Wait­ing around

In the lean times, award-win­ning novelist Kelly Ana Morey knows she can al­ways fall back on wait­ress­ing.

The Dominion Post - Your Weekend (Dominion Post) - - Feature -

In an ex­em­plary piece of adult­ing I bit the bul­let this week and started look­ing for an­other wait­ress­ing job be­fore – not af­ter – I ran out of money. I couldn’t even be both­ered with hav­ing a “poor me” mo­ment about it. Yes, there are the two and a half de­grees – I aban­doned my art his­tory PHD – and the list of pub­lish­ing that now runs to three pages in 10-point, and that decade I spent work­ing at a mu­seum. But to be hon­est that adds up to a whole lot of noth­ing in the New Zealand job mar­ket these days. Two good cor­po­rate writ­ing con­tracts and a small fund­ing grant to make a start on writ­ing a WWI so­cial his­tory freed me from min­i­mum wage servi­tude. So I’ve had a pretty good run over the last 18 months. How­ever, I knew my re­turn to hos­pi­tal­ity was im­mi­nent as the an­nual tsunami of re­jec­tion let­ters from the var­i­ous writ­ing res­i­den­cies be­gan to ar­rive – and I don’t even ap­ply for the fancy ones. But be­cause I like to eat and pay my bills, I’ve wrapped my head around the tragedy that is be­ing a 48-year-old wait­ress and heigh ho it’s back to the salt mines I go. To be hon­est I re­ally like the job, even if my clapped­out body doesn’t al­ways agree. I’m good at it and get a real kick out of pulling off a busy ser­vice with­out crack­ing a sweat. The cus­tomers are fine and I don’t even mind the ca­sual con­tracts and ter­ri­ble money. Wait­ress­ing has al­ways been my fall­back to get me through first univer­sity, and now my fab­u­lously lu­cra­tive ca­reer writ­ing books. Writ­ing, wait­ing, watch­ing and think­ing are my only skills. I can’t ac­tu­ally do any­thing else. I’m also ruth­lessly prag­matic, and if I’ve got to do it I will, and with good grace. As my friend Emma Jean, a fel­low re­peat hospo of­fender says with an I-told-you-so cackle: “You, Kelly Ana, are a wait­ress for life.” I re­ally hope I won’t still be do­ing it when I need a walker and an oxy­gen bot­tle. That would truly suck. How­ever, as I’m now en­ter­ing my fourth decade of hit­ting the floor of an eatery it’s nice to know that I can still do it. It’s a great way to get fit and earn some steady cash, which the bank likes. I en­joy do­ing nights with restau­rant ser­vice. I want to carry fancy food, pour wine and put on a face and a lit­tle bit of a show.

I was trained from scratch back in the late 80s at the won­der­ful Melba restau­rant that used to be on the cor­ner of O’con­nell and High streets in cen­tral Auck­land. Spoilt me for life. The wages were stan­dard, the tips ex­traor­di­nary and the perks – like staff din­ner, ham and brown bread sand­wiches af­ter evening ser­vice, and the fun we had – made it all worth­while. Sadly the lease was bought out on the build­ing and af­ter a glo­ri­ous two years I moved on to a few other restau­rants, putting my­self through those afore­men­tioned univer­sity de­grees.

On the whole it was pretty good. I did learn that I’m not a cor­po­rate-style wait­ress. I do bet­ter on a small floor where I get to talk to the kitchen rather than be­ing part of a huge ma­chine. I still have PTSD flash­backs to the Mother’s Day I worked at Iguacu, one of the first big Amer­i­can-style restau­rants in Par­nell. Mother’s Day was their busiest day. They did four seat­ings for lunch – three-course lunch with wine and for­mal table ser­vice. They were big ta­bles, too, which I find dif­fi­cult be­cause my job is much eas­ier when I re­mem­ber what ev­ery­one or­dered when I’m putting it on the table. That day was a very spe­cial kind of hell and I ad­mit it broke me. It was time to move on.

From mem­ory I did six weeks of lunches at a fine din­ing restau­rant in Par­nell that had amaz­ing food, pre­pared with ex­traor­di­nary love by a chef who was dy­ing a lit­tle bit in­side ev­ery day. There were just the two of us and rather of­ten we would only serve two peo­ple, which was ex­actly what I needed to re­cover. Got to eat some ex­traor­di­nary food too.

