$2.83 Is Not Enough This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

March 17, 2013
Custom User Avatar
More by this author
Who knew that for $2.83 an hour, you can hire an all-in-one handyman-plumber-babysitter-janitor-firefighter – also known as a restaurant hostess. I was excited for my first “real” job. Sure, I had babysat (under somewhat different circumstances than what will be discussed ­regarding my employment here), and I did get ­paychecks (albeit small) from time to time for my writing. But this job required interviews, uniforms, shifts – the whole shebang. Hello, adulthood, make room for me!

Or maybe I should have made room for adulthood. This transition was an experience of growth even worse than “the awkward years” of late middle and early high school, starting with the first day, and the infamous wrong shirt.

“Mom, this definitely isn't right,” I said, pulling at the weird, stretchy, see-through white top she had bought me.

“Honey, it's a brand listed on your uniform sheet. They tell you to wear a tank top underneath since they know it looks like that,” she replied.

As I drove to work, I told myself that the only reason any clothing factory would construct such a garment was because a restaurant required it. Hostesses must order these shirts by the thousands. Because there's no way anyone would wear this freaky thing by choice.

Turns out that while some restaurant chain must require this particular Awkward Shirt, it clearly ­wasn't this restaurant. I spent the first ten minutes of my shift – as I died of humiliation – observing my managers blathering apologetically over the uniform sheet they had given me, not realizing that brand was on there, and informing me that I needed to purchase the normal ones my mother had somehow overlooked in her quest to dress me in the most ridiculous shirt she could find.

At the host stand, I was introduced to “Matt” (a pseudonym), who would be training me. Matt saw himself not as a mere teenage host, but as Lord of the Host Stand, or perhaps Future Captain of All Things of the Universe. “We must take this seriously,” he informed me gravely. I nodded and blinked at him, hoping I looked dignified and ready to take on this mission, fully decked out in the ­Awkward Shirt.

Thankfully, a friendlier host took me around to show me what to do. “We have to do bathroom checks,” he said apologetically. “If there's a ­problem you have to … you know … take care of it.” I nodded, pretending I understood what that meant. After some time, I came to realize I was supposed to clean up whatever disaster I would find with whatever materials I had. Such as my bare hands and the thin paper towels from the dispensers. Call me crazy, but $2.83 an hour (plus tips!) didn't seem like adequate compensation to motivate me to pick up urine-soaked toilet paper with my bare hands. I may be wearing zip-up “nonslip” shoes, but I still had my dignity. Well, some of it anyway. As long as I was wearing those shoes and the rest of this classy uniform ensemble, I was captive. The Uniform was the mark of servitude.

The rest of my first shift was spent staring at The Door where customers would enter, hoping for a good meal. God save you from Matt's wrath if you forgot to open The Door for a customer. He would stop flirting with the waitstaff long enough to charge through the restaurant – like a bridezilla down the aisle – relishing his self-perceived power, screaming, “DOOR! DOOR! Get the DOOR!” disrupting everyone in the restaurant to do a service for someone who would probably tip poorly anyway.

The Door was quite a temptation. Most of my shift was spent staring at it. It was the utopia I would stride through on my way home. The gateway to the outside world. The Door was what we all longed for.

The Door and The Uniform (with or without the Awkward Shirt) battled on occasion. The Uniform would firmly remind me as I stepped out after my shift that I was property of the restaurant. I did not belong outside The Door, where people wore jeans and shirts not resembling stiff cardboard. However, The Door could not always free me.

For example, there were those times when my fellow hosts and I would have to fulfill our duties as firefighters, as stated in our contracts in invisible ink. Inevitably, a patron would manage to set the oversize ashtray outside into a blazing inferno, and it was our job to find a way to contain the hazard.

I worked with one of my close friends (let's call her “Amy”), and one day she ran past me with a glass of water. “The trash can, or whatever it is, is on fire!” she said in a frenzied whisper. I calmly turned my gaze to the giant window, framing the beautiful scene of the cigarette bin billowing smoke and shooting jets of
flame against the clear blue sky. Another hostess (“Kendra”) and I charged out after Amy, as was professional protocol. “What do I do with this water?” shrieked Amy hysterically, slopping it around.

