I began working at the restaurant two days after graduating from the University of Toronto. While my theatre degree had taught me a cockney accent and competitive marching, it left me with very few real world skills. I was hired as a food runner and from the start the place was a series of contradictions. The restaurant billed itself as a French bistro but had a club sandwich and fried spring rolls on the menu. The black tie uniform signaled fine dining, but kids under four ate free. Still, a service job in Toronto's most expensive neighborhood was an excellent side gig while I hustled for acting work. I thought it was a temporary stop over and some quick cash. That was five years ago.
Recently the owner of the restaurant—a well coifed forty-something who had taken over the business from his father—accepted a multi-million dollar buyout and decided to close the establishment at the end of the year. He informed staff at a pre-service meeting while wearing spotless white sneakers and expensive looking watch. He said the staff had been like family. I was reminded that for the first two years of my employment I was told that if I looked at the owner I would be fired. I was sure that he didn't know my name.
Later that week the owner made a guest appearance on a nationally broadcast morning show. On the same day I found out that I would not be paid severance or termination.
I never intended to stay at the restaurant as long as I have. The fact that I made it up the ranks from food runner, to junior waiter, to senior staff was surprising considering how clear it was they didn't want me there. I was repeatedly told I was too fat to serve. I was told that my neutral face looked too sad, and I needed smile more, lest I ruin the ambiance. There was a day where a manager made a game out of grabbing my ass. There was another day where a manager showed me an anal fisting video. When a lady started shooting guppies out of her vagina I asked him turn it off. I was demoted to dusting duty for the rest of the shift.
I've had a reoccurring dream since I started working at the restaurant. I dream that I'm walking food to a table when the skin on my hands starts to grow over top of the plates. The skin grows and grows until my hands, the food, and the plates become one monstrous extremity. When I get to the customers they recoil in horror, and in the confusion I begin smashing my hands onto the table. The plates break underneath the skin leaving my limbs a bloody mess of sinew, porcelain, and food. As the customers scream and run away I stand and laugh. I shout: Here you go! Here you go!
Despite the dream, and despite the numerous things that have happened during my tenure in the service industry, there was never a point where I truly felt I could leave. Now that things are ending I've been thinking a lot about why that is.
The obvious answer is money. On a good shift I could walk out with upwards of three hundred dollars, a trickle down from the three hundred percent mark-up on bottles of Jackson Triggs, and the extra tips thrown my way by kindly septuagenarians. In theory that money gave me time to pursue creative interests, but as auditions dried up and anxiety crippled my writing, I ended up spending more time at the restaurant than not. All of the sudden a couple of years passed and I hadn't made any art. At that point I stopped believing I could do anything else besides being a waiter. So I kept working.
There are people in the service industry who love what they do, the type of people who revel in delicious foods and exotic drink pairings. There are people who enjoy the social nature of the work and the flexibility the job offers. Some are just trying to make an honest living for themselves so they can feed their families or pay their rent. Others use restaurants as a stepping-stone between the place they are and the place they want to be. But there is another group that get caught up without ever meaning to. The group who meant to do something else but never got around to it. You'll over hear them talking to customers about a masters program they're going back to, the band that they used to play in, or a long forgotten dance troupe. These people smile and insist they'll start again soon. Then they pause for a second and ask for your drink order.
During my time at the restaurant I saw literally dozens of staff come and go: nineteen different managers, seasonal servers with casual addictions, prep cooks who broke probation, and countless hostesses. When they'd leave I'd make a mental note that I was next in line. I even had a re-occurring joke where I'd tell staff that any day now a marching band was coming to play me off.
The truth is that I was scared to leave. I listened to the managers and owners who repeatedly told me that I'd never get hired anywhere else on account of my depressive attitude and disheveled appearance. They insisted that I was lucky to work there. They told me I was incapable of doing another job, creative or otherwise, and I believed them. I don't know how long I would have stayed at the restaurant, but thanks to the decision of a multi-millionaire socialite, there isn't a choice. This was always supposed to be a temporary gig and now it's coming to an end.
Last Sunday was my second to last shift. On weekends the restaurant hosts a brunch buffet. It was a painfully slow stint, and aside from watching children stick their hands into the chocolate fountain and occasionally clearing a place setting, I didn't have much to do. Eventually I began drinking mimosas with one of the waitresses. We drank out of paper cups and chatted with my favorite regular, a kindly blue hair who loves well-done steak and the occasional Steamwhistle. The regular explained that she lived beside the restaurant. Because of mobility issues it was one of the only places she could eat. She said that after we closed she wasn't sure where she was supposed to go, and asked us what our plans were. The waitress squeezed her arm and didn't say anything. I took a sip of my drink and told her I didn't know. I said I was still trying to figure it out.
Graham Isador is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.