Selections from The Mind at Work

Mike rose describes the facilities his mother used as a waitress — remembering orders, balancing dishes, chatting with customers — and how she learned those skills.

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I remember the restaurant's lingo, remember liking the code of it. Tables were labeled by the number of chairs — and, thus, customers — around them: deuces, four-tops, six-tops. Areas of the restaurant had names: the racetrack was the speedy front section. Orders were abbreviated for the cook: fry four on two, my mother would call out as she clipped a check onto that little rotating wheel. To speak this language gave you a certain authority, signaled know-how.

I have many images of my mother at work, distinct from the other domains of her life: her walking full-tilt with an armload of plates along one arm a and two cups of coffee somehow cradled in her other hand; her taking orders, pencil poised over pad … I remember her sitting sideways at the back booth, talking to us, her one hand gripping the outer edge of the table, watching the floor, and noting, in the flow of our conversation, who needed something, who was finishing up, whose order was taking longer to prepare than it should.

(p. xiv–xv)

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My mother gets up slowly from the kitchen table and walks over to the sink where plates are drying on a rack. She demonstrates. She turns her right hand palm up, creating a wider surface on her forearm, and begins placing plates, large and small, from biceps to fingertips, layering them so that the bottom of one plate rests on the edge of another. “You don’t dare let a plate touch the food,” she explains, “and it's got to be balanced, steady.” Then with her left hand, she lays out two coffee cups and two saucers. She kind of pinches the saucers between her fingers and slips her index finger through the handles of the two cups. “The coffee splashes from one side to another if you’re not careful. It takes practice. You just can't do it all at one time.”

I ask her, then, how she learned to do it. Beginning with her own restaurant, “you watch the other waitresses, what they do.” She was “cautious” at first, starting with two plates, being deliberate. Then she began adding plates, responding to the demands of the faster pace of the restaurants in Los Angeles. “Norm's was much busier. So you had to stack as many plates as you could.” And, with continued practice in these busy settings, you get to where “you don't even have to think about it.” I'm struck by the similarity between my mother's description and the studies I've read on the role of cognition in the development of athletic skill. My mother mixed observation and practice, got some pointers from coworkers, tricks of the trade, monitored her performance, and developed competence. As she achieved mastery, her mind was cleared for other tasks — such as remembering orders.”

(p. 9–10)

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To be a good waitress, my mother says emphatically, “you have to have one hell of a good memory.” Her observation is supported by a small body of psychological research demonstrating that the competent waiter and waitress have techniques that enable them to override the normal limits on human “short-term” or “working” memory … The waiter and waitress know things about food and drink — ingredients, appearance, typical combinations — and this knowledge from “long term” memory plays continually into their ability to remember orders … The routines and physical layout of the restaurant also contribute to remembering orders. And as she stood before a table, taking orders, sometimes repeating them back while writing them out, sometimes not, making small talk, my mother would, she said, “more or less make a picture in my mind” of the person giving her the order, what that person ordered, and where around the table (or at a counter) he or she was located…

… As my mother puts it: “Even though you're very busy, you're extremely busy, you're still, in your mind, you have a picture … you use all these strategies, and one thing triggers something else.” he strategies are interactive and complementary, and they enable us to get a sense of what kind of work is going on in the working memory of a waitress during peak hours in a family-style restaurant.

(p. 10, 12)

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