For the sixth straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by Concordia University. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2012."
Reading Colleen Jurkiewicz's blog about waitressing conjured a lot of thoughts for me. I, too, worked in the service industry and have worn both the waitressing and bartendering hat. I do believe that having worked these jobs makes me the excellent tipper (if I do say so myself) and generally easy-going customer that I am today.
I also had a very poignant experience as a kid that contributed to the way I treat people in the service industry – and the way I treat people in general. I am not proud of this story, but it truly shaped the person I am today and is one of the few memories I have held onto from grade school.
I was in sixth grade and my friends and I were eating at Marc's Big Boy – a hamburger chain that does not exist in Milwaukee anymore. There were six or seven of us, and we had just gone bowling and walked to the restaurant. Most of us ordered fries and shakes and then proceeded to do typical-but-harmless obnoxious kid stuff like blowing straw wrappers into each other's faces.
When we were about to leave because a couple of moms were coming in station wagons to pick us up, one of the kids suggested we leave our tips in the bottom of our shake glasses. I felt a little weird about this immediately, but it was long before I learned the importance of listening to one's gut, so I shrugged and dropped a couple of coins into my glass where there was still a half-inch of liquid at the bottom.
I started walking towards the door, and all of a sudden I felt someone grab the back of the coat collar.
"You think that's funny?" A voice said loudly. I turned around. It was our waitress.
I stared at her, wide-eyed. My friends all ran outside to wait in front of the building for the station wagons.
"You think it's funny to leave my tip at the bottom of your glass so I have to fish it out and get my hands sticky?" she demanded.
I shook my head. I looked out the glass door and saw my friends peering back at me, laughing but clearly freaked out.
"N-no," I said.
I wasn't sure what to do. I looked back at our table and noticed what a mess it was. There were crumpled napkins and straw wrappers on the floor and droplets of vanilla shake and root beer on the table. I walked over to my glass and took out the quarter and then the dime. I wiped both off. I looked at the waitress. She was still staring at me, waiting to see what I did next.
There were three other glasses with coins at the bottom, and I took all of the coins out and wiped all of them off. My fingers were sticky. It was gross. I wanted to cry.
"I'm sorry," I said quietly, walking passed her, towards my friends who were piling into station wagons.
"You should be," she said. "You kids are rotten."
I didn't return to that restaurant for many years, mostly because I was afraid of seeing the waitress again, but I can remember her face as clearly as I can remember the red-and-white checkers on the Big Boy mascot's pants. She was probably my age now, maybe a little older, with mad-but-sad blue eyes and a lot of black bobby pins in her dark blond hair.
The worst part and the best part was how deeply this affected me. All people – not just my family and my teachers and my friends – became real to me after this experience. She was right: we were rotten. And the only thing I could do to make myself feel better was promise myself I wouldn't stay that way.
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