the same predicament as you and we can’t tell which of you is actually the most important person in the room, or in the biggest rush—see, you all seem to think you’re the most important person in the room and you’re all always in a bit of a rush.
If you decide to wait in such a circumstance, don’t be rude to the host, hostess or maître’d. I’ve worked in the industry fifteen years; I’ve managed, I’ll wash dishes, cook, bus tables, serve, bartend, and clean up hot vomit, but I won’t host—it’s unreal how aggressively rude people are to the folks at the front desk. Believe me, the host wants nothing less than to disappoint you because the host does not want to be abused by you, and pretend to take it in stride, cheerfully. Usually, if you’re rude to the host, the host is the one who ends up having to apologize. Repeatedly. A conversation that has actually taken place:
To Host: “What the fuck is taking so long? You said it would be about thirty minutes and it’s been almost forty! You need to learn how to do your goddamned job!”
To Angry Man: “I’m sorry, sir.”
If you decide to both wait and be rude (read “rude” as: eye rolling, pointedly sighing, swearing, repeatedly asking “What’s the holdup?” or insisting “They came in after us!”), don’t be surprised to find yourself dining at an uncomfortably small table, or in a loud spot by the kitchen, bathrooms, or dumpster. But sadly, the hosts of most busy restaurants cannot afford this luxury—to punish someone with a disappointing dinner table. When a joint’s hopping, if a table for two opens, the next table for two goes there—regardless of where the table is and what kind of prick is next on the list. The host desperately wants to clear that waiting list. I’ve often thought that if direct consequences more frequently followed rudeness, then perhaps people would change their behavior. (“I’m sorry, sir, you swore at the hostess. We had a great table lined up for you, but now your options are as follows: You can either eat by the kitchen doors or not at all.”)
Which reminds me: if you find your seat to be disappointing, do not get up and reseat yourself. There’s a system. That’s like your boss thinking your filing could use improvement and suddenly deciding to start inserting new files alphabetically by first name instead of last. Your cabinets would be fucked. Don’t fuck our dining room.
Concerning your meat: should you order anything “rare,” expect it to be cool at the center; should you order anything “(extra-)well done,” you forfeit the right to complain about the time required to cook it. And always remember, the quality of your food and the time it takes to receive it are not generally things for which you can fault your server, nor things for which you should call him or her “asshole,” “idiot,” or “motherfucker.” If your steak is overcooked, don’t dock the server’s pay—you wouldn’t dock your kid’s math teacher’s pay when your son didn’t make the honor roll because his science teacher gave him the B- that sank him. Don’t punish the server because the cook—or even more egregiously offensive, the restaurant itself (“This burger isn’t as good as the one I had at Applebees!”—did something not to your liking.
What happens to your order after you’ve dictated it is this: Your server either punches it into a computer or hands off a copy to a chef d’cuisine, or head cook. Then, the ticket is placed at the end of a line; the length of said line is determined by how many people were already waiting to be fed before you requested feeding. If you’ve cooked steak at home, you should already know that a slab of meat, well done, takes a few minutes to cook even when it’s not the last item at the end of what’s easily a fifty item list. If you feel compelled to repeatedly ask your server about the progress of your food (“Come on! What’s the holdup back there?”; “What kind of moron is cooking?”; or even “Where the fuck is my meal?”), know that you’re an imbecile and, depending on the level or your aggression, a monster, and that you’re just embarrassing yourself. And if the food arrives later than you’d hoped, don’t make some passive-aggressive comment like, “I thought you had to grow the corn/slaughter the cow/catch the fish yourself!” You’re not the first, and it’s not funny, even if your wife thought it was when you said it five minutes ago. It’s like making Dracula jokes when you’re donating blood. Been done. Embarrassing self. &c.
When you’re in a restaurant, you’re being cared for to the best of the staff’s ability; it’s especially in the server’s best interest to promptly feed and dismiss you—his or her tables are prime real-estate. The more people he or she can feed happily and then kick out the door, the more money he or she can make. And though I stand by my earlier confession that the food service industry is safer than film and TV would have you believe, patience is always recommended when a dozen or more people have unseen access to your dinner and, thus, the means to sicken, cripple, or kill you. Yahoo continues posting articles suggesting you be worried your server has your credit card, but identity theft can be a walk in the park compared to the simultaneous liquid shit- and vomit-storm that comes from raw ahi tuna soaked in toilet water. Real food poisoning—not the kind that hits you thirty minutes after dinner, involving an upset tummy about which you phone the restaurant demanding recompense—but the kind that often comes from poor hand-to-anus hygiene, is the sickest I have ever been, and I once had a case of strep that penetrated my heart muscle, cost me $1,700 to cure, and almost killed me. The food poisoning was worse.
Oh, and by the way: If in 1997, you threw a single-serve jelly packet at your waiter to get his attention while he was waiting on another table, yelled in front of children to ask where the fuck your goddamn meal was seven minutes after you ordered an extra-well done strip steak, the epic diarrhea that likely spanned the next thirty-six hours was courtesy of him and a bulimic waitress who happened to have Ex-Lax in her purse.
