Siren7

Chapter 2

Waitress

copyright 1997 by Pat Powers

"Order up!" I yelled as I pinned my order to a line over the galley where the cooks worked.

"Gotcha!" shouted Kwazi, the head cook, without looking up from the jumble of plates before him.

I'd worked at big chain restaurants where the orders were punched into computers, which was an advantage, since computer orders never got lost, whereas paper orders did sometimes have a way of slipping between the cracks.

A big, top of the line restaurant like The Swinging Porch could afford the luxury of using the older technology because they paid top dollar for their waiters, waitresses and cooks, which meant they got skilled people who could get orders out all night without error, with either system.

I walked over to the waitress station and hastily poured out a Coke, a diet Coke and two iced teas, grabbed a crayon pack from the kiddie tray and hustled my butt out onto the floor. It was a relatively slow Thursday afternoon shift, but I found that my tips were bigger if I kept my speed up and had the time to pay full attention to my customers.

"Hi, here's your drinks," I said, handing out drinks to the family of four. "And here's your crayon," I said, handing a crayon to the two-year-old girl with a great big smile. I was careful not to lean over too much as I did so, with mom sitting right there beside hubby.

The dresses we wore at the Swinging Porch were modified flapper outfits, with the neckline cut wayyyy low, same with the back, except that they had some spandex in them -- something they didn't have back in flapper days, so the dress really clung as it made its way from neckline to hemline.

I am not built in the willowy image of a flapper. I am short and I have the kind of body that shows up in men's magazines -- lots of curves, and big breasts (they really aren't all that big, they just seem that way because I'm so short).

I've learned that when you're dealing with couples, you don't do a lot of leaning over, because the man will start looking at my breasts, and the woman will make him stiff me on my tip.

Crowds of businessmen, however, I lean over like crazy, because that's what makes the tips flow.

When I headed out onto the floor next, there was a new customer at table 43, so I headed right over. A lone businessman. Could be a nice tip.

"Hi, I'm Kim, I'll be your waitress today. What will it be, sir?" I asked in my best voice.

"I'll have you," said the customer, a middle-aged man dressed in a nice three-piece suit and carrying a small computer briefcase. He had neatly trimmed dark brown hair and a pleasant, bland face. Blue eyes, tanned skin, lots of fine brown hair on the back of his hands. He looked like upper-level management somewhere, and carried himself with a calm air that suggested he was what he looked like.

"I'm not on the menu, sir," I said calmly. I had heard this line many times. It no longer bothered me. Much. But if I'd been tipping him instead of vice versa, he'd have gotten stiffed.

"Well, the very best things are rarely on the menu," he said, without any hint of anger at my rebuff. "In that case, I'll have an order of salsa and chips and a glass of dark Heinekin. And some water."

"Have it for you in just a minute, sir," I said.

I headed back to the kitchen and placed the order, and had the bartender pull a Heinekin. When I came back to the table, he had his computer briefcase open and there were papers spread all over the table. He cleared a space for his drinks and chips and smiled up at me.

"Thanks," he said. "I'll probably need a refill soon. This is thirsty work."

I looked down at the papers laid out on the table and immediately recognized them for what they were -- computer proofs of publication layouts. I remembered the editing and proofing marks that covered them very well -- from school days.

"Oh, you're in publishing," I said.

"I'm a publisher, so I guess you could say I'm in publishing," said the customer calmly.

"Really," I said. "I have a degree in journalism."

"Well, good for you," said the customer in a mildly encouraging sort of way. Very mildly encouraging, actually, but it beat being cold-shouldered.

"What do you publish, if you don't mind me asking?" I asked.

"I publish these," he said, indicating the proofs scattered across the table. "Latex Blue Book, Latex Adhesives Directory and Buyers' Guide and Adhesives Times. They're all trade magazines, which isn't the most glamorous end of publishing, but they turn a good profit if you know how to manage them."

"They sound interesting to me," I said. I may have had some attitude problems about my looks, but I was not a total idiot. This was Opportunity sitting at the table.

"Well, I'm actually proud of them, to tell the truth," said the customer. "My name's Abernathy, by the way, Greg Abernathy."

"Kim Fields," I said. "Nice to meet you. What are you up to with your magazines today?"

