Waitressing saved my life. In 1983, I was playing bass in a San Francisco punk band and taking speed to keep going. Most nights I practiced or played in clubs, photographed other bands, or just listened to live music till morning. I lived an hour away in the East Bay, in a house with ten other musicians and strays.
At 11AM each weekday, wearing clothes donated by another waitress, I worked the lunch shift at the Rocking Horse, a medium fancy restaurant in Lafayette. As if I were two completely different people, I pinned up my purple/red hair and put on a uniform with a very straight below the knee skirt to greet customers. Playing hostess while waitressing became my tenuous hold on normalcy. Some days I showed up sleepless from the night before, sucking mints to keep my breath as sweet as I seemed to the regulars.
There were so many regulars (as is the case at most places) that I could really make some cash by remembering their names and which booths they liked and by letting my small town Pennsylvania Dutch accent shine though. Addressing Mr Irwin by name when he walked in with his clients and escorting them (with no reservation) to his favorite booth meant a $50 lunch tip. The restaurant also provided the only healthy meals I ate, with free salad and bread, five days a week.
Can you believe I managed to keep that job through crank dealing boyfriends, all night parties at Mabuhay Gardens, and sometimes no sleep for days? Bands came and went, so did boyfriends, but the restaurant was my rock, my parent, my path to the future. In a tiny bit of my partied out brain, the pride I took in being a good waitress kept me putting one foot in front of the other. I’d leave an apartment in North Beach at dawn and return to my other life, with food and cash and Mr. Irwin expecting me there from 11AM to 3PM.
After leaving the Bay Area in 1984, I never waitressed again. But I can still feel the waitress backbone that kept me going on the West Coast. And I always tip well.
Anna West is a painter and photographer now living in Beacon, New York. Her work has been exhibited in New York City and in Russia, Sweden, and India. Find out more about Anna here.