Restaurant Employees: Our Shameful Histories

It would be easy to assume that the casual racism and sexism of the characters in Mimi Pond’s The Customer is Always Wrong are relics, representative of a less enlightened time. But, though lead character Madge is stuck at a “meaningless” restaurant job in the seventies, her experience jives strongly with mine, as a waitress in the early 2010s.

Restaurants are where many of us “artistic” people work in order to keep the lights on while we pursue our truer purposes. And they have several standard characters. There are always coworkers slipping off to the bathroom for extended periods. (The guys I worked with would go together, two or three at a time, always with the same Altoids container; Madge’s junkie coworker Camille slips off with a long black purse.) There are coworkers constantly in relationship-related flux. There’s the guy who’s always angry. (A coworker of mine once punched the wall while holding a salt shaker in his fist. Another chased a table out of the restaurant; they’d written “zero” on the tip-line to a bill for hundreds of dollars.)

Madge, of course, wants out of this. She feels too good for it, better than everyone except her boss, Lazlo. A proto-hipster, Lazlo is the person we’re supposed to feel sorry for. He’s a poet, a good listener, the guy holding everyone else’s lives together while his own rips at the seams. I get Madge’s attachment to Lazlo. He’s a father figure. He’s also the person she doesn’t want to be. Desperate to escape to New York City and live out her dream of being a cartoonist, Madge stays away (mostly) from the drugs and drama that drag her coworkers down—that is, until Lazlo needs her car and her savings, to say nothing of her emotional support. (His daughter is in trouble.)

I was attached to the manager of the restaurant where I came of age, but I got out before I could get stuck in the perpetual loop of codependence, lunch shifts, and “team-building” nights out. Restaurants in California are easy places to get stuck. (Oakland, for Madge; Fairfield, for me.) The money is pretty good, the hours are rarely long. They’re not “real” enough jobs to make the people who work them feel as though they’ve forsaken their passions. Even years in the same place can feel temporary.

Perhaps in part because of this attitude, restaurants often bring out the worst in their employees. Racism and sexism are normalized in restaurant culture—like high-schoolers, the employees never growing beyond their casual prejudice. So it makes a perverted kind of sense that many of the black people in Customer are depicted as monsters. Some have claw-like nails, and others are called by reductionist names: “the Black,” “the transvestite,” etc. All this while the shitty white people are depicted in word and image as innocent “poets,” and “artists,” and “beauties”—big-eyed and full of potential, if only they could use it.

While this may be representative of the racial divide in 1970s Oakland (as seen through the eyes of a white protagonist), the book could have used more hindsight. This is Pond’s second memoir. The nature of the genre is to look back from a more enlightened place. So, what do we gain from seeing and reading these depictions of black and transgendered people, even if this was the way the protagonist and other white characters viewed them? Madge is not yet in New York when the book ends. Perhaps if Pond writes a third installment, Madge will have progressed to a place where she can see the people devalued and dehumanized by this worldview.

That has certainly been the case in my life. As a woman put immediately on the “best-ass list” and informed by a coworker that he and a few others would happily gang-rape her, I never wish to return to the problematic unawareness that allowed me to brush these comments off (or to consider the ranking of female bodies flattering). These are our shameful histories, and it’s important to claim the places from which we’ve come, but it’s equally crucial to stake out a future that doesn’t perpetuate the darkness.

Customer is often funny and frequently true about the drudgery and drama of customer service. I just wished for a more nuanced portrayal of black experience. There are hints of this, as when Lazlo and Madge visit a black bar on the other side of town, but the tone is still very much “us” and “them.” My experience mirrored this, in a different city, four decades after Madge’s—the same divisions and biases. In another forty years, will young artists tell different tales of their coming-of-age jobs? Unless we veterans convey the truth while also challenging our limited pasts, much will probably stay the same.

Sarah Hoenicke studied creative writing at Mills College, and is currently working on her Master of Journalism degree at UC Berkeley. Her writing can be found in Gulf Coast, Brooklyn Magazine, BUST.com, BOMB, the Masters Review, the LA Review of BooksGuernica, and other publications. Her short story “How Dark it is, Outside” won the 2016 Cargoes Undergraduate Prose Prize.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Essay

Leave a Reply