Friday, December 09, 2005

The Most Important Meal of the Day

I am looking forward with great relish to a breakfast at First Watch when I visit my family over Winter Break. In particular, I am looking forward to a Turkey Dill Crepegg. One of the few things I truly dislike about Our Fair City is the lack of good breakfast/ (not-just-on-Sunday) brunch places. There are a handful of local diners that are... not bad, even good. But for a girl who spent a large chunk of her college years meeting friends for brunch at any of a long list of places (since a Tuesday morning might be the only time that all of us were neither working nor in class), it’s like being an avid skier, then moving to Kansas. Sure, you can learn to enjoy cross-country skiing, but there are times when all you want is to hit the slopes, just like old times. That’s how I feel about my breakfast/ brunch options here. And those of you who know me know how important breakfast is to me.

I would love to try and hit the place I waitressed at, but they only serve brunch on Sunday morning, and this time, it just so happens that the only Sunday I’ll be there is Christmas Day—which is also one of only two days that they are not open at all, the other being New Year’s Day. I remember when I first heard that we were open on Thanksgiving, I was of the opinion that it was a) criminal and b) stupid, because I figured no one would come in. Boy, was I wrong. It turned out to be not so criminal, since we didn’t open until 8 pm, and only the bar was open. And wow, were we busy! Mostly regulars—i.e., the people we actually liked and enjoyed waiting on-- and they all wanted to get away from their families for a while after a full day of togetherness. No matter how much you love your family, I think you’ve all felt that way at some point or another. The same thing happened when I was scheduled to work Christmas Eve (a shift I actually volunteered for so that other people who maybe lived a little further away or had kids could have the evening off): it was probably our second-busiest night of the year (second only to the day before Thanksgiving). People were in high spirits, the kitchen wasn’t open except for pub grub (wings, nachos, etc), and everyone felt sorry for us that we had to work (which translates into sympathy tips). I had more fun working that night than almost any other night in all the time I worked there.

But I digress.

Everyone hated working Sunday brunch. Except me. I LOVED working Sunday brunch, and it had nothing to do with proximity to brunch food. I especially loved being one of the two openers. You had to be there at the ungodly hour of 8 a.m. (made ungodly not so much by its innate nature as by the fact that anyone high enough on the seniority ladder to get one of these shifts instead of the dreaded Sunday mid was also high enough to be working the bar on Saturday night, meaning that you probably got home between 3:30 and 4:30 in the morning and had to get up three hours later to make it in for the opening shift), but your side work was to get the dining room ready and slice the English Muffins. That was quick and easy, and if you got finished with it efficiently, there was enough time to eat your own made-to-order breakfast with the guys from the kitchen. And if you were senior enough to be working this shift, you were already friends with the guys in the kitchen, so they would make all kinds of fantastic stuff for you. The added bonus was that when your shift was done, it was over—no crappy side work to keep you there when you’re bone tired and just want to get out of there. The other great thing about working Sunday brunch was that the shifts were short and sweet. Unlike a Friday or Saturday night shift that might go for eleven or twelve hours and was certainly never less than eight (without a break!), Sunday brunch shift were maybe five hours long. Six and a half on a bad day. The downsides of brunch were the cranky staff (because half of them were hungover and the other half was just plain tired), the incredibly fast pace, and the lower than average tips. If I took home an average of 18% or 20% on any given Saturday, I would take home only 14% or 15% on Sunday. The high table turnover on brunch shifts compensated for that somewhat, so it wasn’t a total wash.

Sundays were also the only days that staff was allowed to drink at the bar. On other days, the rule was that if you were scheduled to work a shift that day, you could not drink at the bar either before or after that shift. You were welcome to come in on your day off, but if the owners (who were actively involved in running the place and great people to work for) caught you at the bar on a day you were on the schedule, you were fired. You still had to wait until your shift was over on Sunday, but if you worked Sunday brunch, that was no problem. You could sit at the bar with the rest of the staff and the regulars, drink bloody marys, talking and joking. If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you know how the line between work and social life often gets blurred. The people you work with are often the people you go out with and maybe even the people you date and/or sleep with. This restaurant was especially tight knit. Many of the waitstaff had been there for years and the turnover rate was remarkably low. There was remarkably little backstabbing and infighting. People were generally good about covering each others’ asses and helping out when you needed someone to take a shift from you and someone with a dead section would run drinks or trays to a busier server’s station, or do someone else’s side work while waiting for the next wave of customers, knowing that they would do the same for you the next time the situations were reversed—and don’t think that it didn’t get around pretty fast if you didn’t. I remember a meltdown one girl had the night that two of us had done everyone’s side work but hers and the entire staff except the manager and bartender walked out the front door before she’d even had the chance to cash out. None of us felt the least bit sorry for her, given that she not only didn’t volunteer to help, but would refuse to help if asked. Not a great attitude to take when your success at your job depends on the cooperation of the kitchen, the bar, the bussers, and the hostesses. Be nice and help out, even if the job is technically “below” you-- bus your own tables if the bussers are busting their asses and can’t get to you right that second, help the hostess put up the chairs at night, haul bottles of wine up front from the cooler so the bartender doesn’t have to leave her post—and you’ll find that the bussers notice your table first, the hostess seats the rude people in someone else’s section, and the bartender gets your drink orders in record time. It was great preparation for a “real job” in that way.

