It’s not like I didn’t want to work. I had applications out all over town. I was just waiting for the right place to call me back. By this point I’d gone several years without holding down a regular job. I’d lived off a small pile of savings from when I did work, then for a while I’d gone back to school, and most recently I’d been sitting around, wondering what to do now that I was 37 years old and finally out of school and money.
It was Sylvia who came up with the idea of waiting tables. My older sister owns a Mexican food restaurant in Houston that specializes in the regional dishes of South Texas, based greatly on recipes passed down through our family. On the weekend there’s usually a line out the door, and some nights her waiters pocket up to $120 in tips. She offered to let me work at her place, but I was living in San Antonio at the time and wanted to find a job in town.
“Just tell them you have experience working at your sister’s restaurant,” she said.
“But that was only one night,” I said.
“And I was only busing tables.”
“Do you want a job or not?”
A few days later, when the phone still hadn’t rung, I filled out an application at a Pappasito’s Cantina, one of the more than ninety restaurants (including, among others, Pappadeaux and Pappas Bar-B-Q) in the chain started in 1976 by the Greek American Pappas family. The assistant manager I talked to seemed impressed with my experience and hired me on the spot. She handed me a thick binder that contained the extensive Pappasito’s menu, a description of the required uniform (black pants, black shoes, crisp white long-sleeved shirt; the restaurant provided the black bow tie and apron), and the start date of my training schedule.
That night Sylvia called to see how the interview had gone. She was in the car driving the long stretch between her restaurant and the house, a route just west of Houston where the signal is always patchy at best. When the phone rang, I was studying the “Appetizers de Pappasito’s,” trying to memorize that a guest could add spicy ground beef or fajitas to the chile con queso but only fajitas to the nachos.
“They give you tests over the menu?” Sylvia asked.
“Just during that week of training,” I said. “They want to make sure you know everything before you go on the floor.”
“Don’t they have it listed on the menu?”
“Sure, but it’s better if you already have it memorized when you’re talking to the guests.”
“You know, people who come eat at the restaurant.”
“You mean customers?” she said.
“Here they call them guests.”
Then the line went silent, and I thought we might have been disconnected. A few seconds later she said, “Are you sure you don’t just want to move to Houston?”
On the first day of training, ten new hires waited in the banquet room of the restaurant. Retro-styled soft drink and “cold cerveza” signs hung from the weathered brick walls. Corrugated metal covered the ceiling, only a few inches above the exposed rafters and the carefully placed speakers bellowing rancheras that spoke of love gone bad and sorrowful caballeros, all made that much more authentic with the occasional chatter of the busboys and the women who busily made tortillas.
After a short pep talk from one of the floor managers, we crowded around in the kitchen to watch a server place an actual order on the touch screen. Ten minutes later, Stacy, the kitchen manager, helped complete the order with two industrial-sized spoonfuls of rice and a cup of frijoles a la charra. The cook adjusted the placement of the sizzling meat on the cast-iron plate, just enough to make room for the dollops of sour cream and guacamole, and then yelled, “Go, go! We’re losing it! We’re losing it!” as you might expect to hear in an emergency room. The “it” was sizzle time. The meat on the cast-iron plate needed to be alive and crackling when it reached the guest’s table in order to create that fresh-off-the-grill appearance. Stacy rushed through the stainless-steel door, holding the tray away from her head to keep from getting sizzle on her blond hair.
That night, I aced my first test with a 99. I missed a perfect score only because, in hurrying to finish, I forgot to add salsa to the list of condiments that get packed into every to-go order. A technicality, really, but I still did better than most people and came out well above the minimum passing score of 90.
The next morning in the break room, the assistant manager introduced me to Bart, one of the top sellers in the restaurant. For the rest of the day I was supposed to follow him as he set up his section, waited on guests, and counted out his receipts at the end of the shift. The night before, I’d seen Bart walking out to his teal-colored Mustang with one of the hostesses. He was a few inches shorter than the girl, but he wore shoes with thick soles and walked with a certain bouncy swagger that made him appear taller than he actually was, though still not as tall as the hostess.
“So you passed the first test?” Bart asked after the manager had left.
“A 99,” I said.
“Not bad,” he said. “But those first tests are nothing. Wait till you see the other ones—those are a real bitch. I studied almost as hard for the LSAT.”
“How’d you do on that?”
“Not as well,” he said, clipping on his bow tie.
We walked out onto the floor so he could show me how a server properly sets up his section. He took one of the shakers off the first table.
“Know what that is?” he asked.
“A saltshaker?” I said.
“That’s what it used to be—now