I was just checking out the NYTimes website (yes, I was procrastinating), and came across this article.
July 12, 2009
Pancake ChroniclesBy SUSANNAH JACOB
Prom. Graduation. Summer job. I wanted all three to complete my high-school days in iconic American fashion before heading off to college. In May, however, job hunting proved difficult. After my 34th or 35th unreturned phone call to independent businesses in the Dallas area, I set aside my scruples about major chains and went for an interview at a nearby International House of Pancakes. After I handed in my application, the IHOP floor manager studied me momentarily. No further words were exchanged, but 24 hours later he called me.
So I began waitress training the following week, with a positive attitude and a desire to make good on the franchise’s pledge, “Service as good as our pancakes.” I soon learned that a “Quick Two-Egg Breakfast” comes with two eggs, two pieces of meat, hash browns and toast, and that elderly men who wear toupees like their hash browns to linger in the deep fryer. I also learned the life story of my trainer, Suzanne. A Peruvian native who immigrated as a child to Queens, New York, Suzanne had somehow (factor in two marriages) moved to Texas, then got into trouble with cocaine and later did a bit of time for violating parole. She has been clean for several years now and loved telling the story of her arrest, which took place at that very IHOP. When she saw the cops, she says, she made a beeline for the back door, to no avail. “The police walked me right around this building,” she told me.
“And you were rehired?” I was incredulous.
“Well, yeah,” Suzanne said. “I’m a damn good waitress.” I knew she was right. She earned respect from the floor manager, adulation from her regulars and appreciation from the busboy with whom she shared her tips.
In stark contrast, I was a miserable trainee. In between Suzanne’s oversharing and her general advice (“When the cooks ask you how old you are, tell them 6, O.K.?”), she detailed the duties of an IHOP server. But I absorbed almost none of it. Waiting on tables, it seemed, violated my very constitution. Accuracy, speed, balance — I could never master any combination of the three.
I did one thing well: I rolled napkins around silverware nicely. Otherwise I brought people the wrong drinks, shrugged my shoulders and looked around when customers asked me where to sit, fell facedown with two tall glasses of orange juice in my hand, put powdered sugar on hamburgers instead of French toast by mistake, broke an unacceptable number of plates and Tabasco bottles and handed customers a green crayon with which to sign their credit-card receipts. After I almost splashed a patron with scalding coffee by pouring it too fast, Suzanne revoked my pouring privileges. She even barred me from spraying the whipped-cream smiley faces on the chocolate-chip pancakes. Mine were too messy.
Her most crushing accusation: I had to stop staring at the customers. She was referring to the traveling family of tattooed Brits who were, in fact, very interesting to watch and listen to. They even managed somehow to smell British. But Suzanne’s observation made me so self-conscious that I spent the rest of my IHOP days (all 24 of them) asking the floor how it preferred its bacon.
Every day I worked, I saw a half-dozen job applicants enter the restaurant and leave empty-handed. I knew I was lucky to have a job. My friends had all failed even to get interviews at the bookstores and clothing shops where they applied. But because I’m still at an age when it’s socially acceptable to live with my parents, I don’t need the paycheck for shelter or food. Unlike Suzanne, I could afford to fail at this, and I knew it.
Then one day a mother, her 10-week-old baby and her parents sat at Table 72 and ordered Dr. Pepper, iced coffee and iced tea. Suzanne told me to bring them their drinks on a tray. “Not over the baby,” she hissed, eyeing me as I wobbled to the table.
So instead of going over the baby, I tried to go to the side of and slightly under the baby, who was slouching on his mother’s lap. It became instantly apparent that this was a bad idea: the glasses toppled, flooding the booth.
Other Saturday-morning diners craned their necks to get a better view of the wet clients, and of me, shocked (and, I admit, a little tearful). This job brought out all of my inadequacies and made them seem insurmountable.
Suzanne wouldn’t even look at me. Feeling helplessly incompetent and embarrassed, I walked up to the floor manager and gave him my resignation. “Well, thanks for trying,” he said, his eyes filled with unconcealed relief.
Susannah Jacob is a graduate of Plano West Senior High School in Plano, Tex. She will attend the University of Texas at Austin in the fall.
Talk about bringing back memories. I, too, worked in an IHOP. For many years. Like many, many years. And I can say with complete confidence that it was the hardest job I ever had, that no job – not even the lobbying gig I had and hated – broke me in the same way that waiting table did, and that I am absolutely better off for having gone through it.
I might have more to say about it later. You know, when I’m not at work and expected to, well, work.