Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I never said I was the Dalai f*cking Lama...

When an ordinary waiter attains knowledge, he is a sage. When a sage attains understanding, he is an ordinary waiter. Both have to tip out the bar.

I asked my friend Peter a couple of weeks ago what he thought of my recent blog post, and he replied by saying that he liked it (at least, that's how I'm choosing to remember it), but that it was similar to some of my other posts in the past in that a) it was fairly negative, and b) I sounded really, really bitter. My response: "I never said I was the Dalai f*cking Lama." My attempt with this blog has always been to relate the challenges this somewhat bizarre profession throws up against me, and my attempts to navigate those challenges - hopefully growing and/or learning something along the way. To that end (or, more truthfully, calling me on my bullsh*t), Peter challenged me to write a positive blog entry next time - so that's what this (hopefully) will be.

One of the most crucial aspects with any practice, be it spiritual, sports, music, whatever, is to make notes of your improvements along the way. We're going to fall short of our ideals - that's why it's a practice. But occasionally though, there are some markers along the way. Some recent ones for me...

A little while ago, one of my co-workers asked me how my night was going: if I was making decent money, how my tips were, etc. I paused to respond, and realized I had absolutely no idea. I had no idea what my sales were, I had no idea what my tips had been like, I hadn't been paying attention to any of those things at all. I was just going through my night, providing service, navigating the waters, and taking in whatever I got. This is not the norm; usually, if you were to ask me that question, my response would have been something like, "Pretty good, I'm at about $850/ $875 in sales right now, gotten some pretty decent tips - couple of $15 on $70s, mostly 18-20%, but this one table, uch, they left me $15 on $125; and I ran my ass off for them - how hard is it to leave 15%?!" But that night, and really, almost every night since then, I just haven't cared. It doesn't matter. Keeping track of those things in no way, shape, or form helps me to do my job any better - if anything, it lessens my effectiveness because I'm steaming about a 10% tip or how crappy my sales are or whatnot.

Another example: just this past Sunday I was working a dinner shift and had an extremely slow start. The server I was relieving was keeping all of her tables, which then proceeded to camp out, so it was about an hour before I got my first table. After that, some of the tables from my section were removed to give to another server for a party he was working (this actually happened on two sides of me simultaneously, basically halving my section to just two tables). In the past my normal reaction would have been to immediately start bitching ("G-damnit, it's hard enough to make money here without losing half my section..." etc, etc). But I didn't. I didn't care. I was able to look past the immediacy of the moment and just accept and allow what the restaurant was giving me, trusting that it would probably even out in the end. Sure enough, because of the way the parties had played out my neighbors on both ends ending up giving me a 5 and a 6 top respectively, so for the next turn I was running three 6-tops and a 5 (translation for non-waiters: Good money). The point being, I was able to look past the immediacy of the moment (I'm getting screwed) and just trust the universe to deliver on its own timetable.

The last thing I'll mention is a bit of satori I experienced a while back, and have gratefully been able to call upon regularly since then ("satori" is a Buddhist term meaning "a sudden flash of insight or awakening"). Have you ever had a dream where you became lucid in the middle of it? As in, you woke up in the dream, were able to look around and realize, "Oh, hey, I'm dreaming. None of this is real"? The same thing happened to me at work. The kitchen was running long on ticket times, I was running around looking for serving spoons or something and, just as I was starting to get all worked up about it, it suddenly occurred to me that absolutely none of this really mattered. None of this was actually "real" in the sense of being the least bit important; certainly not in the Big Picture, but also not in any Picture beyond that brief turn of tables. Aside from just saying "It's only food," I actually believed it. I'm not sure how or why that finally sunk in, I'm just grateful it did.

Okay, glad that's done. Back to being bitter.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Being weeded is a choice...

When you are rushed you must slow down. When you are pressed you must pause. Weeded is a state of mind.

-Zen Master Ichi

Table 31 is being sat, food is arriving at 25. Dessert will be coming out shortly for table 32 and the leftovers from their main course have yet to be boxed and their table reset (let alone have been offered coffee). Most egregious of all, it has been almost 10 minutes and still no sign of drinks for 24.

It is easy to become overwhelmed; to feel as helpless in the onslaught of these tasks as if staring into the face of an approaching tsunami. If you allow yourself, you will be destroyed. But the choice to succeed or fail is yours to make.

