Labor Day is almost here, so I’d like to stick with the theme of work a while longer. I’m reprinting below a tribute I wrote for my mother who worked in restaurants all her adult life.
This originally appeared several years ago in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The restaurant was my mother’s laboratory of human relations and the place where she put her quick and inquisitive mind to work. I would visit her with my father, who was disabled, and sit at the back booth, where the waitresses took their break. There wasn’t a lot to do at home. Our neighborhood was poor, a mix of old houses and small stores, lots of retirees, few kids. The hours stretched out. So my father and I would take the bus downtown to pass the time with Rosie.
I remember her walking full-tilt with an armload of plates along one arm and two cups of coffee somehow cradled in her other hand. Or her taking orders, pencil poised over pad. Or her flopping down in the booth, the whoosh of the cushion. “I’m all in” she’d say, and whisper something quickly to us about a regular customer: about his kids or why she thinks he’s having problems at work. She would stand before a table, her arm stacked with plates, picking one order off for this person, then another, then another – always seeming to get it right, knowing who got the hamburger, who got the fried shrimp. I remember her sitting sideways in the back booth, talking to us, her one hand gripping the outer edge of the table, watching the floor, and noting, in the flow of our conversation, who needed something, who was finishing up, whose order was taking longer to prepare than it should.
My mother immigrated to the United States with her parents from Southern Italy and grew up during the Great Depression. Her family was very poor, and Rosie was taken out of school in the seventh grade to care for her younger brothers and sisters. She started waiting on tables as a young woman and worked her entire adult life in coffee shops and chain restaurants. These places are fast-paced, and the work is hard and punishing, especially over the long haul. But given her limited formal education, my mother knew that she could always make a living in a restaurant. As she put it to me simply but powerfully much later in her life: “Dad was ill, and you were little…I had to get work.”
Most tributes to working-class parents stop here. We celebrate their work ethic, or their courage, or their love for us and the tenacity of their labor. My mother certainly deserves such testimony. But I think that she – and blue-collar and service workers like her – deserve another tribute as well: a tribute to the intelligence that it took to handle the many demands of her work.
As someone who comes from a blue-collar background and who now, as a professor of education, studies issues like learning and intelligence, I am troubled by the way we as a society readily acknowledge the intelligence required for white-collar and professional occupations, but rarely honor the thinking involved in physical work. Listen to the language we use. The work of the “new economy” is “neck-up” while old-style industrial and service work is “neck-down”. In the body only. Mindless.
But what I saw growing up was anything but mindless. My uncles—who were machinists, welders, and factory workers—would show me how to do things with tools or explain how something worked. And my mother was so competent in the restaurant, so in command of what seemed to me to be chaos. All this has affected how I understand intelligence, learning outside of school, and the immense knowledge and skill of the everyday work that makes life possible.
So about seven years ago, I set out to study the cognition of physical work, that is, the knowledge involved, the way information is used, the kinds of decisions made and problems solved. I brought my current intellectual tools, so to speak, to bear on the intelligence of the work that surrounded me as I was growing up: to the restaurant, the railroad, the factory floor. The project became both a fascinating study in its own right as well as a tribute to my family.
To do the work she did, my mother had to develop strategies to aid memory. As she stood before a table, taking orders, repeating them back while writing them out, making small talk, she would “make a picture in my mind” of the person giving her the order, what that person ordered, and where around the table he or she was located. She would do this for seven to nine tables, with two to six people each. She relied on physical appearance, dress, location at the table, and conformity to or deviation from social expectations – for example, the man who orders a chef salad while his wife orders a steak.
My mother had to keep all this in mind while rushing through a busy restaurant, watching over things, organizing and sequencing tasks, and solving problems on the fly. She describes a typical scenario where an obnoxious regular is tapping the side of his coffee cup with a spoon while she is taking an order. The cook rings her bell indicating another order is ready, and a few seconds later the manager seats two new parties at two of her tables that have just cleared. And, oh, as she is dashing back to the kitchen, one customer asks to change an order, another signals for more coffee, and a third requests a new fork to replace one dropped on the floor. “Your mind is going so fast,” she says, “thinking what to do first, where to go first…which is the best thing to do…which is the quickest.” How did my mother do it?
One thing the waitress does is try to see the big picture and stay vigilant. My mother talks about both standing back and surveying her station and “taking little glances” at her tables as she is moving through it. This mindfulness can reveal problems. “You’re keeping an eye on who is not served yet,” she says, “If it’s been too long, you go check on the kitchen yourself.”
The waitress gets very good at “working smart”. My mother would sequence and group tasks. What could she do first, then second, then third as she circled through her station? Or what could be clustered together at the coffee counter or when she’s going to the kitchen? This economy of movement called for a continual attentiveness to a dynamic, quickly changing environment. If my mother didn’t “make every move count,” as she put it, she would “run myself ragged.”
All of this fast thinking is taking place in an emotional field. Is the manager in a good mood? Did the cook wake up on the wrong side of the bed? If so how can you make an extra request or return an order diplomatically? And, then, of course, there are the customers. Customers enter a restaurant with all sorts of needs, from the physiological – and the emotions that accompany hunger – to a desire for public intimacy. The waitress’s tip is dependent on how well she responds to these needs – not always an easy, or uncomplicated, task. So she gets good at reading social cues and managing feelings, both the customers’ and her own. This self-regulation of feeling is sufficiently demanding that some sociologists refer to it as “emotional labor”. But what also strikes me too is the interpersonal smarts it takes to pull it off.
My mother was fascinated by psychology and was a keen observer of it. She understood the motivations of neighborhood kids better than some of our teachers, and she had a shrewd take on the politics of the restaurants she worked in. The restaurant became the place where she studied human behavior, puzzled over the problems of her regular customers, refined her ability to deal with people in a difficult world. She took pride in “being among the public.” The main floor became her informal classroom. “There isn’t a day that goes by in the restaurant,” she was fond of saying, “that you don’t learn something.”
Much of the thinking and learning in the restaurant is hidden from us. When dining out goes well, we experience “good service”, which typically means that our food got to us in a timely fashion, it was prepared well, and the interaction with the server was pleasant. But there is a mind at work in creating that service, the play of memory, attention, decision-making, social sensibility.
This is what engaged Rosie Rose, and getting it down in print as Labor Day approaches gives me a way to remember and honor her.