I just returned from a four-day work trip to New York City, where I did not see one famous person.
It’s a trip I take twice a year with my sister, and over the years we have waited in line with Martha Stewart, sat next to Yoko Ono and her son, Sean Lennon, walked close enough to Karl Lagerfeld and his entourage to tell him that we loved his work, eaten breakfast alongside Ethan Hawke and had drinks (technically just standing at the same bar) with the cast of “The Sopranos.”
It’s thrilling to see famous people – sort of like finding red sea glass on a beach of greens and blues – but it doesn’t make me special in any way. The fact is, if you go to a place where famous people live and work enough times, you will eventually see famous people. It’s like if you go to northern Maine enough times, you will eventually see a moose.
On this last trip to New York, a waiter told us that he had served so many famous people that it was hard to choose one famous person that impressed him enough to tell his mother. He told us that a typical day at his restaurant might start with serving the president of Argentina and end with bringing drinks to Metallica.
I love seeing famous people in restaurants, but the waitstaff is the real entertainment for me. In my opinion, the server is the most interesting person in the room. From the moment he or she approaches the table, the details that make up the whole person standing before me are sorted and stored in my brain.
My family and I recently had dinner at a pub in Westbrook – Portland’s Brooklyn. A pub I love because they have open-mike night, salty food, every kind of beer and earnest waiters.
Our server glided to our table, dressed in a purple polyester blouse, black pants and a black half-apron.
Her makeup was carefully applied except for the eyeliner, which was not quite to the outer edge of her bottom lid. Her hair was pulled back in a braid, the kind of braid that you bend forward to make by gathering all your hair and sweeping it into a ponytail before you start: elastic, braid, elastic.
I knew she was a mom because she told us everything she was going to do before she did it. Her deliberate and caring voice also suggested that her kids were probably under 10 years of age and that at least one of them was trouble.
“I’m going to put this water pitcher down over here and then be back in a few minutes to get your drink order,” she explained.
I was glad that she had experience with difficult children because I hadn’t eaten all day, and knowing that she would be back in a few minutes allowed me to delay my tantrum. In the meantime, I asked her for bread.
When she returned, she listed dozens of convoluted specials with grace and skill. She gave equal time to each special as she made eye contact with each one of us. We ordered burgers, all cooked medium, all with a side of fries.
She was well-trained. Her delightful personality spread over our pub booth like a rainbow. By the end of our dinner my little family was laughing, telling stories and thinking about dessert.
Spreading joy over a booth of strangers was not how I ended my waitress career way back when. By the time I stopped working in restaurants in the mid-’80s, it was time for me to go. A fellow waiter once told me that my mood swings were so transparent that he could tell if I had stubbed my toe on the way to work.
Taking care of people’s basic needs like food and water takes courage and stamina and is not for the weak. Better to be predator than prey in the restaurant world, but some days, you are just a bad waitress. On those days, take cover behind the hostess and make sure your ketchups are filled.
Jolene McGowan lives and works in Portland with her husband, daughter and dog and has no plans to leave, ever. She can be contacted at: