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Serve them the $%!* Decaf: Life Lessons from My Summer as a Waitress

I had another Barry Manilow moment the other day – i.e. one of those times when a snippet of music or cultural reference or, in this case,...

I had another Barry Manilow moment the other day – i.e. one of those times when a snippet of music or cultural reference or, in this case, specific location instantly transports you back to some signature moment in your journey towards adulthood.

An article I was reading about an art show in the United States referenced an up-scale art gallery on Eastern Long Island where I once worked as a waitress during high school. And all of a sudden I was hit by a wave of nostalgia.

I worked at this place for only three or four weeks one summer with my older sister. We worked Thursday-Sunday nights serving desserts to the clientele of the gallery. But while short lived, that job proved to be one of those searing professional experiences that stayed with me for years. Why?

Part of it was the gallery owner himself:  a high strung Manhattan transplant who tried to mask his OCD-like tendencies behind flashy shirts and purple trousers. I think he thought that running a shabby-chic, beach-side gallery would render him a mellower soul. It didn’t. Learning how to manage a mercurial boss proved to be a life-long skill I started cultivating that summer.

It was also the first time that my sister and I – separated by four years in age – became friends instead of just sisters. Having a common enemy in the form of Mr. Purple Pants really united us. I can still remember her emerging from the kitchen with a blob of whipped cream on her face, the remnants of which had been pilfered from a passing profiterole. That didn’t go down very well with our boss, but I erupted in peals of laughter. That sort of fraternal camaraderie between co-workers has been absolutely crucial to every job I’ve held since.

And, then, finally, there was waitressing itself. Someone once told me that everyone should be required to do three things in life:  wait tables, answer telephones, and I can’t remember the third – it might be working construction. There’s something about learning how to navigate the combination of a persnickety boss, demanding customers, and time sensitivity all at the same time – with, in this case, a  prima donna pastry chef thrown in for good measure – that really serves you well in whatever you go on to do next.

Turns out, my sister and I were pretty bad at waitressing. We were always getting the orders mixed up, or naively revealing to the customers that, sadly, we’d run out of regular coffee. (“Serve them the %$!* decaf!” our boss hissed while smiling unctuously at the clients). And I think we both decided that the world would be a better place without us waiting tables in it.

And yet, twenty five years later, just the mention of that gallery brought all of this flooding back to me. Which has to be a good thing, right? If nothing else, I’ve never looked at a cup of decaf quite the same way since.

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  1. Gretchen March 30, 2009 at 1:56 pm #

    Good thing not all bosses are mercurial ;-)

  2. Alison March 30, 2009 at 3:03 pm #

    Dels, this is like my candy striper job at greenwich hospital where the nurses would take out their resentment of their upper crust patients on those who served the tuna. The third “must do” at least according to my father, is ask for money door to door or door to door sales – so that you can learn that all important component of sucessful adulthood: REJECTION.

  3. Tim March 30, 2009 at 6:26 pm #

    Or- my maintenance job at a school. I was “taught” to do light plumbing, and was even asked to fix a leaky toilet that soon after blew sky-high.

    The life lesson for me from my boss John Giardini (ex-jockey from Laurel Racecourse) is that your first job is the perfect time to experiment, even if it leads to exploding toilets and especially as long as no one gets hurt beyond the need for a simple, non-extended emergency room visit.

  4. judy March 30, 2009 at 6:27 pm #

    I love your definition of a Barry Manilow moment. For me, it’s always been my hugely embarrassing ability to come up with the perfect Barry Manilow lyric to fit my real-life moments. (I know. How sad. I rarely sing them aloud.)

    Another way to learn rejection… become a writer. ;-)

  5. Jodi at Joy Discovered March 31, 2009 at 6:46 pm #

    Hi Delia, I like your blog! I agree, everyone should wait tables at least once in their lives – it builds character!

  6. delialloyd March 31, 2009 at 8:03 pm #

    thanks, jodi!

  7. Martha November 17, 2009 at 10:47 pm #

    Love this Delia….you apparently have grown up a bit. Great work :)

    • delialloyd November 18, 2009 at 11:09 am #

      Thanks Martha! Glad you stopped by!

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