If it’s not on the menu, then no, you can’t have it. No, it doesn’t matter if you know the owner—not unless the owner has personally, that evening, told you that you are welcome to order the item in question, or has sent you in with written permission. Nope, it doesn’t matter if someone less steely-willed once caved and let you have your way, six days/weeks/months/years before. And no, it certainly doesn’t matter if the some other Mediterranean/Mexican/ breakfast/vegetarian place lets you do it. The menu isn’t just a helpful summary of the basics, a muse to stir your imagination or memory of other comestible adventures; it is ontologically speaking a list of the available selections. If you want something not offered on the menu, your options are as follows: prepare it yourself at home, go to a restaurant where that item is offered, or crawl into the kitchen on hands and knees, prostrate yourself before the angry and sweat-drenched head cook or chef d’cuisine, and ask for said item personally. Don’t want to do that? Neither does your server. See, the chef or line cook hates your server because, even though he’s slaving over a hot stove all night for the same wage, regardless of how busy it gets, he’s almost always making less money than your server, who is merely taking the food orders, and staying relatively burn-free. You should know, though, that the only person he hates more than your server is you.
Also, it seems like I shouldn’t have to say this, but please actually look at the menu (unless you know it by heart). Don’t just guess blindly at what might be in the kitchen. If you do choose do guess at an entrée without surveying the menu, please, don’t then get upset and ask, “Well, what the hell do you have?” Restaurants hand out menus for a reason. Read them, unless you’re actually illiterate. Then and only then will your server—if you’re polite about it—recite it to you.
Something else I thought might go without saying: don’t intentionally toss any item on the floor. Even if this seems like common sense, non-servers might be surprised to learn just how many public diners lose all comprehension of common sense the second they sit down at a restaurant table. Don’t knock your silverware on the floor hoping for the sexy college student to bend way, way over and retrieve it. Don’t throw your cut of beef on the floor because it’s not cooked precisely the way you like it—that’s how infants express displeasure, not grown-ups. Don’t scrape your parsley, rice, olives, or any other miscellaneous debris onto the floor because you don’t want to sit in the mess you’ve made. Don’t pour your coffee on the carpet because it’s “not goddamn hot enough.” Don’t scrape shards of a shattered glass beneath your table because you’re ashamed to have broken it. Don’t throw your soiled napkins beneath your seat when you’re done because you “don’t want to look at those nasty things.”
Perhaps this principle will further clarify things for the uninitiated: Dining out is like having dinner at someone else’s house. Behave accordingly. Unless that someone else with whom you’d normally dine is also unmannered trash, then behave better than you would behave at their house.
By the way, if you were the boutique owner who, on a spring Thursday in 2000, “accidentally” and unapologetically shoved a cup of decaf too far, over the table’s edge and onto both my shins and boots, claiming that “There is no way that this coffee is fresh,” you’re a bitch, and you stirred your second mug with a spoon slathered in the sweat of my ass. My shins were actually scalded because your cuppa was, in fact, very fresh. I had begun brewing it specifically for you when I saw you step out of your car in the parking lot. I’m not sorry about the ass sweat.
Speaking of infants, don’t bring your child if it’s under seven years old. They hate it; we hate it. If you absolutely must bring it, either ensure that it’s strapped securely to something immobile, or that it fears you sufficiently to stay in its allotted space out of respect/terror. If it shrieks loudly like a cat being sodomized by an icicle; if it scampers around barefoot, underfoot, and unsupervised; if you’re holding its hand or clutching it to your chest, constantly walking it in a circuitous route through the bustling dining room, past and betwixt other diners and the staff, as if the baby contains a motion-sensitive bomb (in theatres this summer, Speed 3: Cradle to Grave); then you’re being a lousy parent, plain and simple. Parenting entails an inherent accountability for your offspring’s effect on the outside world. If your unsupervised six-year-old takes your three-year-old into the woods and kills it, you’re the one to blame. On a much, much less tragic scale, if your baby, or toddler, or even pre-teen is making painful the evening of even one other unrelated diner, then you’re not doing your job well or correctly.
In any of the above instances, your waiter will see you as an inconvenience at best, if not an outright abomination, and your peers—other people out to dinner—will despise you. They make comments to the staff about you—it’s true. Poorly behaved children in the restaurant lower tips from every nearby table—no joke—and ruin hours of time for both the other diners, smart enough to either not bring their own children or not breed in the first place, and the staff, who are not responsible for the entertainment or safekeeping of your ugly—yes, ugly—children.
Diners with loud, unmannered children are regarded by staff and especially other diners in much the same way as the beer-drunk guy in the baseball game box seats, who for all nine innings won’t stop heckling the away team’s Latino players with vaguely racist catcalls: “Eh, Valdez! Nice work in right field! Where’s your donkey, Valdez? You want some coffee?” If you refuse to hire a babysitter, or yours falls through, give the kid a minty-delicious Nyquil cocktail while you sip your shiraz—it’ll work out better for everyone that way.
In the worst cases, many employees will want nothing more than for that child to have hot food spilled on it, for it to accidentally tumble down a steep flight of stairs into the kitchen, for it to run out the door and into traffic or the arms of a kidnapper. Hell, you, bad parents, may wish this as well—surveys say adults with children are far less happy than those without. Regardless, you seem to be somewhat fond of the critters, and though I can promise you I would never intentionally harm a child, your server may be less scrupulous.
