Every Friday and Saturday night, I put on a uniform and drive to work. No matter what time of year it is or which particular people come through the doors, there are always new experiences to tell my friends about when the sun rises. It’s probably the most interesting part of my week. The journey of moving from table to table is slowly but surely forcing me to become a more assertive person, and that’s why this place has come to matter to me.
Take this past weekend, when my drunken customers were engaging in a shushing contest. The sober people—or at least, the less inebriated—began to complain, and I could see my tips shrinking with each passing second. So, taking a breath, I walked to the center of the room. I couldn’t be sure who was the main culprit of the noise, so I met several gazes and put steel in my voice. “Could whoever is doing the shushing please stop? You’re disturbing other customers,” I said. Scattered laughter spread through the room. I returned to the kitchen, trying to keep my head high, but my stomach was churning. I heard the shushing begin anew behind me. Well, I tried, I thought.
There was also the night when I watched a girl succumb to the alcohol running through her veins and realized that I myself never wanted to reach that point. She was sitting at one of the rickety tables, laughing as though she was having the time of her life. Suddenly, she stopped. Her hand flew up to her mouth. “Oh, shit,” my co-worker, Taylor, muttered beside me.
We stood against the wall and watched as the girl bolted for the bathroom, only to stop in the middle of the lobby, bend over, and vomit onto the carpet. Taylor and I groaned. But the girl wasn’t finished yet. She decided to change course and run outside instead of to the bathrooms. Again, she didn’t make it in time, and she spewed the food she’d just eaten all over the front door. Her friends were laughing hysterically.
Afterward, once the carpet and the glass were clean, Taylor approached the group. “We’re not a maid service,” she told them. “You’re not welcome back here.” I hovered in the background, impressed and determined to be more like her in the future. Hopefully, without a bucket of rags and vomit in my hands.
But those aren’t the only stories that have come from working the night shift. I remember the night when the chaos was interrupted by sounds coming from the bathroom. Giggles and moans and thuds echoed through the restaurant. Taylor was staring at the door, and I stopped, notepad in hand. “Are there people having…?” I started.
“Yeah,” she sighed.
Of course, there were only so many things we were prepared to put a stop to. We let the couple finish. When they came out, unabashedly adjusting their clothing, Taylor once again gave her spiel about our expectations and standards. It didn’t seem unreasonable to me that they refrain from having sex in the restaurant bathroom, but I couldn’t help but feel bemusement at the situation. What was it like to want someone so badly that you couldn’t wait until you got home?
Recently, we experienced something more than irritation or amusement during our shift. A customer was being particularly rowdy, cussing and yelling in the booth. Our manager calmly informed her that she would not be served. Incensed, the woman stormed up to the register and demanded food. Taylor and I hid in the kitchen while our manager faced her. A crash made the crowd go silent. Worried about our co-worker, we hurried out. My mouth went dry at the sight of the register, cracked and stilted on its stand. It was the first time I realized it wasn’t entirely safe, being there.
I’ve also been timid when it comes to men and their comments. Working the night shift, that has begun to change. Sometimes I can feel their eyes on me as I pass with a heavy tray. I can still hear the sneer in a boy’s voice as he said, “You have a nice rack.”
“What are the chances I can get your number?”
“My friend wants to go out with you.”
“How old are you?”
“You have great legs.”
“That lipstick looks really nice on you.”
“Sleeping alone tonight?”
Some people might question whether or not it’s worth it. The experiences, the tips. Are they adequate compensation for everything else we’re forced to put up with? Most days, I don’t know the answer. But then there are the days when something else happens. A customer leaves me an astoundingly generous tip, or another writes a kind note on a napkin. There are the small moments that I appreciate, like when a table of boys all bow their heads to pray before eating, uncaring of stares or hushed mockery.
There’s ugliness during the night shift, but there’s beauty, too.
I wouldn’t trade the evenings when my co-workers and I found enough time to wrap everything in our boss’s office with plastic wrap or drape party streamers from the ceiling. I don’t regret the memories we’ve created in the kitchen, where we’re part of something small but still part of something. I treasure the confessions we’ve made to each other, the secrets we’ve told, the details we’ve shared. I may not see these people outside of this building, and we may go our separate ways someday and never speak again, but it doesn’t matter. We’re here now, and it means something.
I often wonder what stories other 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. servers tell their friends and family. The restaurant opened its doors on November 1st, 1976. That’s so many nights and people to be remembered. To be learned from. To endure. I’ve seen fun, stupidity, lust, fury. The very core of what it is to be human. I can watch it all without flinching now. That is, until I have to clean another mess off the floor.
Then there’s when 6:00 a.m. rolls around. Every time my shift ends, without fail, I push the door open and immediately take a deep breath to enjoy air free of pancakes and grease. The parking lot is empty and the sky is a blend of light and darkness, that halfway-time when night isn’t over and day hasn’t fully begun. The headlights flash as I unlock my car. There’s no one else around, and it almost feels as though I’m the last one left in the world. It’s not frightening or sad, though. After eight hours on my feet, smiling and listening and running and speaking, it’s a relief. My body aches and all I can think about is the bed at home. There’s the voice at the back of my mind reminding me that I have to return in a few hours.
But then the sun crests the horizon, and even in my weariness, I’m grateful that I’m awake to see it.
Kelsey Sutton has done everything from training dogs and making cheeseburgers to selling yellow page ads and cleaning hotel rooms. She lives in northern Minnesota and received a BA in English from Bemidji State University. When Kelsey is not writing or trying out a new career, she can be found in the park with her dogs, ordering a coconut mocha at the local coffee shop, or browsing a bookstore.