It’s a dirty job — and you never know who’s doing it.

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to wait tables at the Universal Joint in West Asheville for Little Iron Man’s Big Night Out, a benefit for a local three-year-old boy recently diagnosed with neuroblastoma. Other guest servers were invited as well, including a Blue Ridge Roller Girl and a pro, take-no-prisoners server from Burgermeisters. All of us donated our tips to little Marough Gardner, and all beer sales from kegs donated by local brewers and distributors went to the Gardner family that evening. Even the U-Joint’s regular servers worked for free that night, donating all of their tips to the cause. (For more about the benefit, see sidebar on page 9.)

It was a full-tilt endeavor — I strapped on an apron and dove into the business of serving (something I haven't done before, unless delivering coffee in a cafe at age 15 counts). It was busy as all get out, and I had no idea what I was doing. The funny thing was, not everyone that visited my section that night knew there was a benefit happening, and sometimes I was too busy to tell them — which, I'm sure, led quite a few to wonder if this bumbling mess of a server was a pity hire.

For the most part, everyone was cordial and turned a blind eye to my ineptitude. However, there were a few in the house that were ornery enough to send me into a tailspin of anxiety that I'm still blaming for that evening’s temporary case of amnesia. My apologies, in other words, to the people who kindly repeated their beer orders to me a half-dozen times without a hint of annoyance. I'm delighted to have not accidentally dumped anything on any of you, and I truly thank you — and your less-gracious compatriots — for your donations.

The entire evening was a heartwarming success, with about $3,000 being raised for Marough. Everyone had a great time — but mercy, I must have blocked out how hard restaurant work is, and I have to tip my hat to those of you who manage to do it day in and day out.

Now, I have a rather extensive background in the restaurant business — it's just all behind the stove. With the service industry, like any job, there are little annoyances, petty things that just stick in your craw. In the restaurant business, the irritating customer equals the incessantly whistling cubicle mate, or the passive-aggressive superior.

On any given night, the majority of diners manage to hold it together pretty well, behaving themselves, saying please and thank you. Some, though, manage to make the job at hand a bit more challenging than it needs to be, to put things more than diplomatically.

For the kitchen staff, it's the diners with a laundry list of dietary concerns, presented without warning on a face-melting Saturday night shift, that can make heads spin. It's not the gluten- or lactose-intolerant folks that are troublesome, though it helps matters to pre-warn restaurant staff if you have severe allergies.

Really, it's the hypochondriacs that claim false allergies to anything and everything under the sun: “I’m allergic to cilantro, anything else that’s green, anything with webbed feet and foodstuffs that start with the letter Q." It’s those folks that make an already difficult job harder. You there, on the date claiming to be allergic to garlic and onions? We’re onto you. Get some breath mints and relax.

Most chefs are professionals and do their best to accommodate with a minimum of grumbling, but a highly strange request can easily make the line's progress grind to a halt while the kitchen staff scurries around trying to determine every last thing that went into a sauce. This, in turn, makes the wait time for everyone else's order longer. Then comes the glaring — from the guests in the dining room, from the servers. It's an ugly chain of events.

For the service staff, it's the disgruntled, can't-be-pleased customer that can ruin an evening. I have to admit that even kitchen staff — perhaps especially kitchen staff — can be blind to how difficult waiting tables can be. I, for one, have been guilty of thinking that hours of prep, followed by the oxymoronic practice of quickly slinging out intricately plated food, followed by cleaning a war zone of a kitchen seems more difficult than serving said food.

That's partially because a good server makes it their business to create a dining experience that flows so seamlessly, guests have no inkling of the frenzy going on behind the scenes to enable a relaxing dinner. A server's business involves remaining stoic in the face of rude customers and not melting down in front of a table of drunk hecklers. It's a tough business.

What's more, many people still seem as though they regard service staff as being lower on the totem pole, which has always made me uneasy to watch as a diner.

Allow me to paint a picture of what your server goes through on any given night, as personally observed by me on the night I worked at the U-Joint: A family of tourists walk into a busy restaurant where some of us — OK, me — are flailing about nervously, just trying to keep up. Said tourists have been missed in the crowds of people gathered on the patio and haven't been informed of the nature of the event.

The matron of the group stomps up to me and barks in a grating Chicago accent: "Are you seating, or what?!" Flustered, I go silent, recover, smile, then stammer an attempted explanation as to why everything in the restaurant’s gone topsy-turvey. Admittedly, I never really answer the question — mostly because I don’t know the answer. The matron, for her part, at least stops barking — she simply scowls, then grabs the menus out of my hand, stomp-escorting her family to an open table.

Picture also this: While handing a gin and tonic to a guest, he touches my wrist and asks me if I do "house calls." I babble something incoherent about not even really being a server, try to sound witty, fail, then turn tail and flee, consoling myself with a basket of the U-Joint's awesome tater tots in the service area.

I'm not trying to complain — I had a great night and am pleased to see so many great people pull together to raise money for a kid in need. The experience just made me want to remind a very small minority to be a bit, well … nicer.

Waiting tables takes a thick skin and plenty of brains. A lot of restaurant customers seem to forget that plenty of doctors have waited tables while working on PhDs. And a lot of doctors, I bet, couldn’t wait tables to save their lives. I’ll tell you about at least one professional writer who can’t. Regardless of what your server does — or doesn’t — do outside of work, remember that he or she is doing a difficult job for the glamourous wage of $2.50 an hour plus tips, and trying to be as pleasant as possible while doing it.

— Send your food news to Mackensy Lunsford at food@mountainx.com

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