And no, it’s not cute when you waste ten minutes of my time letting the kid order for itself. I can’t understand it, and I can’t ask it to repeat itself, because it’s afraid of strangers. It’s fucking three. Order for it.
On a related note, on my short list of joys as a waiter (and I know I’m not alone) is finding out that it’s your Date Night—the occasional Saturday you relinquish your brat—and then making the evening an ordeal: I will be professional and attentive (but never intrusive), I will keep drinks flowing, and I will tempt you with dessert, and postprandial cocktails. Why will I do this? Because you will appreciate the evening so thoroughly that the next day, my bank drop will be fat and I shall be happy. Some of the best tips come from the folks who finally ditched the kid and cut loose.
Never refer to your server by any of the following colloquial appellations: ace, brah, bro, big guy, big man, boss, buckaroo, bud, buddy, champ, chief, compadre, guy, hoss, killer, little buddy, nigga, pal, senator, scout, slick, slugger, son, sport, sportsfan, tiger, trooper, babe, baby, cutie, darlin’, dear, girl, honey, honeybunch, honeybuns, lady, sweetheart, sugar, sugar tits, &c. As in, “Hey, _____, thanks for the sandwich.” Or, “Yo, _____—can I get some more water over here?” These charming sobriquets, while all too appropriate in the trailer park, are seldom if ever appropriate in the dining room. Exceptions are as follows: You and your waiter are best friends, roommates or family; you happen to be fucking your waitress (although I don’t guarantee that she won’t be pissed even then).
Any and all of these condescending epithets are just a hair’s breadth away from calling your server “boy.” There’s no way to call a strange man “big guy,” or an unknown woman “honeybunch,” without being pejorative. Boy: as in “Smile at me, boy.” As in “Now get up here on this table and dance for me, boy.” As in “nigger.” Table-waiting has, for the most part, been in America gendered and raced labor: blacks and women served you, through most of U.S. restaurant history, unless you went somewhere high-class. Regardless of your server’s race, addressing him or her as “nigger” would be ill-advised, to say the least. That term is downright despicable and mean-spirited. The others are, in the context of food-service, its distant, lesser cousins—its descendents; related because, at one point in history, these left-handed epithets were seen as appropriate in the dining room. In short, anything other than “sir,” “miss,” “ma’am,” or—with permission to use it—your server’s proper name is rude and patronizing.
Regardless, even if you feel certain that waiting tables is just a touch above being a plantation house slave on the social hierarchy flow chart—and a lot of people do—the best way to ensure an excellent (and hygienic) dining experience is to treat your waiter or waitress as if he or she is your social superior, and you are nothing more than a hungry child too ill-equipped, too ill-informed to take care of your own needs. Never forget: you are in your server’s house. Your slightest complaint could get a waiter fired, sure, but earning his or her ire could literally sicken you. 
And for the record, no matter how affable you think you are, never try to make the conversion from “waitress” to “girl I’m fucking” while said waitress is serving you a meal. (Bartenders are a different situation.) You’re going to come off as creepy and, if you tip shittily, you’ll disgrace yourself beyond belief. But should you leave a disproportionately gigantic tip, you’re essentially telling the woman who served you, with whom you were flirting, that you hope she’ll feel more inclined toward having sex with you because of that gifted money; what your sad, ostentatious gratuity essentially tells her is that you hope she’s a hooker. It’s best to simply regard the dining experience as a business transaction, which it is, and then give it a tug yourself once you get home. Do not then return and tell her about her appearance as genicon in your onanistic repertoire. I’ve actually seen this done before. It failed miserably, and may actually be a crime.
Just because the future has unfolded upon us and you can listen to music, watch a movie, or call your ex-wife from the dinner table doesn’t mean you should. If you’ve gone somewhere to eat, don’t wear headphones, and explore the deeper recesses of your iPod. Don’t make or take cell phone calls. For the love of all that is sacred, the invention of the Victrola didn’t prompt flappers to go dining with a giant phonograph in tow, even though it would fit on the dinner table; the advent of miniaturized music/movie players and telephones shouldn’t have any effect at all on feeding time. And yet, it very much has.
Another principle which should make everything simpler: In general, don’t do anything your father wouldn’t have let you do at the dinner table of your youth. I didn’t even have a father, and I can get on board with that one.
Better principle, perhaps: Don’t do things that you’d find upsetting were you to discover your waiter or waitress to do it while or instead of taking your order. Don’t want your waiter wasting your time while she’s finishing up a phone call to some jerk you’ve never heard of? She doesn’t want her time wasted either; save your calls for the car where you can more effectively kill yourself. Would you be appalled if your waiter wore headphones and complained that she did so because she was bored? Wouldn’t it be irksome if when you needed, say, ketchup, you couldn’t get her attention because of the slammin’ backbeat blasting from her earpieces? Well, she’s equally appalled and irked that you (or your child) is wearing headphones and thus completely inaccessible to her for inquiry. We don’t want to flail around at table’s end until you notice us, then slowly mouth the words, “HOW IS YOUR DINNER?” in the hope that you can read lips well enough to understand, and not later accuse us of negligence.