Of course, any Sunday that you weren’t assigned to work a Sunday brunch was also a good Sunday. They didn’t come very often, especially not if you expected to get good shifts the rest of the time because the manager who did the scheduling didn’t take too kindly to too many requests for Sundays off. When they did come around, it was common practice for groups of us to get together and eat brunch at another restaurant before heading in to drink bloody marys at the bar. Years later, I’m still in contact with a girl who was almost always scheduled to work the same sets of shifts as I. We’ve both moved to different states and work in other fields (or, in my case, ended up back in school), but we still write and email a couple of times each year. I remember sitting on the patio of a restaurant just around the corner from our place of employment one morning in May, just a couple of months before I packed my bags for the City of Light. We were both graduating and neither of us had found a job in our field by that point, so we were tossing around ideas of what to do. She mentioned in passing that she thought it would be cool to work at a resort for awhile, or maybe on a cruise ship. Not the kind of thing you’d really want to do forever, but a few years when you’re young and unattached would be great: a little adventure, a little fun, a little money while you figure out what the next thing to do is. I think she thought I’d laugh, but truthfully, I’d been getting more and more serious about the idea of just tossing it all and moving to the City of Light to be with Finbar while I puzzled out what I was supposed to do with my life. I mean, I was going to be waitressing if I stayed where I was, so why not waitress in a new place until I got some direction? Somewhere in between the laughter and wild ideas, we started to see these as valid plans for the interim. I’m not sure how much we really needed it by that point, but the two of us gave each other the boost we needed to take action.

It’s that kind of chance relationship that can change your life in the most unexpected ways. You sort of expect the important people in your life to have an impact on you: your parents, your best friend, your siblings, your spouse. But sometimes the impetus to action comes from someone that you don’t even know their last name. Maybe that’s because they still have enough distance to see things as they are, not as they’d like things to be for us, or because their own hopes and fears don’t get in the way. Or maybe it’s because the fact that someone who doesn’t love and care about us in a meaningful way is willing to get involved in our lives or to let us get involved in theirs, however limited that involvement might be, is a statement in and of itself.

Some of my fondest memories my college years happened across the breakfast table from someone. Claudia asking me for the twentieth time how to say “Wasserhahn” in English when we met for our weekly muffin and coffee after she moved in with friends of a friend as an au pair. Emily and I stuffing ourselves with cherry crepes and cheese blintzes and chatting with the waitstaff at a diner more than half an hour away from our restaurant on a slow weekday morning, only to discover that a regular customer known as “Creepy Greg” at our place was known as “Creepy Norm” there. Stopping at Cracker Barrel on the way out of town with Finbar. Granny omlettes at midnight with Hulio—who knew that Perkins back home isn’t open 24 hours any more? Waffles at Alice’s apartment while we quizzed each other on the list of mixed drinks for the “bar exam” at work and we tried to get her cute neighbor to come over and join us. Studying for the final in our Survey of 19th and 20th century German Literature class with Jens and Therese and that strange girl from Romania, and every time I said “Brecht”, Jens would snicker at my Bavarian Rs and growl “Say it again!”, like Puumba in the Lion King until I could hardly write the exam because I would get the giggles every time I thought about Brecht. Stopping at IHOP in Indianapolis just to prove to Finbar that a) they did SO exist and b) Country Griddle Cakes are far superior to the stuff served at the Original Pancake House. Eating greasy egg sandwiches in the basement of the student union with Jen between German classes, then groaning the whole way through Professor Böhmert’s class with bloated stomachs.

It seems to me that there’s something so quintessentially young about meeting for breakfast. The older we get, the more obligations we have, the less able we are to carve out that time, especially once the demands of working life set in. Going out to the bars on the weekend is still feasible for most of us, at least until we start having children, but it’s not the same. The breakfast table has a nearly magical power to loosen tongues and open minds. The conversation comes easily, whether it’s superficial talk about the people in the booth across the way or deep conversation about whether to stay in your hometown. The pressure is off, and everyone feels better with a cup of hot coffee at hand. Unlike a night at the bar, breakfast has an easy end—when the server brings your check and the hostess keeps looking over to see if you’ve gotten up so that she can seat the next group, it’s time to get up and go. If you want to and have time to continue things, you can always go somewhere else, but otherwise you’ve got a graceful way to exit. And who doesn’t like crispy bacon and hot buttered toast? That’s a tip for Jelly Belly. Mmmmm, bacon jellybeans...



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