UnderCover Waitress: 2013

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Shoes for Waitresses (and Waiters, too!)

Everybody knows I am a huge fan of Dansko professional clogs. However, different veteran food servers have their own footwear preferences. I recently was asked by a rookie for recommendations for lightweight shoes with non-slip soles.

It would be awesome if readers would take a moment to post a comment with their favorite shoes for restaurant work. Then we would have a database of the best waitressing and waitering shoes on the market today. Thanks so much!!!


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

If it looks like a bad deal, feels like a bad deal, and smells like bad deal...

...it's not a good deal.

Ask the Waitress!
I was offered a job in a small town café. I would be waitressing and helping fix food along with another lady that works there. This would only be for two hours a day during their busy lunch. I would be paid minimum wage, the other worker gets minimum wage also, but she would get to keep all of the tips, which probably range from $40 to $50. She is a full time worker there. She said she would give me $5.00 a week in tips, which I think is a joke. I just feel like I would be taken advantage of, because I would be doing most of the waitressing, and yet she keeps all of the tips? Does this sound right to you? The extra money would be nice, but I think I would feel taken advantage of. This place is very busy at lunch and I would be running my tail off. What do you think?
The biggest problem with small town establishments is when the owners, managers and even employees think they are above the rules. "This is how we do things here," "This is how it's always been," and "We all know each other; we don't need regulation" are my least favorite things to hear in any workplace.

First, it sounds as if you would be both kitchen and dining room help. Paying you at least minimum wage is appropriate; it also makes asking you to work in the kitchen while also serving tables legal. No problem here.

Also, if you are making minimum wage, then you are not necessarily owed tips. However, if customers are leaving you tips then you may have a right to that money.

If you are serving your own tables, then customers who leave a tip are leaving it for you. An employer requiring you to keep only $5 per week is being grossly unfair and this is cause to complain to the Department of Labor.

If you are both serving tables together, it makes sense you would split the tips.

If there is at tip jar at the counter, it should be emptied before you begin work. All tips earned by the two of you working together get split.

I don't know anything except what you wrote above, so there may (?) be other details that could affect my answer. But responding solely to your words above, you are correct. $5 per week in tips is not only a joke, it is an insult. It sounds as if they need the extra help during the busy lunch shift, but are not willing to pay your fairly in return for your labor.

I know you wrote to me a couple of weeks ago; I hope you made the decision that felt best to you, and I wish you good luck.

Thanks for asking the waitress!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

IRS Audits and Waitress Tips

Ask the Waitress!
My boyfriend is a server at a restaurant. What he makes in tips in cash he, like most servers, doesn't report all of his tips. So at the end of the weekend, he will take his mix of reported and unreported tip money and deposit it into his bank account. Is this smart? What if he were to get audited for whatever reason by the IRS on his tax return?
These are important questions.

What the Law Says

First, UnderCover Waitress will never condone, advise or recommend breaking the law. Not reporting all of your income is breaking the law. All tips are considered income, including credit card tips, cash tips, and non-cash tips.

A non-cash tip, for example, would be two tickets to your favorite team's home game. A customer may give you these in lieu of a tip. If each ticket cost $10, you claim $20 when you file your taxes with the IRS. Technically, you do not need to report that $20 non-cash tip income to your employer, just to the IRS.

I discuss the details of keeping track of your tips for tax purposes on the H&R Block website. Read it here: How to Keep Track of Your Tips for Tax Purposes.

Red Flags and Tax Audits

1. Deposits

The scenario is your boyfriend works four nights in one week. Each night, he makes $100 in cash tips for a total of $400. Each night, he claims $80 in cash tips; 4 x 80 = $320. At the end of the week, instead of depositing $320 in cash, he deposits $400.

This represents one possible red flag for the IRS. There is a record of the $320 in cash tips your boyfriend made, but no record of the additional money he deposited. $80 of his cash deposit for the week is unaccounted for; if he gets audited the IRS will want to know where the money came from.

2. Percentages

The IRS expects that waiters and waitresses will earn in tips at least a certain percentage of sales. We all aim for twenty percent, but sometimes we make less. If you claim below a certain percentage, this may be a red flag for the IRS to audit you.

I don't want to incite panic; if you have a bad night it does not mean you are going to be audited.

Long-Term Considerations

Beyond this scenario and the problems your boyfriend will face if he gets audited, there are other, long-term concerns.

A worker's future social security income is determined by how much money he made and claimed on his tax forms. The less the IRS thinks you made, the poorer you will be someday when you depend upon social security.

If you want to save or invest money, you create a record of that money. It may be better to claim your income and use it wisely than to have unaccounted for cash lying around.

Hope that helps, and thanks for asking the waitress!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Florida Server Tips and Dine and Dash

Ask the Waitress!