Should you decide to use your cell phone or iPod in the restaurant, expect the following consequences. First, no one will approach you until your hearing is unobstructed—don’t wonder why. Second, you will be treated as if you were a second-class customer, an afterthought—the same way you’re treating the staff of the restaurant. (“What the hell do you want? Huh?! Oh. Give me the pancakes. What?! Oh, yes, coffee would be good. Now do you mind? I’m listening to a Tony Robbins mp3.”) Third, your server may misunderstand you and feed you the wrong food, or maybe just food that isn’t prepared to your liking, never returning to inquire after your wellbeing nor to correct the error, only to drop the bill, because he or she doesn’t feel inclined to have to maneuver through the fog of white noise—TV, mp3, cellular, video games—surrounding your dining experience. Fourth, your server will rightly despise you. So, likely, will the diners at nearby tables.
Here’s a helpful ledger: Books are okay. The newspaper is fine. Smartphones are alright, if muted and used as ’net-surfing devices or solitaire handhelds, after interaction with the staff has taken place—don’t treat your iPhone more attentively or better than you treat your waiter. And if you’re playing Angry Birds, don’t expect us to wait ’til you’ve “finished this level.” During downtime (between two and four in the afternoon or after nine at night), laptop computers are okay—unless you’re using them to watch television, then they are not. Fax machines are never okay. Ditto small TV sets—even if they’re really just cellphones streaming TV. Magazines are fine. Stationary bicycles are not. Hopefully, you get the idea, but I feel reasonably certain that, based on observation, you don’t.
Your server, being a biped capable of understanding and speaking your language well enough to gather you edible treats, is incontrovertibly a human being. At this point in history, there are no other options—she’s not an alien against whom you should be prejudiced and of whom you should be wary; she’s not a hyper-intelligent, genetically engineered creature that is an abomination and affront to your god. If he or she meets the above criteria (bipedal, comprehends your language and can follow specific instructions), your server has to be human. There are no two ways about it. Not even the other great apes can wait tables—at least not on two legs, and not very well. As such, your server is rightly due all the amenities accorded to you, homo sapiens, based on your shared status as members of the same species living in a perforce social civilization. Amongst other rights not detailed here—rights, not privileges—are the rights to eye contact and two-way communication.
Look at us when we talk to you or when you talk to us. At least three out of every five diners fail to do this. If you happen to have to reread the menu while speaking, that’s fine. But make eye contact at some point, before or after you recite your selection. Let us know that you realize you’re not at the drive-thru. And when you look at us, do so with the realization that we share a species, not as if we’re mutant cyborg geneticists demanding a sperm sample—none of our questions or entreaties are ever that bewildering. It is horrifyingly common to receive no response to a simple question like, “A little more coffee?” and get instead a stare—not a blank stare, but one that says something like, “I just saw you masturbating the neighbor’s cat, then snorting the ejaculate from your bare palm: why are you now talking to me, you creep?” Staring, horrorstruck, when we ask if you’d care to hear about the dinner special doesn’t communicate anything except, possibly, your bizarre fear of dinner specials, or an incomprehension of English speech patterns.
In the beginning of your requests, include a “please”; at their end, a “thank you.” It’s also lovely if your answers to questions are, well, answers to the questions asked. “Red wine” is not an answer to the question “How are you?” “Mmmnff” isn’t an answer to “Does everything meet with your approval?” “Enchilada” is not an answer to “Would you like something to drink besides water?” unless, of course, your jaw is wired shut, and you’d like us to whip a chicken enchilada into a viscous liquid using a blender. And though it’s not, strictly speaking, a question, “Grilled cheese, but hold the avocado” still isn’t an appropriate callback to “Good evening.”
If your waiter is asking you a question, or trying in any normal way to interact with you (i.e.: “Can I pack that up for you?”; “How’s the main course?”; “Would you care for dessert?), talking to your children or just staring off into space isn’t an acceptable reply. Trust me: we don’t want to spend any more time with you than we are mandated to. Thus, when we arrive, even if you don’t want to get chummy, be polite and answer our enquiries. It speeds us along out of your way, and puts you right back on task: gorging and lazing.
Remember, we’re not talking to you because we love you. We don’t love you. We’re talking to you because we, like you, need to pay the rent or mortgage, need to buy food or diapers, need to pay back the loan money we borrowed for our baccalaureate and master’s degrees, which have gotten us nowhere. And we too need to make money to leave some punk waitress as a tip when we go out to eat. We have to talk to you to do our job just like you, more than probably, have to talk to someone else to do your job. So, point blank: fucking reciprocate.
Autistics and Arthur Schopenhauer are, of course, excepted from the eye contact proviso.
Ah, the tip. Now keep in mind that, in 99% of American cases, your waiter or waitress earns less than minimum wage from his or her employer, and he or she is taxed on both the money paid by the restaurant and on at least a statistical estimation of what scraps are left for him or her by diners, based on his or her sales. That estimation is generally 15% of his or her sales. Sometimes, even if you report every cent of your tips, they do not equal 15% of your sales (some people don’t tip on expensive alcohol; some people don’t tip at all), the restaurant will “allocate” them so that they do.
