The Night Shift

Kadijah Clemons works an overnight shift at the Waffle House in Columbia, S.C.'s Five Points district.  By Jeremy Aaron / Garnet & Black

Kadijah Clemons works an overnight shift at the Waffle House in Columbia, S.C.'s Five Points district. By Jeremy Aaron / Garnet & Black

Co-written with Colin Campbell


Devia Robinson has seen it all.

From the woman who walked out of a restroom naked to the man who tried to order a pizza from her sub shop, she’s borne witness to a full cast of drunken characters in her role as a late-night manager of Jimmy John’s in Five Points.

But one in particular sticks out to her.

“She was super drunk,” Robinson said. “We called her Mayo Girl.”

As Robinson, a fourth-year biology student atUSC, remembers it, this particular customer really loved mayonnaise. Her order was the same every time: a Club Lulu turkey sandwich with extra mayo and a handful of extra packets on the side. The routine was the same just about every night.

When one manager got fed up and refused her the additional mayo, things got ugly. A fiery exchange between the two wasn’t doused in the least when she angrily punched the soda fountain and yanked out all of its spouts, hurling them at the manager while soft drinks sprayed the restaurant. Employees shielded themselves from the spewing soda with their aprons as they hurried to stop the flow.

Mayo Girl stormed out, leaving the Devine Street deli for the last time.

“We banned her from the store,” Robinson said.

Drunken antics from the late-night denizens of Five Points aren’t anything new, but nobody knows them better than Robinson and the crews of restaurant employees who work into the wee hours of the morning, serving up the meals that mark the end of a night out.

For these workers, the tipsy customers are not only a source of income. They’re a source of irritation and of entertainment. And depending on the night, they’re the best and worst parts of the job.

‘They’re just so rude’

On Wednesday through Saturday nights, Kadijah Clemons clocks in at the Waffle House on Harden Street around 9 p.m., and she doesn’t leave until morning, sometimes as late as 8 a.m.

She goes home to sleep and spend an hour or so with her 2-year-old daughter before her morning cosmetology classes at Kenneth Shuler start at 9 a.m. The day ends at 3:30 p.m., when she goes home for another few hours of sleep and caretaking before starting the cycle all over again.

Because she has such a straining schedule and gets so little sleep, Clemons said her customers’ attitudes influence hers a lot — sometimes, one table can make or break a night. Those who are pleasant and tip well make her night, but rude and stingy customers can get under her skin.

“Those customers that run you, and run you, and run you, for nothing — and then they have such bad attitudes — I really hate that,” Clemons said. “And it puts me in a bad mood. I think, ‘Oh my gosh, somebody go take over that table, ’cause I just can’t do it.’

“You have those people who just come in here, and they’re just so rude, because they don’t have a life and their life is so miserable,” she said.

Qdoba manager A.J. Shoemaker isn’t as concerned with customers’ attitudes as much as their cleanliness. On St. Patrick’s Day, the restaurant’s busiest day of the year, trash piles up in the booths, in the bathrooms — everywhere. The floor gets so dirty it turns black, obscuring its tiles.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen this place that destroyed,” said Shoemaker, 23, who has worked at Qdoba for about a year and a half.

Normal weekends aren’t quite as hectic, but they can still be pretty messy. The main concern for Shoemaker, and for employees at any establishment that caters to a late-night, largely intoxicated crowd, is vomit.

Antoine Harley and Eden June are all too familiar with it. The two Benedict College students, a third-year English student and a second-year mass communications student, respectively, are in charge of keeping the front lobby and bathrooms of Cook-Out clean, a challenge at the Harden Street fast-food staple.

“Oh my god,” June said. “The worst part about working this shift is people throwing up.”

‘It’s always something different’

While Mayo Girl never returned to Jimmy John’s, employees there started noticing an odd trend last year, Robinson said. Every so often, a delivery order would come in for a Club Lulu sandwich with extra mayo and more packets on the side.

She was undeterred.

Robinson and the rest of the staff were shocked by her persistence, but restaurant employees throughout Five Points and Columbia’s late-night scene say their jobs leave them incredulous all the time.

