How Many / More Coffee / Table for __ / Sharing Charge of __
We were uniformed but not uniform. Black, elastic-waist khakis with white button-down tops. Some waists stretched wider than intended. Others belted and twined. Top buttons always locked. Ties on top. Trademarked socks – cotton with a hint of odor-proof Lycra - on bottom. Restaurant policy. Not only food was plated. Each detail of our being regulated. Nets on hair. Lacquer on nails. Gloss on lips. Image always everything and the proprietors imagined much more for themselves than a 24-hour diner. They envisioned royalty. Breakfast reigned supreme. Eggs Benedict always on the menu. Oversized milkshakes and bottomless cups of freshly brewed coffee. Even as the town shuttered, first due to curfew, later due to economics, the orange neon lights would blink O.P.E.N., beckoning mouths of all makes and models. The establishment depended on us as much as we depended on it. Heck, we all have mouths to feed. And we all need hands to feed them. Clean them, too. Each of us also regulars - most with 2.2 kids, give or take the decimal, and two primary desires - enough cash to buy beer on Fridays and enough in the bank to make rent on Sundays. Despite our conformity to restaurant policy and census trends, we were privy to sharing meals but not much more. Wes tucked our private lives in restaurant issued lockers as soon as our shifts started. None of us ever dreamed of a life driven by menus and daily specials, especially when there was nothing much special about it, yet our days were tallied and clocked by plates and platters. We were on the clock, just like the diner’s recipes. We focused on the regulars. We knew them all by name, but never addressed them as such. Privacy paramount. Sir. Doll. Mam. Hon. We reused salutations at a pace that rivaled the kitchen staffs’ reuse of utensils. The refrigerated pasta salad and coleslaw, too. Sprinkle fresh parsley on top and serve with a smile. Scrub off hardened residue and serve up squeaky clean editions of our best selves. Always. The customers addressed us as mostly Miss, though most of us were or had been married at least once. Some more. Even D, who swore off the institution of marriage, had a small diamond placed on her left ring finger last Christmas. A small bruise on her right shoulder a few weeks later, but none of us talked about that. Like the Thursday special of unknown meat and the contents of salad bar tub 2. We didn’t know who was stealing Coke from the dispenser. Also didn’t know who took the last eclair. It could have been any of us. May have been all of us. Everyone eats. Had we known, they would have been exterminated and terminated - effectively immediately. Like ants in the dishwasher and mice by the garbage. Always one post away from extinction. Facebook posts. Anonymous phone calls. 1-star Yelp reviews. Roaches and poaches, too. We worked for tips, depended on them not unlike the way M depended on N, her husband of forty years, to order. Later cut her meat. And not unlike the way N depended on us after her passing. He’d come in each morning at 7. For the No. 2 - two eggs and toast. Sometimes a side of bacon. M would not approve. And the day’s news. Not unlike the way the men in suits depended on morning coffee - caffeinated, of course - and the way the mothers with toddlers depended on crayons and cartoon placemats. We’d clean messes of all sorts. Coffee. Milk. Chicken noodle soup. Breakups. Despite the paper napkins, most would cry. Our customers were just as much our babies as the platters. Most Mondays, V would come with H and his wedding band. With J and a ringless finger on Thursdays. Bread deliveries. Daily news. TV steamed and streamed over apple pie. Last February, management instituted a pooled tip policy. None of us knew what to make of it. Felt like gambling and we weren’t gamblers. Except B, but he barely worked so none of us would bet on him. Until the day he tipped off cops and they arrested our shift manager for fraud. She had been taking a cut - a hefty slice (what we’d term a double) - of what was legally ours. Law enforcement had filled our booths for years. That day, we felt as if they framed the vinyl seats. The shift manager managed everything. Including us. Everyone eats.