Example: If in a shift, I sell $1,000 worth of meals, I am taxed on $150 of expected income, whether or not I actually earned it. Because waiters and waitresses are taxed on their sales, tipping less than 15% is actually taking money out of the server’s pocket—he or she is now paying taxes on an assumed income which you did not in fact pay them. Which, if it happened in any white-collar job, would be a John Stossel story on 20/20.
This is not to mention the fact that, if you tip your waiter 15%, he or she also has to tip people with that money: 15% of his or her tips go to a busperson, backserver, or service assistant; a slightly smaller percentage goes to his or her bartender. So in the end, that $150 on which a server is taxed (but which he may not have actually earned), is drastically reduced. Let’s say your waiter did make $150. $22.50 of that goes to his or her busperson, backserver, or service assistant. And, on average, at least another $10 goes to his or her bartender (much more some nights—especially weekends). So, all told, your waiter will pay taxes on $150, when he or she is leaving with $120. And we never actually see any money from our paychecks: that’s where the tax money is deducted from.
Example, assuming that your waiter earns no more than $70,000 (as of 2011’s brackets): 15% of $150 is $22.50; say that money was earned on a six-hour shift during which the pay rate was $5 an hour ($30 in income from the restaurant). 15% of $30 is $4.50. So, from our $30 gross paycheck, we lose $27 in taxes ($22.50 + $4.50). If you tip under 15%, you’re literally, not figuratively, stealing income from your waiter—who is already definitely paying taxes on income he’s not getting, but instead paying to his coworkers.
In addition to that, keep in mind that service is physically demanding, exceptionally demeaning, soul-deadening work. Keep in mind that, if you have the money to dine out, you have the money to eat an even more sumptuous meal at home—if only you weren’t too talentless to cook it, if only you weren’t too lazy to serve it yourself, and clean up after it. Now tell me that $3.00 is an acceptable tip on, well, anything. Sometimes it seems to me that, every tip should come with a heartfelt handshake and an apology. “Thanks for sacrificing your knees, your pride, and getting carpal tunnel just to bring us dinner.”
10% of the total after tax was only an acceptable tip before Amos N’ Andy lost its following. 15% is what you left your waitress in 1984—so you’d have that extra coin to spend on blow. In the twenty-first century, the industry appropriate standard is 18-20% of the bill—after the goddamn tax—for anything except awful service. This means your server will certainly make a near-living-wage, inflation adjusted, after taxes.
Additionally, as chefs have become the new rock stars and everyone fancies him or herself a gourmand, your expectations of us—our knowledge of the menu, sensible food pairings and nuances, dietary concerns, FDA indices and values, not to mention our cheerful countenance, perpetual sedulousness, and obsequiousness—have increased, so your compensation to us should also increase commensurately. If you’re a golfer, and you bring with you a caddy who does nothing more than rake your bunkers and carry your bag, there’s an appropriate tip for that. But if you expect your caddy to read greens for you, and select irons or woods, and essentially act as a Sherpa over eighteen holes, you’re in an entirely different ballpark, so far as tipping is concerned. Similarly, if I guide you through the difference between pepper sauces, run down a list of suggested entrées—complete with lengthy descriptions of each—and guide you around 100 bottle tequila list by assessing your personal palate, then suggest pairings with food and dessert, and repeatedly supply freshly salted margarita glasses for your carafe, we’re way the fuck out of 15% country.
Twenty percent after the tax will appease any server—it’s nothing we can complain about, though if we’ve gone far above and beyond, we’ll likely be disappointed you didn’t leave us something extra to account for that. If you feel your server has done exceptional work for you, has helped to make your evening’s sybaritic dream come true, tip more. And, if you are quite pleased, don’t forget to compliment him or her to whatever authority figure is available. Too often, diners only complain to management or maitres’d. Assurance of customer satisfaction is the only legal way in which food servants achieve job security: the lot of us know we’re expendable cogs that can be replaced—perhaps by someone less qualified, but albeit replaced—in a relative jiffy. So write the restaurant an email, or stop management on your way out. Otherwise, to earn job security, we’re forced to resort to blackmail or becoming the in-house cocaine hookup.
One last note on tipping.
A foreigner once argued to me—successfully, I might add—that the fault for the fiduciary plight of the American waiter isn’t really on the shoulders of lousy tippers, it’s on the idiotic system the country’s set up, in which wait staff is paid a crap wage, while the rest is left in the hands of patrons expected, heh, to behave selflessly. What this gentleman failed to argue successfully was his point that this meant he was not obligated to tip; the shitty dynamic wasn’t his fault, it was the fault of waiters and waitresses for getting into bed with a corrupt system. “You knew what you were signing on for, so don’t go blaming me. I see a price on the menu, that’s what I’m paying. I’ve never gone to the grocery store, seen a $2.00 gallon of milk and decided that I should pay $2.50 instead.” On the surface, this makes some sense, if you don’t realize that the $2.00 price of milk accounts for the full salaries of everyone who has to handle it (stock boys, cashiers, drivers) and a profit for the market, while the price of a bistro’s wood-fired pizza does not.
