The Bottom of the Barrel

Of all the things I’ve learned from being a barrel drone, the most blaring lesson is that I don’t want to be doing this for the rest of my life. The daily ins and outs of this business are thankfully what have given me the financial means to support myself thus far through college, but they have also given me the resolve to pursue whatever I might become interested in doing in the future.

The odd people I meet and the quirky stories I am always dying to share have cemented my belief that stories are behind everything (and everyone), and this has really made me more confident as a writer. Knowing that I have found material that I enjoy writing about from doing the most mundane things and that I can make those things seem interesting is something I’ll take with me when I finally pursue other adventures and leave the restaurant biz behind.

Until then, I’ll still be waiting tables and trying to make enough in tips for graduate school.

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Published in: on December 10, 2009 at 8:29 am  Leave a Comment  

The Goal Hour Baby

Although I tend to view Cracker Barrel as my own sort of sociological experiment, the truth is that it’s a business, and a profitable one at that. Nestled just off of the interstate in about 500 different places, Cracker Barrel has found its own niche in a competitive market. And the Cartersville Cracker Barrel is one of the busiest of all.

When I first started working at CB I was warned to stay away from the Sunday morning shift. Indeed, it is the busiest time of the week with church-goers and weekenders and what-not, but the real reason to stay away is to keep some sort of sanity. The GM of store number 59 is a nice man really, but on Sunday morning it’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

His job is to make sure the restaurant runs smoothly and makes as much money as possible. To do this, the term “teamwork” is thrown around and the goal is for everyone to work together (dishwashers, cooks, servers, cashiers, etc.) and get as many customers through the doors and back out of them at a reasonably quick pace. The gage of how well we’re doing is the “goal hour,” and if we don’t reach enough of those with our sales our GM has to answer to his boss. He doesn’t like to do that, so he’s constantly yelling at servers to “get the order” which ends up kind of rushing the guest, stressing out the workers, and having his eyes almost bug out of his head until we reach the $1600 mark each hour. I’m surprised he hasn’t fallen over from a heart attack yet.

One thing that seems to have calmed him down just a bit is the new “Goal Hour Baby.” It’s a baby doll that some child left behind already without clothes, which my manager swears he tried to throw away but somehow it just kept returning to his office. So he decided to keep it, put a pair of found sunglasses on its face, and write “GOAL HOUR BABY” in blue marker across its chest. Someone else added the peace sign tattoo on its foot.

As creepy as it is for grown men to carry around that demented looking doll, they love it. Usually they break it out after they’ve stressed everyone into achieving their desired goal hour, and then they’ll set it in peculiar places, take cell phone pictures, and send them to the next boss up the managerial hierarchy.

Published in: on December 9, 2009 at 11:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Left a Good Job in the City…”

Of all of the people I have met working at Cracker Barrel, Darla would have to be the most original and the one most worthy of a blog post. Her tickets simply read “The Darla” where it says the server’s name, and that pretty much sums her up. She’s one of a kind, almost indescribable, but I will do my best.

Imagine a woman in her mid-forties, with somehow Farrah Fawcette-esque short brown hair and bright eyes. Now put her in a Cracker Barrel uniform, apron and all. Spin her around thirty times and throw flour all over her until she’s messier than a kindergartener finger-painting. Add to that Michael Jackson’s signature dance moves, and you have a pretty accurate mental image of what she looks like after a hard day’s work.

This visual image of Darla is amazing enough, and it stunned me to meet someone so unique when I first started working there, but it’s nothing compared to the amazing woman she is on the inside.

A typical Sunday morning, the busiest time of the week, is the only day I get to work with Darla. She usually has around ten tables a morning that request her personally, because her wild personality makes her seem like everyone’s best friend. She’s loud and crazy, and doesn’t really think before she speaks, but even when everyone else is frazzled and stressed, she’s still got an amazing attitude and is still singing. My favorite game on mornings like these is to find different songs I think will sound magnificently better in her loud singing voice. Somehow Darla puts a fantastic spin on CCR, Usher, and Lil Jon, and we had a weekend of only Michael Jackson music (and dancing) right after he died. But my all time favorite Darla cover would have to be Tina Turner’s version of “Proud Mary.” All I have to do is start the “left a good job in the city…,” and she gives the most entertaining version of the song you’ve ever heard. The “rollin’ on the river” part is always the best, and usually all of the people around her join in because the song is contagious.

