The full title of this book is: Waiting: the true confessions of a waitress. It is the memoir of Debra Ginsberg as she looks back upon the years she spent working as a waitress. If you are like me, and have never worked as a “server”, the book will give you an interesting glimpse into what that experience is really like. She gives the reader an insider’s view of the job, of how various restaurants function (or dysfunction) and a lot of interesting social observations about both the waitresses and their customers.
Those of you who have worked as a waitress, waiter, or server, might find that some of her stories resemble something you have lived through. Anyone who is interested in sociology will find the stories she shared about the people she worked with, or waited on, to be very insightful.
I purchased this book from a local “Friends of the Library” event. It is both a fundraiser and a way for the library to liquidate extra copies of books (and to get rid of whatever other books they choose to). My copy is hardcover, which I prefer. I didn’t realize until after I started reading the book that it was signed by the author. Lucky me!
The word “waiting” is used to refer to more than one thing throughout the book. Obviously, it means the act of taking orders, bringing plates of food and glasses of drinks to the customers, and hoping for a nice tip. In addition, she uses it to describe how she felt through much of her experience working as a waitress. There were many times she felt as though her job as a waitress was something she was doing while she was “waiting” for her real life to begin.
She, like many who begin working as a waitress, wanted to do something else as a career. Debra Ginsberg wanted to be a writer. It’s clear she did eventually achieve that goal (or else I wouldn’t have been able to read the book she hadn’t written).
I think that concept – of taking a job while waiting for real life to begin – is true for many types of employment that do not require a college degree. I live in a college town, and can report first hand that most of the waitresses, waiters, or “servers” are college students who need a job that has flexible hours. They have to fit the job around their classes, after all. I suspect that the servers in my town are not intending to spend their lives in that line of work. If that was what they truly desired – they could do it without having to take on the massive debt involved with a college education.
Other types of jobs fit that same concept. I believe that there are very few people who take a job as a cashier in a grocery store, or who start working in retail, that actually want to be doing that type of work. These type of jobs (including waitressing) come with low pay, random schedules, and almost no “job autonomy”. (That phrase refers to the amount of freedom an employee has in regards to scheduling, the tasks they take on, and the ability to get things done in the way that works best for them.)
These types of jobs offer zero paid sick days. Some retail jobs might offer health insurance, but very few server jobs will. The additional struggle for servers is that they typically aren’t offered an hourly minimum wage. A big chunk of their income comes from the customers they wait on and whatever tips they see fit to give. It’s a gamble. Ginsberg sometimes found restaurants where the gamble paid off and she made a decent amount of money. Other times, things didn’t work as well.
One of the things I learned from this book was how physically and emotionally demanding the job of a waitress can be. They are on their feet their entire shift. They must carry several heavy plates of food to each table. Their entire shift is spent rushing as fast as they can from one table to the next and in and out of the kitchen. I wouldn’t have the stamina for that.
It’s also a job that I think can be emotionally draining. Women who work as waitresses get hit on by the customers. Everyone working as a server has to present themselves as a polite, friendly, person with a positive attitude, even when the customer is being downright vile to them. Any job that requires constant contact with the general public becomes exhausting as you try and meet each and every request (or demand) no matter how impossible they are.
Waitresses have this especially bad because other worker’s mistakes – food arriving at the table cold, food taking too long to prepare, lack of silverware – was often something completely beyond the control of the waitress. Yet, she would be the one the customers would scream at when things went wrong. A slow cook could cause an excellent waitress to lose out on tips.
Another part of this book that I found interesting was her observations about the people she worked with or waited on. She discovered that people who were regular customers didn’t recognize her if they saw her outside of the restaurant. She also noticed that a server could make up a new persona every shift (mention spouses or children that didn’t exist, fake an accent and pretend to be from a foreign country) and the customers simply accepted it.
Ginsberg also discusses the way the servers, bus boys, dishwashers, cooks, and managers interacted. She describes this better than I can, so you should read her book to get the full effect. In short, there is something about a consistently high-stress situation, combined with the smell of good food, and the unnaturally close quarters that people in restaurants put up with, that leads to romantic relationships among the staff. It made sense to me once she pointed it out, but I would have never guessed that on my own.
Waiting is a quick read that gave me a glimpse into a world that I could never be a part of. I’ve got severe allergies that cause me to get sick all the time and other health issues that leave me with very little energy. As such, I have a lot of respect for those who can do it (and who do it well). People who have worked as a server might find themselves relating to the experiences that Debra Ginsberg describes.
In the end, she discovered something unexpected. It turned out that she wasn’t actually “waiting” for her real life to begin while she was waiting tables. I think the saying that explains this is “Life is what happens while you are making other plans” (or something like that). Part of what changed her view was the birth of her son. She found that waiting tables allowed her to make more money, in fewer hours, than she could at other types of employment. This gave her plenty of time to spend with her son, who was the center of her real life.