"Oh, just a few little things like checking the ratio of advertising to editorial content, and scanning the copy to make sure it meets my standards," Abernathy said. "Editors notice when their publisher has no idea what's running in his magazines."

"I'm sure they do," I said, all big-eyed and agreeable. I had already decided that it was about time that I put the skills I had developed in working tips out of tight-fisted salesmen into finding a job in journalism. Here was the obvious place to start. I'd let Abernathy's crack about ordering me slide, so long as he didn't push it -- and he didn't seem inclined to.

"Yes," Abernathy said. "I also check the layouts and look over the typography."

"I studied all of that in school," I said. "It's nice to see it again."

"Well, it's work, to tell you the truth," Abernathy said. "Just a way of getting things done. Would you like to help?"

"Sure," I said. Of course I did. I could see a journalism job coming closer. "I'll be back in a minute.

I spent the next couple of minutes getting Mary to cover for me for a couple of hours -- not that there was all that much to cover, and I knew she'd be glad of the extra tips. I let the manager know I was visiting with an old friend and that Mary would cover, and he OK'd it without any fuss -- I'd built up a good rep with him over time.

"Ok, how can I help?" I asked in a few seconds. "Want another drink?"

"Yes, indeed, how about a Coke?" he asked.

I brought him a Coke and slid into a seat opposite him, taking care to keep my back as straight as possible so I wouldn't seem so short.

"Read this," Abernathy said, handing me a sheaf of computer proofs. "Check them for typos, layout errors and grammatical errors. Don't worry too much about content, but feel free to bring up any points that occur to you."

I'd had similar tests in school, but I'd never sweated one like I sweated that one. I literally read the copy backward, from end to beginning (an old proofreading trick). I looked at the layouts upside down. I checked for widows, I checked for orphans, I checked for bad breaks, bad kerning and poor justification. I checked format -- were typefaces, type sizes and type styles consistent? I checked spelling. I looked at every occurence of its and it's, of their and they're, of you're and your.

I only found half a dozen errors, after all that, in all the stories I read. But Abernathy seemed impressed.

"You did very well," he said. "This has been through all the proofing cycles and should be error-free. They're all minor errors, but they're all clearly errors. Very nice. Do you have a resume?"

"Well, not on me," I said, hating myself for having to say so. I used to bring them with me to the job in the event that I might need one, but had grown out of the habit after a couple of years of never needing one.

"Here's my card," Abernathy said. "Why don't you send me your resume by mail? We have a regular turnover in our company -- bigger firms keep raiding us."

"Thank you, I will," I said, and I know that my face was smiling and my eyes were glowing.

"You're welcome," Abernathy responded, smiling back at me. "It's going to be fun taking this back to my editors and embarassing them with it. Of course, in a sense it's not fair -- they haven't had the time you've had to devote to it, or the motivation. Still, you did a good job, and that's what counts."

He left me a nice tip, too.

It made my heart fill with joy for the rest of the shift. I hummed happily as I cleared table 17 while the busboy for my area worked table 9. Some waitresses wouldn't clear tables, figuring that was a busboy's job, and why did we split tips with them, anyway?

I figured the faster the tables turned over, the more money I made, so I helped out whenever I could.

I made a quick tour of my tables next -- poured three coffees, got a request for extra napkins, dropped off a check, and bent over (to pick up a discarded napkin, y'know) for a tableful of businessmen.

Then it was back to the kitchen, where two orders were up simultaneously. It always seems to happen like that on busy nights. I grabbed the order of the people who'd come in first and hurried out. No help for it when you're serving food -- you lean over a lot. There was a 14-year-old boy in the party. He tried not to stare, but ... hey, he was a 14 year old boy. I wanted to tell him it was OK, I was used to it, but opted instead for discreet silence.

He'd go home and dream about me and that was all right too -- it's good to have dreams.

I asked if everybody had what they wanted and after the inevitable ketchup check, I was able to go get the next order. Leaving food to get cold was the surest way to blow a tip. It's like a journalist misspelling a name in a headline -- a fundamental mistake that you just don't make if you can possibly help it.

A journalist -- I might be a journalist soon. After four years of looking.

I've been told many times -- by people who meant well and people who didn't -- that what I ought to do is work in one of the nude dance clubs around town, that with a body like mine, I could really rake it in.