I mentioned the idea of social contracts to this man; he was aware that, in America, the custom is to leave a gratuity for the server. He argued that, since there is no sign on the way into the restaurant, no document to sign, that he couldn’t be expected to know that the service wage was lower than the legal minimum. And yet he did know. Which, I assert, means that, by walking over the threshold of the restaurant, one has signed a social contract and agreed to compensate his or her waiter for competent service. The tip is payment for service. If you don’t think that you should have to pay 18-20% of the cost of your food for the service, if you don’t think that’s worth your money, then don’t go out for dinner. Not in America. I don’t want to pay $4.00 for a gallon of gas, so I don’t drive far or often.
This gentleman was right: the problem is the corrupt system. The restaurant industry throws its waiters, so to speak, under the bus for its own benefit. It seems almost criminal to me. But if Mr. X pushes a man into traffic, it’s not morally alright for you to go ahead and run him over because you can technically get away with it.
Miscellaneous debris: do not belch in a crowded restaurant; do not scream the word “cunt” in a crowded restaurant; do not masturbate in a crowded restaurant; do not change your shitty baby on the dinner table in a crowded restaurant; do not throw food in a crowded restaurant. In an ideal world, the consequences would be, respectfully: server backs into your face and farts; server screams the word “motherfucker” in your face; server stops by your next family Thanksgiving and masturbates as grandpa carves the bird; server brings your leftovers wrapped in a soiled pair of underwear; server upends your plate and scrapes the rest of your meal into your lap. It should also be stated for the record that none of the above are acceptable even if the restaurant is not crowded.
Do not ask for lemons and sugar to make your own lemonade out of the free water; do not ask for hot water to sanitize your silverware; do not bring one restaurant’s food into another and plan to eat it there; do not tell your server that everything is wonderful then complain to someone else as you leave. In an ideal world, consequences would be, respectfully: the dwindling of self-esteem each future visit as you watch the wait staff play a very public game of rock-paper-scissors to see who’s forced to interact with you; the hot water will contain snot; your server will follow you home and, while you have company, nap for two hours on your couch; your server will smile in your face, then use your credit card number to order enormous sexual apparatuses from the anonymity of a terminal at an internet café.
And so on.
Dear prospective diners, this isn’t a threat. But I wish it were.
 The expression “forced servitude” might beg the question, “If you don’t like it, why don’t you get another job?” The abbreviated answer is as follows: though I have minimal expenses and now own my car outright, I don’t have much of a safety net in the form of savings or parents, as mine are dead/deadbeat/both in unlocatable places to which I have no access. If I go broke, can’t find work, I can’t go home because I have none: I move into my car and live in a Tops parking lot, like I did for fifty days when I was eighteen.
If I want to continue living alone in a small apartment (cheapest I could find outside the ghetto) without a roommate—which seems maybe like a luxury, except that it’s pretty much demanded by my mental health issues (trust issues, anxiety issues, that aforementioned misanthropy, some borderline obsessive-compulsive tendencies regarding cleanliness)—I have no choice but to continue in the service industry: no other job pays well enough at entry level. [BACK]
 Footnote #2, originally written with the bulk of this essay in 2004, and slightly amended when it was edited in early 2008, has proven true. This footnote has been intercalated to include mention of the fact that, as of March 2011, in possession of a B.S. and a master’s (both acquired with a 4.0 GPA), I still cannot find another job that pays well enough to allow me complete escape from food service. Hell, thanks to the lousy economy, I can’t even find a job that allows me partial escape besides tending bar (though it’s food service, it’s also a totally different ballgame)—but it took me four years to sneak in and secure one fucking shift. [BACK]
 See the unsettling interpretation of the raw data acquired by Harvard University’s Implicit Assessment Test for proof that all Americans, even black Americans, are prejudiced against black Americans. [BACK]
 This sentence has been intercalated in March 2011. When originally written, I was unmedicated for depression and anxiety—which made the fake smile even harder. Cognitive dissonance is a bitch. [BACK]
 Respectively: 1) because, after an earnestly polite suggestion that something was lacking in my fifty-plus weekly tipless sessions of serving this party of six, I was told that such labor was my way of providing reparations (despite the fact that my ancestors never owned slaves) and, as I walked away stunned and without rebutting, I was called a “goddamned peckerwood faggot”; 2) because she very intentionally dumped hot coffee on my shins and shoes in a display of her contempt for our brand of Arabica bean; 3) because he very publicly beat his pre-tween daughter with a closed fist; when the management refused to get involved, I told him to calm down, which is when he called me both “fucking cunt” and “cocksucker.” Each of these experiences is actually an essay in and of itself. [BACK]
 Which has increased suspiciously since Fox began nationwide twice nightly reruns of Seinfeld—including the episode “The Pledge Drive,” where George becomes concerned that the waitress is subtly flicking him off by pointing to the menu with her middle finger. [BACK]
 “Table for two, at seven” is the most popular reservation in the country. Be clever: eat a little early or late and you can avoid a number of problems. But in my years, no one seems to’ve figured this out. [BACK]
