Thursday, October 05, 2006

ON LOVING YOUR WORK...Whatever it might be

working and walking, originally uploaded by lince.

Most people who've ever waited tables agree that "tea" should be a four letter word. While serving coffee is a one-step process, a cup of tea involves several--and in most of the disorganized kitchens where I've worked, some hunting as well. Has anyone seen the teapots? The doilies? The bleeping tea box?

Oh yeah, it's a common scenario.

It usually goes something like this: The cranky party in table six wants their check right now. Table four's food is up, and the chef has called your name three times, in increasing volume. Now his head is poking through the service window, revealing his flaming nostrils, and that charming snarl. "Where the bleep is Patry? This hamburger's been under the lights for ten minutes!"

So you're already not just running; you're jogging in two directions when someone from Table 2 puts a finger in the air, and mouths the dreaded word: "Tea?"

By the time you return with it, you've got second degree burns from sloshing hot water on yourself. (Running with pots of boiling liquid is not a good idea, she says from experience.)

So you set down the pot of tea and the cream, and you're off to do the next lap when Table 2 stops you dead: "I'm sorry. I wanted decaf tea."

By then the chef is out of the kitchen, with his hands on his hips, and in your face. "Do you intend to pick up that food some time today?"

After you deliver it, and get the check to Table 6 who are already annoyed and clearly going to factor that annoyance into your tip, you get the decaf tea.

But by then Mr. Decaf tea isn't all that pleased either. His dessert is half finished, and his pot of once hot water is tepid.

Of course, you replace the water, apologizing profusely as you do. (Your specialty.) Then just when you're about to get away, decaf tea remembers that he prefers milk to cream in his beverage, preferably fat-free.

"Why sure! Right away!" you say, smiling. Never mind that Table four is now flagging you down. Before you reach the table, you know what they're going to say: their rare hamburger is dessicated shoe leather. You also know who the chef is going to blame for that one.

So you drop off the hamburger, take your dose of abuse from the chef, and umm, what were you doing? Oh yes, getting milk! Milk for the decaf tea...

"There you go, sir," you say as you deposit the little silver pitcher at the table, still hoping for the clean getaway.

But on most days, it's not to be had. "You know, a cup of tea sounds good right now," Mr decaf's friend drawls. "What kind of herbals do you have?"

It might sound extreme, but as anyone has ever waited tables can tell you, it happens every day. And what's more, when you can't smile and say you'll be happy to check (even though you're not sure if there are any herbal teas in the kitchen) it's time to hang up your beautiful orthopedic black shoes and find another way to make a living.

Why? Because Mr. Decaf isn't on a mission to make your life difficult; he just wants a damn cup of tea! And what's more, he deserves to have it. Any way he wants it. With non-fat milk. Organic honey. Or fresh lemon cut in a wedge, not a slice. The day there's no one in the dining room asking for tea, is the day you go home with an empty apron pocket.

Have I ever been a little annoyed by guys like Mr. Decaf or the chef or the people who are so impatient for their check they can't see I'm moving as fast as I can? Of course--probably every day. But seriously annoyed? Never. (Okay, almost never.)

What does annoy me is people who hate their jobs and are proud of it. People who despise the individuals who are directly or indirectly responsible for paying their salaries.

I was particularly bugged by this rant in Gawker, written by an editor who claimed that authors were the craziest, meanest, strangest, cluelessest people in the world. Ouch. (Crazy and clueless, maybe...but mean? Did she have to call us mean?)

What's more, she castigates writers for being too poor to afford a decent coat from H & M. What about an author who cares more about literature and ideas than about the fashion statement his or her coat makes? I guess that would put us even lower on the food chain.

Fortunately, both my current editor and her predecessor genuinely seem to enjoy both their work and their authors; I can't imagine what it would be like to work on something closely with someone who so clearly disdains writers.

The prevailing wisdom worries a lot about what we owe ourselves. I'm sure a bevy of pop psychologists would be quick to say that this editor deserves to find a job she truly loves--for her own sake. I agree.

But what about the courtesy, the grace, or just the benefit of the doubt, we owe to others? Whether it's serving decaf tea with milk, or taking yet another call from an anxious author, the people we work with and serve deserve the best we've got to offer.

If you're somewhere in life where you can't deliver that, then maybe it's time for a change.

half of a yellow sun

Meanwhile, THE THIRD DAY BOOK BLOG which is now reading Half of a Yellow Sun already has 18 (make that 19!) unofficial members who plan to blog about the book on November 3rd. (I know several of you are definite maybes, but I'm an optimist...)

