The Burden of Big Money by Sandra Stevens

My food service history vacillates between the elite milieu of fine dining to scrubbing the bottom of the fryolator and mopping floors till I thought my back would snap like a stale bread stick.

I learned a lot about high end cuisine and subsequently became a foodie but it’s always the most humbling experiences that beckon on sleepless nights.  Yes, decades off the floor I’m still reliving some of the worst moments of my life.

Like the time I dropped an entire oval tray of entrées while maneuvering the byzantine landscape of ten-tops bloating tables meant for eight.  The meals that met their deaths on the paisley carpet ranged from pan fried oysters to steak au poivre – naturally, the most expensive choices.

A fellow server who was clearly a “lifer” instantly handed me a broom and dust pan as if she had been anticipating such an event given the fact I was new and not much taller than a picket fence.

That tray weighs twice as much as I do! I wanted to scream, but of course I just buckled down to the ground and picked up the incriminating remains.

“You’re lucky the gratuity is factored into the bill,” she mused, arms akimbo and not bothering to help.  “You’d starve, honey.”

It was the only time I had ever dropped a tray but I certainly was fortunate in that I didn’t have to grovel for tips.  Never docile by nature if I had to rely solely on the kindness of strangers I would indeed starve.

Perhaps that’s why today I cannot pass up a tip jar without putting something in it.  I tip everybody, even the Subway sandwich makers who get a little stingy with the green peppers I so favor over lettuce and tomato.  Maybe the manager told them to be stingy with peppers that day: who knows?  Doesn’t matter.  I feel everyone’s pain.

Once I mastered ‘serve from the left, clear from the right’ I said goodbye to fast food jobs forever.  I grew up poor so it never even occurred to me to apply for retail jobs selling candles or cosmetics.  For a while I longed to be a bookseller.  Then I met a woman who said she had worked for six years at a giant bookstore.  She never earned a dime above minimum.  No raises.  No health insurance.

By waiting on tables, banquet serving and pirouetting through crowds while balancing cocktail trays with one tremulous hand, I was able to buy all the books I wanted and pay for my own darn insurance.  So what if I wasn’t treated with the same respect as a bookseller.

If it’s respect you’re after… become a doctor.

Country clubs are notoriously the worst places to work because of the snobbery.  People spending thousands of dollars a year to “belong” somewhere want to crush you on principle.  They resent you for not having to pay to be there.  You even have the nerve to require wages!

I’ll never forget a gig I had at a country club.  It was the kind of place where famous billionaires walked in not expecting special treatment but a trophy wife would freak if she noticed a smudge on her charger plate.  One of my fellow servers had a Grand maul seizure and fell to the floor.  Not one well-heeled member left his chair or risked his place in queue at the tiger prawn buffet.  One frosty-haired woman even curled her lip in disgust.  A server down for the count was nothing more than an inconvenience.

At another club I was serving a party of six while filling in for one of the regular sommeliers.  I had interrupted a conversation about the burden of Big Money.  While pouring a third glass of wine (Beaulieu Vineyard Georges De Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, highly recommended) one gentleman leaned back crossing his hands behind his head.  “What am I supposed to do?  Give my money away?”

The man’s party had the good grace to be embarrassed for him.  Five heads simultaneously looked at this man then looked up at me before they all looked down at their plates.  The moment had the effortless grace and timing of synchronized swimming.

I preferred serving food and spirits at hotels because guests were typically amiable and usually celebrating something.  But banquet serving is far from steady work so I’d often have to take whatever gigs I could find… even if it meant getting crushed at a country club.

And better to get crushed than to get a crush on someone at one of the private clubs.  There is an indivisible line between The Haves and The Help.  I found that out every time a well-dressed man smiled at me only to grimace and skedaddle once he ascertained my station.  I always wore civilian clothes to work so I was occasionally mistaken for a guest before slipping into the de rigueur uniform of black and whites.

Most members of my family have worked blue collar jobs at some point in their lives and I was practically weaned on the mantra: There’s no shame in honest labor.

But just once, I’d like to pick up a charger plate and see my own reflection rather than fret over an offending smudge.

Just once I’d like to know what it’s like to be a member of the club.