Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Prom Night Waiter

Even as a student at a public university, John still had times when it was hard to cover the bills. He would have loved to ride Daddy Warbucks' trust fund, but sadly, John's father was mostly broke, so John had to have a job. Unfortunately, John wasn't good at a whole lot of things, so he became a waiter at Denny's, which is about a half-tick above asking people if they would like to supersize their fries.

John went to school during the day, so his main shift was the graveyard. John liked the graveyard, because he worked from around eleven at night to about 5 in the morning, and for about half that time, Denny's is very quiet. You might say it was as quiet as a graveyard, which would explain the origin of the phrase. Between ten and about one in the morning, the place is overrun with rowdy teens who can't get into bars, and who sit eight to a booth and split a bowl of fries and two cups of coffee. Then at about 1:30, the drunks start to roll in, looking for some waffles to soak up the booze. By three or so, the place clears out, and everyone goes home except one waiter and one cook. John loved that time - he could do all his side work, clean off the tables, count up his cash and otherwise get ready to go home and sleep until his classes started at noon.

One fateful night - early morning, really - John was cleaning coffee pots and emptying ashtrays when a pair of teenagers in bad evening wear walked into the restaurant. The young man was wearing one of those hideous, ill-fitting tuxedos that you can rent for budget prices from ugly stores in strip malls, and the girl was wearing a strapless dress that fit so poorly, she mostly just walked around holding her purse in one hand and her sagging neckline in the other. Of course, young people in odd clothing was kind of par for the course at an all-night diner, so John thought nothing of it. He was also completely unsurprised when they asked to sit in the smoking section.

John took their drink orders and began to walk into the back to pour the soda, but before he could get five steps, another couple wearing equally ridiculous dress-up clothes walked in. So John diverted, got them to their seats (again, in smoking), and attempted once more to get the drinks.

Only now there were a half-dozen kids in bad tuxes and ugly dresses waiting at the door, and before he could even find seats for all of those kids, another five couples had come in. Before he knew it, John was seating smart-mouthed teenagers at any open table in the restaurant. Unruly kids were hollering drink orders, throwing wadded napkins, yelling for menus and otherwise reminding John exactly why he never wanted to breed. Even with every table full, the waiting area just inside the doors was stuffed to capacity with ill-behaved adolescents, and they were spilling out onto the sidewalk in front of the eatery. Even after John told them that they were unlikely to get a table before sunrise, he had a tough time convincing them that they should go haunt some other cursed establishment.

Simply taking food orders was a nightmare. Idiot kids, probably victims of the public school system, seemed to be incapable of ordering off the menu, instead asking John ridiculous requests and potentially impossible food combinations. As he was berated by hundreds of lippy teens at the same time, John's patience began to run thin, and he was soon telling kids they had five seconds to order or they were waiting an hour.

Then John began to put in food orders. The restaurant used a computerized ordering system, which required John to plug each dish into a computer before it would be sent to the cook. The cook, of course, was cleaning the griddle and getting the food ready for the morning shift, and was thus completely unprepared when John began to send him order after order. At one point, the cook even poked his head out from the back, mouth hanging wide open, and flagged John as he ran past with coffee pots in both hands.

"What the hell is going on?" asked the cook, to which John replied, "Prom night!"

The night only got worse. As food came out, John began to discover that kids were changing tables, denying orders, or just leaving before the food arrived. One particularly vivid moment in the sea of chaos had John standing on top of a table, yelling, "Nobody is getting any food for at least thirty minutes, and feel free to get your own coffee!"

At around 4:30, the lady who had the breakfast shift came in. By that time, about half the restaurant was empty again, but it was in a state of utter disarray that left her stunned as she walked through the doors. John was understandably frazzled, still running like a maniac from point to point in a mad attempt to keep up with the impatient punks who had ruined his night. To her credit, the replacement waitress jumped right in, and within twenty minutes, things were settling down nicely. By five, when John's shift ended, there were only a handful of kids still hanging out, dragging on the last of their cigarettes and avoiding having to return to their no-doubt tyrannical parents before they spent the entire day in bed. John spent another thirty minutes cleaning up, cashing out and wiping down, and then dragged himself home.

John has since had his heart broken. He has had to sleep on the streets. He has had some hard times, for sure. But if you ask him today, there is no hesitation. Without a doubt, that single night at Denny's resonates as the worst night of his life.

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