I used to think that the nicer the restaurant, the more talented and respectable the kitchen staff. Then I took a job waiting tables at F Street (let's call it), an upscale eatery with old wooden floors, a charming bar, and a loyal clientele. The food was good, if not especially imaginative, and the tips were by far the best I'd ever received. But as one of the youngest and least experienced waiters, I was at the bottom of the pecking order, a rank that resulted in less desirable sections, smaller parties, and a free flow of remarks from the red-haired, freckled, and very married chef. Some were insulting ("You don't know the difference between basil and rosemary"), some were suggestive ("Want to get together later?"), but I absorbed them all without complaint. I was the new girl, and I didn't want to seem overly sensitive or incompetent.
The cooks considered themselves underpaid artists, and they entertained themselves by swearing, drinking on the job, and making shifts as stressful as possible for a few unfortunate waiters. The lawless atmosphere in the kitchen was silently sanctioned by F Street's owner, a mild-mannered man who expressed concern over my voice projection and ability to handle a six-top. While I struggled to learn, perform, and prove myself, the chef stepped up his sexually-charged comments, prompting me to complain to the owner, who said, "I'm sure you've dealt with this kind of thing before. You'll get used to it."
As it became clear to the chef that I wasn't going to play his abuse-me-flirt-with-me game, a seismic shift took place among the kitchen staff. Suddenly, I was despised by everyone, and I became cold and closed as a result. The simple act of taking my plates from under the heat lamps caused the chef to roll his eyes in contempt. Another waitress told me that as soon as I left the kitchen, the sous chef called me a "stupid fucking bitch." I hated going to work, felt constantly whispered about and on the defensive, but it was winter in a summer resort town and few restaurants were open. I took to hiding a glass of chardonnay above the computer in the hallway.
As the weather turned warmer, I started riding my bike to work, locking it to the rack in the alley near the kitchen door. One afternoon, as I got ready to leave the house for my dinner shift, I noticed a cloud of flies buzzing around my bicycle, and discovered an ahi tuna filet tied tightly under the seat with twine. Stunned, frightened, disgusted by the obvious sexual implications, I watched from the back steps as my then-boyfriend cut out the rotting fish and washed my bike with boiling water. Having failed to get to me any other way, the cooks had finally resorted to something so violating that I couldn't ignore it.
I walked to work that night, unable to touch my bicycle. Though I was beyond livid, I didn't go to F Street's owner, as I knew his loyalty lay with his cooks. But the head waiter wasn't interested either ? he made a half-hearted attempt to interrogate the kitchen staff, who claimed to have no idea what he was talking about. I grimly made it through another few months at F Street, and I never got back on my bike without first checking under the seat. By the time I quit and moved to San Francisco, I thought I'd seen the worst restaurants had to offer. My next waiting job, no matter how demanding, couldn't possibly be as bad. I was right.