By Lissa Brennan
“You just wait because Trump is going to set you free, you bitch!”
These were the last words screamed by a grown man who didn’t mind going out in public with a polo shirt mimicking the American flag, yet had a toddler-style meltdown when asked to cover the bottom part of his face for less than a minute.
This man, I ejected from an establishment in which I work a few months ago almost immediately upon his entrance, yelled because he was offended to his core that I asked his group to mask up until seated. “Yeah, I’m not doing that, honey,” he tells me, swaggering with the privilege that wealth, whiteness, and multiple Coors Lights on one’s boat can buy. Just get us a table.”
I replied, “I can’t get you a table until you put your mask on. It’s Pennsylvania regulations, and my boss who watches on camera is extremely strict about it.”
You have to make sure it’s clear that what you’re enforcing wasn’t dreamed up en route to work just to ensure that you’ll have a horrible shift and make as little money as possible. You want guests to know there are multiple levels of decision-making, and you are at the bottom. You lie about your boss’ policing to take some of the responsibility of your shoulders because your only responsibility here is to make sure the rules are observed and to receive the anger of those who don’t want to do it.
“I’m not putting on a mask. Give us a table and get me a beer,” he barked. Other guests notice, as they always do, but let me as the only front-of-house employee handle it myself, as they always do. His friends aren’t encouraging him, but they’re sure as hell not stopping him either.
“Get out of this restaurant, and don’t come back,” I said. He doesn’t understand. He’s never been asked to leave anywhere before. “All of you have to leave right now, or I’m calling the cops.”
Then the tantrum begins. I’m screamed at, called names, threatened; he’s erupting like a volcano of entitlement. I calmly again offer to call the police. When I move for the phone, he finally starts to exit, but knocks over every unoccupied stool he passes on his way out.
I have worked at every type of establishment imaginable, from the diviest of dive bars to the finest of dining and every level of service and clientele in between. At a family-friendly neighborhood bar and grill, I kicked out more people in the span of a few months than I have in my entire 15 years in the industry.
At the beginning, I met guests’ initial belligerence and disrespect with accommodation, as we’re taught — we have to be service-oriented, the customer is always right. After the first dozen or so incidents of escalation, I realized that no one who walked in looking for a fight with a tip-based employee struggling to stay alive was going to suddenly become reasonable. No one was going to have a come-to-Jesus moment illuminating that maybe, just maybe, the person to take out all of their frustrations over the pandemic, economy, Democrats, women, BLM (I mention all of these things because each and every one of them have come up), everything wrong in the world, is not their server, who is just trying to do their goddamned job and go home. If it was that much of a problem to put on a mask for a walk to a table, I don’t have a place for them at it.
When restaurants first reopened, when you would expect people to return to them with gratitude and appreciation, I either threw someone out or had someone walk out every shift. Sometimes with a minimum of dramatics — always making sure to fire a parting shot on their way out the door, but leaving quickly. Sometimes they went ballistic on me. I have been yelled at, had menus and napkins thrown at me, been threatened with violence both sexual and non-, had my physical space invaded. Always by men, always over 30, always white.
Imagine anticipating this every day you went to work. Imaginine wondering if this was the day that someone was going to really hurt you. And imagine it’s coming from those you depend on to pay you.
You hear a lot, when venting on the treatment of those in your profession by those outside of it, “just do something else!” As if what you do isn’t valid enough of a career to hold on to. As if a bad situation is better solved by the victim having to change their whole life, than by requiring that the aggressor treat human beings like human beings.
Things have eased up in the last couple of months. I’m not sure why. It might be because changes in administration have subdued those who thought potentially killing others by the spread of sickness was a risk worth taking. But it could also be because in the winter months our clientele tends to be more neighborhood-based. Either way,
In the long run, I think this can have a positive outcome of rethinking just what is within the parameters of acceptable behavior, just how much workers are supposed to bear. We retrained ourselves to understand that we don’t have to put up with abuse centered on pandemic regulations. Hopefully this will result in a sea change of understanding that we don’t have to put up with abuse at all.