1. The futility of control and the experience of freedom: Anyone who has eaten out at a sit-down restaurant knows that when you arrive you will be escorted to your seat by a host/hostess (although you would be shocked by how many people seem to forget this day to day). Let’s say the hostess is a nice twenty-something named Claire. Claire will take the elderly, well-dressed Mr. Anderson to the best seat in the house–I promise that 99.9% of the time she knows better than he does where the best seat is, because it’s her job to know. She’ll take him there, pull out his chair because it’s a nice restaurant, and say, “How does this seat look?”

This, however, is just a mere formality, but if it’s not the truth Mr. Anderson wants, he’ll say, “Hm, that seat by the door looks better.” Claire will smile and say, “You’re the boss. Sit wherever you’re comfortable.” Mr. Anderson will take the reigns and snuggle into the seat by the door only to find that the stench of a late luncher’s tomato and arugula flatbread is wafting up through his nose hairs from a trashcan in the corner. He may think at this point that he’d rather be sitting at the booth over there instead, but that booth is right near the kitchen, and it’s the noisiest place in the building; he may think he wants to sit by the window, but he doesn’t realize that the air vent above his head would blow his toupee right off.

Claire, on the other hand, is already aware of the pros and cons of all the available tables; she is not surprised that Mr. Anderson is nonplussed by his own selection. She also knows that it would be in everyone’s best interest if the elderly man stayed in his assigned seat so that the waiters on the clock will each get a fair number of tables and a fair number of tips without throwing the structure of the restaurant into chaos.


Mr. Anderson either doesn’t know or care about these technicalities; thus at rush hour you’ll find well-dressed people just like him circling the restaurant while a hostess helplessly trails behind, trying to keep up like a mother dropping her kid off at college. She knows best, but there is no way her kid will believe her. Mr. Anderson and the many diners-out of his kind thus embody what Percy calls the Lost Self: the self that “is both cut loose and imprisoned by its own freedom, yet imprisoned by a curious and paradoxical bondage like a Chinese handcuff, so that the very attempts to free itself, e.g., by ever more refined techniques for the pursuit of happiness, only tighten the bondange and distance the self ever farther from the very world it wishes to inhabit as its homeland.” Or from the very people who wish to serve you good food. This is of course spiritual, a very apt reflection of our relationship to God.

That said, at lunch hours, when my particular restaurant is slower, we allow guests to seat themselves. Claire will say, “Mr. Anderson, sit wherever you’d like. I’ll follow you.” Overwhelmed by his options, he will say, without fail, “Whoa, whoa! I can’t decide!” And even though Claire has given him the courtesy, she has nevertheless, at the very same time, thrown him into turbulent waters, because choice doesn’t equal freedom. Choice may be the illusion of freedom but you’re still controlled by anxieties, by FOMO and blindness. Real freedom is what you feel when you trust that Claire is taking you to your seat, to the best spot in the house, prepared just for you.

2. Christian Living in restaurants: You might be surprised to learn just how many people try ‘check evangelism’–rest assured, I’ve never received a Bible verse instead of a tip–but more often than I’d have expected, one accompanies the other. It’s usually John 3:16. Once, I did get Psalm 23; maybe I seemed especially down that day. Even waiters who never did Sunday school know these verses as if they had been quizzed on them. For what it’s worth, I have seen approximately zero conversions as a result, just in case you were thinking you might like to plant a seed.

Worse than check evangelism are pre-meal prayers. Little prayers I’m ok with (I’m sure God is, too). It’s the big ones, the ones that last longer than say ten seconds, which leave even other members of the party peeking and wondering how long this will take, that tend to trip me up. Imagine I’m loaded up with a tray of eight margaritas and cokes for the rowdy bachelorettes in the corner, and I swoop in to deliver them– “Here you are ladies!”–only to find that I’ve barged in on “–and bless the kind workers who have prepared our dinner tonight–” “Oh my God, I am so sorry.” The lead bachelorette trudges on as though I hadn’t just severed a divine connection, blessing me through clenched teeth. It’s times like these when I realize that the aroma of Christ might smell more like dumpster waste and a cheap pack of cigarettes than Chanel No. 5.

In the alley behind the restaurant, during smoke breaks, you can catch up on all the latest dirt–how the chef left Waitress Number One for Waitress Number Two, who was formerly engaged to another man; they absconded together just last night. In the back, waiters and waitresses will often be the first to admit that they don’t ‘have it together,’ diving straight into their unashamed drama; their friends are the ones who aren’t afraid to go with them. St Paul: “For we are the sweet aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To one we are an odor of death and demise; to another a fragrance that brings life.” What else could the aroma of the good lord smell like but the sweat of line cooks and the strawberries and cream smoke of an e-cig? It’s an aroma that doesn’t say Waitress Number One should have known–she should have known–What was she thinking, shacking up with the chef, of all people? Instead, the aroma of Christ releases a good Taylor Swift breakup song into the late-night air. It brings life to those who are perishing and comforts the restaurateurs mourning the sudden exit of two critical employees.

3. Human nature: I’ve been in the foodservice industry for a while–first as a soft-serve cone artist (summer job) and then as a waiter (more-than-a-summer job)–and without fail, the customers who get upset are the ones who, at the core of the issue, expect me to fix problems I can’t fix. Behind the demand for a glass of house chardonnay, pronto, often lies the desire for a cure to inescapable loneliness or a craving for some thing that remains hard to identify but probably won’t be on our menu.

