Waiting for a day off is unbearable

Last weekend, I did an immature and irresponsible thing, and I feel great.
Without warning, notice or reasonable provocation, I quit my job as a waiter. Two hours before my shift was supposed to start, I picked up the phone and dialed, trembling with excitement. I’m not kidding. I was downright giddy.
“This is Brian,” a gruff voice answered.
“Hey, boss, this is Josh.”
“What’s up?”
“Uhh … I hate to do this to ya, but I’m not coming in tonight and … I think you know what that means.”
“Yup.”
It meant, of course, that I quit. Then again, if you talk to him, it meant I was fired.
But whether I was sacked or not didn’t matter; that day marked the end of an era for me — an era that spanned almost 11 years of my life. The Restaurant Era.
When I was 15, I left the lucrative and comfortable confines of my job as a bag boy at Jerry’s Super Valu in Bloomington to join a great experiment: Rocky Rococo’s was going full-service. That’s right — an enterprising general manager of the then-thriving national pizza chain decided to try waiters and waitresses at the Bloomington store — a decision that came down on the very day I strolled in to scrawl out an application.
Since that day in July of 1988, I put together a waiter’s rÇsumÇ that reads like a rapsheet. Here are the ones I can remember:
ù Rocky Rococco’s — six months.
ù Denny’s in Bloomington — four years.
ù Harmony Grill in Richfield — three weeks.
ù Denny’s in Milwaukee, Wis. — one year.
ù Green Mill in Eden Prairie — two weeks (fired for being incompetent).
ù Edwardo’s Pizza in Bloomington — four years.
ù Ping’s Szechuan in Minneapolis — eight months.
ù Black Forest Inn in Minneapolis — never made it to training.
ù Timber Lodge Steakhouse in Eden Prairie — quit last weekend after two-and-a-half years.
I’m not proud of the list. Most of the places are two-bit taco stands. None of them was particularly profitable for me.
Then again, I was never a world class waiter, either. Consistently late, insolent and self-effacing about whatever restaurant for which I happened to be working, managers almost always had it in for me. But they kept me around, because customers responded to my easygoing, quick-with-a-joke style.
In other words, I never took my work seriously. I never read from the script, as so many servers do. I struck up unusually casual conversations, and always attracted repeat business. People felt comfortable with me. Like guests.
Sometimes restaurant work is lively and stimulating. There are no office politics, no hard and fast rules of etiquette, no “casual Fridays.” And it’s always nice to take cash home from your job — the ultimate in instant employment gratification.
That was the good stuff.
Anyone who’s ever served tables will tell you the rest of the story. There’s the smelly clothes, the belligerent jackasses (there’s one on every shift), the onslaught of children (servers hate children), and the barrage of disrespectful condescension from 30-something suburbanites who think it’s cute that you “play restaurant” with such an astonishing sense of gaiety. I’m just getting started.
There’s 10 percent tips from toothless hillbillies, needless castigation from customers who swear that “medium rare” means barely pink, and general soreness from hours of lifting, turning awkwardly and walking. There’s the goofy uniforms, lousy kitchens and “the weeds.”
Being in the weeds is any server’s worst nightmare. “The weeds” has been called many things in the restaurant vernacular — “swamped,” or “drowning” — it’s all the same feeling. You have six tables; they all need multiple things; and they all need them RIGHT NOW. Look around your local diner someday on a busy morning. See that waitress whose pallid face bears a look of harried fright? She’s in the weeds.
I’ve had recurring nightmares about the weeds. Every server has. My guess is they will never stop.
But for now, for the first time in 11 years, the reality of restaurant work has ceased.
I toiled all those years with one prize in mind: to see the day when I could go to restaurants exclusively to relax.
Well, on a crazy whim, I took the prize a little early. Before I really earned it — before I could afford it, I took it because it was a beautiful sunny afternoon, and dammit, I wanted the day off.
Having spent the entire day working in the sun-splashed yard, it occurred to me — not for the first time — that since the beginning of the school year, between my three jobs at the Daily, 16 upper-level credits and weekends waiting tables, I didn’t have a day off. Not a single one. Seven days a week, as much as 10 hours per day, work, work, work.
I got paid well enough, but nothing is more valuable than sanity. No pocketful of cash, no shred of loyalty. I had reached the point where I was ready to pay somebody for a damn day off.
So I took it myself. I cast myself off into the world of civilians — nonrestaurant workers — outsiders, used-to-be-servers. I burned a bridge in the process, while effectively cutting off a major source of spending cash. But without the day to spend it, what good was it really doing me?
I still feel great. Take away my beer money, my entertainment money, my funny money.
Come Saturday, I have a day off. You can’t buy that.

Josh Dickey’s column appears on Tuesdays. He welcomes comments to [email protected]