I love uniforms.
When I worked as a server for a catering company, we had a uniform. I love uniforms because I never have to worry that I’m wearing the wrong thing. I’ve spent years wearing the wrong thing, and I still have to consciously coach myself. “Do not wear Irish Weekend t-shirt to job at progressive co-op preschool. Coworker has already corrected me for saying fireman instead of fire fighter and I do not want to provide further ammunition.” “Are you taking the el all the way to Market-Frankford? Do not carry canvas tote bag with nerdy university logo. You’re a walking target.”
The catering uniform was black pants, black socks, black no-slip shoes, slim-fit black button down shirt, and fitted black vest with a little buckle in the back. Everything was very tailored and sleek. In my catering uniform I felt very attractive. I felt confident. It lent to the performance as spunky waitress, upbeat even when an old man poked me and said “Ya dropped a roll” or a guest looked up at me after I plunked down a dinner plate and said coldly, “Do you think this is enough couscous?” I could respond without wanting to punch them because I was in my black uniform and I was simply playing a role. My good cheer was in the script.
I learned quickly, though, that while the uniform lent a certain freedom, there was also a pressure to wear it in the right way. It had to be fresh, clean, ironed, free of lint, perfectly smart and crisp in the manner of a British boarding school youth. The rest of me had to look on point, too. That meant I had to go into the bathroom with everyone else before a shift started, line up in front of the mirror, and apply eyeliner with a heavy hand. If you didn’t look put together, people would talk smack. Not the younger girls, but the old guard: the veterans in their forties and fifties and sixties who had been there for years and took their job, and their appearance, very seriously.
These women came to every shift armed with suitcases. Cynthia had an enormous case that was essentially a tackle box full of lipstick, hairspray, needle and thread, lint roller, scotch tape to get the lint where the roller couldn’t reach, breath freshener strips that melt on the tongue, aspirin, wet wipes, and unopened packets of Kleenex. It was like a hotel bathroom plus the CVS trial size aisle. There was also bottled water, protein bars, and packets of nuts. Basically a bomb shelter. I assume she took inventory after every shift.
The old guard women would talk shit on anyone for anything. They’d stand over someone folding napkins and say “Those are getting a little puffy.” The men were different. The guys who worked in the kitchen didn’t bother with that. They maintained the standard food industry atmosphere: a healthy 50/50 blend of sexual harassment and good clean fun.
Though the women were the ones to be feared, I escaped judgment, because I was competent at my job and my uniform was together. I blended in as a member of the chorus moving in step with the company.
I slept late one Saturday after a Friday night shift, and got up to wash my black shirt before the day’s long drive to a wedding in the suburbs. I had only one black shirt and I washed it after every shift, so missing the window to get it done in time was a risky move. It got through the wash, but I had to take it out of the dryer mid-run or I would be late. It was still damp. I figured I would just hang it on a hanger in the car on that little hook I’ve never used in my life, and hopefully after the hour drive it would be dry.
I barrelled down 76, wearing my black pants and a skimpy black tank, sunglasses on, shirt bouncing from the hanger. It was a beautiful March day. Maybe if I rolled down the windows, the wind would help the shirt dry faster. Brilliant!
I rolled down all four windows all the way to get the air circulating. The wind rushed in and the shirt danced on the hanger as Steppenwolfe played and the cool air hit my face. I was so alive! All of a sudden, the wind sucked the shirt right out the window.
In my mind, the slow-motion disaster was narrated with closed captions (“This thing is happening. Is this thing happening? I don’t want this thing to happen. This thing just happened”). A montage of the life of the shirt flashed before my eyes, from when I bought it in the boy’s section at Macy’s to when I took it out of the washer that morning.
Maybe if I stopped the car, pulled over on the shoulder and somehow ran across the road, I could retrieve it. I could just hold my hand up like people do to help those toads get across during mating season, and dart over and grab it. I looked in the rearview mirror to see if I could spot it and God immediately said YOU’RE NOT IN CHARGE as I saw the shirt bouncing like a tumbleweed and then getting run over by a tractor trailer. Crap. Were other cars seeing this? What if they thought I did this on purpose? Would some public radio donor write down my tag number and report me for being a litterbug?
Now I was showing up for my shift without my uniform shirt, which was the ultimate sin, and I would be seen as an incompetent, weak link in the chain, an affront to the old guard. I didn’t have to tell them what had happened, but I refused to entertain the thought of saying I forgot my shirt, because I didn’t! I may be someone who purposely rolls the window down all the way while going seventy on the highway on a blustery day with a five ounce piece of fabric dangling by an air tunnel, but I am not someone who is UNPREPARED!
I went straight to my boss Phil, who was still in his pre-event clothes as the team set up tables. His suit would be hanging in the kitchen, covered in plastic, with a perfectly coordinated tie unspooled against it. I said, “Phil, I have a problem.”
Phil’s whole job as captain of events was to troubleshoot. His entire purpose was to be ready with a smile for when a rookie server spilled red wine on someone’s dress: materializing with a napkin dipped in club soda, dabbing at a stranger’s bosom with confidence.
I told Phil what happened and he was such a ninja at his job that he only allowed a third of a second to laugh at me before he raised a finger and said, “I have an idea.” He then removed his enormous, long sleeve faded black t-shirt and said, “Just wear this under your vest.”
I spent the night looking like a cross between Shakespearean jester and struggling comedian slash magician at a Los Angeles street carnival. The huge oversized sleeves billowed out from the holes of the vest. I rolled the cuffs up to try to make everything smaller, but that just made them more pronounced. I believe the technical term is “bishop sleeve”.
All night I swashbuckled around the room with my big sleeves. My sleeves knocked over champagne glasses and drooped in someone’s mashed potatoes. They kept getting bits of food on them from stacks of dirty plates, due to the sheer cubic measurement of the fabric embracing all space around it.
I was afraid some guest would complain about how terrible I looked, or ask, “Who is this buccaneer pouring the wine?” Or they would be suspicious and think I had trespassed, a reverse wedding crasher who came in after the Renaissance Fair but instead of dancing decided to clean up.
Maybe they would assume that I was a nonconformist type, silently protesting the uniform with a steampunk look. What if the college kid stationed by the open bar started quoting Game of Thrones at me, thinking I was doing some kind of roleplay? Meanwhile, I made sure to steer clear of the head table and the bride, just in case she’d ask me to leave early because I was bringing down the classy factor. By the time we took a break for staff meal, everyone had heard about my shirt going out the window. The kitchen guys made jokes, but the old guard pursed their lips. I'd fallen from grace. No amount of eye makeup could fix it.
At the end of the night, I took off the shirt, put my vest back on over my tank top and zipped up my jacket. I brought the shirt back to Phil.
"Worked out okay, didn't it?" he said, smiling. The old guard was behind him, giving me the side eye.
I hate uniforms.