1. colleen
2. RDL
3. Jordan Rosenfeld
4. amishlaw
5. ruby
6. tarakuanyin
7. Tish
8. sustenance scout
9. laini
10. robin andrea
11. bill cameron
12. chiefbiscuit
13. gerry rosser
14. debra
15. tinker
16. left-handed trees
17. lorna
18. steve
19. me (currently on page 67 and completely captivated)
20. Bloglily
21. Kate
22. You?

Anyone else?
P.S. If you don't have a blog, don't let that deter you. You can post your thoughts right here in the comment section.


Stephanie said...

Well, this explains a lot about what happens when I order tea. But if it's worth anything---I really don't mean it to be a pain in the ass.

As an editor, I thought the rant on Gawker was hilarious....I think that when you deal with multiple authors who all think they're one step away from sainthood and Pulitzers, you may judge a coat too harshly.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld said...

I'd like to post the links of the bloggers who are blogging, so I don't know, Patry, if you could send out an email to all of us or post them on your blog so we could gather each other's urls, but that would be groovy. For now I'll just link to you.

Cool beans

Patry Francis said...

stephanie: As a fellow tea drinker, i don't mean to be a pain in the ass either. Nor do I intend to be a pain in the ass as an author. (In fact, I'm pretty sure I'm NOT, but I suppose you'd have to ask my editor that.)

Interesting to hear your take as an editor. I'm sure lots of authors are "difficult;" and maybe the Gawker piece was something akin to the kitchen rants that frequently help servers get through the night. But the writers I "know", most of whom I met on line, seem to be truly wonderful people.

jordan: Great idea. I'll post the links later today. (Might even apply a little peer pressure to the "maybe" group!)

Stephanie said...

Yes, I do think the editorial rant piece is akin to the kitchen rant. And I don't work with fiction authors, so I was actually shocked how similar my feelings were to those of the gawker ranter.

Dale said...

Lovely post. I agree. If you really can't like serving your customers, whoever they may be (in my present line of work, they're the software developers whose code I test), then it's time to get out.

--begin rant--

I never order tea in restaurants, because a) it's clearly so much work for the server, b) the damn stuff is never hot (did no one in the restaurant supply business pay attention in physics? hello? metal *conducts* heat, thank you, and we're trying to insulate, here!) and c) those horrible little metal teapots are apparently purpose-built to defeat dishwashers: I always taste not just today's tea, but every pot of tea made in the thing since the dawn of creation.

Is this, I ask you, a problem that really must defeat yankee ingenuity?

--end rant--

Shannon Hopkins said...

As an Irish tea drinker, the tea has to be made with boiling water (not so boiled that there's no oxygen left in it, thank you very much!), the pot must be warmed in advance, and tea must be served with milk, not CREAM, for heaven's sake! There, am I fussy enough for you? :-) There's an art to making tea, and I don't think most servers have the time, as you noted, Patry, to do it justice. I just order coffee for that reason!

Re the gawker piece: A old friend of mine wrote 78 Reasons Why Your Book Won't Get Published and 14 Reasons Why it Just Might. I haven't read it yet, but I want to. I guess he's pretty hard on "wannabe" writers in it. He was an editor at a small press for years, and I saw what he had to do to clean up some writers' prose. Yikes! He said it's really not about the writing, but about the ideas. Anyway, given the tone of your blog, Patry (and the fact that it's always beautifully written), I bet you're one of the writers editors dream about having...

Looking forward to Half a Yellow Sun.

Sustenance Scout said...

Good golly, Patry, I had no idea what trouble I was causing each time I ordered tea! I'll be sure to boost the tip when I do that from now on...

I've been working through how to adjust my parenting attitude toward my poor kids, who suffer through barked orders on a daily basis just so I can get out the door (or dinner on the table, or everyone to bed...) on schedule. Maybe it's time to think of them as the people I'm here to serve rather than vice versa. Maybe it's time to remind myself how much I love my job, especially when I lighten up. I guess that's an odd way of saying thanks for another great post.

Patry Francis said...

stephanie: As anyone who reads your blog knows, you are all about positive attitudes in the work place. Knowing that you agree with the Gawker editor caused me to reread the piece with new eyes. It also made me recall some of the stories I heard in New York about intractible authors....hmmm...