Well, maybe I could, but I wasn't interested. I had learned to accept, over the years, that a lot of men thought I was just a mount for a magnificent pair of tits, but I didn't feel that way about myself, and that's what mattered.

So, I stayed in the restaurants, and made pretty good money anyway -- cleared about $35,000 a year. I talked to a girl who danced naked at Club Naughty, as others had suggested I should, and she said she cleared about $150,000 a year. Still, I might be journalist someday. Maybe someday soon.

You can bet I had my resume in the mail to Abernathy first thing the next morning. In my brightest fantasies, Abernathy got it, saw my resume, nodded and said, "She'll do," and called to ask me to come in for a job interview.

In my darkest fantasies, he got the resume, read it, then suddenly frowned. He'd spotted a typo, a grammatical error, a misspelled word, and so he said, "Too bad" and tossed my resume into the trash.

Any would-be editor who's sloppy enough to put typos in his or her resume isn't good enough to get a job interview, much less a job.

But I didn't worry too much about my darkest fantasies, because Abernathy came into the Swinging Porch fairly regularly over the next few weeks, and he'd developed a regular routine -- I'd ask him what he wanted, and he'd say, "I'll have you -- as soon as we have an opening."

And I could laugh at that, because I knew he meant he'd have me as an employee. It wasn't what he'd meant the first time he'd said it, but he hadn't come up with any more talk of that sort, so I was happy to forget about it. Men often said stupid things the first time they saw me.

Sometimes Abernathy would bring members of his staff to lunch -- salesmen and sometimes their clients as well.

"This is Kim," he'd say. "She's a young journalist working here."

And I'd explain that I was a waitress with a degree in journalism looking for work, and they'd all smile and say encouraging things to me, but they'd still call me a journalist, which I thought was a little strange but I didn't mind too much.

About four months after he'd first come in, Abernathy came in alone one Wednesday afternoon, sat down and said, "Can you spare a couple of minutes from your duties? It's for a good reason."

"Sure," I said, my heart beginning to hammer. "Just let me get someone to cover for me."

A scant few minutes later I slid into the chair opposite Abernathy and asked him, "What's up."

"You are," Abenathy said. "That is, you're up for a job, if you're interested. We have an opening for a job as an assistant editor on Latex Blue Book, one of our steadiest publications. Would you be interested in giving it a try?"

"Well, of course I would!" I cried. "I'd be honored.

That afternoon, before work, I called all my friends and relatives. My Mom first, of course. My family had put me through college and encouraged me for all these years, it was really great to be able to tell them that I had finally landed a job in the field they had paid so much money to train me in. I know that they were as disappointed as I was that I was waitressing.

She sounded happier than I was to hear the news.

I thought of calling my old boyfriend Sam from college. We had been journalism majors together. He'd taken a job in a public relations firm a few months after graduating, and I called it an ignoble profession, and we sort of drifted apart after that. Good thing, too, or I might have wound up married to him. He was a nice guy but kind of dull.

Still, I felt bad about calling it an ignoble profession, when, after a year of finding no jobs, I would have taken it or anything else I could find. After four years of waitressing, public relations looked good to me.

Why did I spend four years waitressing while looking for work in journalism? The thing that led me to an exciting career as a waitress is this -- I majored in journalism in college. Journalism. What a mistake. Let me give you all a piece of advice -- when you are in your high school counselor's office, and she says, "you realize of course that this is a highly competitive field," find another field, fast. Because what she means is, "You don't have a chance in hell of finding a job."

Here's what my guidance counselor actually said:

"Well, there's no doubt that someone with your good looks, and your positive approach, and your strong personality, and your good grades and writing skills, has all the qualifications needed to succeed in journalism," Mrs. Pruett said. "But sometimes even all that isn't enough. Things have been very rough in the job market, generally, and I'm afraid that they've been rougher in journalism than just about everywhere else. One of the things I do as a guidance counselor is try to keep track of which fields are growing and which are dying. The two major indicators are wages -- how much money is being offered at the entry level, and the total number of new job openings. You understand?"

"Yes," I said. "More new job openings mean the field is expanding. And high wages mean there's competition among employers for good new employees."

