Pleasures of Life

Food For Thought

On the final night before graduation, a young waitress discovered the more important lessons learned in college

 

By Maggie Dodson   

The first and only time I cried as a waitress was the night before my college graduation. The restaurant was fully booked, I was late (procuring a last-minute graduation gown), and it had been days since I’d washed my uniform. Kathi, the owner’s wife with a meticulous eye for detail, noticed a smudge on my apron and made a note of it in my file. The evening, which was to be my last at the restaurant, didn’t look promising.

Almost 365 days had passed since I’d started my first shift at L’Amante: an entire year of balancing hot plates on my arm and learning about Italian wine, of taking orders alongside a complex cast of characters who’d teach me about intimacy and friendship.     

On my first day, Sarah, a staff veteran, told me that making mistakes was a part of life, but not a part of L’Amante. She also warned me not to cry. “No one likes a crier,” she said, “especially not Kevin,” the owner and head chef.

As I trailed her around the dining room, learning her duties, I thought about my upcoming, final year of school. One more year of classes. One more year of nurturing the friendships I was told would last a lifetime. One more year to discover who I was.

Relatives, pop culture and guidance counselors all promise that you will not just find your calling in college, but your people. The sheer number of individuals makes it easier to find others with the same interests, passions and affinity for Hawaiian pizza. By the end of my junior year, I realized that though I had made some friends on campus, most were in the kitchen at L’Amante, sneaking bites of focaccia between rushing food out to hungry customers. 

Dena was the most memorable. She talked while she worked, often speaking of the difficulties of being a young mom, the fears she had for her son and how her body had changed with age. And she never held her tongue when it came to politics or sex. She talked openly about her mistakes and I was eager to listen; her attitude, a blueprint for unflappability. Her laugh was soft but full, like her blue eyeliner. I loved her.

As I quickly learned from Dena, working in a restaurant is inherently intimate. The chemistry between employees is palpable, mostly due to the proximity the job demands, and less because of actual attraction. Hands brush as plates are passed. Bodies press against each other while navigating space. Cheeks flush, brows sweat, and revealing stories are shared because there’s nothing better to do than talk.

After a year, I knew everyone’s story: how Kevin had worked in Tuscany and Kathi had followed him there, uneasy on her own but happy with him. That Sarah was a real estate agent who didn’t need a second job, but craved human connection. I knew Casey longed to reconnect with his daughter, but something in his past — maybe his temper or his drinking — had gotten in the way. I watched as Ian and his girlfriend broke up, got back together, and broke up again, each parting and subsequent reunion more explosive than the last. And I spent many nights, post-shift, dancing with Anna, each of us navigating the confusing world of male text messages.

What I remember most about my final night had nothing to do with the food or the mistakes I made during service. As I ate chicken liver pâté out of a tin ramekin (strictly forbidden), Dena told me she’d just found out that her son didn’t qualify for financial aid. Her dream of sending him to college was in danger of being deferred or broken altogether — and she wasn’t sure if she could shoulder the cost of tuition and make ends meet. She cried softly and wondered aloud about his future. I stood there, silent. The only thing left for me to do was to get my degree and to walk across a stage.

The evening ended with goodbyes, some tears and a promise to stay in touch. On my walk home, I marveled at the city’s atmosphere: the streetlights illuminating soon-to-be-graduates, drinking happily on patios and swaying to music.

As I got to the front porch of my house, I received a text from my dad. “Proud of you,” it read. My mind strayed to Dena, her son and their future.

Before bed, I ironed the fancy graduation dress I’d bought with my tips, and thought about the people I’d just left. They were my family. They were my college memories. They were my people, my close-knit group. Over the past year, we’d shared stories, meals, jokes, innuendo, sadness, cabs and that night, tears. College had shaped my intellectual world, but my nights as a waitress gave me a framework for the real one.  OH

Maggie Dodson is a wroter who lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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