Thoughts While Waiting by Elizabeth Templeman

15 May 2020 on Blog, Nonfiction   Tags:

What did I think, then, in those years biding my time, waiting?

Waiting: for life to get serious, whatever that might mean; for maturity, whatever that would feel like. But meanwhile, hanging out in Whitefish, Montana, waiting tables: a waitress, at twenty-three, which was middle age as Whitefish waitresses went, which wasn’t really all that far.

Waiting felt like spinning my wheels, grounded by the dollar-to-dollar reality of low wage and low rents, holding aloft so many weighty expectations. And yet, the waiting was surprisingly satisfying, enriching life in ways I was oblivious to, then. There was pride in putting together a meal for friends, in a one room cabin with a box of dishes and not much of a repertoire of ideas (not to mention recipes), balanced as I was between the university years of vegetarian scrounging and whatever restaurant fare I’d served along the way, ranging from standard diner to elegant French, to decent Mexican.

And those friends: they would have been fellow waitresses and waiters, my colleagues. Few relationships are stronger than those forged in long shifts waiting tables together; together making our livings and helping to keep one restaurant or another afloat in the small towns Montana—or Maine, or upstate New York. The couples and families and lone customers at the front of the house were the focus, of course. But the nucleus of the establishment was at the back, where we picked up their meals, garnished the plates, appeased the chef, grabbed their drinks, and shared our stories, dreams, romantic pursuits, and heartbreaks.

I will wait on you tonight. That was the usual introduction, but the words carried different connotations night to night, table to table, hour to hour.

I will wait on you tonight… in a state of patiently suspended animation, with all the grace I can muster, upholding a pretence of invisibility so that you might slip into a sense of indulgence, of class, slip on the guise of importance which your actual life, in Whitefish, in the trailer park just across the highway, doesn’t afford you. But this night is Wednesday and this 23-year-old waits on you, waiting the long minutes while you decide on exactly what the two of you order every single Wednesday evening, at precisely 6:30, from this same modest menu. I will bring your half litre of Chablis (every letter of which you will pronounce; and every drop of which you will drink); and I will bring your beef enchiladas with rice and beans, and your chimichangas.

I hope I waited well upon you, while I was also waiting for life to catch up with me, and to steer me past the trailer park which I also called home then. Because everyone deserves a time in the sun. And everyone is beholden, I think, to serve another, a fellow traveller in this journey we travel.

Waiting felt different at sixteen, in the intoxicating spells that interrupted studying. At sixteen, I waited for what I could only envision as a single vast intention; poised like an arrow, I was aiming for university, the bull’s eye. Waitressing then had a recklessness about it, maybe because it seemed such a fleeting interlude. I waited impatiently, anxiously, too amateur even for a pretence of elegance. At the Dark Harbour Inn they would let me serve breakfast to bleary guests and help to clear tables, though for most of the day I was banished to the role of chambermaid.

At fifteen, well, I mainly I waited to be allowed to wait tables. My older sisters had been waitresses: To me it was pure sophistication, the way they’d rush away from home at dinnertime, their hair styled, to serve people who could actually afford to eat out, meals that I could hardly imagine. And here I was, on my way, though without much style of any kind. This was only Yorkey’s, but it was Camden, after all—miles from Rockland, where I’d grown up. Yorkey’s was famous for clam chowder, and featured those good old Maine comfort foods, the grapenut custard, lobster rolls, coleslaw.

At fifteen, at Yorkey’s, my job was washing pots, which I considered a logical training ground for waitressing. Wielding a spray hose, I cleaned huge stainless steel vats coated with enough mashed potato or custard sauce to feed a family. The floor of the room where I toiled was concrete, and slippery. I remember being not overly fond of the job, and must have either not measured up, or not waited long enough for the anticipated promotion, because I have no memory of ever actually waiting tables, nor even being allowed behind the long counter at Yorkey’s. Maybe I got scooped by one of the countless opportunities that await the 15 year old of modest dreams.

At twenty-one, luck and persistence got me on Old Port Harbour. This was summer in Ithaca, New York, where I was waiting for my final year of university. Despite all the serving experience I saw myself as bringing, at Old Port Harbour I was a rookie among an accomplished team of waiters and waitresses. Expectations ran high. This was the opportunity to hone my skills, and I seized it, learning to memorize orders, to balance a silver tray on one hand and to uncork a bottle with what passed as finesse. I learned to appreciate sophistication, dazzled by the petite Francoise, wife of the owner. She and her husband taught generations of university students who passed through their employ to appreciate good wine.

Drama also ran high during those months waitressing at Old Port Harbour. Memory serves up a series of vivid images from a summer storm that blew up mid-shift on a busy Friday night. Umbrellas blew down tables, stunning diners mid-meal. Plates flew. Glasses shattered. Power was lost. Staff raced around, restoring some semblance of order between chaos outside and darkness within. In the dazzling light of the morning after, a bloated cow floated down the river, as we rallied to restore order for our Saturday shift.

I learned as much from Old Port Harbour as I had from any of my university courses. Among the life-changing lessons, I learned about death, attending my first funeral when we lost Scottie, a beloved young chef, in a fatal car crash. During that summer storm, I swear that I saw the ghost of our friend, there behind the long kitchen counter where he belonged.

Two years later, in Whitefish, Montana, I was no rookie. I approached the red-haired owner of Que Pasa with all the confidence of a pro. And yet, in another of the endless lessons of work, I faced, once again, humbling evidence of all that I had not experienced of the world. At this place, it would be the very idea, let alone the searing heat, of Mexican food. In the latter years of the 1970’s, even the more sophisticated cities of New England (let alone small town Maine) had yet to discover avocados or jalapeños. As for a tortilla, we’d have had little idea what to do with it, nor how to say the word.

Here, I learned how to fill and then light the oil table lamps, and how to maintain my balance while sliding across the grease-slicked linoleum of the kitchen in leather-soled boots. I’d already mastered the more elementary challenge of navigating tables with carefully measured steps, tray on palm, ballasted by thumb and finger tips. Had nailed, also, the higher order skills of shifting tempo as I backed through swinging doors into the steamy, frenzy of the kitchen; of taking that moment to check oneself, to drop the voice and shed the back-of-house vernacular as I backed out through those kitchen doors.

Waiting, all those years, I thought… what?

Possibly nothing more than that life would be such fun, because this trivial time, this inconsequential work, brought such friendships my way. Or that I was gaining sophistication; learning so much about life: far, far more than how to pronounce Chablis and chimichanga—which still does come in handy.

Maybe we live all our lives waiting: waiting for tomorrow; for the next break; for plans to pan out; for the dust to settle; for the skies to clear, or the metaphors to run dry. Who knows, maybe waiting is, itself, the perfect metaphor for life. As long as there’s hope, that’s not so hard to take. If it were all as much pleasure—so brimming with simple satisfaction—as waitressing once was, then I could settle for that.

***

Elizabeth Templeman lives, works, and writes in the south-central interior of British Columbia. Previous publications include Notes from the Interior, a collection of creative nonfiction (Oolichan Books).  Her essays have appeared in journals including Room Magazine and Eastern Iowa Review.

"Home to the Movie Stars" is a photograph by Michelle Brooks. Michelle has published a collection of poetry, Make Yourself Small (Backwaters Press), and a novella, Dead Girl, Live Boy (Storylandia Press). Her poetry collection, Pretty in A Hard Way, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2019. Her collection, The Pretend Life, was published by Atmosphere Press in February 2020. A native Texan, she has spent much of her adult life in Detroit.

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