Working in food and bev—which is really a churched-up way of saying "I wait tables"—requires no formal education, but a lot of formally educated people do it. And yet that doesn't necessarily make them cut out for this type of work. Customer service requires a smooth tongue and a level of tact and grace ("Yes, bringing you more Splenda for your unsweetened tea that has three lemon wedges, not two, is the ONLY thing I would like be doing...") that can only be learned from multiple trials by fire. Trials by fire like the Salem Witch Trials by fire. Because let's face it, there are some miserable people out there. And they, in turn, make everyone around them miserable. You have to know how to wrangle these people like the late Steve Irwin used to handle a cobra, because, if you aren't careful, a four-top can turn on you and go bad... quick.
Meet Billy. He was a biological sciences major at Clemson and wanted to work with the South Carolina Aquarium. He landed an internship there, which is what brought him to Charleston. He's as sharp as a tack and one of the nicest guys I know—one of those genuinely nice guys that when they ask how you're doing, they actually want to hear the answer.
He started at our pseudo-posh restaurant as a bac-wait (glorified bus boy) and quickly made it to the big show of splitting checks in Aloha and hunting down those damn yellow packets of Splenda.
Problem was, he hadn't grown his "thick skin" yet.
The day it all came crashing down, Billy started out in a great mood. He tossed me a Red Bull as he walked in and showed me a picture of his big date he had later that week that he had met on the Clemson Alumni booze cruise in the harbor. He asked where he should take her, and was wondering about Cypress.
Billy: "Have you ever been there? I hear it's really good."
Me: "Take her to The Belle."
Billy: "What's that?"
Me: "Never mind. Get some Splenda when you come back upstairs."
Obviously my suggestion was in jest, however it paints a picture of Billy's baby bunny-like naivety. He came back with some Splenda and at the gun, we were off. Our hosts, all young, beautiful college girls, have the job of escorting each guest to their table, handing them menus and hopefully, spreading the guests throughout the sections to give us—the pit crew—time to respond accordingly. However, if you could somehow militarize the collective intellect of our hostesses, all enemies of the State would... probably..... do whatever they wanted.
Poor Billy got quadruple sat: a deuce, two four-tops and a five-top. He wasn't just in the weeds. He was in Vietnam 1969 surrounded-by-Charlie weeds. I wasn't aware of the disaster unfolding because we were short a bartender and I was busy with my tables and working on the long list of top-shelf mixed drinks, and martinis with "just a touch of vermouth, not too much, but not too dry either, do you understand?"
"Absolutely I understand, you're going to get a cup full of vodka because thats pretty much what a martini is and the addition of vermouth is just to make it look more pretentious, you can't taste it, it's just for show, that'll be $17."
I was behind the bar when the wheels came off. Billy was stumbling through all of the modifications on his orders when a walking, chrome-domed version of Dr. Xavier stormed up to the computer. (Get it? Because Dr. Xavier, from X-Men, is in a wheelchair. I'm not gonna spoon feed ya here.) He didn't hold back.
Picture the dead, awkward silence of the Cantina right after Obi Wan cuts that thug's arm off to rescue Luke in A New Hope. Every employee stopped and looked up. Billy looked like he had shrunk about three inches, his eyes were the size of dinner plates.
"It's been 15 minutes and you haven't even gotten our drink order. We've been here many times and this is BY FAR the worst service I have EVER had. You need to get over here and get our order. If you want any semblance of a tip you're going to need to step it up. Now get over here and get our order!"
I was mid stride to intervene when Xavier turned on his heel and sauntered back to his table. Had I had a light saber, I probably would have carved him up. As for Billy, he was shell-shocked. The wheels had stopped turning. He was done. I asked him if he was okay and momentarily he regained his composure. I tried to take some of the heat from his other tables for him, to give him a fighting chance of escaping the night with at least part of his soul.
Me: "I've got table 28 and 32, what do you need for Stalin over there? A pistol?"
Billy: "He wants some Splenda for his tea and a Goose martini up, olives, no, a twist... SHIT I don't remember!"
Me: "Deep breaths bud, I've got you. He's getting olives. Get your orders in and we'll go from there."
You could sense evil around the table when you walked by that table, like the stench from a bog. And Billy had that Please don't make me go over there look of terror in his eyes every time they needed something. Can you run their food to them? Should I drop the check off now or wait? Damn, I didn't ask if they wanted coffee or desserts!
His confidence was shattered. At this point we were simply attempting damage control and trying to get the hexed table out of our lives as quickly as possible. We comped a round of drinks for their troubles.
But let me tell you: what I really wanted to do was to tell Billy to go hide, presenting them with the check, and explain that Billy was in his first week of serving here and I'm terribly sorry for the inconvenience, but he just found out his entire family died in a house fire, his dog ran away, and just yesterday he was just diagnosed with every type of cancer there is... ever... but we took care of your stupid martini because we are SO sorry you had to wait 15 minutes for it."
But I didn't do that, because that's not very nice.
As for Dr. Xavier, I hope he doesn't try to pull a stunt like that somewhere that where some maverick server WILL go rogue and violate a dozen health codes on his mashed potatoes. Billy? He's graduated from a bunny to, I don't know, at least a house cat. We went out to our favorite watering hole after work and I bought him a few cold ones to take the edge off. I went through some of my worst stories of dealing with people like Dr. Xavier and told him that's the name of the game.
If nothing else, this in-between job that so many college-plus grads endure to fund their journey to the next step—and hopefully a career—will make them capable and confident in dealing with every type of person. I know it will.