Summer Jobs: Waiting Tables

Our summer jobs series continues with one of the hardest jobs out there — waiting tables. We hear from several former waitresses, including our own Michele Norris.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now it's time to hear more of your summer job stories. Today's subject is waiting tables. We've heard from a number of former waitresses, including Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, who summed up her experience this way.

Ms. ROBIN CARNAHAN (Missouri Secretary of State): I learned that the guys in the kitchen always mess things up and you have to endure the consequences with unhappy customers. So it was a quick lesson in trying to figure out how to keep your customers satisfied.

Ms. JOAN STEARNS: At the end of a shift my feet were swollen, my legs were shot and my back was a mess of aching muscles.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Back in her college days, listener Joan Stearns of Henderson, Colorado, worked in a 24-hour truck stop that was on the way to a resort area of Wisconsin.

Ms. STEARNS: On Saturdays, the day when the resorts changed residents, the truck stop was packed all day with a line out the door. The people who ran the truck stop were so cheap, they wouldn't buy enough spoons. So, often we were forced to serve coffee, which is the mainstay of a truck stop, without a spoon and there went any tip. And tips at a truck stop are not great anyway.

The most tips I ever made in one shift was $8, and that was the day I went to work wearing an eyepatch because I had a scratched cornea. Several male customers looked at me, laughed and said, what's the matter, your boyfriend hit you? I was incensed that anyone would think it was okay, much less hilarious for a man to hit a woman. And I didn't know what I'd do, but I said, the next person who makes such a comment is going to get it.

Then a man sat down, took one look at me and said, what's the matter, your boyfriend hit you? Ha, ha, ha. And I said, no sir, I had my eye removed. This man felt terrible, I could see. And I said, sir, I was just joking, I really didn't have my eye removed, but I don't think he believed me 'cause he left me a big tip.

BLOCK: That story from Joan Stearns.

Mary Balzer of Boulder, Colorado agrees that waitressing is hard, hard work. But Balzer enjoyed her time in an apron and comfortable shoes. She worked for her aunt and uncle in Galisteo, New Mexico in 1970. Their restaurant was called La Mancha.

Ms. MARY BALZER: And they catered to the opera crowd, both the performers and the opera goers, even though it was quite a drive from the opera house in Santa Fe. It was a hot summer, but the adobe building that housed the restaurant was cool. And my aunt was teaching me her recipes for pozole and green chile enchiladas as we cooked.

But best of all, that summer the movie crew of "Red Sky at Morning," with Claire Bloom, Richard Thomas and Desi Arnaz, Jr., was filming in Galisteo. And they stopped at the restaurant. I couldn't believe my luck. I was 16 and totally in love with Desi and Richard. That experience made the rest of the summer bearable, though I worked the hardest physically that I ever have.

I've not been a waitress since, but I really appreciate waiters and waitresses whenever I go out to eat.

BLOCK: That's listener Mary Balzer remembering her days waiting tables.

And, Michele, I gather that like me, you are a member in good standing of the grand revered society of former waitresses, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Grand revered society. I like to think of it that way. I am. I worked at a Perkins Cake and Steak. I worked the overnight shift with a bunch of my friends from high school. And we did it because the tips were so good. People would come in after a night of drinking and a lot of young girls waiting tables, I guess, would elicit some pretty good tips.

BLOCK: Good memories?

NORRIS: Yeah. Good memories. I still look at my fingers and I think I lost my fingerprints from carrying hot plates of pancakes and coffee. But we had a lot of fun.

BLOCK: Well, we're going to have more about the summer jobs that stuck with you and what you learned from them next week. In the meantime, we're still taking your stories at NPR.org. Click on Contact Us and make sure "summer job" is in the subject line.

(Soundbite of song "Diva of the Silver Top Diner")

Mr. BILLY MITCHELL: (Singing) The room stood still as she blew away the grill She's the superstar of this breakfast bar The diva of the Silver Top Diner And I'm her biggest fan Got a voice like an angel But works like the devil every day Saving her tips to go to Nashville and play...

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