 More people should compose a mien—with regard to the staff of the restaurant in which they plan to dine—similar to the one they constructed in appeasement of parents just before birthdays and Christmas. It worked on mom and dad, it works on maîtres’d and waiters the world over. [BACK]
 I particularly savor the irony when parents discipline their children for not saying “please” to me, then don’t say “please” themselves, and later do something outrageous, like say “How much longer is this going to take? I’m damned hungry and I’ve got places to be.” Common. Priceless. [BACK]
 This usually means that that server A) did whatever you wanted him- or herself, or went in back and begged the cook staff to please help out because a customer was being unreasonable, and the greater portion of your pay was at stake. [BACK]
 Funny story interjected in 2011: Once had a customer order from me a tamale. I told her I was sorry, but we didn’t have tamales. “Well, I’ll just have a chimichanga, then,” she said. “I’m sorry,” I replied, “we serve them as specials, but they’re not on the regular menu, and we don’t have the supplies to make them correctly unless we’ve ordered ahead.” “Oh,” she said. “Then give me some pork flautas.” Again, I had to tell her that we didn’t serve such a dish. “Well, can I at least have a damned empanada?” she fairly shrieked. “Again, only when we’ve planned ahead and made them as a dinner special. Sorry.” She sighed. Put her face in her hands and said, “Look, I’m getting really sick of this. What the hell do you have?” I flipped open one of the menus I’d been carrying under my arm, since her tablemates had ordered before her, and said, “There’s a whole bunch of tasty stuff, actually. If you’re feeling adventurous, here are some less traditional dinner options. That’s the stuff I usually go for. The core menu—tacos, enchiladas, and such—they’re all listed over here, and I’d be happy to—” which is when she cut me off to scream, “I don’t want to read all of that! Forget it. I’m not hungry. I’ve lost my appetite. Nevermind.” Adult temper tantrums are ugly. [BACK]
 In one harrowing anecdote, a man kept stabbing in the dark at what he wanted, and missing completely. Not three, but four strikes later, I snagged a menu from a passing server and, too busy to keep playing guessing games, I opened it to the appropriate pages and suggested politely, but curtly that he might take a look at it, and I’d come back. Which is when he told me that he had been recently blinded. I guess that one was my bad. Though why his female tablemate never spoke up is beyond me, unless she just wanted to watch the show. [BACK]
 This will happen occasionally at any restaurant featuring even one moderately appealing nubile. Once, I was the guy who retrieved an errant spoon and was shocked to find my ass the subject of scrutiny. I suddenly understood why many of my female friends never spoke up when sexually harassed: it’s literally dumbfounding. [BACK]
 But I do wonder, as I write this, what the statute of limitation is on such crimes. By the by, this is actually a totally separate coffee-dumping incident from the “It’s not goddamn hot enough” episode. [BACK]
 Am I the only one who retains a borderline eidetic recollection of how much I hated dining out when I was a humanette? When I was wee, I didn’t know any peer who enjoyed dining out and I can’t imagine attitudes have much shifted. I would literally beg not to go out for dinner. And then sometimes, after we were finished, my mother used the dreaded phrase: “I think I’ll have just one cup of coffee,” and I’d collapse in despair, understanding that this meant another twenty minutes scrunched in an uncomfortable salmon-colored vinyl booth. [BACK]
 Sometimes I want to thank the older gentleman who beat me with his belt and ring hand for restlessness when I was young. During dinnertime, I had to sit on my left hand so I wasn’t tempted to use it to push food onto a spoon, or behave otherwise erratically. Crude, but effective. [BACK]
 And occasionally, they seem to fault the staff for your child’s crying, shrieking, mewling, stinking. “Why aren’t you doing anything about that?!” they ask. We never have an answer. And then we suffer financially. [BACK]
 My decade-plus of sedulous waitering has, however, made me earnestly, truly, wholeheartedly despise children. They’re ugly little florid things, perpetually erumpent; they’re indecipherable, maddeningly inattentive, and saturnine—not to mention the fact that they smell rotten most of the time. I didn’t intend for this heart-hardening to happen and, to most of the women this pleonastic, perpetual bachelor meets, it’s a very unappealing quality. Nevertheless, fuck your shitty children. [BACK]
 Fun story inserted in 2011: On my last day at an overpriced independent burger & sandwich joint, an old man returning from a hard morning of golf and, I assume, repeated nodding in agreement with Michael Savage’s radio broadcast, ordered a Boodles and tonic. I chuckled quietly, having no idea what “Boodles” was. I told him I’d check in back. In fact we did serve Boodles—a high end gin. And when I brought him his martini, he said, “Atta boy. I knew you’d come through, big guy. Thanks, killer.” I replied, “No problem, rapist.” We stared at each other in a moment of dead calm. Then I said, “What? Yours was stupid, too.” [BACK]
 Bartending, however, has always been a white male duty. Which, in addition to being the one in control of the drug supply, I believe to be one of the reasons barkeeps can get away with so much more outlandish behavior than waiters. A barkeep can holler, “Settle down, man. You’ll get your chance when I give it to you in a minute,” and the customer on the receiving end is likely to wait patiently, then tip just the same as he would have beforehand. If a server were to try this in the dining room, termination would be quick and merciless. [BACK]