Other places I’ve worked that I have noth­ing but good mem­o­ries of in­clude a long stint at three restau­rants owned by the same guy: the Slung An­chor at Man­gonui up north, an­other one in Mis­sion Bay that we got out of so quickly I can’t re­mem­ber its name and, strangely enough, Bo­drum Turk­ish Cafe in New­mar­ket. Ac­tu­ally Bo­drum rocked. Eas­i­est wait­ress­ing job I’ve ever had, even if you had to strip be­fore com­ing in­side af­ter work be­cause your clothes reeked of lamb fat. Great team, the place pretty much ran it­self, and al­though it was stinky and dirty it was never stress­ful, even when we were punch­ing through 400 cov­ers a night.

John was a legendary boss. He was a Cock­ney who had grown up in his par­ents’ var­i­ous pubs in Lon­don and backed his wait­staff and kitchen to the hilt re­gard­less of whether we were sling­ing low-cost hash or high qual­ity bistro-style food. He was a big be­liever in happy staff equat­ing to happy cus­tomers, which meant happy dol­lars in his till. Smart guy.

I gave it a good two years full-time but even­tu­ally I got doner ke­bab fa­tigue and had to leave.

Then there was Mu­si­cal Knives, a veg­e­tar­i­a­narian restau­rant on Pon­sonby Rd owned by Peter Chap­lin, whose claim to fame was he’d been per­sonal chef for a num­ber of turn-of-the-cen­tury rock­stars in­clud­ing the Pre­tenders, the Thomp­son Twins, Iggy Pop and Madonna. The place was rockstar cen­tral, es­pe­cially dur­ing Big Day Out. Be­cause of this I got to make the Beastie Boys cry. They wan­dered in one quiet Sun­day po­litely re­quest­ing pasta with chilli so hot it would make them weep. “We can do that,” I said. And Pete de­liv­ered. I also met Moby, who loves the baby an­i­mals and lots and lots of New Zealand wine.

An­other high­light was dis­cov­er­ing that the waiter be­fore me, a com­mune-liv­ing Amer­i­can Bud­dhist, had told the group of ve­g­ans who would share a sin­gle piece of cheese­cake be­tween five of them, that the cheese­cake was ve­gan. It wasn’t.

Pete loved a joke and gen­uinely liked his staff. We had a trainee chef with a very posses­sive girl­friend who would ring a mil­lion times dur­ing prep and ser­vice driv­ing us crazy. So ev­ery day af­ter I got back from my lit­tle per­am­bu­la­tion down the road for bread and bits and pieces Pete would an­nounce in boom­ing tones to the empty restau­rant that there had been “no phone calls for you Kelly Ana”. Thus scor­ing points off both me and the trainee. No one rang me. Ever. I worked six nights a week, lived by my­self and was do­ing my masters. I had no friends.

I gave the wait­ress­ing away in 2002 when I got a mu­seum job and had my first novel ac­cepted for pub­li­ca­tion, which led to me briefly be­com­ing a teeny tiny star in the mi­nus­cule fir­ma­ment that is New Zealand lit­er­a­ture. No more wait­ress­ing for me. So long suck­ers, I thought. But I kept my wait­ress­ing shirts just in case. Lucky, be­cause 10 years later I got made re­dun­dant from the very cool mu­seum job when my ar­chive was put into hia­tus. About the same time, fund­ing dried up as the lit­er­a­ture es­tab­lish­ment de­cided I wasn’t so fab­u­lous any more.

So be­tween free­lance, cor­po­rate and my own writ­ing, and do­ing or­chard/vine­yard work, these days I put my apron back on and go and do my thing.

The busy part of the year is over and the univer­sity kids are drift­ing back to the city, so there are some gaps in the very small em­ploy­ment mar­ket in my lit­tle Kaipara, North­land, town.

I only need 15 hours a week. Nights would be great be­cause I have things to write dur­ing the day – the WWI his­tory for one, though there are other projects on the go.

Happy to work week­ends too. Still live alone. Still work too much. Still have no so­cial life.

Kelly Ana Morey is ready to don her trusty wait­ress­ing apron, once again.

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