In Blue Button Downs and Khaki Bottoms
We were uniform and uniformed. Navy blue button downs and khaki bottoms. Collars closed. Most bottoms sewn of over-indulgent elastic at the waist and under indulgent cotton at the ankle. Our mandatory white coats both unifying and artificial. We came from as near as two blocks over to as far as two bus lines and a freeway drive away. Shift workers charged with dispensing tiny pills with powers far beyond that of any of us - of anyone. A few wore glasses – tortoise shell, red ovals, double strength readers. Others favored contacts – hard and soft lens. Extra saline always on hand. None of us had 20-20 vision, yet all of us saw much more than we’d ever admit. Our patrons included cheerleaders on birth control and young wives on hormones. We were trained not to ask questions, but reading was second nature. Policy, too. Charged with imparting information on side effects, we walked an invisible line – one that required we balance both affect and effect. We peddled Neosporin for kids with stitches. Cover-up for bruises. Make up far more significant than gender-neutral lifts. We were magicians who made the visible invisible. Sleights of hand everywhere. Kids on Gilenya. Men on speed. Experimental trials, too. All of us more knowing than we’d ever wish to know. Like the 53-year-old male (121 days until his next birthday), with one wife, three kids, and an alcohol induced penchant for Pepto Bismol. Untreated liver disease. Secret stashes of cigarettes. Medically and mentally documented. Typically, customers – we never called them patients, though many tried our patience – would pick up what had already been ordered. None wished to be there. Not new Dads who needed baby diapers. Not old Dads who needed adult diapers. We were schooled in everything baby. Teething tricks, diaper rash balms, Neosporin ointment. Everything old, too. Excessive gas, incontinence, and sleeping aids. Sleep the greatest opponent of all. We were schooled on acne treatments and over treatments. Forced to ID addicts and convicts – pre and post lawful abiding status. Like the 60-year old woman with a still good back who used her dead mother’s name to buy narcotics for back pain. Mostly we waited. For meds and Mondays. Deliveries of Juicy Fruit gum and Diet Snapple. T preferred Peach. B fancied Raspberry. Each of us counted the minutes for our turn to retire. To the breakroom. Plastic bags, paperbacks and paper sacks unzipped and unfolded on the metal table. The wall clock watched us as we listened to Days of Our Lives, The Price is Right, and NPR. M would covet the thermostat. P would covet M. M preferred 68. P, 65. We never knew who would emerge the victor of the day’s war. Not sure any of us cared. We came armed with cardigans and extra Ts. A. favored silk scarves. Blankets and besties under our stark white lab coats. Sized Small to Triple XXX. We were the same. We spent our shifts in service, but service never ceased. Sometimes, on quiet nights, we’d grab a bag of jacks from the toy aisle. Sometimes marbles. Pinky balls would have been fun, but too risky. We knew where the cameras were. Knew they were always on. Controlled by corporate. Our phones a lifeline. Especially for times there was a ruckus at the front. We’d pull down the metal grate – orders – to protect the meds – not us – and dial 9-1-1. We had a special button, a code system between the store’s front and back. Other than the hold-ups and the f-ups, the front of the store got all the love. Unless you count Viagra, which we were responsible for. The front had the Cola and the Russell Stover boxes. Closest to the Hallmark aisle and the Sudoku books. Not to mention the Maybelline and the Cover Girl. Our own uniforms – face and fabric - not gracing any covers. Hair style specifications, too. All hairs tied and tucked. FDA rules, corporate would say. We never could prove it. Only found increasing grey. Proof of purchase reigned. No proof, no refund, we’d say. On repeat. Like the clock’s minute hand. We all had theories - why someone would return a half-used box of condoms; a half-empty bottle of OxyContin; acne cream. None of us really knew, all of us knowing.
Jen Schneider is an educator who lives, writes, and works in small spaces throughout Pennsylvania. She loves words, warm welcomes, and winter (along with the other three seasons). Poetry is a perfect complement to all of her interests. Poetry is also a perfect sounding board for her many questions. She is a Best of the Net nominee, with stories, poems, and essays published in a wide variety of literary and scholarly journals. She is the author of Invisible Ink (Toho Pub), On Daily Puzzles: (Un)locking Invisibility (forthcoming, Moonstone Press), and Blindfolds, Bruises, and Breakups (forthcoming Atmosphere Press).