For most people, Darla is a happy smiling person 100% of the time. But there have been moments I’ve been able to ask her about her past and how she came to be the person that she is, and it’s due to some choices she made during the lowest part of her life. Her husband Rusty, still the love of her life, passed away from a terminal illness. Within a short time of his death, both of her parents passed away, too. During this horrible time, Darla says, “the devil knocked on my door,” and that’s all she has to say. Pieces start falling together and you realize that she stays so incredibly chipper because she’s already used all of the sadness she was allotted in life. She has reached her limit, and from now on she’ll just keep on “rollin’ down the river,” covered in flour and living her best life, enriching the lives of those lucky enough to meet her.

Published in: on December 8, 2009 at 6:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

You’ve Got a Friend

Before I worked at the CB, I never could have imagined I would meet the people I have met or that I would become so close to people so vastly different from myself. Call me narrow-minded, but most of my good friendships up to that point had been with people who were very similar to me- they were all close in age, had a similar upbringing, and shared many of my same interests. That’s not to say I would shun people that were different than me; it’s just the way things happened to work out.

Many of my shifts start in the bright sun-shiny early morning hours or end late at night when the restaurant is empty of customers. These are the hours of the day when you can truly get to know someone- times like right before they’ve had their morning coffee or right as they’re about to get their after-work beer. Trapped in a locked restaurant until a manager is able to walk you out, you really get to know things about a person’s love life. Get to work at six in the morning and people are more willing to talk about plastic surgery or their experiments with acid in the 70’s. Work with someone for two years and you’ll learn all of the details of their three marriages.

I’ve met a myriad of different kinds of people, and it’s funny how I’ve gotten so attached to people I might not have if I didn’t work where I do. There is a 40 year old grill cook I’ve dubbed “Lil’ Ray Ray,” even though there’s nothing little about his 250 pounds. It’s just funny. There’s Ruben and Oscar, both from Guatemala. Ruben has jokingly asked my mother if she’d like to be his mother-in-law, and Oscar speaks to me only in Spanish. I speak very little Spanish, but over the last couple of years he’s been very kind and given me things sent from his wife back home, still in Guatemala. Normally he would try to sell them and send the money back home to his family, so it means a lot. There’s nutty Darla who sings, pervy Phyllis, bad ass Judy (Judes, as I call her) who beats up her husband, spit-fire Rita, and crazy Julia. All of these people have come to mean so much to me and have helped me with their advice and their friendship. It’s hard to imagine working somewhere else without them, but I know that when I do I will take the things I’ve learned from them and still imagine their encouraging voices in my head.

Cassie stabs Ched with a Gnome

A Coworker Stabbing a Manager with a Gnome

Published in: on December 8, 2009 at 6:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

Geriatric Drive-By

One unfortunate side effect of working with strangers is the all too common consequence of being their scapegoat. Often, people don’t mean it. They’re not usually horribly bitchy or really that miserable. Maybe they’ve had a bad day or even a bad life, for that matter. But this isn’t a good excuse for taking your anger out on a complete stranger. No matter how miserable your life has been, or how much it sucks to be a middle class white person who can afford to eat dinner out and live comfortably in the suburbs, suck it up, put some things into perspective, and stop lashing out at others.

I am your waitress. Not your mother, your wife who just left you, or your counselor. I really don’t mind lending an ear when your parent just died or conversing about something that’s happened to you lately (it’s surprising how often I do this, actually); it’s more the angry venting that gets me. Perhaps you really were looking forward to some meatloaf all day long, but throwing your dishes at me the same time you throw your tantrum probably means something else in your life is going wrong, too. Huffing and puffing and trying to act like you’re a martyr because you’ll kindly accept some roast beef instead probably means you have some sort of complex. If you want an award or a standing ovation because you’ve gone to the depths of accepting something else, you’re not getting it from me.

Sometimes there are people who just can’t be helped. When this happens I try to do my job as silently as possible, not speak unless spoken to, and avoid an incident at all costs. It’s the surest thing to not getting yelled at, unless they just need to yell. I’ve been yelled at, had my sanity and intelligence questioned, and even had my hand slapped by an old lady once. Sure, it pisses me off (who wouldn’t get pissed off?), but I try to blame it on their miserable home life or their traumatic childhoods. Or I call them horrible names you wouldn’t hear sailors say when I get back to the kitchen. Usually all three.