"Exactly," Mrs. Pruett said. "Therefore, you'll get the point when I tell you that for years, the number of job openings in journalism has been steadily declining. And here's the real pointer: generally, employers gradually increase entry-level wages to match increases in the cost of living -- if you keep wages the same from year to year, you're actually offering employees less money, because everything costs more. Well, there are organizations that survey entry-level salaries, and last year they found just two professions in the entire nation in which entry level wages actually were lower than they were the previous year -- they didn't just stay the same, employers actually offered less money. One of those professions was journalism. Get the picture?"

"Sure," I said. "As you've already said, journalism is a tough field. Hard to find a job, doesn't pay much. I know that. But I can write, Mrs. Pruett, and I can edit, and that's what I want to do."

"There are a lot of other bright young men and women who feel the same way you do," Mrs. Pruett said. "Many of them are disappointed."

"Yes, but none of them is me," I said with the complete fatuousness of youth.

I was ignoring the picture completely -- I certainly didn't understand its implications for my future quality of life. If Mrs. Pruett had been speaking in 15-year old language, she would have screamed, "HEY, DUMMY, WHY DON'T YOU JUST PLAN TO GO OUT AND MAKE A CAREER OUT OF WINNING THE LOTTERY? YOU'VE GOT ABOUT AS MUCH CHANCE OF DOING THAT AS OF GETTING A JOB IN JOURNALISM! AND IF YOU BY SOME MIRACLE DO GET A JOB, YOU'LL NEVER MAKE A NICKEL AT IT!"

I might have understood what she was saying if she'd put it like that. But I probably would have ignored it. I had that teenager's mental disease, "Can't Happen To Meitis." I knew I was fated to be like Jane Fonda in China Syndrome -- a successful, crusading reporter who uncovers wrongdoing by big corporations almost daily.

"Well, you might be able to do all right in broadcast," Mrs. Pruett said reluctantly.

"Oh, I don't want to do broadcast, I want to do print," I informed her. "I don't want to be some kind of TV puppet -- I want to research and write the stories."

Mrs. Pruett gave me a look that can only be described as pitying.

"Print," she said. "Are you sure? You'll be throwing away a great advantage -- your appearance. In broadcast, an attractive appearance is very important. Nobody will care what you look like in print."

"Suits me," I said. "You should see how the boys around here behave. I'm really sick of being ogled and drooled over and sucked up to by creepy guys who obviously could care less who I am, just as long as they get a shot at my body. I'd love to work in a field where nobody cares what I look like. Sign me up."

That got another pitying look. Mrs. Pruett, from her Olympian vantage point of the mid-20s, knew that it would be a long, long time before men stopped caring what I looked like.

"Well, I'll provisionally put you on a liberal arts track that could lead to a journalism degree," Mrs. Pruett finally said. "But I'd like you to do something for me. Study the journalism field carefully over the next couple of years. Look hard at what it takes to get a job there. Talk to some people who have been working in journalism for a while. And look hard at other fields where writing and editing ability are important skills, if that's what you really want to do. You're bright, hard-working and outgoing -- that's what your grades show, anyway. There are a lot of fields where those skills could really pay off for you. You'd be surprised how many fascinating and lucrative jobs there are out there, if you keep your mind open."

The clear implication being that journalism was not such a field, and that my mind was not open. Of course, I paid no attention.

"I'll think about it," I promised happily. I had what I wanted. I had no intention of doing any further thinking.

"Good," said Mrs. Pruett. "Would you send in Robert Jamison as you go out?"

No time for chitchat when you're a guidance counselor, not with her caseload. Of course, I didn't think about it -- I just stuck with journalism -- all the way to that Bachelor's degree that's absolutely essential if you want a job in journalism nowadays. People tried to warn me about journalism even in college, but the teachers taught journalism as if it meant something, as if all their talk about ethics and libel law and such were something other than an empty exercise. I didn't understand academia in those days. I thought they wouldn't churn out journalism graduates if there were no jobs for journalists -- in spite of the fact that I knew very well that almost all the art students and drama students were occupationally doomed. Not to mention the (sneer) philosophy students.

The day I graduated, clutching my diploma happily with all my folks looking on (I was the first in my immediate family to graduate from college, and the only one) was one of the happiest days in my life. I had enjoyed college, but I was ready to get out there and make Kim Field's name the most respected byline in journalism, God help me.

But persistence paid off. Four years of responding to job ads while professionally carrying food and drink to people had paid off.

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