Summer of '89: The Story Behind the Fiesta Dress

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In this week’s issue of The New Yorker, Amy Poehler recalls the summer of 1989, when she was a teenager working at Chadwick’s, an ice cream parlor in her native Massachusetts. She recalls the manual labor, the performances required when a customer was celebrating a birthday or ordering a “Belly Buster,” the obnoxious teenage customers, the communing with co-workers at the end of a long day. It was all very familiar.

I didn’t work in an ice cream parlor. About that same time, I worked at an El Chico location (the restaurant where I worked at is now long gone). It was my first of only two restaurant jobs. I didn’t last long (the hours were too late for working during the school year), but I learned a lot. And experienced a lot I wouldn’t want my own daughter to experience.

It started out fine, though as a hostess, I was required to wear a solid pink fiesta dress. It distinguished me from the actual servers who wore multicolored dresses or sashes. I also had to wear dark pantyhose and shoes that were not athletic shoes. This uniform was not something I’d considered when I took the job, and in the months that I worked there, the mortification that I felt when a classmate came in the restaurant never lessened.

But the dress ended up being the least horrifying thing. A 16-year-old girl in a fiesta dress can be a target for all kinds of skeevery, particularly from male customers drunk on margaritas as well as other restaurant employees. There is no shortage of stories of debauchery and lewdness from the world of restaurant kitchens, but in my experience, the kitchen staff was the most polite. The guys in the kitchen at that El Chico laughed and had fun, but never drank at work (that I know of) and never made rude comments to anyone other than another guy on the line. I wish I could say the same for the restaurant’s seasoned servers and managers.

One server was particularly disgusting. And everyone knew it. It was treated as a joke that this guy touched young female employees inappropriately and made frequent lewd comments. He had a wife and family and a day job, so he only worked weekends. It took working only one weekend lunch for me to tell the manager that I could not work any day shift (he was too busy in the evenings to harass anyone). It was pointless to tell him it was because that guy made me uncomfortable. Not just pointless; it would have been fruitless.

Not that I still didn’t get plenty of subtle harrassment; one manager was particularly unseemly. He never laid a hand on me; there was lots of staring and double entendre. I recall that for his birthday, the waitstaff hired a geriatric stripper as a gag. Unfortunately for all of us, he took full advantage of it with some behavior I’m sure that lady had not expected. Well, maybe she did; I didn’t. I don't appreciate having those images back in my mind.

Despite some negative experiences, there was some good that came of my time in food service. I mean, come on, unlimited free chips and queso for me plus half-price meals for my family and friends. That's a nice perk that made working for $3.50 per hour a bit more palatable.

Also, I’d occasionally help run food or take a few orders, and I learned quickly that waiting tables was no easy job. I acquired a level of respect for all the folks who keep a restaurant running and particularly those who make it look effortless and even fun.

Just as Amy Poehler learned from her birthday performances (which, luckily for her, did not include a sombrero) that she wanted to be an actor, I learned that the restaurant business was just not for me.

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