Having spent two years working at a Cheesecake Factory, seeing ‘National Cheesecake Day!’ trending on Twitter today is like being a PTSD-addled vet flinching at fireworks on the Fourth of July.
It doesn’t matter how much distance or how many years I put between us. I close my eyes and it feels like I never left the welcome desk. Skin itching under cheap black slacks and matching button-down, chunky black slip-proof shoes. I try to see through the doors but they’re fogged over with the heavy breath of the guests (never call them customers, never, the management has warned us all) until a single palm slaps against the window, fingertips trailing like slugs in the condensation. I can barely make out the coupon bent between thumb and forefinger. A bead of icy sweat crawls slowly from the nape of my neck to the clenched tops of my buttocks. I shiver. At table 12 a fatherless baby cries. It’s half-off cheesecake day.
I promise you a version of this scene plays in the minds of retail and food service wage slaves nationwide every time some bullshit holiday rolls out. I’m not special because I worked at the Cheesecake Factory. Check the staff at your local Bed Bath & Beyond huddling together like the Night’s Watch next time National Bubble Bath Day rolls around. Rubberneck at a Baskin Robbins on National Ice Cream Day. Look in their eyes and see the wounded-animal terror, the wintery calculation of whether that stainless steel scoop edge is sharp enough to tear its paw out of the trap.
The Cheesecake Factory in Kansas City was my second job at the time, so I only worked nights, which meant I stuck to working the desk instead of waiting tables where the money was better but you had to be more flexible. If you haven’t been to the Factory, it’s less like walking into the rustic confectionary producer the name hints at, more like being entombed in the burial chamber of some obscure Egpytian pharaoh. Hail Trumpankhamun, who demanded his pillars be covered with only the classiest, most luxurious gold leaf panned from the Nile by Mexican immigrants.
I was trained to work the seating system. I walk you to your seat and make small talk and when you inevitably ask for a booth instead of a table I try and keep you from noticing the apologetic look I’m giving the waiter who hasn’t made any tips while I’m hustling you to a window seat.
But on the days when it gets really busy and I can’t seat you right away, I have to quote you a time and no matter how long it is you’ll agree. 90 minutes? Sure! Two hours around the holidays?? What the shit, right? We’re The motherfucking Cheesecake Factory, not some fly-swarmed hot dog wagon. What are you gonna do, let Uncle Ed fly out from the coast seven hours just so Arby’s can drop a deuce in his stomach? I don’t think so.
So you have a party of five and you need a table and you’re willing to wait. I give you a pager that’ll tell you when your table is ready.
“Hey,” Table for Five will wave his buzzing pager at me, smiling, “looks like it’s ready!”
“Ha. Just a test page, sir. Hi, can I help whoever’s next?”
Then you repeat the same script with the next in line and hand out another pager.
“Hey,” the newest guest has a funny joke he wants to share, smiling, wiggling that blinking red square at me. “Looks like it’s ready!”
“HA! Just a test page, sir. Ha! HAHAHAHHAHAHHA! HAHHAHAHHAHHAHAHHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHHAHA! NEXT WHO’S NEXT WHO’S THE NEXT FUCKING GUEST STEP UP AND GET YOUR CHEESECAKE, YOU YOKELS! NO TIME TO CHEW CHOKE ON IT CHOKE CHOKE IT DOWN I’M SORRY THE PUMPKIN SPICE IS A SEASONAL OFFERING ONLY! THERE IS NO REST ONLY TOIL AND OUR NEW SKINNYLICOUS MENU! NEXT! NEXT! NEXT!”
And it goes on like that for five more hours.
I’ve had pagers thrown at my head. You’ve tried to bribe me with a fiver. “My daughter has low blood sugar! It’s inhuman to wait this long! She’s woozy!” As if I’m the one who made you come to the casual-upscale-contemporary-bistro-cuisine dining version of downtown Baghdad. I’ll get your 85 pounds of collateral damage from some sliced banana and white bread and restrain from calling child services.
Sir, I assure you that those pastries are for display only and have been there since college was affordable. Sir, please, I am not lying to you to horde the cheesecake for myself. Please believe me. I assure you sir. Sir, I assure you, please take that spoiled desert out of your mouth. Please don’t swallow it. Please. Please. The medics have been alerted. Yes, you’re right, I should’ve been more convincing. My sincere apologies for my failures both moral and spiritual — we’ll comp your next meal.
Once, a balding, spectacled man demanded to know why he had yet to be seated 15 minutes into a 90-minute wait. I tried to explain there was nothing I could do. I could tell he was searching for some argument, some loophole in the Cheesecake Factory’s cruel fascism he could exploit as he moved his lips soundlessly before finally sputtering: “I am a pharmacist!”
I had no response. We simply looked at each other in silent mutual embarrassment for his impotent fury before he slunk back into that teaming mass of bodies. Did he have a wife? Did that flaccid outburst open a window to horrible perfect self-awareness like a forbidden book that conjures elder gods? In that moment our relationship transcended diner and maire d’. I hope it ruined his life.
Finally, after the approximate running time of Das Boot everyone gets a seat and orders a club sandwich. Worth it.
I got a better gig and left, but as you’ve already gathered, part of you never really leaves. It’s stuck down there in the freezer with the new shipment of Tuxedo Cheesecake, except it won’t ever, ever thaw.
That’s what National Cheesecake Day means to me.