When I was in my late teens I worked briefly at Juniors Deli on Pico Blvd in Los Angeles. It is sadly closing after 53 years, so I felt I needed to post this. I have to do it in two parts because its a bit long. Junior’s is not the little mom and pop place that the name implies, but a famous deli and bakery big enough for its own zip code with an equally large diner attached. It is well known in the entertainment community, which is largely Jewish. As a kid in Southern California I would hear snippets in the news about anti-Semitism and wonder what the hell they could possibly be bitching about. From where I stood they were the luckiest people in the world. Entertainment industry Jews were the only ones I knew and I’d have killed to be a part of that club. How many of you folks feel sorry for Tori Spelling or Adam Sandler? It was years before I understood the world wide historical scope of anti-Semitism, beyond even the heinous butchery of WWII. I mention this because my Jewish stepfather called me a little anti-Semite when I came home retching and gagging.
“How can they eat this stuff?!”
Trays of food offensive to my stunted Wonder Bread palette loomed in the deli’s display case. Kreplach, Gefilte Fish, Chopped Liver, Tongue, and something that I’m still not over; Flanken. Boiling beef may not be against Jewish law, but there must be some culinary advisory against it. To me it resembled a quivering slab of zombie flesh. Most cultural food is horrid to outsiders. I know that the food of my own ancestry is just as horrid. Scotts and Swedes are best when the stick to cookies and milk chocolate. Haggis or Pickled Herring anyone? But there was nothing in my household that approached traditional cuisine beyond Swedish Christmas cookies or scotch and soda. While at Junior’s I stuck to cheeseburgers and egg creams.
An egg cream is a New York delicacy, basically chocolate milk with soda water. One of the waitresses taught me the secret to a really great egg cream. It’s half and half. You put equal parts chocolate syrup and half and half in the bottom of the glass, fill with soda and stir. I learned a lot more at Junior’s than that. The primary lesson I learned was that waiting tables could be really hard work. Over all, schlepping plates is not as physically tough as it is often made out to be. Its widely exaggerated stress levels are mostly mental emotional stuff: i.e. resisting the urge to use that steak knife on an unsuspecting moron. People often surprise me with their thoughtless abuses of service people. Not because I don’t know that the world is full of a-holes, but the public doesn’t seem to understand that some of the servers they are belittling are just a bit unstable. You might want to rethink your tone.
As I was saying, as long as you wear sensible shoes and you’re in reasonably good shape, it’s not that physically taxing, unless you work in a diner. If you cross a diner with a deli you’ve got a long night ahead of you. In a coffee shop or a diner, you make your money in volume not sales percentages. In other words, you need to turn all your tables three or four times in a station the size of Manhattan over an eight hour period, to make enough money to justify showing up. You also do virtually everything yourself. A busboy in a coffee shop does little more than swipe a pile of dishes off the table and wipe it down with a questionably clean rag. You are responsible for everything else including order interpretation, pouring drinks, delivering drinks, delivering food, getting condiments and side orders, ladling soup, making side salads and desserts, refilling coffee, and arguing with the kitchen. In a deli you add to this list about a hundred and fifty menu items that need to be sliced, diced, toasted, roasted, broiled, iced, dished up, heated up, or just plain located. .
Note regarding the above to-do-list: ALWAYS make friends with the kitchen. This means up to and including sexual favors if you really find it necessary. This relationship can make or destroy your night financially and otherwise. The kitchen lives in its own little world back there. They work for a wage and if you piss them off, they will get even. I think the kitchen staff in most restaurants isn’t really aware there are customers out front. They think we are ordering all this food and eating it ourselves just to annoy them. I think that’s why waitresses have developed the grating habit of calling everyone, honey and sweetheart. It comes from working the kitchen.
“Honey, could you please cook this a little more, the customer wanted it charred. Thank you, darling! I knew you could do it. You guys are the best! Sweetheart, a bus with fifty Japanese tourists just walked in and they need to eat and leave in twenty minutes. Think you guys can manage? You know? I wasn’t even worried. You guys are amazing! And you all look so macho in those black and white checkered pants. Thanks, Sweetie!”
Now in Los Angeles, this situation is exacerbated by the fact that restaurant kitchens are run by Latino men. These are not guys that like to be ordered around by a bunch of women. A little flattery will go a long way. On the other hand, a little gringa screaming and shouting orders goes over like a wet tortilla. Everyone’s ability to speak English suddenly seems to disappear. Oh, go ahead guys, call your counsel men! Like I’m making this up.
