The year was 1993. I was a freshman at UTC and very much living the life of the typical broke and starving college student.
In order to improve my situation, I looked for a part-time job. After weeks of searching, I was finally hired as a busser at 212 Market.
I was ecstatic. 212 was within walking distance of my dorm. (I didn’t own a car back then.) Not only would they work around my school schedule and pay me an hourly rate, but I would get a few bucks in “tip out” from each of the servers at the end of each shift.
The only problem was that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
Being a busboy might be considered an easy job, but I was intimidated. My fast-food cashier experience during high school hadn’t quite prepared me for the world of upscale dining. I would have to learn everything. Fortunately, 212 had a fantastic and helpful staff.
Running the show was the general manager, Jim Wilson. Jim was the perfect manager. He exuded confidence and earned respect. He always dressed in a suit, and he knew the business. Jim explained what was expected of me and showed me the ropes. He was firm but endlessly approachable. We chatted often about our mutual love of baseball, and he often stressed how important it was for our front-of-the-house staff to work as a team. Whenever I had a question, he said, all I had to do was ask someone.
I asked a ton of questions, and everybody was great to me. I learned about the menu. I learned how to properly clear and set a table. I learned a lot about my new city and the restaurant’s clientele. Despite my progress, however, I was constantly afraid of messing up, and the fact that I did mess up on occasion didn’t help.
Once, in front of a party of 20, I dropped a bottle on a customer’s head. Another time, while bussing a table in the front of the restaurant, I accidentally lit a tablecloth on fire with a decorative candle. These flubs reminded me that I was, by no means, a natural when it came to the restaurant business and that I was going to have to work as hard as I possibly could in order to compensate for my rough edges. And so I did.
Each shift, I patrolled the dining room like some sort of crazed dish stalker. I would clear and reset tables as fast as I could. I would constantly ask servers if they needed any help. Often, after they had pre-bussed a couple of salad plates or empty drink glasses, I would meet them on their way to the kitchen so I could dump their trays for them-even on slow nights.
They seemed appreciative and were generous at tip-out time, but I still thought that I was just one bad shift away from getting fired.
On a random weeknight a few weeks into my time at the restaurant, Jim asked me to meet him in the office.
“Oh, man. This is it,” I thought to myself. “What did I do?”
I walked in and closed the door.
“This won’t take long,” he said. “I just wanted to thank you for the great job you’re doing. Everybody’s been talking about it, and I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate it.”
“Wow . thank you,” I said, fairly stunned.
“No, thank you,” he replied.
We then both went back out to the dining room. He walked over to greet a guest. I stood by the coffee maker, speechless. Within minutes, the nervousness I had felt during and each every shift faded away. “I guess I can do this,” I said to myself.
Jim’s words might seem fairly commonplace in the grand scheme of things, but they were huge to me. At that point in my life-barely 20 years old-I had never taken such a big step outside of my comfort zone. I had overcome a huge challenge, and the thought of facing other challenges somehow seemed a little less daunting. A few months later, at Jim’s urging, I became a waiter at 212-something else I never thought I could do when I moved here.
Jim passed away a few years later in an accident, and moments after getting over the initial shock of the news, I remembered the kind words he said to me that night in the office. To this day, they still pop into my mind anytime I face a challenge. In the years since, I’ve gone out of my way to let people know when they were doing a good job-like Jim would have done.
There are no perfect people. And there is arguably no better way to learn than by making mistakes. Don’t let the fear of making mistakes cause you to miss out on opportunities to learn. And don’t be afraid to share a compliment every once in a while.
Former Chattanooga Pulse Editor Bill Colrus writes about (in no particular order) news, culture and media. You can find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter or reach him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.