Debra Ginsberg has actually spoken to the two people in the country who didn't wait tables at some time in their lives. The rest of us, she surmises, must have stooped to delivering dishes for a living somewhere down the line, lending a cozy insider's sense of belonging to all who read her new memoir/sociological study based on her own twenty-some years as a waitress. She'll sign the book, Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress, Monday at the Tattered Cover LoDo.
Now making a go of it at her first love -- writing -- Ginsberg's still seen it all, or at least as much as can be seen from a server's-eye view. "People will do things in a restaurant that they wouldn't do anywhere else," she reveals. "You're always being drawn into the little soap operas people are having. If a couple is fighting, they want the waitress to be part of it. And, of course, the guy is flirting with you."
Waitresses in particular, Ginsberg notes, are frequently caught up in such psychosexual tugs-of-war. "I once asked my father, who was also a waiter a long time, 'What is it with men and waitresses?' My father said, 'Well, for one thing, she's a woman. She's usually nice to look at, and she comes over to you and smiles, and sometimes she even tells you her name.' This really capsulizes it: A restaurant is one of last places where you go with the implicit understanding that 'You're gonna give me service, and I'm gonna pay you for that.' There's an unspoken bargain -- it's a little like prostitution." Except, she tosses off slyly, "prostitution's a bit more honest."
Ginsberg speculates that it all has to do with the gut basics of eating. "When food is at stake, an odd phenomenon takes place. People just lose all sense of decorum. I mean, it's just dinner, but people have huge expectations for a meal. It makes me wonder : Did they all have terrible childhoods? Weren't they nurtured enough?" And nurturing is what people dining in restaurants are ultimately after. "No matter what your position is in life -- if you hate your job, or your wife's mean to you, or your kids hate you -- here's someone who's going to wait on you," she says.
There's more to Ginsberg's book than fun, games and social analysis, though. There's also an educational element. "Many people are confused about tipping -- maybe they're intimidated or resentful because they just don't know how it works," she says. "I explain how it works from top to bottom." Her rule of thumb: On the coasts, especially the East Coast, a 20 percent tip is the norm. "It's an actual health risk if you don't tip a waiter in New York. Never mind the spitting in your food thing; if you don't tip in New York, you have to worry about the following you out to your car kind of thing."
Everywhere else, anything under 15 percent means something is wrong with the service. And Ginsberg's other golden rule? "Tell your server there's a problem before the whole thing escalates."
Though she doesn't say it outright, Ginsberg's third rule has to do with respect: Give it and you'll get it. More often than not, waiters work for tips in order to follow some other muse. "I'm happy with the feedback I'm getting. A lot of it is from servers," she explains. "I like that they really feel the book is accurate, and I also like that they're telling me they like it using really big words, demonstrating my point: Servers are the most intellectual, educated, creative people I've ever met." That said, Ginsberg surely fits the mold.