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February 9th, 2020

Never Blame The Server For The Kitchen

I’m at the Texas Roadhouse in Hunt Valley, waiting for my usual Texas Roadhouse dinner. For a chain they do a very good house margarita, and I like the chicken critters. You get a couple sides along with that, and I always get the mashed potatoes and gravy, plus either corn or green beans. My cardiologist might not approve entirely, but it’s not something I go out to eat every day. I always eat at the bar because this gives me, the solitary diner, people to talk to.

Tonight I’m waiting for a hour for my food. Thank goodness the margarita and the bread rolls came out right away. First the servers get very apologetic, then a manager comes over and apologises too. It seems they’re having some wee trouble in the kitchen. An order very much like mine comes out of the kitchen, but goes over to someone else at the bar who refuses it. He had an order like mine but not exactly…I’m guessing one of the sides was different. I watch it go back to the kitchen wistfully. They can’t just give it over to me since it’s been served to someone else. Health code I reckon.

I wait, and I wait. Servers and manager are apologetic. I’m a regular there, if not a daily one. They know me not only by name, but by the food I always order. But besides being a regular, I also have a reputation for friendliness. I was once in their shoes, many, many years ago. I did the teenage burger flipper thing back in the early 70s. I did service staff work behind the counter at various jobs. I faced the public. I make six figures now, but I was raised by a single divorced mother back in a time when women made maybe sixty cents for every dollar a man made doing the exact same work. I remember. I remember that I never felt disadvantaged, though by some measures I probably was. I remember the optimism of those times, despite the ongoing cold war, that trickled down to even people such as us, living on a single mother’s income, living in cheap apartments and utterly dependant on public transportation to get anywhere. The future was full of promise back then, even for the likes of us. Not anymore. That mom could raise a boy and that boy could get a decent public school education even then, while nowadays people working service jobs are struggling to make ends meet working two or three jobs and their kid’s education is going into the toilet because baby Jesus cries whenever evolution is taught makes me Angry. I give the service staff every break I can when I’m a customer. But there is even more to it at this particular moment.

Eventually my food comes, and it’s as expected. I have a bunch of these cuisine ruts where I just want the same old thing because the same old thing is actually pretty good, and tonight late as it was the food is pretty good and I am satisfied. While on a road trip or vacation I will avoid the big chains because why bother travelling and then just eat what you can always get back home. But at home I will reliably go for the familiar, though I try more often now to make that a local business rather than a chain. So I’m happy, and the staff is busy with the next problem, because tonight the kitchen is serving up a lot of problems. The manager has told me a lot of kitchen staff didn’t show up that night, and I think to myself but don’t say it outloud, that maybe they’d have fewer nights like this if they paid a decent wage. But that isn’t their call when you answer to a headquarters far away, which in turn answers to some hedge fund somewhere.

I ask for my check. I have a handy smartphone app that calculates tips. My innate math abilities are why I kept a slide rule handy at all times way back in the day, and a smartphone now. The manager has graciously given me a free meal tonight because I had to wait an hour for my food. The margarita is all that I’m paying for tonight, because Maryland won’t let them give alcohol away free. Carry Nation would object to their serving it at all so I’m fine with that. Thankfully, the check shows me what the food would have cost, had I been charged for it. I add it all up, consult my tip app, and figure what the tip would be had I been charged for the food too, add that to the bill, and hand some cash over to the server with an explanation that I’m tipping for the full amount.

My server is stunned…oh you don’t have to do that…  Yes I do. Because some years ago I reconnected with my high school crush. Because I found out he’s still making a living as a waiter earning tips. Because I’m a geek and I did a little research on the working lives of waiters. Because I was floored to learn that they’re exempt from the federal minimum wage. Because I happen to know that the people working behind the bar here at Texas Roadhouse, and waitering the tables, earn about three dollars an hour. Because at that wage the tips stop being a gratuity and become the difference between paying rent and putting food on your own table or having to choose between the two. Because I am old enough to remember a time when a single working mother could provide for herself and her boy on 65 cents on the dollar for every dollar a man made. It wasn’t a fabulous life but I never went to bed hungry, or out the door in dirty clothes. Because I am angry and I don’t want to be. Because enough of my fellow Americans keep voting to make this a reality for their neighbors and I am goddamned certain that many of them have had lives similar to mine. Where did you people bury your fucking conscience?

I explain some of this to my server. At least times have changed enough now that I can tell the story and not reflexively change the gender of my high school crush in the telling. My server thanks me profusely and assures me my high school crush would be happy too. Well I don’t know about that, we’re not speaking anymore. My love life is an empty pit. But at least I still want this to be a better world.

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