Friday, January 11, 2013

With Silver Buttons, Buttons, Buttons...

Once upon a time in the early 1990s, I worked for a few weeks at a restaurant that is kind of an institution in Atlanta meat-and-three culture. It's kind of wild to me how much went on in just those few weeks, when I worked first at the satellite location out on Cheshire Bridge and then at the original place closer in to downtown, but you know, it was a pretty chaotic time in my personal life, too, so I guess it's fitting.

It was the end of the summer. My personal life was in all kinds of upheaval, I had quit my previous job with an uncharacteristic suddenness about a month before, and I was down to full on broke. I managed to get the rent paid, but my phone was shut off and I had no money for food or anything else. Someone told me about this place having opened a second location and that they would apparently hire anyone because nobody wanted to work there. Awesome! Off I went.

I can't recall the floor manager's name, but I do remember that his night job was teaching ballroom dance. In all my restaurant work, I have never worked with anyone who was absolutely, totally there because it was their passion or whatever, but this place had the lowest morale I've ever experienced. We were a pretty desperate bunch.

I was hired on the spot and put on the floor, but when the owner came by and saw my shoes (black & white converse high tops), he freaked and ordered me behind the bar. Hustling to go orders is something I've had to do at a few places and it's a pretty major drag. The number of folks who think you don't need to tip the to go order hustler is appalling. Anyway, that's what I spent the rest of that shift doing, so I at least went home with a few bucks in my pocket.

At the start of my next shift, the owner - who was a sketchy, middle-aged white guy - re-assigned me to the cashier station. Which was fine - there was no real waitressing money to be made at that place anyhow - but our conversation about it gave me a bad feeling. He was all, I like you. I concentrated on looking blank, and then he said, Is that okay? Heh heh heh... I said something like, I'm not sure if it is or not, so what is this about? And then he shifted into talking about how he could see that I was someone who could handle the responsibility that came with cashiering, blah blah blah, and he had the current cashier show me how to work everything.

The next day, the person who'd trained me was gone, and everyone was whispering about how she'd been fired. Awesome! Jeez.

Good things about cashiering: I could wear whatever I wanted, I was just supposed to look "nice." I always like to look nice! When we were dead (that long stretch of afternoon), the waiters would loiter around my station and tell me their tales of how they'd ended up in this dump. Several of them were drag performers at night, which was a whole new world for me, and I feel like I'm supposed to say something here about how I never exotified or objectified my drag queen co-workers, but of course I did, that's just the truth. I was fascinated.

The other good thing about working there was that we got our shift meal and the food was pretty delicious in that down home cooking way. I'd be all, Any of those cheesy mashed potatoes left, Chef? Dude.

The owner's sketchy vibe got weirder, though. Creditors were calling constantly, and the register count at the end of the night was never quite right. The first time I encountered this, I spent a lot of time on it, recounting and  writing things down and steeling myself for accusations and recriminations... and then the owner was just like, It's fine, don't worry about it. 

One afternoon, some guys showed up and repossessed the bar stools. The next morning, when we all arrived for a work, there was sign letting us know that this location was now closed and we were all supposed to report for work at the original location. Oy.

Being in the original location of this joint was a trip. Most of the waitstaff had been there for decades, and they had a hardcore old school waitress vibe, like if you wronged them in some way they would not hesitate to take you out. The young drag queen contingent was not welcomed with open arms by the battleaxe brigade. Me, I was put right into the cashier slot, but there was no more cozy chat time, because at the original location, we actually had customers and lots of them.

The customer base there was like nothing I'd ever experienced. Folks who had been coming in for generations, sitting at the same table, seeing the same waitress, eating the same meal. Which has its charm, I suppose, but for where I was at in my life right then, it felt soul-crushingly sad. My intense financial crisis having passed for the moment, I was eager to get out.

It was probably less than two weeks that I stuck it out there at that point. Even though business appeared to be booming, the owner still had some questionable behavior going on. There was an afternoon when he called on the phone and told me, Don't say anything to anyone. Don't let anyone know it's me. Take $500 from the drawer and come outside and give it to me on the sidewalk. Yeah. Cheesy potatoes be damned, it felt like hanging in there would be a bad plan.

I had a job with my family (Long story! Stay tuned!) lined up for which I was just waiting to get the go ahead, and as soon as I did, I was out of there. For once I had no guilt feelings about leaving a job abruptly.

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