Dale & tarakuanyin: I'm with both of you on the tea debate. I don't drink it in restaurants either and for the same reasons. The problem may well be that tea drinkers are still a distinct minority. When and if their numbers increase, it may be brewed more appropriately, set-ups will be ready and available for servers, and pitchers of milk will be prepped along with the pitchers of cream.

And Tarakuanyin: Thanks, too, for the kind words about my writing--though I'm afraid I gave the copy-editor at Dutton plenty of typos and inconsistencies to correct.

Patry Francis said...

karen: I definitely didn't mean to scare anyone away from drinking tea in restaurants--though as dale and tarakuanyin pointed out, it's never made correctly. A good server may grumble a bit while fixing tea in the kitchen, but will--and should--cheerfully serve it. Getting people what they want is our job!

Transferring the "cheerful service" model to the family is a beautiful thought--and a needed reminder for me as well.

Anonymous said...

Unless I'm at a coffee house that has the hot water station to fix your own cup, I usually order iced tea - unless I'm freezing (& this is S. Calif., so that's rare) or I'm coming down with a sore throat.

I have noticed a little flicker in the waitress or waiter's eyes when I have ordered it - now I know why! I'll be sure to remember this post when tipping. Thanks for the heads-up!

steve on the slow train said...

I've been meaning to do a post about how, as a non-coffee-drinker, I don't fit into American society. But the wait staff doesn't have to worry about me. I rarely can afford to go to restaurants, and even then, I usually order my tea iced (unless the stuff is instant, when ordinary orange pekoe is fine).

steve on the slow train said...

One more thing--put me down as a strong maybe for Half of a Yellow Sun. I've got the first hold on the book at the local library, so unless there's a delay in processing the book, I'll have it in time to do a post on November 3.

Anonymous said...

two things:
1) as a former waitress for many years, oh lordy how i hear you . . . and i hit that 'gotta get out' feeling long before i could afford to do it . . . i still overtip ridiculously because it is such a challenging job emotionally . . . but i do miss the great exercise :)

2) is the book an uplifting one? i'm chock full of text reading for school right now but if it's an uplifting book it would be helpful and i could talk myself into it . . . i sooooo miss reading novels :)k

rdl said...

Amen sister! I dont know I might have to be the book club dropout(so what else is new) if i don't get the book soon. can i post on the 1st chapter??

Anonymous said...

Count me with all the people who thank you for telling us about the issues for servers regarding tea. Honestly, I had no idea. I shall never order hot tea again unless it is self-serve or part of high tea at a tea room where they are prepared for stuff like this. (I enthusiastically recommend high tea at the Four Seasons in Boston for just such an opportunity. I have it in my head that they bring everything on tea carts, which makes sense when you're serving tea to several people simultaneously, does it not?)

As for not staying in a job where you find you cannot act with grace and love anymore, or that it is costing you when it should be enriching you, I agree. If you can afford it, you should work hard to find another option. This very phenomenon was a big part of why I quit my last job. I reached a point where everyone who came through my line looked like a bad, selfish, inconsiderate driver and my company looked like a vortex of self-serving hypocrisy swirling about the skeleton of a highly worthy mission with highly worthy core values for ever more picked over bones. I should never have let it get that far, but I thought the answer was to stand and fight. And in other circumstances, it might have been.

My store manager thought he was summing up my feelings by saying, "It's a service job," meaning any job in a grocery store. What I should have replied instead of what I did say was, "Every job is a service job -- including yours." It is a measure of how weak I felt that instead I said something else that sounded like I agreed with him and that I wasn't cut out for such things.

If we are not cut out for serving each other, what are we cut out for? The trick is to find the best way for each of us to do that, to take responsibility for it, and to continually reinvent it and ourselves so that the drive doesn't die.

Sneering at people who challenge us is fun, and easy. So is bingeing on chocolate when we're depressed. Neither makes for much of a long-term solution, though, does it?

gulnaz said...

heart warming post and you are right, those who don't respect their work should do the world a favour and quit.


Anonymous said...

Some people are just grumpy and unhappy no matter what their job. Unfortunately those are often the same ones that feel their lot is without choice and rather the fault of others. They are the ones that we, given the chance, should choose to avoid.

Kay Cooke said...

That is some good resons right there to stop waitressing and write full time - even if gawker thinks we're losers.

I sometimes order tea - English Breakfast, ordinary milk - but I'd like to think I'm not a fussy woman ... I'll think about the poor waitress tho next time. :)

Anonymous said...

