Back in March, in the days just after COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic, waiting tables was sheer anxiety and fear. Crowds of people filling the restaurant to capacity, chairs at adjacent tables just a few feet apart, waiters squeezing between the gaps as they move from table to table. A full, crowded restaurant had seemed so normal before. Stressful, sure, but that was the job. Now it was a different kind of stress. We held our breath a lot. Every innocent cough was a sudden bang. And my restaurant’s dining room is small — 10 tables and a bar. A patron could reach over and touch someone at the next table or snatch a piece of pizza off their plate.

That first Friday after COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic [March 13], business started off kind of slow. Those of us on the staff had discussions about how this might be normal for a while, how we might not make any money. Why would people go out to eat when restaurants in other parts of the country are already shutting down, right? The virus was here.

Then, around 6 p.m., everyone showed up at once, and our little restaurant filled up. I snapped a photo of the full dining room because there was something quite literally wrong with the picture. It looked irresponsible. It looked foolish. It looked like an epidemiological nightmare. I’ve always been aware that the job is a germ fest, but it never scared me until now. We lean in between people to set things down on the tables. We clear dirty dishes, forks and cups that mouths touch. We talk to so many people at close range throughout the night. Bar customers are a foot away, face to face. I can smell the alcohol seeping out of their pores.

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Waiting tables, pre-pandemic, was already brimming with eyeroll-worthy moments. Waiting tables during a pandemic has taken those obnoxious moments and made them feel darker, and more dangerous.

Waiting tables these days is someone ordering a Corona as a joke.
Waiting tables these days is hearing someone say, “They better not take baseball away.”

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Waiting tables these days is a little girl poised to blow her straw wrapper at me and her father quickly stopping her because he realizes that she’s about to blow concentrated air particles directly into my face.

It’s a woman we know — a regular — coughing toward us on her way out as a joke to make light of the news.

Waiting tables these days is me literally running from the air.

It’s a widely known fact that waiting tables sucks. It’s a stressful, high-anxiety job. Many waiters, myself included, have had the nightmare where you’re waiting tables in a crowded restaurant, every table needs something and you can’t get to any of them because there’s nowhere to start.

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The job of a waiter exists because people want to be served. We’re there because life’s fast, and it’s busy, and it’s hard, and people need a break. They want to get out of the house, sit down somewhere and have someone else take care of all the cooking, the drinks, the cleaning, the pesky dishes — all the cumbersome dining needs. And if you’re like some families, you might want a break from the kids as well, so you’re welcome to seat them at a different table on the other side of the restaurant and pay little to no attention to them while the waiter gets one of the kids a new drink because his is now filled with salt, pepper, Sweet’N Low, honey and whatever else they could scrounge together for an obnoxious cocktail of “Here, waiter person, you deal with this.”

No one aspires to be a waiter when they grow up. It just happens. The shifts are relatively short, and although you work your ass off, you see the tangible results of your hard work and leave with a pocketful of cash. It’s a good job for college students, artists, aspiring actors, musicians in between tours, writers working on their novels or screenplays. It’s a second job for single parents trying to make ends meet. It’s work for college graduates schlepping through the job market with no success. There’s a myriad of extremely talented, intelligent waiters serving dinner to people who have no idea how extremely talented their waiter might be, and couldn’t care less. Servers weave in and out of your dining experience and then you move on and they move on.
Waiting tables is a customer telling you they need a fork to eat their salad when you’re literally trying to hand that customer a fork. “Oh, look! He’s got it right there!” It’s insulting and almost hurtful to us that some people think that we’re not savvy enough to have figured out that people don’t generally want to slop salad up with their hands.
Waiting tables is high-intensity multitasking. It’s table 17 telling me that they need two Bud Lights, a Boulevard Wheat and a side of house dressing. Then table 21 says that they’re ready for their separate checks — all five of them. And table 11 needs a box and a lid for their ranch. The keg of Bud Light blows on me, so I figure I’ll ring up table 21. As I’m doing this, Roger, a bar regular who doesn’t have a cell phone or a TV at home, asks me if there’s any women’s track and field on TV. I actually stop what I’m doing, grab the remote and start searching the channels for women’s track and field. As I’m doing this, I realize that I might be the biggest doofus on the strip. Roger can watch whatever sport is on. Sorry, Roger.

Waiting tables is comedy.

