It's your fourth shift in a row at the restaurant, all doubles because you only make $2.65 an hour and need to pay for rent and heat and electricity, and your section is a set of booths and tables -- six four-tops, four two-tops, one eight-top -- that seat 44 customers total, and it's been packed from start to finish across your whole rip with couples and clusters of workers from the accounting firm next door and families with children and foreigners who can't read the menu and have never heard of tipping, and twenty different people in your last two shifts have sent their meal back because the cook is new and in the weeds and can't handle the volume and keeps screwing up the orders, and that's not your fault, but the customers take it out on you because you're there.
And your feet are throbbing and your back is a bag of iron rods and your arm is knotted with aching muscles from carrying huge trays of food and drinks as you weave around and through the small sliver of space available after table three joined with table four and their chairs are sprayed out into the lane, and you move through them like smoke balancing six dinners and seven drinks on one hand without spilling a drop or disturbing a soul.
And your biggest table empties out, so you swing into action and police up the plates with half-chewed food and the glasses smeared with lipstick and the pile of napkins filled with snot because one of your customers had a cold and kept blowing his nose and leaving his snot-saturated napkins on the table in an untidy pile, you grab it all up and clear it all out and wipe the table down and hit the register and give the boss his money and pocket the 4% gratuity they left you, and you wince because you know you're not making enough to pay that rent and those bills, and then the door opens again.
And eight people come barreling in and get shown to your table, and you approach them on your aching feet with your back in agony and your arm trembling, and you smile and hand out the menus and say, "Hi, my name is, and I'll be your server, can I get you some drinks?"
And it's a Coke, and a Diet Coke, and a Coke with no ice, and a water with extra ice, and a cranberry juice, and a gin and tonic with Bombay Sapphire, and an orange juice with ice, and a Diet Coke again, and you smile and say you'll be right back, and you do a pass through your other tables to see if anyone needs anything, and of course everyone does, and when you get back to the bar for the drinks, you have to make sure the people who ordered Cokes get Cokes and not Diet Cokes and vice versa and everyone's ice level is where they wanted it to be, and you heft the tray filled with drinks under your trembling right arm and weave through the narrow passageways left by the other customers, and everyone gets exactly what they ordered, because they expect and demand nothing less.
And you put your biggest smile on again and say, "Are you folks ready to order?" And down the line it's I'll have a Fiesta Chicken Chopped Salad with no onions and dressing on the side and I'll have the Classic Clubhouse Grille sandwich with fries and I'll have a hamburger medium well with cheddar cheese and no pickles and onion rings and I'll have the Lemon Shrimp Fettuccine but easy on the sauce and I'll have the Blackened Tilapia how fresh is that oh very fresh and I'm not that hungry so I'll just have the Tomato Basil Soup but can I get extra croutons with that of course you can and I'll have the Riblets with a side salad and fries and can I get my drink filled again me too me too me too me too of course you can, I'll be right back.
And you didn't write any of that down because you've been doing this for years, because writing things down makes you look incompetent, and takes too much time, and disrupts your megawatt smile, but you don't miss a single detail, and you deliver these eight orders to the cook verbatim, and you pray he's on his game today, and you refill their drinks while checking on your other active tables and start taking orders from the two smaller groups who came into your section in the last five minutes.
And twenty minutes later the cook rings the bell and eight steaming plates are waiting for you and praise Jesus Allah Buddha Yahweh Zeus Ba-al and anyone else who answers prayers because all eight orders are letter perfect for a refreshing change of pace, so you array them on a round tray that's wider than a truck tire and lift that tray to your shoulder, navigate the treacherous landscape between the kitchen and your table of eight, place the tray down on the little fold-out holder, smile your megawatt smile, and deliver to your customers exactly what they wanted prepared exactly how they wanted it, and can I refill any drinks, sure, I'll be right back.
And twenty minutes later your biggest table burps and heaves and stands up to leave, and you thank them for coming and say you hope they come back and smile your megawatt smile as they pile out the door chattering happily like chickadees in a tree, and you feel a pulse of warmth in your core because you nailed that table, you did everything right.
And then you start clearing the table of all the plates and side plates and glasses and napkins and silverware, and underneath it all is the check with your tip waiting on the line above the total, except that line is empty, and in the white space on the check is a hastily-written note telling you that you don't deserve a tip for just doing your job.
And you pause for just a moment, because that's all you have, because another gang of eight just came through the door and are waiting impatiently for you to clear the last group's filth in anticipation of their group's filth, that warm pulse in your core burns out, and your arm trembles, and your back throbs, and your feet scream.
You pause, you breathe, you stow the panic about the rent and the bills that is in your throat like acid, and then you get back to work because the hostess is showing that new group to your table even though you haven't had a chance to clean it yet, and seating people at a dirty table is a dead-bang guaranteed excuse for customers to short you on the tip, because the best way to save money when you go out these days is to screw the server, and any excuse will do.
So unless you get the table cleared in the time it takes for eight people to cross a room, that ready-made excuse will be in play, so you lift and clear and wipe and get it done, and flash your megawatt smile when they seat themselves, and hand out the menus, and say "Hi, my name is, and I'll be your server, can I get you some drinks?"
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Something exactly like this happened today, and yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, and the day before that, all over the country, everywhere.
There are two types of people in America: those who have worked in the service industry, and those who have not. Those who have know this story like the back of their hand, because they have lived it. Those who haven't are, virtually without exception, the reason stories like this exist.
By now, you've certainly heard the story of the nasty note given to an Applebee's waitress, who lost her job because she posted the note online. The waitress, one Chelsea Welch of St. Louis, penned an explanation of the incident, and a manifesto for everyone who works service and deals with this kind of galloping obnoxiousness for less than minimum wage every single day.
After sharing my tips with hosts, bussers and bartenders, I make less than $9 an hour on average, before taxes. I am expected to skip bathroom breaks if we are busy. I go hungry all day if I have several busy tables to work. I am expected to work until 1:30 a.m. and then come in again at 10:30.a.m. to open the restaurant.
And I am expected to do all of this, every day, and receive change, or even nothing, in return. After all that, I can be fired for "embarrassing" someone, who directly insults his or her server on religious grounds.
I posted a picture to make people laugh, but now I want to make a serious point: Things like this happen to servers all the time. People seem to think that the easiest way to save money on a night out is to skip the tip.
A slice of Americana, in an age when service industry jobs are the best many can hope for, in a country where Right To Work laws make service employees as expendable as toilet paper. This is happening where you live every day.
Worry about drones, about lawyers for the president arguing they can kill Americans anywhere and for basically any reason, worry about all of that and everything else besides but real change comes in small doses, and actual kindness happens within reach of your arm.
Want to help the workers? The economy? The whole country?
Tip your server, don't be a jackass about it, and worry about the rest of the world after you do what is right within reach of your arm. Maybe, if you're really interested in helping your community, work toward establishing higher wages for the people who bring you food when you go out to eat; there are thousands of them right where you live. First things first; if you shaft the person making slave wages who feeds you and then go home to whine on Facebook about the poor, poor people from somewhere else, you're as much a part of the problem as the people in Washington dropping bombs and deploying drones.
All politics is local.
William Rivers Pitt, author, editor and columnist, wrote this essay for Truthout, a website for liberal political and social commentary; www.truth-out.org.