I remember those little stainless steel pots from my stint as a waitress at a 24 hour restaurant. I had no idea why anyone would ever order tea from us more than once -- the water was tepid, the tea bag you put on the side of the saucer always got soaked because the lids on the pots didn't fit and the water sloshed over the side and the fake milk stacked up in a little saucer on the table looked pretty icky. Real tea was such a revelation to me after that.

As for Half a Yellow Sun -- count me in. I'm off to see if I can BookMooch it.

Sustenance Scout said...

"If we are not cut out for serving each other, what are we cut out for? The trick is to find the best way for each of us to do that, to take responsibility for it, and to continually reinvent it and ourselves so that the drive doesn't die."

Good golly (again!), Patry, even the comments on your blog offer revelations for the careful reader. I'm going to cut and paste Sara's quote to the top of my parental to-do list. And the part about taking responsibility will be underlined. K.

Patry Francis said...

tinker: Very sensitive of you to notice the "flicker"--though I do think many tea drinkers are. And truly, how's a tea lover to know?

steve: I'd like to read that post about non-coffee drinkers. (And as you can see, I wasted no time adding you to the list.)

kate: the loss of exercise is a serious concern now that I'm sitting at my computer most of the day. I used to wear a pedometer, and averaged 5 -10 miles in an 8 hour shift.

As far as the book goes, it's about the war in Biafra--though I haven't gotten to that part yet, so I don't know if it's what you need right now. On the other hand, the characters are wonderful and luminous and there are lots of interesting relationships going on, so maybe...what do you think?

gulnaz: Hugs to you, too, sister!

sara: High tea at the 4 Seasons has been on my list of things to do before I die for quite some time. Still hasn't happened yet though.

You say a lot of interesting things about the nature of work and about how the petty hierarchies frequently grind us down and make us feel less than who we are. Undoubtedly, that is responsible for a lot of job loathing. When people feel they don't have an option to leave--whether it's true or not--that is another.

Not all jobs can be made palatable by a positive attitude or a false smile. Believe me, I've had a few of those. A key question for me is: do you count the hours? When we start wishing for the moments of our lives to be gone, we're clearly in the wrong place. Maybe that's why I liked waitressing: the moments were full to bursting.

coll: A very good point--which leads to another existential quesion: Is an unhappy personality really your fault? Can we change who we are? Do we have a responsibility to do so? Come back Monday, I think we need to talk about this more.

chiefbiscuit: I wonder if there are more tea drinkers in New Zealand? If so, wait people may be better prepared. I once worked an Irish convention. Anticipating an onslaught of tea lovers, we prepped pitchers of milk, brewed fresh tea and served it from pots like coffee. It was no trouble at all--and it was delicious.

karen: That is a particularly beautiful quote from Sara--and a worthy reminder for just about anyone.

bloglily: I work--or worked-- at an elegant country club, and we still use those same little steel tea pots, and serve the same dampened tea bags. There should be another way. Maybe it all leads back to Steve's point that tea drinkers are an underserved minority--the bane of waitpeople, the victim of tepid water and rusty tea pots.

Anyway, so happy to hear you'll be reading the book!

paris parfait said...

Great points from someone in-the-know.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Patry, counting the hours. Whenever I have started to feel each hour as a year of my life, I have known I have already waited too long to make a change. It's a good test.

You're right; some jobs are just not fixable. I really feel for people who have no choice but to stay in really wretched situations, or who feel they have no choice. I've been in that kind of situation myself. But it's not like I was ever stuck in a locked sweatshop in Central America. And getting back to that Gawker article, I don't really think most editors are in positions like that, either. Sometimes other choices we make just combine to corner us. Sometimes we just think they have. I would never presume to say which one was true for someone else. I would only, like you, urge people to try to find, or better yet create, a different path if the path they're on isn't cutting it.

I would also urge people to remember that they're not ever going to be satisfied on any job if they expect it always to be about them all the time. Every job is a service job. Every single one. Love performing the service, or tolerate it at least, or find a new way to do it, or some other service to perform, or maybe some other clientèle to serve. That editor really sounds like she's reached that point.

Other subject: We should have a Boston Area Blogger's Tea at the Four Seasons. Okay, it's bloody expensive. But wouldn't it be fun? (Maybe in a few months when some of us might happen to be employed again?)

Anonymous said...

i'll give the book a go . . . might be just what i need . . . and i so miss novels . . . ahhh the glorious library . . . :)

Patry Francis said...

Kate: Yes!!!