One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Station
Lately, whenever I’ve gone out drinking at places where I don’t know any of the employees (and there are some, not many but some), I wonder if the person popping the top on my beer is a member of Life Behind Bars, a Facebook group comprising bartenders, servers, and anyone else working in the service industry. The group, according to its mission statement, is the “ultimate social media forum” for service industry employees, who proudly refer to themselves as “inmates.” Its stated goal is to “unite the service industry one story at a time.”
Of course, if you’ve ever spent time with waiters and bartenders when they’re off the clock, you’ve likely heard most of these yarns. By and large, their plots can be pared down to a three-act drama of inconvenience, increasingly unbelievable indignities, and a tip that’s inversely proportionate to the level of hassle. I don’t mean to trivialize the trials and tribulations of the service industry, but if you don’t bring people food and beverages for a living, the tune sounds kind of repetitive. But if you’re an insider, oh man …
Sunday afternoon is probably the best reading time. The rants encompass a wide world of server cruelty perpetuated by a gross menagerie of cluelessly imperious customers, and in addition to tales accumulated on Friday and Saturday nights, Sunday afternoons are full of workers who got cut from their shifts after the brunch rush has died down. If you want to get keyed up by reading some server’s account of an after-church 10-top that included four bratty, sugar packet-shredding toddlers and their cheap-ass parents, I can think of no better site (but that may be because I’ve never bothered to check out waiterrant.net). I’d be lying if I said I’ve never spent a good hour swiping through the inmates’ endless tales of rancor on my phone, and if I said I never joined the virtual mob, well, my pants would burst into flames. Sometimes, feeling that all that bile seems inordinately whiny, I wish we inmates would just shut up or get other jobs, but then I see a photo of a check split 16 ways, and I am reminded that the job can be a lot of fucking work.
I appreciate that such a space for industry venting exists, but I am also glad that its invitation/moderator approval admission process keeps it largely segregated from everyone else’s Facebook feeds, because people tend to reply to bitchy missives with equally bitchy retorts, none more so than a person who’s ever been served the wrong dipping sauce with his Monte Cristo or didn’t get enough ranch upon demand. Those outside the proverbial bars probably don’t want to hear all that noise, in other words. And yet if people outside a group like Life Behind Bars could read what its members were mad about, an open-ended conversation about cross-counter interactions is certainly conceivable — I’m mostly thinking about the death of manners, but I’m sure a national conversation about what’s an acceptable tip would be pretty entertaining.
At a glance, a lot of the posts have a negative cast to them. I guess that’s fine –– most of us inmates know what it feels like to be stiffed on a tab or fired for a sketchy reason –– but the posts that stick out to me are the ones that are 100 percent positive. Sure, there are lots of terrible customers, but as the occasional photo of a 1,000-percent tip can attest, there are just as many good ones. Better still are the shout-outs by inmates on their off nights who go drinking in other inmates’ establishments. These tend to read along the lines of “I’m out and ready to give somebody money.” For me, that’s solidarity. That’s the story I want to be a part of. –– Steve Steward
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