Nightly Assault

Water fills my eyes, threatening to spill onto my cheeks.

My lungs inhale the gray cloud blanketing me, my body trapped directly in its path.

It burns.

Nausea churns in my stomach, the queasiness expanding, growing.

I am helpless. Trapped.

The tainted air claws at my windpipe.

A cough rises. Then another.

I try not to breathe.

“I’ll have the club sandwich.” The man speaks, folding the laminated menu before him. He picks up his cigarette, basking in its haze. Blowing another cloud my way.

I fight another coughing attack. And lose. I take a quick step backwards, grasping for the oxygen offered just a few feet away. I return to the table. “And what can I get you ma’am?” I ask.

“I’ll have the chicken tenders.”

“Excellent. My name is Kelly, if you need anything else.” I flee the nicotine cloud, my throat already raw.

I’m fifteen minutes into my five hour shift.

I tap the order into the touchscreen computer, my eyes traveling to the chart above.

It’s covered in black outlines of tables, each with a number. A dry erase marker circles the various sections, each servers name inscribed in a block.

Six servers work tonight.

Five of them smoke.

Only I do not.

The name “Kelly” scribbled into the only smoking section.


Nobody wants it, the flow of customers too unpredictable.

For me, it is torture.

Every time the hostess seats a smoker, they immediately pull out a plastic covered pack of their brand. They light up.

This is when I greet them, as any good server does, within the first minute of their arrival.

The thick cloud travels from their lips, as they puff and blow, making a beeline up… up…

Directly into my face.

The full brunt of it assaults me, invading my body.

As the night wears on, the sickness grows.

I’m busy tonight, totally in the zone. My section fills to capacity.

I try to think of the money.

I refuse a break, knowing returning after sitting down is worse.

And someone always takes a smoke break in the break room if I do.

The churning continues and I fear I will be sick. I race to the bathroom.

I gag, but manage to keep it down.

I return to work.

“Hi, my name is Kelly, and I’ll be your server this evening. What can I get for you folks?”

Another customer.

Another cloud.

Two more hours.

I leave for the night, my appetite gone.

My eyes gritty with debris, my throat raw from the coughing, my lungs angry about the invasion, and my stomach a storm of bile.

My apron full of cash.

Not enough payment for my pains.

My job makes me physically ill, each time compounding on the last. This night the worst so far.

Tomorrow. I’ll talk to the manager tomorrow.


Write about the first (or second) memory that comes to mind when you see this:

Keep it under 700 words, please.

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About Kelly K @ Dances with Chaos

Kelly K has learned the five steps to surviving of motherhood: 1) Don't get mad. Grab your camera. 2) Take a photograph. 3) Blog about it. 4) Laugh. 5) Repeat. She shares these tales at Dances with Chaos in order to preserve what tiny amount of sanity remains. You can also find her on her sister blog, Writing with Chaos ( sharing memoir and engaging in her true love: fiction writing. It's cheaper than therapy.
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43 Responses to Nightly Assault

  1. Erica M says:

    We seem to always keep those crappy jobs way after the expiration date, don’t we?

    • The main issue was having the smoking section “mine” about 70% of the time for a while. The rest of the time I was usually fine.

      I complained and a manager was understanding, or I lost my “newbie” status and finally had other sections.

      The job wasn’t too bad, until some of the management changed and the new GM assigned was a moron….

  2. Erin says:

    Ohhh I remember that very well. And I remember us fighting over the smoking section, only because it seems that they tipped better or something.

    Now that I think about it, all that second hand smoke and what it could do to my health, was so not worth the money!

    • To this day, the smell of smoke bothers me.

      My husband is amazed how I can scent smoke when the smoker is over 100 feet away, or catch it on his hair (when he still had some) three hours after he walked through a bar for a quick minute.

      Still, the worst was waiting table, where it was just in the air, but directly in the face.

      No smoking laws in restaurants are a godsend.

      My newest pet peeve: people who smoke right next to kids playing on the playground equipment. Areas where children play should have a ban…

  3. Frelle says:

    this was a fantastically written response. what a memory and what a job. bluck.

    • This job is where I developed an oversensitivity to smoke.

      The job wasn’t bad… except when the management changed. Working the smoking section was only the really bad thing.

      There was a lot of pie to make up for it.

  4. janeggg says:

    love love love it as always, you write so beautifully! thank goodness for the smoking ban is all i can say! xx

  5. Aww that’s horrible! I don’t think I have the capacity to refrain from telling those people off, cash or no cash!

  6. I was taken right back with you to that restaurant, feeling each physical assault of the smoke upon you. Really good writing!

  7. Great piece. Sorry you had to go through that.

    Also? I wanted to share with you… I had just enough tabs open and my browser window JUST the right size, that the title of your post on my tab bar appeared as: “Nightly Ass…” 😉

  8. Geri says:

    Very nice post! The physical descriptions were great – I was pretty close to gagging when you did…blech. Waitressing ranks right up there on the sucky job meter: sore feet, the smell of food all day, going home smelling like whatever you served, burns from hot plates, sticky icky clothes, unruly children. All for less than minimum wage and the hope of tips. Yep, sign me up.

    I always wonder – I love garlic, but when eating it I take care not to breathe at anybody and I definitely don’t blow my stinky garlic breath at them. I’ve known a lot of smokers, and most don’t blow their smoke at you…but the ones that do? What’s up with that? Is it some sort of passive aggressive thing? Sort of a, “Go ahead, tell me how these things will give me cancer and I’ll make sure you get an even shot at it too?”

