Waitress

by , 2004

Jan Beatty's waitress teaches us that no amount of money can make up for poor character. The poem "A Waitress's Instructions on Tipping or Get the Cash Up and Don't Waste My Time" is a plea from a waitress, tired and overworked, to us, her customers. Throughout the first twenty-nine lines, she gives commands on how to tip and stresses the importance of money in the relationship between waitress and customer. At the end of line 29, we would describe the waitress as cold, materialistic, and unattached from her customers. Then, in the final line, she tells us, "If you're miserable, there's not enough money in the world." After reading this final line, we realize that the entire poem exists just to prepare the reader for the climax of that last line. To show the importance of a person's character, she builds up the importance of money throughout the entire poem, and then says that character is more important.

Beatty uses rhetorical schemes throughout the poem to achieve different purposes. The most visual of these is the anaphora that she repeatedly uses, both to highlight the themes in those lines and to stress the line that follows. Lines 7-9 all begin with "Never." The repetition of such a strong word reminds us of a scolding parent or teacher and serves to grab our attention. Also, as all three lines are closely related in meaning, the anaphora makes the meaning of the lines more apparent; if we missed the point on the first line, we still have two more chances. Following those three lines, the waitress says, "Overtip, overtip, overtip" (10). The repetitive sound of the anaphora in a way lulls us, only to be jolted back by the important command to overtip. Line 10 could sum up the theme of the majority of the poem; its placement following the anaphora helps us to realize its significance. Beatty again uses anaphora in lines 26-29 which all begin with "Don't say." The purpose of these lines is almost identical to that of lines 7-9. They repeat an important point (not to say inappropriate things to the waitress) and, more importantly, create a lulling, repetitive sound that will be shattered by the important line following them.

Similarly, the use of parallelism stresses the importance of lines throughout the poem. "If I call a taxi for you, tip me./If I hang up your coat for you, tip me./If I get cigarettes for you, tip me" (18-20). Instead of telling us that if the waitress does anything at all for you, you should tip her, the speaker shows us in these parallel lines. The importance of tipping, a major theme throughout the poem, is reiterated through these lines. Although she could have just told us this theme, her choice to show us it made it seem more important, and therefore gave the final line more significance.

After reading this poem, we have a very good understanding of who the waitress is, especially considering that she never even mentions herself. By observing her diction, humor, exaggeration, rhyme and meter in addition to the content of her words, we learn about her and the world she lives in. The waitress's informal diction makes her speech to us seem more real and personal; it is not something that she sat down and prepared, but is instead something that she is telling us straight from her heart. In addition, it shows us that she may not have had the opportunity to receive as much schooling as she would have liked because instead she has to support herself by waiting tables. Her humor and exaggeration also make her speech seem more personal. In the first line, she says "20% minimum as long as the waitress doesn't inflict bodily harm." Of course the waitress is not going to inflict bodily harm. The inclusion of this qualifier quickly grabs our attention by reminding us of a funny exaggeration one of our friends might relate to us while telling a story. This humor and exaggeration again appears on line 3 when she says, "If you sit a long time, pay rent." Obviously, no one is going to sit long enough to warrant paying rent. This command, rather than being an actual command, lightens the mood so that we will continue listening to the waitress's scolding. The unrhymed, free verse style of the poem mirrors the unpredictability and chaos of the waitress's world. Nothing in her restaurant is neat and orderly. To help show this, she includes the same randomness in the structure of her poem. This style also serves to make the speech more identifiable to the reader. Because no waitress in the real world would speak to her customers in a perfectly rhymed and metered Shakespearean sonnet, Beatty knew that her waitress could not do so either if she was to appear realistic.

The content of the poem obviously supports our understanding of the waitress as well. Throughout the majority of the poem, while we are being lectured on proper tipping, we come to understand that the waitress is in a position where she depends on our gratuities. The word "tip" is used sixteen times throughout the poem. That's more than once every two lines that the waitress mentions tipping. If we only read the first twenty-nine lines, we would have probably walked away disliking the waitress and annoyed at her lecture. But our understanding of her drastically changed after hearing her final line. When we find that a person's character is more important to her than all the money in the world, we realize that she is forced to worry about tips because of her situation in life even though she realizes that people are more important than money. The content of this line causes us to identify with her.

Through the use of different rhetorical schemes, a casual speaking style, and well-crafted content, Jan Beatty warmly introduces us to a waitress and her world in "A Waitress's Instructions on Tipping or Get the Cash Up and Don't Waste My Time." As we are being introduced, we are shown that although tipping is very important to the waitress because of financial necessity, a person's character is more important. Although we were led to believe at first that the she was materialistic and shallow, we find in the climactic final line that she is, in fact, caring and thoughtful.