Just ask Jon Plato. He’s a delivery driver for Insomnia Cookies and Domino’s Pizza, so most weekends find him waiting on the porches of Columbia’s house parties.

Over the past few years, that has made for some interesting encounters. He’s never quite sure who, or what, will greet him at the door. Plato’s most memorable delivery was to a man who emerged wearing only a paper plate. Others have opted to wear less, streaking past him (or at him, as the case may be) as he drops off their food.

“Normal college things, I guess you could say,” Plato said, sitting at Qdoba around 10 p.m. on a quick break from work.

And about twice a night, he’s met with a certain kind of generosity — invitations to parties and offers of beer and, well, other substances.

Standing with Shoemaker behind the counter, Dee Haynes, 21, said she’s seen some of that sharing spirit herself.

She remembers watching a customer walk outside to a parking lot with his burrito and sharing it with a homeless man, passing it back and forth one bite at a time.

“It’s definitely interesting working here,” Shoemaker said. “It’s always something different.”

Over on Greene Street, Hannah Young said the nights and the chaos of Pita Pit’s peak hours all blur together — a medley of fights, lines of indecisive customers and hours of churning out pita wraps.

But as far as Young, 20, is concerned, the most intriguing part of the job is off the clock, when she and her coworkers step back and observe late night milieu from the restaurant’s front stoop.

Their hangout sits in the hub of Five Points. It was stirred into a panicked frenzy earlier this semester when a man opened fire on a police officer across the street.

Racking her brain for what she finds most interesting about a night on the job, she throws out a few memories from working inside the restaurant, but it’s the antics outside that she settles on.

“Actually, the most entertaining thing is when we sit outside and smoke cigarettes and watch the drunk a—es that walk by,” Young said.

‘What makes me come to work every day’

When a woman walks into Cook-Out wearing a tiara with a yellow feather boa and a 21st birthday checklist draped around her neck, June, the lobby manager, bounds toward her.

As they pose for a photo, a few men jump in the frame, and one starts to sway before a friend holds him up. June smiles for a Snapchat with another patron. A few minutes later, she’s walking around the restaurant with a single yellow feather plucked from the boa, tickling a few customers on the ear as she passes by.

In the meantime, she tends to the restaurant’s housekeeping. She mops, picks up bits of trash from the floor and confiscates a wet floor sign from a group who’d put it on their table. All the while, June belts out a few rhythm-and-blues tunes.

June’s singing has won her some recognition among the restaurant’s regulars. Walking around with a mop, she is stopped by one customer who makes a song request. She happily obliges.
Every so often, she said, the whole restaurant will join her, singing along to Alicia Key’s “No One,” and other tunes.

“When I’m out in the streets sometimes, I feel like a celebrity, because they’ll be like, ‘That’s the girl from Cook-Out,’” June said. “I love my customers.”

While she and Harley, her coworker, willingly acknowledge the downsides of working the Cook-Out night shift, they both say the customers keep them coming back. They say the entertainment and interactions make it all worthwhile.

“What makes me come to work every day is you guys, because the check is not even worth it,” Harley said. “I could do better, [but] it makes you want to be here to see the next customer that comes in.”

June nods in agreement and adds that she enjoys connecting with so many different people in various walks of life and states of mind.

“People are usually in their own little world, and you never know what’s going on,” June said. “You don’t know if they’re having a bad day or they just had a breakup,” so being able to make them smile, she said, gives her great satisfaction.

And just as rude people can drive Clemons, the Waffle House server, crazy after several days of classes and work, cheerful and polite ones can make up for it.

“The best part of my job would be my customers,” Clemons said. “If I’m having a bad day and I just come in and my customers are here, they make my night so much smoother.”

Robinson, the Jimmy John’s manager who’s been known to patronize the deli herself on nights in Five Points, said despite all the exasperation of a long, late-night shift, it doesn’t take much to keep her happy.

“Just don’t throw up everywhere, and we’re pretty good,” she said. “That could be our slogan — We can deal with your s—-, just don’t throw up.”

Originally published in Garnet & Black, Summer 2013