Pancake Chronicles and the Sensibilities They Infuriate


Too smart to be good at slinging pancakes?
  • Too smart to be good at slinging pancakes?

So, there's this New York Times essay in their "Lives" section written by a recent high-school grad who decides to sling pancakes at IHOP for a hot minute to, like, learn something about life. It's making the rounds on a few blogs for the apparently insufferable whine from its author, a (probably white) upper-middle-class college-bound gal who has to get one of those pesky summer jobs and deal with the real world and learn about herself and all that crap before heading off for the insular ivory tower. But instead of breezing through something any old immigrant ex-con can do, she fails miserably. So: is it funny, or just infuriating?

...she detailed the duties of an IHOP server. But I absorbed almost none of it. Waiting on tables, it seemed, violated my very constitution. Accuracy, speed, balance -- I could never master any combination of the three.

I guess your response depends on a few things, like whether you've waited tables before, and if you did it for actual money or for funsies. (The author did not need the paycheck.) I guess it depends on whether you buy into the whole abstract "smarts of the college-bound" vs. "street-smarts of the uneducated" thing.

I waited tables for about five years. It's grueling work, particularly when you toss in regular doses of sleazy dudes offering big tips in exchange for your ass on their lap. But I was good at it (not the ass-in-lap part), and I respected the people who were veterans.

Now I overtip on a regular basis because I know the score--which is that everyone waiting tables is either in transition to get through school or make some extra dough on the side, or they are veterans raising a family on that money.

But I also went to college, and I know that maintaining a certain GPA and recalling dates and arguing the finer points of media law with nuance are a different kind of skill. They're both killer assets for inhabiting this world with greater ease, but we all know waiting tables will always come in handier in the Real World, for the most part. (It combines grace, math and multitasking--three things that come up every single day, it turns out.)

But I do think everyone should be forced to wait tables for a day. It helps you understand how people exercise tiny bits of power in their lives. (In my experience, the best tippers were college kids and lonely men; the worst tippers were business people and old people.) It helps you understand some basic rules about human kindness. It helps you understand class.

I saw entitled college kid after entitled college kid walk into the restaurants I worked at expecting to get hired for merely showing up. And I saw the insulted look in their eyes when they were told they needed some experience to work there. Lots of people think anyone can get a job waiting tables because the employees are typically uneducated. It's partly true--they'll train you at most places if they're desperate. But decent restaurants know customers want a server who knows how long to linger, and that only comes with years of experience.

But back to the essay in question. The attitude of "Gosh, it sure is hilarious that I'm so smart but I can't, like, not spill coffee," isn't funny--it's kind of pathetic. It's one of those invisible lines that people think separates educated from uneducated people. Like, "Too bad I can't do 'real' stuff, but come freshman year I'll be parsing Heidegger like a champ."

For shame, I say. Get thee a real-world sensibility, college girl.

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