In the autumn of 2012, I began working at a pricey midtown Manhattan steakhouse. At one of my first tables sat Geno Auriemma, the women’s basketball coach at the University of Connecticut. Eleven years earlier, I had embedded with him and his players for six months for a book I’d write. I’d held a notepad countless times while scribbling his quotes. Now I was doing the same while taking his order.
“I thought that was you,” said Auriemma, surprised but hardly discomfited. As a coach, he likely has more respect for steakhouse waiters than for sportswriters.
“Meat and potatoes,” Curtis had said on my first day as a restaurant server. “That’s all it is.”
Protein and carbs. This is true, but after 10 years as an Emmy Award-winning waiter (more on that in a second) at two New York City eateries, I have learned that prosperity in the food-service biz only comes with a greater array of sides. Promptness. A dash of urgency, with a drizzle of patience. Sensible shoes. A garnish, at least, of Español. All traits endemic to a proficient sportswriter as well, except that a successful server is A) constantly in motion and B) putting others first while solving multiple problems at once.
Table 7-A ordered three cappuccinos but the machine only makes two at a time, so how do you serve them together and hot? 9-B wants to pay with five credit cards and cash—so besides being a tough math problem you’re going to get hosed on the tip. The mom on 8-B orders virgin frozen daiquiris for her kids: the bartender shoots you a death-glare as you call out the order. The six-top that just sat on Table 4 needs to depart in 30 minutes to make the curtain for Something Rotten.
This is all happening simultaneously.
The industry term for such culinary code-blue moments is “in the weeds.” So overwhelmed are you that you risk paralysis by panic.
Ten years ago, I was existentially in the weeds. Age 42, I was unemployed and supping on Top Ramen. For two decades, I had been a staff writer for Sports llustrated and then at NBC Sports. Sportswriting was not particularly lucrative, but it had taken me to seven continents, 49 of the 50 states, and the Playboy Mansion. In the summer of 2008 I flew to London for Wimbledon and Beijing for the Summer Olympics, writing on-air copy for Mary Carillo and Jim Lampley. It felt like being on a medals podium: to pen a three-minute closing Olympics essay for Lampley, one of the legends of the industry, and being seated just a few feet away from him as he delivered “his” thoughts to an American audience in the millions. Even more so when Bob Costas entered the studio immediately afterward and said, “That was terrific!”
Then the subprime mortgage crisis hit. For those of us whose corporate boss (NBC) was tethered to an even larger multinational corporation (General Electric) feeling an extreme pinch, it mattered little that we ourselves had not failed. When the Titanic sunk, it sucked down quite a few passengers in its wake.
I was laid off in February of 2009 and spent much of the rest of the month in a fetal position on the couch. Days after NBC Sports released me, a junior executive there—a close friend with whom I had once spent three weeks trekking around Europe—took me out for a drink. “You understand it’s not personal,” he said. In the moment I gave the proper reply. We have not spoken since.
Professionally eviscerated, strapped for rent money—that Lehman Brothers investment was, in hindsight, a poor choice—and somewhat burned out on the passive-aggressive nature of the business, I trudged over to a seasonal open-air restaurant on the Hudson River near my apartment. The appeal was instantly obvious: a three-minute walk to work and the chance to work outdoors in cargo shorts and a T-shirt. Also, I’d been patronizing this spot for years; the vibe of this glorified cookout on the banks of the Hudson appealed to me.
The manager cast a skeptical glance my way as he scanned my application— “How come NBC let you go?”—pegging me more as a stroller dad who is a weekend customer. He wasn’t really wrong about that, but at last he told me to report for training with Curtis at noon that Sunday. Easter Sunday.
I did not contemplate the resurrection metaphor, not even when introduced to the bartender, Jesus. My primary concern was hanging onto this job. After all, I was already at the upper end of the age spectrum as a rookie. Also, let’s be honest, I was pissed off. There was the prevailing feeling, constantly gnawing away at me, that I’d been dumped. Not just by a job, but by an entire profession. I had dreamt of writing for Sports Illustrated since I was a small child, had even turned down a medical school acceptance to pursue that dream. Now the laugh was on me. Only those who’ve been there can appreciate the bitterness that wells up within.
At least the restaurant industry was not entirely foreign to me. In fact, I had been born into it. For the first six years of my life, my parents ran a steakhouse in Middletown, New Jersey. Before learning to read I knew how to rack potatoes and bus tables. Dad and mom also installed me as director of hospitality to our restaurant’s lone VIP guest, an unassuming millionaire named “Popsie” Van Schoick. An octogenarian, Popsie’s financial status was belied by his Sears wardrobe, his white Chevy Vega, and his choice of lunch companion each weekday.
Popsie: “Are you going to get married?”
Me: “Popsie, I’m five!”
Popsie: “Some day?”
Me: “I guess some day.”
Popsie: “Can I come to your wedding?”
Popsie: “Why not?”
Me: “Popsie, you’ll be dead.”
Much had changed in the nearly four-decade interregnum—kale, for instance, is no longer used to line salad bars. Yet much remained the same. Greet your tables promptly. Procure drink orders. Turn your tables. Always address the chef as “Chef.” Dupes (the ticket you hand in to the kitchen) must be legible. Stay on top of your side work. Food service is still food service; no one is going on Slack for a group chat on whether to take Table 9’s drink order before dropping the check on Table 12.
