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Sunday, April 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 68.0° F  Overcast
The Paper

DINING

The absolutely true diary of a part-time server
Believe me, we're not here for the love of the job


Credit:Paul Stroede
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In May 2006, I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If you'd told me I would be back in Madison over six years later, waiting tables, I would have been utterly incredulous. I'd have been depressed.

Yet, here I am. It helps my pride being in grad school, and knowing this is a temporary position. But for now, it's my livelihood. For some, it's a career.

Serving has been a humbling, sometimes comical, often dehumanizing experience. A couple months ago, Stephen Colbert was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and talked about his "thankless" days as a server in Chicago.

"Everybody should do it just to know what it's like to serve someone else and to not be able to answer in kind when someone is unkind to you," said Colbert.

"Listen, just give them an extra dollar," he added. "Whatever you're going to give them, just give them one more dollar. It'll make them so happy. It's nothing to you - one dollar! What's that to you!? But it'll make their day."

Colbert hits the nail on the head. The difference between a 15% and a 20% tip is often just a couple dollars, but it means a lot.

I'm used to being on the other side of the bar. Every time someone tips less than 15%, I'm convinced it's karma for all of the times I made an obnoxious comment to a server or undertipped. Never again. From my immature past self to all the servers or bartenders I may have annoyed: I'm truly sorry. Sorry you had to deal with me. Sorry if I didn't tip you enough. I was young, ignorant and stupid. Never again.

The majority of customers are kind and generous. To all the generous tippers out there: Thank you! We really, really appreciate it. I don't know of a single server who's out there for the love of the job. Your tips buy our groceries, pay our rent and bills. We're certainly not there for the hourly wage, which hasn't increased from the minimum of $2.13 set in 1991.

While most are courteous, plenty of people lack rudimentary manners. You'd think grown adults would know the word "please." Even a simple request for a glass of water can be come across as rude without a "please" attached.

A couple Fridays ago I approached a table and introduced myself. The man said he had a tab at the bar and asked me to put any new charges on it. I responded that it would be best if he closed out with the bar before starting a tab with me.

"Well, there goes your tip," he replied.

He was wearing a Michigan sweatshirt. Should I have expected anything else?

As Jim Morrison once said, "people are strange." They range from friendly to rude to bizarre. They say and do the darnedest things, especially after a few drinks. Typically, drunks think they're much funnier than they are. Throwing popcorn in your friend's mouth across the table might be fun, but someone has to sweep that up. Would you throw popcorn around your own house? Please don't be one of those people.

Also, if you're going to sit at a table for two hours after finishing your meal and not order a drink, you're rude (or ignorant). Period. Not only are you taking up a table where a paying customer could be, but you're probably keeping a tired server from going home. I try to keep the "lonely old man" in Hemingway's "A Clean, Well Lighted Place" in mind, but when it's midnight and a table that won't leave is the only thing standing between you and your cozy, warm bed, it really tries your patience. Okay, end of rant.

If your service sucks, there's probably little your server can do about it. As Laura Beck writes in her Jezebel blog, poor service is usually due to "inept management, overworked employees, poor coverage (due to no-shows by fellow employees) or an overwhelmed kitchen. None of that is your server's fault, so don't take it out on her."

You might think that if you already dished out $50 for dinner and drinks, there's no reason to give more. But if you don't, you're just punishing the overworked, underpaid server, not the restaurant or the management. If you can't afford to tip, you shouldn't be eating out.

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