Survival with a smile by Sandra Stevens

There has been a lot of talk – and reactions ranging from mockery to thinly veiled contempt – over a disgruntled workforce fighting for a living wage.  Washington State (where I live) has the highest minimum wage in the country.  ‘And still these people aren’t satisfied,’ I hear consumers mutter sotto voce when they feel safe in an assumption their thoughts are being expressed in a working-class free zone.

Like at the senior living community where I was recently my mother’s caregiver.  I was given free rent but obliged to pay for a meal plan.  I love to cook but for a while my taste buds were asked to conform to a senior palate.  Salisbury steak and creamed spinach, anyone?  Be sure to save room for the peach cobbler!

Servers at retirement facilities really have the road least traveled on the food chain.  People stay employed longer at McDonald’s.  The turnover in the elder culinary market is even more predictable than the menu.

My mom took the situation personally.  Mom didn’t like growing up in New York so she followed a man to Florida where she worked in Italian venues catering to New Yorkers.  She always gave two weeks’ notice when she wanted to devote more time to family.

“Just when I get to like a server a new one comes along.  Why can’t I have the same server more than two weeks in a row?”

No matter how many times I tried to explain things she just didn’t get it.  “Mom, your servers don’t get tipped.  They’re worked like mules and paid at most a dime above minimum wage.  You wouldn’t have lasted a week.”

“Hmpf, I’d give anything to have a job.  Retirement is boring.”

My mom once worked in an upscale restaurant where a vindictive cook threw steaks on the floor before serving them to customers.  A lifelong whistleblower, she didn’t hesitate to call the manager and report such outrageous shenanigans.  Turned out the cook and manager were related.  My mom got the heave-ho along with a nice severance package.

At another “classy” establishment my mother admitted to the owner she was having a dispute with one of her neighbors.  The owner offered to have the neighbor “taken care of” and anyone who has seen an episode of The Sopranos knows exactly what that means.

When I first heard that story I asked my mother why she didn’t report the owner to the police.

She just shrugged and said, “V was Sicilian.  What could I do?”

Of course my mom would see food service employment as a total gas.  She had a very colorful life in the industry.

As far as I know, hospitality workers at senior living communities are not organizing for their rights.  Maybe they’re afraid of losing what sporadic work they have.  Given how many seniors I’ve spotted pocketing Splenda packets and nondairy creamers, I doubt even the ones who feel their servers’ pain would be in a position to contribute to the higher wage cause.

I’ve always felt more comfortable around an aging population as opposed to children.  Older folks typically don’t watch cartoons and they have better stories to tell.  But when it comes to food and those who serve our daily bread it would make more sense to work at Starbucks.    Every time I walk into a Starbucks there’s a glass cube stuffed to the rafters with silver and greenbacks.  The only way to make more money would be to become a bikini barista but there’s no job security there.  For some reason those stands are always shut down by the police which kinda annoys me, actually.  If Chippendale clubs had coffee bars women would probably tip the servers as well as the dancers.  For that matter when has a Chippendale ever been arrested for lewd and licentious behavior?  Is there no end to the double standard?

Before I became a serial banquet server I worked at a pretentious coffee shop where everyone behind the counter dressed in black: all black.  Black pants, black shirts, even black ties.  When I pulled my hair back in a ponytail it was with a black scrunchie.  That barista job wasn’t bad. People felt compelled to tip the servers lest we all break out into “How Soon Is Now” by The Smiths.

Food service isn’t for everyone.  I’ve met countless people who said they’d rather do anything else.  But I’d sooner wear a macabre uniform and get nice tips rather than work a corporate retail job.

Not long ago I moved to a different part of Washington.  This morning I walked into a café I discovered the day I arrived.  It was only my third visit so I have yet to establish myself as a regular patron which is what I intend to do: this place has phenomenal coffee.  As I settled into my overstuffed chair with delicious mocha in tow I heard someone call my name.

I looked around wondering Who the hell knows me here?

An ebullient barista remembered my name from a drink order the week before.  She just wanted to check in, make sure I was still enjoying the scenery.

I don’t flatter myself with the preposterous notion that I’m so fascinating servers remember me wherever I go.  I know this lovely young woman is just doing her job – and doing whatever she can to keep it.

No matter how tough the economy, we all need to eat and drink caffeinated beverages.  Food jobs – and stellar customer service – are two of the things this country cannot outsource.