Globe Syndicate

for release October 25, 2002

Another Way

by Melodie Davis

What You Learn On the Job

My first real job began the day after my high school graduation, waitressing at a full service restaurant in a small southern town. My youngest daughter is now working in a small café where they do everything from taking orders, to making sandwiches, to cashiering, to making salads, to washing dishes. I am thrilled for her to be getting such experience away from my supervision. 

We were talking the other night about her job and suddenly I felt like I was back at my first job 32 years ago filling ice tea cups and bowls of salad. I thought to myself, "I think I could go back to that restaurant (if nothing had changed) and just step in and put in a good night's work without forgetting how to do a thing or where anything was." I don't remember the details of subsequent jobs nearly as vividly.   

You learn a lot about life and people by being a waitress. Anyone who has ever been a waiter says it changes the way they look at waiters and of course it makes them sensitive to the ever-controversial subject of how much to tip. But you learn a lot in any "first" job:  

1. Never argue with the boss, even if you disagree politically or otherwise. My first boss was not only the owner of the family steakhouse, but the main cook, too. While he was a good and fair man to work for, he was like a lot of restaurant owners: when he wasn't busy: he liked to hold forth at a table in the corner of the restaurant smoking cigarettes (smoking sections were unheard of) and talk with his friends and regular customers. They would discuss everything from the war in Vietnam to draft resistors to the state of race relations in the North and South-and usually I fumed at the opinions he expressed. But speak up and express my own? Of course not. I just quietly seethed.

2. The customer is always right, even if you are 100 percent sure he said unsweetened tea and you brought him sweet. 

3. Expect the biggest tips from the most unexpected sources. As a waiter or waitress, you learn to detect certain patterns in tipping: don't expect the high school couple who come in on a date to remember to tip. You learn to expect bigger tips, prejudicially, from the better dressed, driving the nicer cars, looking well-groomed. But you can get stiffed from the upper crust too, and be pleasantly surprised by the "widow's mite" (from Jesus' story of the widow who gave a small offering at the temple which was all she had) from a single mom who comes in for a treat with three slightly smudged kids. She leaves a generous tip and then you get it: oh, she has probably been a waitress, too. The best tips usually come from business people on expense accounts. 

4. Beware of the traveling salesman and watch your back. I was 18, not dating anyone, but I knew better than to respond to the salesman who spent hours staring at me in the mirrors that lined the booths at our restaurant while he said things like "My motel room is so boring and lonely." On those nights when I left the restaurant, I always checked the backseat of my car and drove home scared witless if someone seemed to be following me. Which leads me to safety issues for young, vulnerable workers. My other daughter worked for a sandwich chain one summer and we were shocked that they made 18 year old girls close the shop all alone at 11:00 p.m. - carrying out garbage, locking doors, locking the cash register. No one should have to do that job alone. Since we didn't have a cell phone, I either went in to help her close up or we had her call us when she was leaving the shop. 

5. You learn to do things you never had to do at home. I'll never forget the first night I went in to help this second daughter close up, and she was mopping the bathroom. Somehow at home, I never got around to making the kids scrub the bathroom floor. Since that is the worst job in the house, I figured it was my job. But there she was-someone had trained her in the previous nights.

6. Adequate training is critical. New employees can be a success or failure on the basis of the training they receive. I think of the woman who trained me at the restaurant, and the woman who trained me at my first job out of college. They taught me the basics, didn't assume I knew anything-but did it nicely, like teaching me how to cut up a tomato for salad and at the office, things like mail routing and how to do filing. 

The final learning that has application here is that you learn to get up and go to work, be on time, day after day, whether you feel like to or not, even when the rest of your family is going to the beach. The worker who learns these lessons will always have a leg up in the job world.

What is the most important thing you learned in a first job? I'll share stories in a future column. Send to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail:

You can also visit Another Way on the Web at

Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.

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