It’s hearing a Southern woman say to her friends at the table, “And then they started talking about ancestry.com and I said, ‘Not in my house, not on my computer!’”
It’s having a passive smile on my face as I walk through the dining room when suddenly a bar regular rips a loud unpalatable fart directly on my two-top and hearing the wife at the table tell her husband, “He just farted on us!”
Waiting tables is a 20-something man sitting alone drinking water and playing Pokemon Go on three different iPhones all at once, who leaves without ordering.
Waiting tables is a woman asking for a “Diet with a splash of real.”
Waiting tables is listening to the kitchen crew’s intense discussion about which video games are best to do drugs to.
Waiting tables is a little girl telling her younger brother not to use a straw. “They’re bad for the environment,” she says as she takes a sip from a styrofoam cup.
Waiting tables is real.
It’s seeing an elderly woman choking and her shocked husband looking mortified and helpless when an off-duty nurse runs up and performs a series of backslaps, effectively clearing the woman’s airway.
It’s delicately approaching couples that are in the middle of a serious fight to say, “Here’s your Caesar salads.”
It’s a talented local chef teaching his children how to behave at the table and making them clean up after themselves and help organize their dirty dishes for the busser.
It’s an adorable husband and wife who I’ve waited on for years — the husband telling me his wife has Alzheimer’s because he saw the concerned look on my face when she wouldn’t respond to me.
It’s men behaving badly — and I’m a male waiter, so I don’t know the half of it.
Waiting tables is getting to know people and making friends. Customers have been known to bring us Christmas presents, vegetables from their garden, art they’ve made. They’ll buy us a beer when they see us out somewhere. One customer even suggested that I be the executor of her and her husband’s will because they don’t have children. These gestures mean something to us. They tell us that we exist to you outside of your dining experience. But, you know, if we don’t exist to you, that’s cool. Just leave at least 20 percent.
Actually, that’s not true anymore. Leave 20 percent or more, yes, but, that “existing to you outside of your dining experience” part? That does matter now.
After three nights of waiting tables in a dining room full of human bodies, I had to behave as if I were infected. This weighed heavily on me. I figured that aside from work, I had to self-quarantine. And I worried about how long I would have to live like that. Would I ever be able to safely be around my family? The efficacy of masks had been downplayed in the early days of the pandemic, so no one wore them. Our only protection was solitude or hand-washing. And every working waiter you know, or who has ever waited on you, was legitimately freaking out.
In a text thread with my general manager and all the other employees, I said all my shifts were up for grabs. So did one of our other servers. The following week, the governor announced that all dining-in was suspended.
The waiters at my restaurant were now carhops. Our hourly wage was bumped up, but we were all worried about money. We figured maybe we’d make enough to get by. But, because we work in a pizza place, the curbside business boomed. A Friday night would generate the same amount of money as it would have pre-pandemic — but without bar sales.
Waiting tables these days is having 17 conversations a night with people sitting in cars about how weird life has become.
Waiting tables these days is wearing uncomfortable cloth masks that feel like they’re permanently bending my ears until I find the kind that works for me.
Waiting tables these days is watching the governor’s daily news conference and anxiously wondering which day he’s going to decide to open everything back up and put us all at risk, despite the rising number of cases.
Waiting tables is people dropping anywhere from $40 to $100 tips to show their appreciation for us being there.
Waiting tables is an old man honking at me and cussing about how long his pizza was taking. When I take it to him (on time), he says, “Y’all are rude and mean, and I’ve spent a lot of money here, but no more.”
“OK, take care, sir.”
Waiting tables these days is watching customer after customer stroll in the door unmasked. One of our servers wasn’t having it. He’d say things like, “You hear about this pandemic going on? Where’s your mask then?”
“You immune to viruses? Oh yeah, then where’s your mask?”
Waiting tables is a man waiting on a to-go order who says to us, “Asa [Governor Hutchinson] needs to grow a pair and open everything up. This is bullshit!”
Waiting tables is a really nice guy standing at the bar who licks his index finger three times to separate his cash. If this pandemic doesn’t stop finger-licking-cash-separating methods, will anything ever?
Waiting tables is a customer pointing at other customers who have already been served and saying, “But they’re not wearing masks. What about them? Do I have to poke a hole in the mask to take a drink?”
Waiting tables is one of our servers flipping out on some customers who were arguing with her about masks and my anxiety peaking as I go to ask them what they want to drink because I want to say to them: “Hey, it’s a difficult time for us right now trying to do our jobs during this pandemic and having to follow these directives from the health department. It’s not easy. And what makes it even harder for us is people being difficult. If you don’t have a mask, you should really leave.” But I don’t say that. I say, “What can I get for you?” with my heart rate beating faster and faster.
Waiting tables is all of our combined waiter anxiety mixing together and fucking up the collective restaurant conscience so badly that it doesn’t feel like the same job anymore.
Waiting tables is thinking about quitting waiting tables.
Waiting tables is resenting people who don’t care.
Waiting tables is serving people food and drinks when what you want to be doing is going out to protest and support the Black Lives Matter movement.
Waiting tables is a surly old man on the patio saying to my manager, “Ma’am, do I have to wear a mask if I go inside to use the bathroom?”
“Yes sir, we require masks inside,” my manager tells him.
“I’ll just pee out here in the corner then.”
“Please don’t,” she says to him.
Waiting tables is a middle-aged, well-off white man entering the restaurant five days after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis. He looks at the TV, which is tuned in to the protests on the news. George Floyd’s name is displayed at the bottom of the screen. He looks at me and says, “Who’s George Floyd?”
Waiting tables in Phase I didn’t change. Operating at one-third capacity isn’t worth it for any restaurant, so we kept doing what we were doing. There seemed to be three schools of thought from waiters regarding restaurants opening up again:
“Good. I’m ready to get back to work.”
“Bad! The cases are rising and worse than they’ve ever been!”
“No way in hell. I’m getting an additional $600 a week on top of my unemployment. Y’all have fun.”
All the servers in my restaurant were in the “bad idea” category, but it wasn’t up to us.
Going out to eat is a risk. Going to drink at the bar is an even greater risk. If you choose to dine out or party at the bar, please be careful. Mask up. Wearing a mask says, “You exist to me.” Stay 6 feet away from people. Think about your parents and grandparents. Think about all of the adorable old people you’ve met in your life and all the things they’ve lived through and the fact that they could die because of your indifference. Put a mask on. If other people aren’t your concern because you’re young and in great health and want to live your life, think of the sports you’ll miss this fall if the virus keeps spreading around from people not using caution.
If you happen to catch the coronavirus at a restaurant or bar, I hope it was worth it. I hope I didn’t give it to you or get it from you. I hope you were respectful and tipped well. And I hope that you and your loved ones are all going to be OK. When you feel better or when you’ve done your 14-day quarantine, we’ll be there. Masked and gloved and ready to serve.