 Once upon a time, a forty-something diner answered her mobile in the middle of a word while placing her order with me, her waiter. “I’ll have the tofu scra—” she said and left the thought an aposiopesis, beginning a very casual chat on the phone. So I, feeling particularly prickly (and knowing I had the job security to back up my prickliness), took out my mobile and placed a call of my own, there at the end of her table, to a drinking buddy, inquiring loudly about potential upcoming dipsomaniacal indulgences. The woman (the diner on the phone), gasped and very nearly (I think) cried from shame. When she hung up, I told the aforementioned drinking buddy, “Now isn’t actually the best time, I’m currently in the middle of taking an order, so I should probably go since this is rude” and, myself, hung up promptly. The diner’s tablemate had trouble not laughing. And, at meal’s end, they tipped fifty percent, with an apology. I think it was my proudest moment as a waiter. [BACK]
 Once upon a time, I had a man quietly yelling for near thirty minutes into his Bluetooth earpiece at a volume loud enough to annoy nearby tables. The conversation was intense and featured finances, but few pauses on his end—it seemed like he was scolding someone in a professional capacity—so I left him alone. I tend not to go anywhere near tables where people are on the phone or crying because I hate to be interrupted during either activity. No, that’s not true. It’s because I think it’s phenomenally rude to use the cell phone at the dinner table—home or away. At any rate, this man, after finally finishing his call, complained first to me that I hadn’t yet attended to him. I unsarcastically explained that I didn’t want to interrupt what seemed like an important call. He said, “Bullshit.” Ordered, ate, didn’t tip; then he complained on the way out that “Your people need to get used to the 21st century and learn how to deal with cell phones.” [BACK]
 Inserted in 2011: After putting up with eleven years of cell phones (in popular use), I feel safe in my judgment that any ring setting other than “vibrate” is fucking sociopathic, unless you’re at home. Cell phone ringtones are like second-hand smoke: they affect everyone around you, making their life worse, even though they had no choice about whether or not to participate. Ever hear three out-of-sync MIDI versions of “Pachelbel’s Canon” going at the same time? I have. Ever hear the first thirty seconds of an extraordinarily loud and staticky radio rip of 50 Cent’s “In da Club” repeated twenty times over an hour, as a lonely diner received replies to her texts? I have. I’m not a luddite: I’ve had no land line, only a cellular, since 2000, but I have never once had it set to do anything but vibrate when I’m out of the house. I’ve never even accidentally left it set to audibly ring. Women sometimes claim, in defense, that they can’t feel a phone vibrate from inside their purse. To which I reply: If the call was really that important, you could carry the phone while you wait for this indubitably crucial call to come through; if you were using the device for important business that won’t wait, you could get the same sort of belt-bound device your male counterparts have; or you could just pretend awhile that you don’t need to be accessible every second of the day, and look into your purse to check your phone only once every twenty minutes to see if you’ve missed any no doubt earth-shatteringly significant text messages about The Bachelor. [BACK]
 We also don’t want to hate you. I feel that years of engrained bitterness has left me less than adept at making this particular point at all clear. We want to think you’re awesome and, when you leave, we want to be sorry to see you go. It’s just that you evince our loathing in ways that are, for the most part, never subtle.
2011 interjection: After fifteen years, you really have to go out of your way to faze me—I’ve seen everything from vomiting on the table and laughing at the mess while not making a stitch of effort to clean it up, to folks in one booth racially slurring folks in the next; I’ve seen the throwing of beverages, and diarrheal diaper changes on the central table in a crowded dining room; I’ve seen intentional fires set with the table’s candle, and the slapping of waitresses asses. Nevertheless, people still occasionally find a way to evince that aforementioned loathing, to elicit bone-deep hatred from me. It took me a long time to learn this, but if I dwell on events past the deadline of my shift’s end, I’m a much, much less contented individual, and it produces no visible benefit. But for the record, I think the ability to forget such events is highly predicated on longevity in the industry—newbies still get outraged at what I consider quotidian hazards of the job. Guarantee: You will work for free for one table a week because they will not tip, or they’ll take with them their signed credit slip, or they’ll just forget to sign it altogether. [BACK]
 To wit, I actually do also realize the, to this essay’s end, counterproductive and sad truth, which I shall now admit: Having managed a number of restaurants, I—more than you—am acutely aware that 30% of all (I do not here include what are generally scrupulously trained and demure fine-dining staff) waiters and waitresses are slightly less than adequate servers in at least one respect. Meaning they will somehow slightly disappoint you. Maybe 8% of servers are actually bad: worth complaining about. 55% are just adequate, meaning they will not thrill you. It is 5%, then, that are excellent, and 2% who are exceptional. More would be excellent or exceptional if waiting tables weren’t an increasingly demoralizing and only occasionally profitable venture. Waiters and waitresses usually begin their service careers as more enthusiastic, more sedulous servants than they are after that first tumultuous year and for that, diner, the blame is placed squarely on you. This is why all the excellent waiters and waitresses can’t wait to flee the industry. This is why, by 2011, I’ve acquired three degrees. Not that they’ve helped me. [BACK]
 The New York State minimum service wage just went up on January 1, 2011. I’ve been serving since service wage was $2.85 an hour. Nice gesture, but trust me: the increase has not paced inflaton. [BACK]
 Which, yes, I am too, so don’t be too insulted. I eat out like you. 2011 update: And yes, I am aware of the cruel irony implied by the coupling of this fact and the penultimate sentence of this essay’s opening paragraph—I hate myself. But that ain’t a secret, clever Reader. I’m on high-dose antidepressants and in therapy. [BACK]