Side work was the first of my many lessons. The most important? Getting over myself. Recognizing that being college-educated only made me different than, not superior to, my co-workers. I graduated with honors from a good school; so why couldn’t I remember to write “SOS” (dressing on the side) on my dupe? My bookshelf held two Sports Emmys; so how come I just charged Table 8 with the credit card from Table 10?
At the riverside restaurant, which on a beautiful weekend along the Hudson teems with patrons, double-time is the only acceptable speed for a waiter. I found the frenetic pace intoxicating. Being in the weeds, a near-daily occurrence, was terrifying but also exhilarating.
And within a month or two I stopped thinking of myself as a journalist on a side hustle and began to appreciate the simple dignity of being useful. That it’s not the job, it’s how well you do it. The residual anger began melting away.
I began apologizing for mistakes on my dupes by saying, “Lo siento” to our food runners. Started to recognize that a diner attempting to make eye contact wants something and thus constantly scanned my section as if I were in the crow’s nest of a galleon. Ahoy! Another bucket of Coronas for 13-A!
Jesus, our surly but hyper-efficient bartender, often left me in awe. He could memorize half-a-dozen rapid-fire drink orders from servers while a coterie of boozed-up bros waved bills in his face, demanding Fireball shots, all while mixing a Long Island Iced Tea. Not quite the Marriage at Cana, as Jesus’s miracles go, but oh so close. It only took six summers before Jesus smiled at me, but earning his respect has been one of the prouder moments of my career(s).
That first spring, I blew off the Sports Emmys gala at Lincoln Center because I was working a double shift. (My NBC production group won; my trophy was shipped to me later.) By then my allegiances had begun to swing, and the final crossover moment happened a few weeks later. A group of young sundress revelers had become insolent and intoxicated. Jesus called in our manager, fluent in five languages, who politely as possible informed them that they were cut off.
At that one of the young women sneered at him. “DO YOU KNOW WHAT COLLEGE I GRADUATED FROM?!?”
Had I once been that obnoxious, I wondered? I did not want to know the answer.
In the years since NBC Sports booted me, I have been a full-time staffer at AOL Fanhouse and The Daily (an iPad newspaper from News Corp), both now defunct. More recently, I was on staff for four years at Newsweek. But I always kept my apron combat-ready and in truth, those journalism gigs felt more like moonlighting. My managers at the restaurants had become like platoon leaders to me, the type for whom you’d gladly storm a beach. Conversely, while I had some wonderful editors at Newsweek, I had actually spent money out of my own pocket to report some of my most-read stories. By the time the managing editor sacked me, I was looking at my watch and thinking, Hurry it up, I have a party to set up for in 90 minutes. Only one letter separates writer and waiter, after all, and the salaries are about the same.
Last summer, while I was tending bar during a private party for a PR agency, a female guest approached me. Leaning over my bar, she lowered her voice. “Be honest,” she said conspiratorially. “How much do you hate this job?”
I smiled and refilled her glass. To think that I could be writing press releases for a pharmaceutical company! Where did it all go wrong?
No one studies as diligently as I did, or takes the MCAT, or spends 20 years in an industry because they want to be procuring Miami Vices (half daiquiri, half piña colada) for millennials young enough to be their daughters. Life comes at you fast, as Ferris Bueller once noted, and sometimes there is no Plan B. What I did know when NBC Sports released me is that my parents did not raise a son who would collect unemployment, and I never have.
Moreover, and I say this as candidly as possible: I feel blessed. Serving, not having a job that gets you an approving eyebrow raise from a stranger at an airport bar, has given me a sense of humility. Of empathy. Of understanding that all of the outer trappings are only that. Granted, I am single and do not have to provide for anyone but myself.
But greatest of all, serving has given me a sense of community that journalism never came close to providing. I work with Haitian refugees, Mexican immigrants (some of them legal), people of all faiths and sexual orientations—it’s weirdly refreshing to be the straight white male and be a token. Those who last a few summers have become like brother and sisters.
Curtis, the server who trained me and who remains a close friend, and I like to share a mantra: Eighty-six happiness. Eighty-six is the restaurant term for “we’re out of it.”
The hostess just sat you with a six-top of teenage girls? Eighty-six happiness.
The kitchen closed an hour ago but the couple at your last table is still canoodling and you can’t get the hell out of here until they pay the check (and tip!)? Eighty-six happiness.
The dude on 13-A dined and dashed, you chased him down, and now he wants to fight you (this actually happened to me)? Eighty-six happiness.
All in a day’s work. I think there are few work environments—a hospital emergency room comes to mind—where staffers bond as closely. Many of the teenage employees who worked for my parents in the early ‘70s remain friends and a number of them still send my folks Christmas cards 45 years later. I understand why. And I’ve never seen this same level of camaraderie in a newsroom.
Many of my friends in journalism have reached out to me over the years, confided that they don’t know what they’d do if they lost their jobs. (Sorry, when they lose their jobs.) The best of them just come to my restaurant and ask to be sat in my section, which is how I found myself serving my close friend Charles Davis and his NFL Network colleagues Mike Mayock and Rich Eisen one night. Solid tippers.
I understand their fears, but being a server suits me. So does writing. The difference is I don’t need anyone’s outside validation to inform me that I’m worthy in either profession. Meanwhile, I do need to pay rent and you know what? It’s refreshing to approach people with a pen and pad in hand and know they’re glad to see me.
Eighty-six happiness? Hardly. You are not your job.
John Walters is a former staff writer at Sports Illustrated, NBC Sports and Newsweek. He also writes a daily blog, mediumhappy.com and you should alert him if you have a gluten allergy.