One gentleman, who looked like he was in his mid- to upper 70s, came in by himself and was sat in my section. Little did I know he demanded this table from my manager, who had tried to sit him near a family with children first and he refused, calling the kids “little brats.” This was the first sign of Negative Ned, but I got no warning. Things went well, his order was easy, he was kind of grumpy but that’s nothing new. He seemed parched as he drank his entire drink in one gulp, and the first rule I learned as a server was to never let drinks get empty, or you don’t get a good tip. I came by probably 3 times TOTAL the entire time he was there, silently making sure his drink didn’t go empty, and on the third and final time, when I went to check if his food was okay, a bomb went off.

“Is everything okay so far, sir?”

“It would be a lot better if you’d leave me the hell alone instead of bothering me every five minutes!”

Boy, did time fly for him. I recalculated the time in my head- it had taken his food about 15 minutes to make it to his table, I had refilled his drink only once during that time, I hadn’t made a sound and definitely didn’t beg him for his life’s story. I hadn’t done anything wrong, and I definitely didn’t come by his table every five minutes.

I dropped his check and said, “Oh, sir, I won’t be bothering you again,” as seemingly sweet as possible.

And I didn’t go back. It could have been the desert, and I probably wouldn’t have refilled his freaking tea again. I left him the “hell alone” for the next half an hour, and when he finally left I went back to the table to gather his dishes. Unfortunately for me, he had forgotten his cell phone. Moral dilemma- do I run and give the jerk back his phone? Or do I let him go home without it and forget where he left it just because he was an asshole?

I would have hated myself and felt incredibly guilty if I let the geezer leave his phone behind, so I ran to catch him just as he reached the door. But I wasn’t going to be sweet about it; I gave him back his sass full force.

Tapping him on his shoulder, I said, “Excuse me, sir, I hate to interrupt you again, but I believe you left this.”

I turned around as soon as I gave it to him, and I believe he may have mumbled a “thank you.” I arrived back in the server alley triumphantly to cheers from my coworkers, and even got a high-five from my manager.

After the initial high of sticking it to the man, I began to feel a little guilty about it. Big whoop, I had “stuck it to” an 80 year old. Someone’s grandfather. I felt like I had performed some sort of geriatric drive-by, and it wasn’t a good feeling at all.

How was it fair that I felt all this guilt after deserving some kind of retribution for his asshole-like behavior, but all those other people get to be hideously mean everyday and feel no remorse? I should have known better.

Published in: on December 3, 2009 at 4:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

There’s Something About Newman

Newman

Although I’ve never considered myself much of a celeb stalker, I have to admit that when I first learned Newman occasionally pops by my place of work, I was ecstatic. The few people I work with that actually cared about that fact told me that he usually comes in about once a year when he’s visiting family in the area, usually around Thanksgiving or Christmas. Even though I’d only worked at Cracker Barrel less than a month when I discovered this, I was already grasping for a reason to hold on. With Newman, I’d finally found it. A month after I was hired, I made it my goal and mission to stay with the job until I laid eyes on Newman.

I’m sure Newman doesn’t like being called “Newman,” because in fact his real name is Wayne Knight. It is my understanding (thanks to a weird kind of picture-shrine at Applebee’s) that he attended Cartersville High School and was raised in sweet lil’ ole Cartersville before he skyrocketed to his D-list fame on Seinfeld. He’s had other roles: a chunky cop in love with an Amazonian-like alien on 3rd Rock From the Sun, a voice in a couple of famous cartoon movies (Toy Story 2 and Tarzan), and my personal favorite- the guy who tried to steal the Dino-DNA from the dinosaur compound in Jurassic Park. I have repeatedly told everyone I work with the details of him stealing DNA in a shaving cream can before being eaten by prehistoric velociraptors and karma kicking his ass, only to have an ongoing debate as to if it really was velociraptors or some other kind of monster that overtook him in the end. That debate has yet to be settled, but one thing is for sure- Newman is continuously type-cast in the role he plays best- the annoying, disgruntled enemy who needles the main character incessantly. In my mind, he plays one prick after another, and he does it well.

The sad thing is, he’s rumored to be a prick in real life, too. Not just a prick, but even a full on asshole in the opinion of many of the people I know who have met him. This revelation shocked me; sure, he plays one on TV, but chubby nice hometown Newman couldn’t be all bad, could he? I made endless excuses for him while I bided my time for a Newman encounter: relentless questioning from strangers probably gets annoying; when he lost all that weight, perhaps his personality followed; people I work with would easily do something outrageous and weird just to piss him off. There were a myriad of reasons and coincidences that could make him seem like a douche bag, but I was hoping they were all wrong.

