Ode to the Waitress

She glides across sticky wooden floorboards, bearing a heavy tray

and a plastic pitcher of raspberry iced tea.

“You got six at 21, and the party in the back – stay focused, and smile”

her manager winks as he impales the paper ticket on a mental spike.

She digs for the ibuprofen stashed in the Ketchup-stained apron around her waist;

smiles will come easier if her feet can forget about the first shift.

Table 6 needs refills, 9 needs their check

Another high chair for 17;

the neatly rolled silverware, which used to form a small white mountain

has melted to almost nothing

and thank god for gratuity—

 the old man at the back table is tapping his watch quite dramatically

rolling his eyes in her general direction.

She hustles to retrieve a round of Budweiser’s for her regulars at 2

but first a gift from the bartender,

a shot of Captain for all the waitresses

to “take the edge off” the French-fried chaos.

It’s not always a living hell—

There was that kind group of female 30-something’s yesterday

raucously, lovingly celebrating a birthday of a long-time friend;

and that elderly couple,

keeping the romance alive over a bottle of Malbec

and told her all about their new grandchild;

and there’s Dale, the Vietnam vet who bellies up to the bar every day at 11 a.m. sharp

for a Coca Cola and a little conversation.

But there’s a constant, shadowy backdrop

to the hum of conversation,

the clatter of dishes,

the drone of soft rock classics;

will she walk home with enough tips in her purse

to pay the water bill

and the babysitter

and buy a decent pair of shoes?

She is grateful for work, but working conditions leave her bitter;

She can feel full, but still nutritionally deprived;

She is paid, but not what most would call “compensated.”

“You decide what your tips are,” she was told on day one.

Do I?

“Just like I decide to win the lottery,” joked a fellow waitress.

They are what keep her there, the team of wait staff;

Some days they’re comrades, on others they are crutches

Lots of times they are cheerleaders, mentors, and confidants.

She loads her tray with three orders of the meatloaf special

and makes eye contact with Edward the dishwasher—

they exchange a look and a full-bodied sigh—

The struggle feels a little easier when you’re on a team.

At the table, she pretends not to notice the mischievous smile,

ignores the rude comment

thinking instead about which order the kitchen will accidentally botch

so she can have her own dinner.

She turns to the dwindling pile of silverware—

they’ll need dozens more rolled just to get through tonight—

and for a moment she envies the spoon, fork and knife

bound together so neatly, one on top of the other

clean, perfect, simple.

She’ll leave it all behind someday

finish school, find a job

that secures her beyond next Friday.

Until then she glides across the scratched wooden floor,

ascending the stairs to the noisy cocktail lounge

with dignity and grace. 


Casey Henry is an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Presbyterian Hunger Program in Cincinnati, OH. She loves running, rock climbing, and using absurd amounts of cilantro in her cooking.