I had some waiting experience by now . . sort of. I had been through a three-year maze of revolving doors; hostess here, cashier there, with about eight actual weeks of working “on the floor.” What I had actually acquired was the ability to bullshit my way in the door. The waitresses at Junior’s were like Marines, and they were all about a hundred and fifty years old. My trainer, the baby of the group, was forty something. She was a cheerful, Jewish gal who took extreme pleasure in explaining to me the uses of various animal parts in Jewish food and laughing at me when I turned green. I dutifully followed her around during my training period watching stupidly while she did twelve things simultaneously and at top speed. Training as a waiter is always a little embarrassing, but never so much as when you actually need it. And to make matters worse I always have looked younger than I am. At my current age which is “none of your goddamn business” this is wonderful. At nineteen it sucks. So, smartly clad in a brown polyester uniform and sporting a perky blonde ponytail, I followed this woman around the restaurant like a needy two year old. I could not have felt sillier had I been doing the bunny hop. She talked a never-ending stream of instructions peppered with bits of gossip about the customers.
“That’s Mr. and Mrs. Goldblum over there; make sure he’s looking at you when you speak because he’s stone deaf. He always has brisket with the gravy on the side. We are going to Mr. and Mrs. Palisade’s table now and we’ll get out of there as quickly as possible. They are going through a nasty divorce. She always has a chef salad no ham, no tomatoes, extra turkey, with dressing on the side. He likes the pot roast, but he changes sometimes.”
She rattled on and on about customers. She showed me where things were, where to look if they weren’t where they were supposed to be, who was nice, who was possessed by Satan, all at what felt like a dead run. I was panicked. I knew as a matter of absolutes that I could not do this job. At one point she turned to me and asked me how many plates I could carry. She didn’t have one on her head, but she seemed to have about five of them laid delicately across the span of her arms, like a pageant princess with a bouquet of roses. I felt certain she could have managed a float wave if she was asked.
“Two,” I said quietly. To this day I can still only do three, four in an emergency with lots of prayer and dribbling sauces. A shadow passed over her face. Then she brightened.
“That’s okay. You’ll be working the counter for a while anyway.”
I looked across the room to the counter. There was a row of hunched backs being served by the only other girl my age I’d seen so far.
“That’s Candice,” said my trainer. “You’ll be working with her tomorrow.”
Candice was a pretty blonde of about twenty-one or so. She seemed more than glad to have a new ally. The counter faced the window to the kitchen line. The cooks’ heads bobbed up and down, smiling at the new waitress a little too largely. With the distinct lack of women under forty in this restaurant, I just knew I would encounter few problems with the kitchen. Below the window was a work area with three kinds of soup, bins of bagels and breads, a cutting board, steaming bins of things like kashka (cooked grains with bits of noodle), a salad bin full of iceberg lettuce, ice cream and shake maker, refrigerators full of salad dressings and borscht, and a soda machine. Under the counter itself were rows upon rows of condiments in need of marrying, napkins, silverware, and salt and pepper. The counter would be easier than the floor, but it was still a lot of work.
Candice told me it didn’t matter that I couldn’t actually wait tables because I would never get off the counter anyway.
“The other waitresses have been here forever. I think some of them are already dead but they just keep showing up.” she said, “and they don’t like new waitresses so watch your back.”
She said these things and pretty much everything else in conspiratorial whispers. I trained with Candice for a week, getting the hang of writing tickets and slicing bagels. I managed to slice my finger open with the bagel knife. It was lethally sharp and I felt the serrated edge grate on the bone. I stared in wonder at the inner workings of my finger before I went into a dead faint assuring the other waitresses that I was no threat to their jobs.
Finally my training was over and I was placed on swing shift, lunch through early dinner. Candice and I would work lunch together, then I would be alone. Candice finished her side work and got ready to leave.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” she said. “Watch out for the Counter Creatures.”
“Counter Creatures?” I asked. “What the hell is that?”
“You’ll see,” she said and flounced out the door toward home where she moonlighted as a phone sex operator. Counter Creatures. The words reverberated in my head like the background music in a Freddy Kruger movie. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! I imagined legions of trolls and hags filing in the restaurant, planting themselves at the counter, and banging their silverware on the table like the orphans in “Oliver.” I wasn’t really that far off.
