Four servers sit out back on the porch downing PBRs and White Claws.

They just got off work at the Cuban place a block away. They’re dirty, disheveled and have just started drinking. The bar crowd on a Sunday night, this night, Mother’s Day night, is a slow burn of service-industry wastrels who are finally done with the grind of the busiest Sunday in the biz.

The back-of-house crew comes in shortly after I arrive: an army of black button-ups, non-skid shoes, negligible stains and pockets full of gray Bic pens in various chewed states.

It’s not even 9:30 p.m. and the worst story of the day I’ve heard (so far) is a dish that was sent back, returned and discounted by the manager. The customer’s response? A drink tossed in the server’s face. All because the meal was not comped.

Mother’s Day is sacred to servers and succubi alike.

This year rings different; of course it does. Our tolerance for cabin fever reached its limits months ago; I can see it on the faces of everyone who tells me: “This is the first time I’ve been out in a year.”

Herd immunity is a vaccine away, and the one thing people want more than anything right now is to Go Out. And they are.

So far, this year’s talisman of normalcy is Mother’s Day, the effects of which are making themselves apparent: The lessened restrictions, the newly vaccinated, the “open-up” nonbelievers who fought everything from mask mandates to Capitol police this past year — they all contribute to today’s chaotic “take mom out” ritual that was torn from us in 2020. The common thread tonight is that the customer still thinks they’re always right. That and the growing work shortage.

Every restaurant I know is short-staffed. They’re hiring because they need servers, dishwashers, line cooks, bartenders, hosts, the whole gamut. If you ever wanted to work in our glorious industry, now’s the time. Places are adjusting their hours, closing earlier, and straight-up closing on days perceived to be slow. The reason for the shortage is a bit more complex than “lazy people don’t want to work,” despite what your aunt’s tirade on Facebook would have you believe.

In an unchanging world of multiple jobs, a barely functional social-safety net, no benefits and a barrage of abuse from customers to restaurant owners, the idea of not going back to that COMPLETELY HEALTHY WORK ATMOSPHERE is reasonable.

It makes taking one’s chances on NC’s unwieldy and completely antiquated unemployment system a great idea. So, some people are still using the tools available to make life easier. Others have moved on to different careers. Ones with benefits, ones that don’t require you work nights, weekends and holidays. Careers where a complete stranger doesn’t throw a drink in your face on Mother’s Day because their Baked Alaska or whatever wasn’t comped by the house.

Tonight, a smaller group comes in, orders shots and moves on. One of them was complaining that her hourly manager pay ends up being less than the tipped workers. That’s common. The largest grift I ever experienced was a salaried GM position at a new restaurant: 80-hour weeks, no benefits, sending tipped workers home and cleaning up until dawn to keep payroll down.

Tipped jobs are popular because, at the right place, it is possible to make a living. The caveat is that the employees are quite expendable. At least, before the pandemic, they were. The back-of-house jobs offer a steady wage, but nothing more. The problem is that the cost of living has gone up, and wages have remained stagnant. A year ago, out-of-work industry workers were receiving a very short-lived $600 a week bonus.

Divided by 40, that’s $15 per hour.

Quite a few got to see how an unintended pay raise made life easier, more accessible. No wonder there’s a work shortage. They’ve moved on, or they’re holding out for the better deal.

One of the black button ups in standard server attire cashes out. He says he’s off tomorrow but then has to work doubles for the next six days. He shuffles away, slightly buzzed, pocket full of money. I tell him that I’ll see him next week. Nowadays though, you never can tell.

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