“Worst. Shift. Ever.” by Fred Shaw

Fred Shaw


The worst shift ever begins before the sun goes down, when, 
with a bead of sweat at the temple, you read the chef’s specials 
to a four-top, already moist, the air conditioner wheezing along 
in a heat wave. They blame you in silence for its lack of function.

On the worst shift ever, you will serve brown water, poured 
because somewhere a main has snapped, and it’s a full house.

On the worst shift ever you will get cut, 
then get asked to cut lemons, a sting that makes you forget
the chafe burning in the crotch of your Dickies.

On the worst shift ever, your guest will find
a used Band-Aid in their onion soup and a dead cricket 
in their field greens. The idiot manager 
will tell them it’s good luck

On the worst shift ever, you will congratulate
a rotund woman on her pregnancy only to be told 
she’s not expecting.

On the worst shift ever, you will get to explain
to one of your former students, seated in your section, 
the one who loved reading Murakami, what it is 
you’re doing here. You will buy him dessert.

The worst shift ever begins 
with you missing the alarm, then arguing with your girl 
before finding that the only clean pair of boxers 
are stretched and sagging at your hips.

The worst shift ever is a summer Sunday afternoon, 
manning a slow double while the rest of the world 
enjoys the sun. You will get busy and want to stab.

On the worst shift ever, you will find out
your father is in the hospital, or
you’ve been diagnosed with lupus
or that your dog’s been found paralyzed.
You will be asked to finish waiting on your tables
before clocking out.

The worst shift ever happens
when your worst hangover gets multiplied 
by a busser who has called off, 
and the other servers are no-call, no-show.

The worst shift ever is a dishwasher 
without any crack to smoke, or when you get
torn cartilage in your ribs, or find a piece of glass 
digging into your toe. The ER visit will take hours.

The worst shift ever isn’t when the staff threatens to quit,
or when the building gets zapped by lightning, leaving you 
in limbo, but might be finding, on the one night 
you finish early, that your car has been towed.
And if it ends, it ends after midnight
with you huddled at a table, working
on some type of a second drink, counting 
the wrinkled bills, getting yourself steeled 
to do it again, and again, and again.

from Rattle #69, Fall 2020
Tribute to Service Workers


Fred Shaw: “When I first punched into work at Papa J’s Ristorante at sixteen years old, how could I have known I’d still be working in the service industry 32 years later? When I started studying for my MFA, I struggled to come up with ideas for poems, as it seemed my peers could write effortlessly about their personal lives while I hadn’t yet felt comfortable doing so. My mentors turned me on to Phillip Levine, James Wright, Robert Gibb, and Jan Beatty, each of whom celebrate ‘what work is’ (to paraphrase Levine) and show that all jobs are worthy of examination and praise. Since then, I’ve set out in my own way to humanize and recognize those often-faceless members of the service industry, who sustain us in our times of hunger and celebration.” (web)

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