Hanging up my Apron

by Lisa Lombardi in , ,

My first kiss was sprung on me by a boy I'd pined after my entire senior year of high school. We were saying goodbye before leaving for our respective colleges in the morning, and all of a sudden his mouth came out of nowhere, leaving me feeling both terrified and confused.

I did not appreciate it. At all.

My second kiss came from an older gentleman who was watching a Syracuse sporting event from one of the upper-level suites of the Carrier Dome, where I was stationed as the Suite Manager/Suite Liaison/Suite Bitch/whatever they called it. I was in charge of getting the food and drinks to the suite at the right times, and just generally making sure everyone had a good time and that the buffalo wings weren't cold.

It soon became clear that my duties also included making polite small talk with guests who couldn't care less about the game and just wanted to hang out by the bar the whole time. So I did. And when the game was over and the stadium began to empty out, this man walked over, bade me goodbye, laid an efficient smack on my lips, and pressed a $70 tip into the palm of my hand.

This, at least, I appreciated.

It makes sense that the food service industry has played a part in some of the more formative experiences in my life: I've held jobs ranging from bored hostess to harried bartender at various points in my life from the time I was 17.

It all started with a part-time hostessing gig at an Italian restaurant franchise in my town, something to fill my summer days and then, when school started again, the odd evening or two each week. I was in charge of walking patrons to their tables, pre-slicing endless loaves of crusty bed, and telling every group — no matter how small or large, no matter how busy we were or weren't — that it would probably be no more than a 15-minute wait. Okay, if we were really busy, then maybe I'd predict a 20-minute wait. Max.

First lesson of the food service industry: hostesses are full of shit. At least, the teenaged ones making only $7.75 an hour are.

Second lesson of the food service industry: be wary of restaurant owners whose idea of appropriate business attire is a quarter-zip fleece pullover that fully exposes their yeti-like chest hair. Give your two weeks' notice the second said owner tells you that you're "looking foxy today."

The summer after my sophomore year of college, I graduated to a waitressing gig at a Middle Eastern place in the middle of our downtown. Its central proximity didn't do much for its popularity, though; when friends and former classmates learned where I was working, their first response was usually "Where? Never heard of it." That should have been my first hint that I would be making no money that summer.

At the time, it had the look of a dingy cafe — nothing terrible, but nothing particularly appealing, either. The menu options averaged $9 and there was no liquor license, so I quickly realized that I would essentially be making only $2.75 an hour. My "tips" were like puddles in the desert: juuuuust enough to keep me going.

I was also the only person working there who didn't speak Lebanese, something the assistant manager — a tiny, somewhat shriveled old lady with a permanent frown — seemed to hold against me, if her constant glare and muttering whenever I asked a question were any indication.

The restaurant has since acquired a liquor license and undergone a full renovation, turning it into a swanky-looking place that's packed every time I've driven by during visits home. 

I bet the tips are amazing now.

I curse its name every time I see it.

In college, I worked a variety of odd jobs, but the one that stuck all four years was slaving away for the Carrier Dome's catering department. I started out as a runner, literally running giant platters of food from the kitchen to the suites just before the mad rush of halftime. I then worked the hotdog concession stands on the lawn before football games, waking up Saturday mornings while it was just barely light out and walking to the Dome through grass that had begun to frost over during the night. When it switched to basketball season, I mastered the cash register at the Italian Stand, handing over endless subpar chicken parm sandwiches and overpriced meatball subs.

I soon graduated to Suite Master, and then some sort of vague senior role during my final two years due mostly to the fact that I was reliable and had been around long enough to know the ins and outs of most of the jobs. I started working during the week, managing the meals for the different sports teams after practices or helping with special event dinners. I stocked the suites in between games, riding pallet carts filled with cases of beer down the empty halls of the stadium and having endless pointless conversations with my coworkers about how much homework we had, how we longed for the free time our peers wasted, which events we hated working the most.

It was expected to bitch about the job, but I wouldn't have had it any other way. There was something eerie and exciting about working in that giant space when no one else was around, and I secretly loved it. My meals were more often than not provided by the events I worked, or simply care of the friendly kitchen staff who would feed us leftovers even on days when there was nothing going on. If I could change anything about my college experience, I wouldn't have worked less — I would have chosen to simply study less.


So that's how I ended up in Boston, nearly three years ago, applying to work for a catering temp service that hired out servers and bartenders to events that needed the extra help. That's how I worked my first wedding that was marked by a hysterical bride and three gigantic performing drag queens. That's how I slowly got to know each of the million universities within the city limits, serving re-heated bacon-wrapped scallops and mini quiche by the trayful to both alumni and prospective students. That's how I had my first visit to the Cape (summer wedding) and attended the very first Boston Calling concert (beer garden).

When I finally landed a real, full-time job, I continued to bartend on the weekends because I have never been one to turn down extra money. Time went by. Raises and bonuses happened for the first time in my life. I got another new job. And I finally realized a month ago, with a weird jolt, that I really didn't need to keep bartending.

Maybe, instead, I should, like, try to have a social life? We'll see.

Either way, it's time to hang up my apron for good; pack away my bow and bistro ties, my scuffed black wingtips, and my now-dingy white Oxford.

Goodbye, my friends. You served me well. Probably better than I served anyone else.

A few more friendly tips learned from the food service industry:

Lesson #3: When they put out coffee at the end of an evening event, it's all decaf — no matter what the sign says.

Lesson #4: If the hors d'ouevres look like the frozen stuff you can buy at Costco, they probably are.

Lesson #5: You can become — and remain — a bartender without knowing anything about mixing drinks as long as you're charming and hard-working.

Lesson #6: Everyone should work a food service job at least once in their life. At worst, it will teach you humility and appreciation for others. At best, it will bless you with endless crazy stories and experiences, as well as some impressive biceps courtesy of all the heavy trays, racks of glassware, and cases of beer.