by Mobutu Sese Seko
Months ago, I let a rich guy with an expensive haircut persuade me to let him cut open my abdomen in four places. Sure, this was for legitimate “medical reasons” that made me vastly safer in the long term, but agreeing to schedule this event the week before Thanksgiving was… dumb. Walking around with enough stitches to cosplay as an NFL football sucks under any circumstance, but it’s especially shortsighted just before American citizens play Build-a-Blimp with their belly areas.
Since I couldn’t heave big baking pans or screw around with the barbecue pit without agony, this led the family members who came down to visit me to take me out for a lot of lunches and dinners. When the host is wounded, it’s easier to make food someone else’s problem. And maybe this is the sort of development that only seems odd when you’re being chauffeured around in a smiling Percocet haze, but it seems like mid-price American family restaurants have standardized the “platoon of unctuous/obnoxious turd managers who come by your table to verify that your server isn’t clinically braindead.”
At any other time of the year, these are people we calmly and confidently refuse to take seriously under any circumstance, but the holiday season erodes even the most cultivated indifference. Because of expenses, travel inconveniences, time crunches and especially family, the next two weeks teem with recrimination and emotional violence. And — precisely because family knows where we live, sometimes lends us money and can remember that time we ran around the backyard with socks on our hands, a hat that read “AWESOME COUGARS” and our genitals flapping (or not) in the breeze — we tend to direct this simmering ill-will outward, at anyone but those responsible. People like the waiters and waitresses who help funnel sweet tea and sodas into us, whose managers come strollin’ by our table, hoping we’ll snitch.
What brought this home was a Thanksgiving visit to a burger joint and a management culture that at best vacillated between live-action questionnaire and employee surveillance state.
(Before we go much further, let me please try to blame almost everything on surgery and drugs. I like to think I’m a good relative, and my idea of entertaining people from out of town isn’t usually, “Have you tried ground beef? What about with bread? Oh, my God, it’ll blow your mind. We can also have it with water that’s been poured through leaves, chilled and sweetened. Here, put these earbuds in, and dig on this Shins song, because everything is about to change your life.”)
Unfortunately, I needed to be someplace where the food wasn’t exotic and intestinally torturous, and it needed to be in an atmosphere where some guy just passing out while sitting upright or needing to puke his guts out wouldn’t be, like, gauche or anything. So family style and burgers it was. Even though they totally have turkey and venison and buffalo burgers. And localvore veggies. And elk. FUCK ELK.
Being observed by wait staff is natural. I welcome it. It is a delicate dance that has evolved over centuries. I try to eat my food, and the server lurks behind pitchers of tea at the wait station until the moment I am the most unforgivably gross. He or she approaches the table as ketchup is smeared across my face like I just drunkenly made out with the graduating class of the clown college. He or she smirks at me, as if to say, “You and I… we are playing a little game, ah?” before asking if everything is OK and if I want more tea. I haplessly grunt, “Mmmph!” and gesture in a vague tribal fashion with a hand that even then is trickling burger grease down its side, under my watch band and deep beneath my cuffs. I am disgusting. The server has won.
Managers coming by merely queers the purity of the turf. THIS IS A NOBLE GAME, and it’s being sullied by this layer of supervision wholly unnecessary to the eating/embarrassment process. It’s also hard not to think a few things:
1. “I must look like an idiot.”
Generally speaking, Americans aren’t terribly shy when it comes to complaining about shit. We’re capable of conflating the most innocuous setbacks with great miscarriages of justice — like, depending on your point of view, this entire column. (See also: “Thanksgiving, The Ordeal Of”.) So the fact that there’s an entire extra supervisory layer dedicated to making sure your meal is satisfactory implies that you’re terminally meek or a bozo or both. If your burger was little more than half-ground connective tissue and ancient ski-lodge carpet shavings served in ice-cold puck form, you probably have the courage to say, “Now hold on just a damn minute,” even if your server is radiantly cute.
Speaking of which:
2. The restaurant management layer seems conspicuously male.
Obviously, my drug-addled trip through suburban dining-out options was anything but scientific, but this was something I noticed even when I used to work in restaurants — back when my priorities were getting a good score on the SAT and fixing the CD player in the silver Camry (a.k.a. the EFFICIENT LOVEWAGON). Your wait staff at family restaurants seems dominated by girls and a few older women — the Department of Labor shows that women account for over 70% of server positions — and it’s always both disappointing and sort of creepy that their immediate bosses all seem to be dudes in their early thirties who bathe each morning in some kind of scent named after a store that primarily sells pants. It’s hard not to get a whiff of the faintly bro-ishly exploitive from the power structure.
3. I am not your goddamn informant.
Back when I worked in restaurants, I lucked out and eventually got two great managers — one man, one woman. (This was out of half a dozen places. The woman, for the record, was the only woman manager.) They encouraged staff to get their attention when customers seemed unhappy. A comped drink or appetizer could placate almost anyone, assure repeat business and prevent customers from taking their frustrations out on the tip portion of the meal. Further, they reasoned, rightly, that someone in a position of authority was less likely to suffer a torrent of abuse than some kid trying to earn gas money. This is the way that managers hovering around the dining floor is supposed to work, and I suspect that it was the original intent behind following up on servers.
But it’s also easy to see what it nastily can become, in the hands of cynically exploitive or essentially lazy management — an effort-free means of employee intimidation and quality control. You can watch your waitress cast a glance over her shoulder at your table when the manager comes up to doublecheck on her. Suddenly she’s probably working with a stiffer back and robotically going through some acronym-based U.P.S.E.L.L. management routine — to your manifest annoyance, even if you’re a regular — while Herr Direktor of Scampi’s Bottomless Family Shrimpfest airily wanders around the tables, contributing dick-shit. And worst of all, that kind of informant-fueled manager enables every petty, mean, vengeful streak in the entitled American character. Complaining directly to servers requires at least the confidence that you are right, that they screwed up and that your halting them to say, to their faces, that they are doing a poor job is earned. But bitching someone out to a third party is easy. You can make shit up and score a free Awesome Blossom. You can just be a spoiled little ass delivering a petty painstaking reckoning for not getting your sweet tea at the EXACT instant you felt like having more. It’s accountability via empowering the cowardly barbs of jerks.
I have no idea if there’s a solution to this. The managers I knew who got the best work out of their servers were ones who were just as good as their best waiters and waitresses, who helped people struggling in a rush, ran food out and looked for problems to fix. If they came to you with a problem that was your responsibility, it was impossible not to know that YOU were the asshole.
Still when a manager comes to my table fishing for problems from his servers, I can’t snap, “Just go run some trays, and there won’t be problems. If there are, I’ll tell the server, and they can hip you do it. I don’t need your layers of staff accountability. I’m trying to chew and make a filthy spectacle of myself.” I worked for too long in these jobs. Once you’ve worked a restaurant, you can’t be a dick to restaurant workers unless something of apex-level shittiness occurs. I still say please and thank you with reflexively stupid compensatory enthusiasm.
“Would you like the bill, sir?”
“Here you are. You have to give us your money now.”
“Mobutu Sese Seko” writes the “America’s Screaming Conscience” column for Gawker, contributes to Deadspin and GQ, and founded the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo? He hopes you have a Merry Christmas and happy holidays.