The apprentice cries, “Master, it is not my fault; there is too much for me to do at once!” And indeed, you are correct: there is too much to be accomplished at once. Even the great waiter Sanyo, who would run three six-tops and a party of twelve Russians without batting an eye, would be unable to accomplish all such tasks at one time. The solution lies solely in a shift in perception – whereas the apprentice will feel as if drowning in a sea of demands, the master sees not one overwhelming force but a series of individual tasks which, when taken one at a time, can be surmounted. The most important thing to remember when faced with such an onslaught is to maintain your calm. Slow down, even though the natural inclination is to hurry. Do not tally, but do not rush. The guest will sense your distress and will become worried that their meal is in jeopardy. This is the Sixth Noble Truth: If you appear in control, the guest will assume that you are in control, and will be more inclined to wait without griping. Understand that the guest dines in a constant, subconscious state of near-panic - if anything is the least bit askew, they assume the worst. Show no weakness in front of the guest. As long as you maintain the appearance of calm, the guest will take waiting in stride.

Do not be afraid to ask one of your fellow waiters (or, may the heavens forbid, a manager) for help. It is the wise man who knows he cannot run a restaurant by himself and enlists others for aid - do not allow pride to take over and so detract from the guest’s experience. There is always a point where you are free to help and your co-worker is being slaughtered as the spring lamb, and vice-versa. It is said that during the time of the Xang dynasty, waiters were so wise and learned that they freely and actively gave aid to one another, often pointedly seeking to do so. Seers declare that when all waiters return to this discipline, a new golden age will begin.

Sometimes people just have to wait. Do what you can: ask for help, consolidate your steps, but in the end there is only so much even the gods can do. Accepting limitations is an important part of growth. Often we become stressed or agitated; as the chattering mind thinks that somehow this means you are “doing” something about it, something productive. It cannot abide relaxing, because it is convinced this means you are giving up. Indeed you are giving up - you are giving up the illusion of control. Being upset or stressed does not make the kitchen move faster nor does it make you any more able to do your job; if anything, it lessens your effectiveness. So relax. Be the calm in the eye of the storm. This understanding applies to all things. It is a sad truth that the busier one is, the less money one receives. The secret: do not be busy. As Lao Tzu wrote, “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” When facing an onslaught of tasks, become as nature.

Slow down, maintain calm

Being weeded is a choice

So do not choose it

-Zen and the Art of Waitering

Monday, August 15, 2011

When it rains, it pours

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you will still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.

--Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai


When you can do nothing, what can you do?

--Zen Koan

For the past few months or so work has been, to put it bluntly, an absolute sh*t show. Labor cuts, lack of supplies, problems in the kitchen, new staff, and just general all-around mismanagement have combined to create a work environment where just getting through an average shift – I don't even want to talk about Friday through Sunday – requires a Herculean effort for what is an increasingly Sisyphean task. I can pretty much count on something going wrong – a late ticket, a missing entree, something made wrong, getting weeded because I'm stuck waiting on the bakery – at least once a turn, and it's often left me feeling like I'm keeping my station from collapsing into pure chaos on the strength of will alone.

I try to hold fast to a general rule, which is that unless I'm doing anything about a situation – in this case, looking desperately for a new job so I can get the hell off of this sinking ship before it fully capsizes – I have absolutely no right to complain. I've written before about the allure of complaining; how addictive it can be and how inescapable it seems on any given shift (like moths to a flame, so are servers to bitching). The truth is, there's definitely a small rush that comes from letting loose in a full-on bitch session. Not just the energy of the anger but also a temporary (and completely illusory) feeling of power; some scrap of control over a situation where you are, in reality, totally powerless. But it's an inherently negative energy; as good as it may feel at the time, engaging in it always seems to leave me feeling drained, exasperated and, ultimately, defeated.

When it comes down to it, I can't make sure we have enough trays or steak knives or whatever it is in stock all I can do is let a manager know when we don't have what we need (and continue to let them know, over and over). I can't make the kitchen not have 30-minute ticket times, I can just send my food as fast as possible and course a lot tighter than I normally would (translation for non-waiters: send the dinner order five minutes after I send the appetizer order). And I can't do anything about having to work with a glut of green servers with little to no experience, all I can do there is to offer my help and to make a (strongly) concerted effort to not be as condescending and bitter as possible.

Like so much in life, it just comes down to acceptance, time and time again. The above quote from the Hagakure is one of my all-time favorites, because it really does extend “to everything.” Right now when I go into work most nights, odds are it's going to be a rainstorm. I can attempt to run and duck under the eaves of houses all I want, but I'm still going to get soaked. Or, I can walk calmly and peacefully through the storm: still drenched, but at least with some small measure of serenity.