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What’s in a name?

All the references by presidential candidate John McCain and running mate Sarah Palin to “Joe the Plumber” and “Wendy the Waitress” got me thinking about job titles and what’s in a name. My ears naturally perk up, considering my husband is a plumber and until last year I made my living in restaurants.

I had never heard someone so eloquently strip a person of their identity. I do appreciate Wendy being described as a waitress and not a food server, though. Waitress has poetry and spunk, whereas food server’s sterility robs the word of all character.

However, I did work with a waiter who was the epitome of a “food server.” I observed him at tables with unblinking eyes gazing over the heads of guests as he droned on about the fish specials in the exact same words every time. To be on the receiving end of this kind of corpse-like presentation slays me. There is so much more to service than dropping plates on a table.

Maybe that is why I appreciate the way some song writers elevate the job to iconic status — the archetypal waitress who’s strong, intelligent and kind. Of course this is my grandiose connotation, having waitressed from the time I turned 18.

Take for example the use of the word “waitress” in lyrics. Could Tom Waits have pulled off “Ghost of Saturday Night” had he used “food server” instead:

“… a solitary sailor who spends the facts of his life like small change on strangers … Paws his inside pea-coat pocket for a welcome 25 cents, and the last bent butt from a package of Kents, as he dreams of a waitress with Maxwell House eyes and marmalade thighs with scrambled yellow hair.”

I don’t think so.

And Loudon Wainwright’s “Tip that Waitress,” or Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “I Feel Lucky”:

“Now 11 million later, I was sitting at the bar I’d bought the house a double, and the waitress a new car …”

“Waitress” may be working class, but the word falls off the tongue and into the ear gently and with a certain cadence — unlike the clunk and thud of “food server.”

When I started waitressing in the ‘80s, a waitress was still a waitress. According to a article, “How to be politically correct,” the renaming movement began in the ‘70s. To be “PC” was intended to mean inclusive — language that would not cause an individual of any demographic to feel excluded.

Job titles aside, the nature of waiting tables is to be inclusive. Excellent service begins with eye-contact and sincerity. To establish rapport requires a level of trust. Ultimately, the best service feels personal and tailor-made.

Consorting with strangers over a good meal is respectable work, not to mention gratifying. Small kindnesses like excellent service are often undervalued. So let the politicians talk as though they identify with the working class. Let them think their transparent metaphors will create an intimacy with their countrymen.

I know better.

The most influential people in America are the millions in the service industries reduced to first names with job-title surnames, and still garnering trust — one kindness at a time.

• Pam Woolway is the lifestyle writer at The Garden Island. Her column “Being there” appears every other week.


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