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How to Wear a Uniform

I had to drive to a catering shift in the suburbs, and my uniform shirt wasn’t ready. I’d thrown it in the wash after coming in from work the night before, but I didn’t wake up in time to run it all the way through the dryer. Today’s wedding was an hour commute. I figured I’d hang the damp shirt up in the car and it would finish drying on the way. 


I had only one black shirt, and I washed it after every shift. Show me a server whose uniform comes out of an event spotless and I’ll show you someone who hid in the alley and chain-smoked while we loaded the truck at the end of the night. The rest of us are covered in chocolate ganache and trash juice like a low-seeded industry paintball team. It’s a deterioration from the start of the evening, when we debut ourselves ironed and sheeny in the ballroom, pouring chestnut soup in teams of two for the Busby Berkeley-level opening number. Every cuff is fastened. We’re fluttering at the judges. 


How you look in catering is the most important part of the job. The dress code for my company was tailored black pants, black socks, black no-slip shoes, slim-fit long-sleeved black button-down shirt, and fitted black vest with decorative buckle in back. Have everything in place, and for God’s sake, be smooth and tucked. 


Uniforms are important. If you aren’t in uniform, someone might accidentally get into a conversation with you, and then they’ve added you to their LinkedIn before they realize you’re the Help. Then everyone feels hoodwinked and the host gets mad. Servers need to be designated so they can be invisible, not to be addressed except when someone needs to point out that you’re pouring wine wrong (“Hold it higher,” said the gentleman, after he ruminated on the label for sixteen seconds and then nodded with resentment). The less uniform you wear, the higher your status. Think about your doctor. She gets to express a little personality with a cardigan (“so cold in here!”) and whisper-thin flats while the nurse taking your urine has to wear scrubs and clodhoppers. 


The uniform must be fresh, pressed, free of lint, smart and crisp in the manner of a British boarding school youth. The rest of yourself has to look on point, too. That means you have to go into the bathroom with everyone else before a shift starts, line up in front of the mirror, and apply eyeliner with a heavy hand. The longer you’ve worked in catering, the more eyeliner you have to wear. 


How you look has a direct impact on the dollars you earn. A notable Philadelphia designer once booked us for a holiday party and stipulated she wanted only good-looking servers, no uglies. (Guess who got put on the shift? Yeah, the call came in at the last minute, but did I get to trot out from bullpen to mound? You know it. I’ve updated my resume.) 


Today, every part of me was ready except for the shirt. I prepared hair and face and dressed in my black pants, black socks, black shoes, and a skimpy black tank for the car. I tucked my folded-up vest (polyvinyl chloride; non-wrinkle) on top of the empty tupperwares in my bag. I put my half-dry shirt on a white plastic hanger and hung it on the hook above the passenger seat window. 


It was a glorious spring day. I got an iced coffee, got my Honda Fit onto the turnpike, and settled into today’s driving persona. Today was not a day to be Multitasker (one hand peeling hard-boiled egg; applying lotion to calves) or Phone Conferencer (“Hang on, I gotta merge”). Today was a day to be Star of Soundtrack Montage. Caffeinated up, sunglasses on, flying down the highway. Got to Be Real, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,    R-E-S-P-E-C-T

I looked over at my shirt, bouncing on the hanger. Would it dry in time? If I rolled the windows down, the draft would help it dry faster, right?


I rolled down all four windows to get the air circulating. The wind rushed in and the shirt danced on the hanger to Heatwave. The long sleeves whipped and snapped. Whee! I was so alive! 


A gust of wind grabbed the shirt and sucked it off the hanger and out the open window.


The seconds stretched into slow motion. Closed captions rolled across my mind’s eye. This thing is happening. Is this thing happening? I don’t want this thing to happen. This thing just happened. 


No. It can’t! I needed my shirt. I had to get my shirt. I could stop the car, pull onto the shoulder, and run across the highway to retrieve it.  I could hold my hand up like those Toad Detour volunteers who shepherd toads around Roxborough during mating season. 


In the split second I considered pulling over, I looked in the rearview mirror. The shirt floated delicately up on the breeze like Forrest Gump’s feather, did a confident double axel and then gave up on life. It plummeted to the highway and a tractor trailer ran over it. One sleeve wafted in a last gasp, then was done. 


I was still driving at full speed. It was too late. The shirt was gone.  


I slammed the volume button. I needed to think. What to do? Who else had seen? What if the other cars thought I did it on purpose? Some public radio donor would write down my tag number and report me for littering. What if they posted my details? 


Dear Driver, 

I am a third grade student at Wickenburg Elementary. My class is learning how to write letters. You should not throw trash onto the highway. Our Earth needs love not litter. When I am a grownup, I will not throw trash out of my car. Sincerely, Piper Grace Finnerty, age 8 


I was going to be canceled. How could I have let this happen? I was usually so careful about things in the front seat. I never left my wallet exposed in case a cyclist reached in the open window at a stoplight, did a Pee-Wee Herman “HA-HA!” and pedaled off. 


Now my shirt was gone, crumpled, abandoned after trusting me to care for it. Life is so cold. A relationship can be cut off, just like that. A montage of the life of the shirt flashed before my eyes: buying it at Goodwill; watching friendships develop with the other clothes in the laundry puddle holding pattern on the floor during the week; taking it out of the wash that morning. 


Now I was showing up for my shift without my uniform shirt. 


