As soon as my thesis defense was over, post-graduate panic swept over me like chicken pox. What to do? How to make money? Get a job, get one no matter what it is, and fast. So I did it. Part-time, local café. The late shift. How bad could it be? Sure, the place closed at 1 AM and cleaning went until 2, and sure, it was a fifteen minute bus ride away from home (and the buses in Pittsburgh stop running around 1:30), and sure, the owner had hit on me when I once visited the establishment to buy a cleaning tool for my hookah that strongly resembled a toilet brush, and… There was no end to objections or excuses, but I gulped them all down and decided that I was going to do this.
The girl told me to come in at 8 PM for training, which was to last for four days, unpaid, with only the shared end-of-the-day tips to look forward to. After the training period, you were paid eight dollars an hour, plus tips. She said the money was really good. I didn’t know what that meant, but I figured I’d take her word for it. Back then, really good of any kind sounded like raspberries and caviar to me, though my anxious brain wondered whether she had health insurance and how she managed to pay for her car. But never mind all of that—I could do it. She said I was on the “server track,” but first, I had to prove myself in the kitchen. After several weeks, I’d be moved up to server status.
I arrived wearing a sleek black pencil skirt (one that I wore to interviews) and a purple top with patterned sequins. The girl and her colleague wore sneakers, very short jean shorts, and baggy t-shirts with school logos on them. They assessed me quietly as I sat before them, folding my hands in my lap. I was then given the employee manual to peruse, and told to enter the kitchen when I was done. I was relieved that the owner wasn’t there—it was a little embarrassing to think of working for a person whose advances you’ve rejected.
As employees, we had to ask the manager for permission to go on break. We couldn’t use our cell phones unless we were on break. If we wanted to eat there, we had to pay for the food. (Now that I know how it’s prepared, I wouldn’t be paid to touch it). If customers walked out without paying the bill, it was our responsibility to cover the costs. If we made any mistakes with food orders, it was our responsibility to cover the costs. It seemed like I reread that phrase a thousand times, dispersed throughout the manual. What greedy owners! What unfair conditions! I had worked at a take-out place (no serving or kitchen drudgery required) that allowed us to do whatever we wanted (and eat there for free) as long as we did our jobs well. Perhaps my old boss was too lenient. I set the manual down on the dusty bench and made way for the kitchen.
For the first half hour, the girl working there ignored me as she busied around making drinks and serving customers. I dawdled in the background like a dodo, observing, trying to understand where everything was located, and pestering the new boy (it was his last day of training) for answers. He was very obliging and friendly, and I took a great liking to him. I followed him around as he showed me where the recycling was, the storage, how to make the “house” iced tea that required 8 cups of Lipton powder instead of 4. “Everyone loves our tea,” the girl declared. Of course, they don’t recognize that it’s Lipton because it’s twice as sweet, so they assume it’s special.
The manager arrived at 9, and began taking notice of me. She showed me the fridge, the wall upon which instructions for how to make various drinks and food items were pasted, the paper stained, the ink blotchy and faded. She showed me how to make their special coffee, how not to burn milk when heating it on the burner, how to include the correct proportions of ingredients so that the drink maintained a jelly-like consistency, etc. I tend to leave things on the stove and burn them, so for the first couple of times, the burners were doused in frothing milk, but soon I learned to stand, watching the filmy layer like a guard dog.
Orders began to accumulate, and the boy and I ran around the kitchen, throwing ingredients into the blenders for milk shakes and smoothies, skinning the paper from straws only half-way so that our fingers wouldn’t touch the tips, making coffee, tea, and other drinks that required multiple ingredients and various methods of preparation. We didn’t know how to make these things, so we ran to and from the Wall of Instruction, peering through the stains and spots to see the tiny type beneath.
A lull came, and I looked at my watch—I had been on my feet for three hours, and it was only 11. I hadn’t eaten, just drank cup after cup of water to prevent myself from evaporating before the glaring heat of the burners, and my feet ached like they often do after a good two hours of flamenco. I looked down at my clothing, surprised to find it relatively clean even though I’d been handling ashes, milk, liquids, and sputtering whipped cream cans the entire evening. I looked around for a place to sit, but there were no chairs in the kitchen. I could fit into the sink, but I’d get wet and probably fired.
1 AM slid by, and my eyes were closing. My feet felt like they’d been standing in galoshes filled with stones. My stomach ceased rumbling, all hopes for food lost in the never-ending rush of drinks and cleaning up after spills. 1 AM! The place should be closed by now, but when I looked out into the seating area, there were still a few customers sipping their drinks. 1:30… Why don’t they kick them out, I asked the nice boy who had been helping me all evening. He shrugged. Part of their laid-back appeal, he suggested. Right… Well, I wasn’t going to loll around and wait for them to leave; I rolled up my sleeves and began hunting for the large yellow mop-bucket with wringer. Let’s get started on cleaning, I told the boy.
We rolled up the plastic mats, bits of food falling onto my flats. I wheeled the mop-bucket/wringer combo from under the counter and looked around for a hose. It appeared that there was no hose. Where’s the hose, I asked the boy. He smiled and shook his head. The only resort was to lift the entire bucket into the sink and fill it there. Fine. I could do that. Lift the empty bucket inside I could, but lift a half-full bucket out of the tall, narrow sink—I could not. The boy just stood there behind me, laughing and smiling. What gallantry these days—men really know when to help a woman out. In my clumsy attempts to lift the bucket out of the sink, I spilled a quarter of the water onto my top and skirt. At least the water was semi-clean.
It was 2:30 when we finished cleaning. I mopped the floors and bathroom stalls, scrubbed and washed almost all of the dishes, dried and shelved them, wiped the counters, and made myself as busy as I could in order to avoid the leer of the owner who had arrived just a short while ago. Do you like beer, was his first question. Do you have a boyfriend, was his second. After that, I began to maniacally scrub the stove, and he finally left, taking the bucket of dirty water with him. I throw it out for you, he slurred. Thanks…
We got out at 2:35. The boy and I each received $15 dollars for the entire night, our share of the tips. The server girl pocketed the remainder. My head spun, feet and back ached, and I wondered how the hell I’d be getting home. I asked the boy how he got home—apparently, he walked for 40 minutes. Got up at noon the next day. Repeated the nightly routine. I wished him luck, and we parted ways. I walked onto Fifth Avenue and continued marching in the middle of the street; there were no cars in sight. As I walked, a giggle bubbled through me, and then a laugh that sounded like a rearing horse. I kept laughing and walking in the middle of the street. A lone pedestrian walked by on the sidewalk, staring. I laughed harder. I thought, well, thirty five more minutes to go, so I might as well enjoy the open, navy sky, the quiet, the emptiness, as if the city was abandoned—the roads holding nothing but air.
I failed, that much I knew. Of course, there were many people who were used to such a late schedule, who were used to kitchen drudgery, and who wore the appropriate attire for it. These people also probably did not have to walk for forty minutes to get home at 3 AM—they had cars or bikes or rides. These were different people, I was different from them—perhaps less hardy, but no better or worse. I just wasn’t cut out for it, as they say. The shapes didn’t match, the hat didn’t fit, the sandal hurt. Any way you’d like to describe it, that’s what it was. How not to walk home laughing?