    • It’s true, you do have all of those “side effects” when you wait tables.

      Honestly though, I enjoyed it most nights (when not in smoking, and especially later when I worked a different and more upscale restaurant). I’m a people person, I loved to be busy, I loved talking to people, and I loved making more than my retail working friends when tips were good.

      Now when it was slow… that was something else. And sometimes you just had a bad night.

      I learned never to take a break. As long as I never sat down, I was fine. If I sat down, I didn’t want to get up again.

      Don’t get me started on smokers who blow the smoke at you…

  9. Ugh. That must have been such torture! I’m glad to read in one of your comments that your manager did something about it.

  10. Kir says:

    I worked in a donut shop in town during high school and it was awful just like this, I constantly had a headache and I hated the way I smelled after. Today, it’s better that most restaurants are No Smoking ….you never leave feeling icky. Well almost never.

    what a great piece, I could have been standing there with you, the words bringing the whole thing to life.

    • If you serve any kind of food, you will go home smelling like food.

      I smelled funny when leaving an ice cream shop I worked at for a summer.

      But the smoke is really the killer. It doesn’t matter why, if I smell like smoke at all, I have to shower before bed.

  11. This took me back to my table-waiting days in graduate school. God, I hated the smoke. Karaoke night was Thursday and it was always the WORST; for some reason all the smokers liked to sing to cheesy, blasting music.

  12. Elaine says:

    My favorite line was “….my lungs angry about the invasion…” What a perfect way to describe it! I would have had to quit. No way could I have handled that for 5 hours at a time!

    • Luckily it wasn’t every night, and it wasn’t constant. The worst was the initial order taking, because that’s when everyone instantly lit up and you were trapped taking order. After that I avoided the section except when I had to be there, and I tried to avoid the smoking times.

  13. Ashley says:

    That sucks. I’m an ex-smoker and I would hate to have people smoking in the restaurant I’m eating at or working at. Yuck. Good thing it’s over now.

    • Yeah, I’m glad now it’s banned in most places. I can eat without getting assaulted.

      For a long time when dining, when they’d ask “smoking or non” I would clarify with “As far away from smoking as you can get.” Because often the smoking and non-smoking sections would back right up to each other, no division. You could be in “non” but the next table was “smoking”.

      Drove me crazy.

  14. Kristy says:

    Ugh, how awful. This was a different perspective than others I’ve read. Thank goodness restaurants are smoke free now usually.

  15. Roxanne says:

    Oh wow. This makes me feel really bad for all of the people I tortured with my cigarette smoke in restaurants. I mean, I knew all about second-hand smoke and such, but I remember having a conversation with my friend and we just assumed (as you do when you are young) that they wouldn’t put someone in the smoking section who was so bothered by it. We were wrong. So, on behalf of evil smokers in restaurants everywhere, I’m sorry! 🙂

    • Yes, the managers care nothing (or at least used to) about your smoking habits and what section you worked.

      It’s all about experience, who closes, and if they like you.

      Sad, but true.

      Apology accepted. 🙂

  16. Galit Breen says:

    Ugh! Poor thing! Perfectly written. I could feel your annoyance and how it hurt your body.

    Your words brought me back to those commercials when restaurants first started to go smoke-free.

    What a strange thought now as a mom about people smoking in all public places!

    • As a mom, what gets me is people who smoke ON the playgrounds.

      If there is one public place smoking should be banned, it’s within 100 feet of playgrounds.

      I just love it when my child finds their dirty cigarette butt…

  17. le chef says:

    I’m floored they put you in that section! I understand though. I’m working a job where I’ll talk to the owner … tomorrow. It never is enough money for the grief.

  18. Ok, that was definitely detailed enough to have me smelling it and ready to choke myself. I was a smoker for a long time…but your description of the overpowering smoke in this setting, well done. You had me there!

  19. I have been both a smoker and a server and now that I’ve been a non-smoker for a few years, I realize just how overwhelming it can be… and wonder how I managed to sit in a smoke-filled bar for hours on end… luckily where I live, smoking is banned in public buildings like restaurants and bars now, so servers everywhere can breathe easy…

    • Yes, that is a nice advantage nowadays – most places are smoke free.

      I enjoy dining out a lot more now, plus you don’t have the issue of the non-smoking section full and forced to wait while half the smoking section is empty…

  20. Tiffany says:

    Wow. I remember smoking sections. As if it made a difference when dining. I’m sure it made a difference to the waiter/waitress. Sorry you had this card dealt to you. 😦

  21. andygirl says:

    oh that must have sucked. growing up in a place where smoking wasn’t allowed indoors, I can’t empathize, but you made me feel what you felt as if I was in your body. well done!

  22. Oh I had forgotten about smoking sections. It seems like so long ago people were allowed to smoke inside.
    This is the perfect description of what it was like to be near a smoking section (and I was a smoker)
    The burning eyes, the smell, the smoke clouds.
    How terrible that you had to endure that.

  23. mommakiss says:

    Popping over from Kelly’s fab 5 post, this is a great piece. I remember when we had a pregnant woman working with us and she always got the smoking section – which was ridiculous. Now here and in many states you can’t smoke inside and I LOVE it. For the servers, the patrons, everyone.

  24. Anastasia says:

    I certainly hoped you quit. The writing made me feel like I was there, I felt your pain. I wanted to have a coughing fit. Excellent.

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