What would they do? Would they keep me in the kitchen all night? The last time I pitched in and sliced some limes, Chef Danny got a concerned look and took the knife away. If they kept me off the floor, we’d be short a server, and everyone would be annoyed. This work is about the collective. If you don’t pull your weight on the dining room floor, you don’t earn the privilege of tearing into the leftover cheese board after cocktail hour. It’s clear who slacks and who doesn’t. If you don’t fall in, your cheese is unearned and everyone knows it. 


I thought of the other staffers who wheeled in suitcases to every shift, ready with tackle boxes full of lip gloss, hairspray, needle and thread, lint roller, scotch tape to get the lint where the roller doesn’t reach, breath freshener strips that melt on the tongue, aspirin, wet wipes, and unopened packets of Kleenex. They were ready to hole up in a bomb shelter with bottled water, protein bars, and packets of nuts, and I was going to show up without my shirt.


Well, I was going to tell the truth. I refused to entertain the thought of saying I forgot my uniform, because I didn’t! I might be someone who rolled down the window going seventy on a blustery day with a five ounce piece of fabric dangling by an air tunnel, but I was not someone who was UNPREPARED!


I arrived at the venue (two-story barn; mason jars) and went straight to my boss Ed, who was still in his pre-event t-shirt as the team set up tables. His suit would be hanging up in the kitchen, covered in plastic, with a color-coordinated tie unspooled against it. “Ed,” I said. “I have a problem.”


Ed’s whole job as captain was to troubleshoot. His purpose was to be ready with a smile when a rookie server spilled red wine onto someone’s dress: materializing with a napkin dipped in club soda, dabbing at a stranger’s bosom with confidence. 


Ed held up a finger as he finished counting place settings, then gestured for me to continue. 


“My shirt went out the window on the highway,” I said.


Ed was such a ninja at his job that he allowed himself only a third of a second to chuckle as he issued place cards around the table. When he was finished, he looked at me, raised a finger and said, “I have an idea.” 


I followed him to the kitchen. “You have your vest?” he asked. I nodded. “Take my shirt, wear it under your vest,” he said. 

He removed his long-sleeved tee. Ed was bigger than me, with much longer arms. The shirt had faded from black to pencil-smudge gray after so many washes, and had the company logo on the chest. It was a shirt you’d sleep in at best. 


He handed me his shirt and grabbed his pink button-down to dress himself. 


I went into the barn bathroom on the lower level and put Ed’s shirt over my tank, with my vest on top. I looked in the mirror. The shirt was enormous. The logo peeked out from under the vest panel and the sleeves billowed like a Shakespearean fool. I rolled the cuffs a few times. It only made the billowing more pronounced. I’m no student of fashion, but I think the technical term is bishop sleeve. I looked like a struggling magician slash comedian at a Los Angeles street carnival. 


All night I swashbuckled around the room with my big sleeves, serving appetizers, clearing empties. The sleeves jostled champagne glasses and drooped in someone’s mashed potatoes. Bits of food from dirty plate stacks hitchhiked onto the excess fabric. “Hey guys, get on! There’s room in the back!”   


I was sure a guest would complain about how terrible I looked or say within earshot, “Who is that hand-me-down buccaneer pouring the wine?” Someone might accuse me of trespassing, a reverse wedding crasher who stopped by after a cosplay event but instead of dancing decided to clean up. 


I envisioned the bride’s mother collaring me on my way to the kitchen.


“Listen,” she hisses. Her chunky gold bracelet shakes as she points at me. “You are going to have to stay in the back. We paid a lot of money for this, and you are bringing down the classy factor.”

“But I need to clear your sea bass--”

“I’ll do it myself!”


Next, the groom stops me in the stairwell, furious. “Is this some kind of joke?”

“What? No--”

“Yeah, I was a big Renaissance Faire guy for years. Headlined the Bawdy Poetry event. I left that life behind, okay? Who sent you? Was it the wench from Glassblowing?”

“No! I promise!”


Ed gestures from the doorway. “Martha, help me move the cake table onto the floor. It’s almost time for the cutting.”

“But I--”


I sneak across the dance floor. Everyone is jumping up and down to Shout! The bride accosts me just as I get to the cake. “We all know why you’re here. Tell that wench to stay out of our lives!” She lunges. The groom throws a punch at Ed. We all fall into the cake, and it topples to the floor. The guests shout “a little bit louder now”. My sleeves are covered in buttercream. 


A drunk groomsman takes the microphone. “I’ll be substituting for the best man tonight!” he yells. “Unfortunately he couldn’t be here for the toast; he got in an accident on the turnpike when a shirt flew onto his windshield and caused a pile-up. Anyway, I have to tell you about what me and the bride got up to last night--”


The bride leaps toward him, but is restrained by the maid of honor.


He continues. “Oh, and apparently the shirt was thrown out of a red Honda Fit, so if anyone--”


“I saw that car in the lot!” an uncle yells. “Slash the tires! KILL THE BEAST!” The crowd empties out of the barn.


“Hey.” Another server pokes me. “Didn’t your shirt go out the window?”


“You’re done in this business!” Chef Danny yells at me from the floor, scooping lumps of frosting onto dessert plates as he tries to salvage the cake. “Go home! NO! You don’t get any leftovers! Put your tupperwares away!” 


In the end, nobody seemed to notice. After we packed the truck, I took Ed’s shirt off, tucked in my tank top, and brought the shirt back to Ed. “Worked out okay, didn’t it?” he said, smiling.  


I got a new shirt from the thrift store. It fit fine. 

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