I was hired in May 2007, and by the time the holidays came around I was ready to achieve my sighting and be done with my job. Christmas Eve is a mandatory work day for the peons at CB, just like Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day, and it’s also so busy that there is hardly a second to take a break or chat with other coworkers. It’s the one day a year the restaurant closes at 2 in the afternoon, and it was only at closing that I realized the horrible news. Juanis, a fellow server, had served Newman and his mother their breakfast without even knowing it. I had been scoping the dining room all day, and ironically he was sat on the other side of the trellis wall in the section of a server who had no idea who he was, and I had missed my chance. I had been so close- but yet too far.

I’ve heard contrasting stories as to his demeanor; Rita swears he’s the nicest guy since Mr. Rogers and even signed a menu for her mother. Bobbie Brown swears he’s a douche bag, but I’m not sure her version can be trusted. On said day in December, Newman was shopping around in the store part of CB and she took the chance and approached him. Only a couple of years younger than me, but light years away in personality, she inched towards him with a marker and a piece of paper. In her version of the conversation, she timidly asked him for an autograph and he kind of sighed/ annoyed-grunted.

“I guess so, but I don’t want to make a scene.”

She makes him sound like a huffy diva, and swears there wasn’t a soul paying attention.

“Sir, I really don’t think anyone is noticing.”

At this point he kind of yelled something to the effect of “This is a scene!” or “Yes you are!” and in BB’s version she always flails her arms for amazing dramatic effect.

If this had been me, I probably would have burst out in tears and ran away, but then again I wouldn’t have approached in the first place. I may have been waiting to resign from my post until I saw him, but I didn’t want an autograph- only a glance. I don’t need a conversation, I have no urge to lie and tell him I admire his body of work; I just want to work on my 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon and be able to tell random people I’ve seen Newman.

A lady of my word, I kept waiting for Newman to show up like Big Foot. Christmas Eve ’08, Newman was a no show. His parents came, but without their son and I was extremely disappointed. I resigned myself to pushing the thought to the back of my head until next Christmas when I would maybe have another chance.

Luckily, Newman is not on a strict calendar. It had not crossed my mind that Newman didn’t fly south for the winter or hibernate during the summer in LA. I had no idea that on a sunny June day, (if I typed the date, it would just creep everyone out, but it was also my mom’s birthday so that’s my excuse for still remembering) Newman’s geriatric mother would want to do as all elderly people do and eat at Cracker Barrel. I had just so happened to pick up a morning shift for kicks, and when Rita whispered the presence of Wayne Knight in the building, I literally jumped for joy. He was facing the opposite direction, and I didn’t want to gawk, but it was definitely Newman. A smaller than I imagined Newman with not-so-good posture, but Newman all the same, and in a nearly empty dining room. To my surprise, this also delighted my managers into a tizzy and they paid for his lunch for no other reason besides his being an actor. It was kind of stupid to pay for his meal, but that was nothing compared to everyone else freaking out. While I managed to stay calm after reaching my long-awaited goal, I couldn’t believe how everyone else reacted. Rita got another autographed menu, and so did my manager. Arde told a story about being ten minutes too late to see “Brangelina” in Las Vegas one time, and the flood gates were open for celebrity story telling. My coworkers had transformed out of normal people into paparazzi, and I began to understand why he’d want to be left alone.

Bobbie B. didn’t receive the same vibe, and she bravely approached Newman’s table for round two.

“Excuse me, Mr. Knight, I don’t mean to interrupt…”

“THEN DON’T!”

Newman smacked Bobbie Brown down so fast it was astonishing. I found it kind of hilarious that it had happened to her again, but maybe he just doesn’t like her. I asked her why she had risked a run-in with him again, and she said, “I just wanted to ask him which dinosaur kills him in Jurassic Park.” After years of ridiculous questioning, I bet he can see it coming. In an attempt to end our years-long debate she had approached him, but you could just as easily look it up on Wikipedia and feel a little less rejected.

Newman came and went, and I’m no longer honor bound to stay at Cracker Barrel. For some reason I stay anyway, there are a million excuses I tell myself, not the least of which is next Christmas Eve when I could possibly see Newman from Seinfeld.

Published in: on December 1, 2009 at 1:12 am  Comments (2)