“Throw it!” I called, waving my hands.

“What do we do?!” panicked Kendra. “Here, here!” She gestured wildly.

Professional hostesses we were, the three of us charged around the burning mass, looking like we were doing some tribal dance while our leader held a glass of water above her head. In the meantime, all the valued patrons watched this performance through the gigantic window. However instead of hearing our screams of panic, they were treated to the restaurant's soothingly bland elevator music.

As time passed and farther from The Door I strayed, the more enveloped I became in life at the restaurant. My babysitting résumé increased a hundredfold as I strutted in the zip-up “nonslip” shoes past customers' tables (where hosts usually dreaded going for fear of being asked to do something) to ensure they were having a desirable dining experience. One family decided the solution to a cranky toddler was to put his dish on the floor so he could eat under the table while rolling around and shoving crayons up his nose. I stared in wonder as the boy threw food all around his parents' feet as they stared into space, enjoying their salads.

Even farther back was the bathroom and the dreaded bathroom checks. Kendra shared one horror story that was a learning experience for all hosts.

“Excuse me, but there's a toilet that sounds like it's going to blow up,” a patron informed her. Kendra found the toilet emitting a loud trumpet-like sound. Clearly something was drastically wrong with the pipes. Kendra stared blankly, having no tools but having been instructed to “fix the problem,” and then went to get a manager. She was then instructed to “stand guard” outside the bathroom to make sure no women entered while the male manager did whatever he needed to do to solve it.

Then one day it was my turn to fix a restroom issue. The paper towel dispenser was broken, and I was chosen, as the newest person, to fix it. The equipment was clearly jammed, so I disassembled the whole contraption and lay the pieces across the counter. Suddenly the towels were unrolling at an alarming rate, and I was desperately trying to catch the masses when an older woman walked in. “Hi, ma'am, how was your meal?” I asked, as the paper towel machine emitted a wailing noise. She just stared. “I'm fixing this,” I said feebly, motioning to the motley dismantled parts.

By the end of the summer, my Awkward Shirt had been replaced with a Smooth Professional Button-Down. I knew how to deal with difficult customers (but still not how to repair a paper towel dispenser) and had learned quite a bit from my first job.

When school began again, I decided to join swim team which meant I had to leave my job at the restaurant. I gave my managers about a month's ­notice but planned to wait a couple weeks before telling my coworkers. One night during closing, Matt was giving me an especially hard time.

“You didn't put the crayons away right,” he nagged. “I don't know what this host stand would be without me. You know, I'm the one who made it as great as it is,” he continued. I ignored him. “None of you are really competent. I don't know what you're going to do when I get my big promotion to Takeaway.” Matt smiled smugly. He had a severe case of Napoleon Complex.

“You know, you're going to be the next Rachel,” he said. (You can assume any name I'm using is an alias.) Rachel had always been very nice to me, especially when Matt was doing his best to make me feel terrible, and Matt told anyone who would listen how much of an idiot he thought Rachel was.

“She's so stupid. She doesn't know anything. You're going to follow in her footsteps,” he said.

I slammed the menus down. “Matt, I'm leaving.”

“What do you mean you're leaving? You can't do that. Did you tell the managers?”

“I gave my notice a month ago.”

The Uniform was nothing but items of clothing now. I swung through The Door, and I was gone. Gradually, many of the people I worked with also left, having had enough. Matt was fired a short time later for yelling at a customer.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

Join the Discussion

This article has 2 comments. Post your own now!

LindsayB This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jan. 15, 2014 at 9:34 pm
Wow that was a really good story. It's hard to make something like work interesting, but you sure did. You definitely deserved to be published
pulledheartstring said...
Mar. 24, 2013 at 6:46 pm
I like the way you write. It flows well.
Site Feedback