It seems to me that there are two kinds of people in the world: people who go out and have a good time, and people who go out in order to have a good time. Though we probably like the idea of being in the first group better than the second, when we think about it, we find ourselves in the second group more often, but that’s OK because the second group is messianic. They are also troublemakers. They are not content with who they are or where they find themselves on the given day that they go out, and they expect the restaurant to not just serve good food but to be what ideally a church would be, a place of existential comfort. It’s really too much to ask. 

Screen-Shot-2014-04-03-at-9.34.03-AMWhen we go out, we can’t always choose which group we’ll fall into. Sometimes we just have a bad day, or a bad couple of days, and we want to go out and be taken care of. “Once we recognize that even the most terrifying predators are, in a very real sense, unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating (as opposed to fearing) them begins to unravel” (Sam Harris). This is the grace of compassion in the face of the un-free will. As everyone in foodservice learns at one time or another, it is better to forgive grumpy customers and take pity on them than to begrudge them–though we often make fun of them when they aren’t looking, for catharsis. 

I also believe in what I’ll call ‘reverse imputation’–that just as much as we can impute value to another person, as God imputes his righteousness to us, we can likewise take away value from a person: imputing lies, for example. A striking example can be found in last spring’s The Witch, by A24 (spoiler just ahead): Although Thomasin, the eldest daughter in a family of Puritans, is not a witch, her family accuses her time and again that she is…until finally she decides to become one. All this to say, if I feel accused of being a bad waiter, I’ll be a bad waiter. And if I’m having a good day and you pull your rain cloud into our restaurant, we’re all going to get wet. Is it to much to say that if you’re looking for a cure, stay home? You won’t find it in our lightly fried eggplant.

4. The law as a mirror: Let’s talk about sanitation. Washing hands. I wash my hands maybe…15% of the amount that I should. I’m sure that there are other workers out there who fare better on this front than I, but certainly no one is perfect. Any way you slice it, this word is true: When it comes to the Law of Washing Hands, no, not one is righteous. If you’re going out tonight, you have been warned.

In the case that the law incites rebellion, as it often does with me, those “Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning To Work” signs may actually achieve exactly the opposite of their intention (especially if you’ve already reverse-imputed me into a bad mood).

5. Finally, self-justification: Interactions between “guests” and “servers” are rife with inherent resume-comparison. The person sitting, whether willingly or not, has laid out his resume before he says a word. Not maliciously. Still, he can afford to eat out and relax on a Friday night, and the server can’t help but feel at least a little bit defensive, immediately, even unconsciously.

In so many moments, both the customers and the servers don’t seem to realize that they are interacting with real people. As a waiter, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t care where Mr. Anderson is from, what he does for a living, or what kind of dog he has waiting for him across the street at Pampered Pets Salon & Spa…he is money to me. I am waiting for him to goof on his tip and sign off a handsome sum of his retirement money. To me, he’s a non-person.

Inevitably, too, Mr. Anderson can not fully appreciate the length of time that I’ve been on my feet running around collecting bread and pouring drinks and greeting strangers with the same overproduced spiel and the same fake smile. He can’t really understand that I would rather be home reading or snuggling with my fiancee. Instead I am smelling Mr. Anderson’s cologne and fake laughing at his uncreative jokes (Oh, you hated the food, that’s why you ate it all? Never heard that one before.) It’s just the same for me when I go out: I can’t risk slipping into the shoes of the workers, because I want to sip instead Shirley Temples and enjoy myself. Once, one of our regulars asked me how I was doing, and I said: “Can’t complain,” and he said, “Good. No one would listen if you did.” More than for the work itself, in my opinion, a good tip should angle at compensating for this emotional distance.


When Mr. Anderson gets especially nasty, my first instinct is so often, “Excuse me? Do you know who you’re talking to?” My head begins stacking up my achievements to prove that I’m not just a waiter–I’m a social justice crusader and an educated writer, a grand prize winner at the sixth grade science fair. On Megan Tan’s podcast, Millennial, one of her friends and restaurant coworkers explained this impulse:

You hear it with any server, you know. “Oh I’m not really a server, I’m actually a writer, or I’m actually an artist. I’m blah blah blah.” No one is a waitress, apparently, but everyone is a waitress. I’m so inclined to jump to “I went to Tufts in Boston, I majored in biology, I minored in studio art, I like the intersection between economics and social policy…”

But as anyone in customer service knows, when it’s a guest on the other end, it’s futile to stack up. You lose every time, because the customer’s always right and always better-justified–just for being a customer, not for demonstrating proper etiquette or for saying particular polite things, but simply because of the identity given to him the moment he walks in the door.

More than a good tip could ever provide, there is comfort, unexpectedly, from the camaraderie of a restaurant. From being in the foxhole together, so to speak. You are not alone (more from Millennial):

When you’re around people, you just want them to know that you’re actually legit, like you have skills…Yeah I can smile, and I can do all these things that you want me to do, but I want to be a professional, you know, I don’t want to be making ten dollars an hour some place…

…when I’m out with co-workers from [the restaurant] everyone knows who we are…they know who I am, they know my deal. I don’t have to explain myself. That’s such a relief.