The first of them came in about an hour later. He was a harmless looking little guy, with wild eyes and greasy, unkempt hair. He reminded me of that weird looking blue bird on the Muppet Show. Now I of course had been filled in on this guy a bit, because he was just too strange not to talk about. He was an obsessive compulsive, like Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets.” It was a great movie, but having met this guy, I found it hard to swallow that a person could just “get over it” and live happily ever after. Although I had been given some instructions on how to deal with him, I had to test it a little. I was, after all, nineteen. He ordered a bowl of soup and a glass of water, no ice. Ice is diirrty. Judging by his hair, apparently soap was, too. The bowls were stacked next to the soup bin. I picked one up placing my finger on the lip.
“Excuse me, miss. Uhh, could you please use a different bowl?” he asked.
“Why?” I asked, batting my eyelashes a little. What a bitch!
“You touched the rim,” he said. He looked very nervous. His eyes were in constant motion. Okay Sandy, show’s over, time to lay off. It was too late. I had spooked him. I had to change bowls three times. He somehow managed to eat the soup without the spoon ever touching his lips. It was truly disgusting. I tried not to watch, but I was trapped behind the counter. He was watching me also, assessing my every move trying to see if I was secretly sabotaging the food. I had to get out of there. I attempted an escape to the kitchen.
Shit. No help here. I went back out to the counter. The man had finished lapping up his soup and wanted some chocolate cake. I had to cut the piece in front of him and carefully lift it onto the plate without again touching the rim or the cake. Having achieved this, I watched in horror while he washed his food raccoon style, swishing it around in his mouth with water before swallowing it.
The human brain is an amazing organ. In the interest of personal safety it can manipulate itself into a thousand different neuroses including a never-ending list of phobias and multiple personalities. It has allowed rulers over the centuries to justify the slaughter of innocent people and scientists to develop things like the atomic bomb with a clear conscience. It makes mothers think spit is a sanitary face cleanser for their children, and it allowed this guy to believe if he swished his food around in his mouth with water, it would be free of microbes. I wanted to ask him where he thought the germs were going but he was so jumpy I decided not. He might have a bottle of Lysol in his coat and an itchy trigger finger.
While Germ Man was at the counter, no one else arrived until he had almost finished. He must have planned it that way, watching through the plate glass window until the place cleared out. It was astounding to me that he left the house at all. Two lonely guys filed in and sat at the counter. The counter clientele mostly consisted of lonely guys. This is true of almost every counter I have ever worked. Are they pathetic? No. You are pathetic. You are working the counter, waiting on a bunch of lonely guys, watching them eat, cleaning up after them, for about a buck a head.
A woman sat at the counter dressed all in pink; from her gloved fingertips to her wide brimmed hat. I say “she” with some trepidation because she was not entirely female. At about two hundred and eighty pounds with skin like a mile of bad road under an inch of makeup, no one was fooled. She looked like Miss Piggy dressed up as Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. She ordered a chef salad and an iced tea which she picked at daintily while eyeing the men seated near her. The Lonely Guys gave Miss Piggy a sideways glance. She batted her eyelashes at them coquettishly. They resumed eating at a furious pace. I would have loved to chat with Miss Piggy to find out what made her tick. What made her pick that particular outfit? Was she planning a trip on the Tardis with Dr. Who? Did she really think no one could tell, or did she just not give a shit? I hope it was the latter. Miss Piggy daintily ate her club sandwich and left, remaining a mystery forever. Right about then, the counter filled up and I was suddenly buzzing around my little workspace like an angry housefly. There are few things more disgusting than watching people eat. They slurp their soup. They dribble on themselves. They chew with their mouths open. One geriatric couple sat down together, dressed like cute little mobsters and screaming at each other. It was obviously their normal mode of communication. When their food had been served, they began asking for condiments and extra gravy. Their gaping maws were full of food which they sprayed like bullets as they spoke. The horror on my face was as plain as the gravy on their chins, but they didn’t seem to notice. I looked wildly up and down the counter for an escape. There was none. The counter was full.
“Miss! Where is my cheeseburger?”
“More coffee please.”
“Hey, I’d like to order TODAY if you don’t mind.”
The military waitress police shuffled around the floor smiling at me like Vincent Price. I had entered the Twilight Zone. Rod Serling would step out from behind the shake machine at any moment.