I am in Florida. I thought it was illegal for supervisors and management in the restaurant business to accept tips not only from the tipped employees but also as part of their job, leading to them even taking tables away from servers with the excuse of helping out the server(s) or sending the scheduled server home early so they could  pick up tables. Thanks for the help. Also I thought it was illegal to charge the servers for walk-outs -federally and state enforced thanks again. 

Unfortunately, Florida is not the best state for worker rights. I will begin with my usual caveat, I am not a lawyer. I can not and do not give legal advice. You bring up a few issues in your question, let's tackle them one at a time, shall we?

Tip Pools

It is illegal for management to take worker tips; in other words, you manager may not dip their hands into a tip pool. Managers may not receive tip outs from servers (or anyone else.) This is a federal regulation.

Taking Tables

You also ask about managers taking tables. I believe they get around this by having more than one job. If a manager sends you home and takes tables, then the manager is also performing the duties of a server. I highly doubt that the manager clocks out and clocks back in at a server's wage, and the restaurant is saving a whopping $2.13 per hour per sever by sending you home. That is not a large savings, and the only person who seems to benefit is the manager. Technically, however, I believe it is legal. The manager is not taking your tips if she tells you that is not your table.

It is unwise and unethical for management to do this. It alienates servers who will feel understandably angry and cheated. Happy employees focus on doing a good job. Unhappy employees focus on anything else, including getting a different job elsewhere. Alienated employees talk, as well. I can't imagine an unhappy server suggesting that her friends eat at her restaurant -- just the opposite is true, and unhappy employees can decrease a company's business.

The recent Starbuck's lawsuit brings up one other issue: calling an employee a supervisor does not magically change her job description. The reason that shift supervisors at Starbuck's do receive a portion of tips is that 95 percent of their job is serving customers, which is what employees are tipped for. The real test of whether an employee has a right to participate in the tip pool is her job description, not a fancy job title. This is worth mentioning; however, I have no doubt that when you say, "manager," you are referring to somebody with a managerial job description.

Walk-Outs

The Consumerist published a well-written response to the question, "Is it legal for restaurants to charge servers for walk-outs?" The rules and regulations regarding this are federal. One scenario is crystal clear, the other is a bit of a gray area.

Crystal Clear

First, if the removal of the cost of the walk-out throws the server to below minimum wage, then this seems to be a clear case of wage theft. Let's say you make $3 per hour and the minimum wage is $8. (I use round numbers for ease.) You have to make $5 per hour in tips in order to make full minimum wage. If you only make $3 each hour in tips, then you are making $6 per hour. Your employer owes you an addition $2 per hour.

Let's say you work ten hours. You make $3 per hour in wages, and $6 per hour in tips. You have made more than the minimum wage of $8; you have made $9 per hour for ten hours = $90.

One of your tables walked out of the restaurant. Their bill was $20. Your employer makes you pay, which brings you down to $70 for ten hours. This is below minimum wage, and illegal. Your employer is now guilty of wage theft.

Gray Area

In the above example, let's say the walk-out only cost you $10. You have had to pay for a walk-out, but still have $80 for ten hours, which means you made minimum wage. Is this legal?

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, tips are the property of the employee. Outside of a valid tip pool, employers may not require employees to turn over their tips to the restaurant.

It may not be considered wage theft because tips are not wages. However, it still seems to be a violation. The problem is that it happens all of the time, and restaurant owners and managers get away with it.

It won't cost you anything to give your local Florida Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division a call and tell them your employer is taking your tips to cover restaurant costs. If more servers stand up for their rights, perhaps we won't lose them.

Good luck, and thank you for Asking the Waitress!








Saturday, August 24, 2013

Tip Credits, Taxes and Pay Stubs, oh, my!

Ask the Waitress!
What is the actual percentage an employer can claim from my tips for my paycheck? Example: I made $43 last week, and my employer claimed $60 in my paycheck.
When I first read your question, I thought you were asking me about taxes. When I read it again carefully, it sounds like you are asking about claiming tips to the IRS, which is a different question. I am going to attempt to answer both.

Claiming Tips

This answer is short and sweet. If you made $43 in tips, you claim $43 in tips. Not $20, not $60; you claim $43. Your employer does not get to change how much you claim in tips, unless, of course, he wishes to tip you the difference between $43 and $60.

I am going to assume that your employer did not slip you an extra $17. The most likely reason he would want to claim more tips than you made is to avoid paying you his tip credit. For example, let's say you make a tipped minimum wage of $3 per hour, and let's say minimum wage is $7 per hour. If you do not make enough in tips to bring you up to minimum wage every week, then your employer owes you enough money to bring you up to minimum wage.

He may have changed your tip claim to avoid paying you. If this is the case, it qualifies as wage theft and should be reported to the Department of Labor.

Taxes

To answer this question specifically, I need more information. The Tax Policy Center explains that income tax does vary from state to state and the District of Columbia. I don't know where you are.

I am going to assume, for ease of answering, that you are paid or given a pay stub on a weekly basis. (Most establishments pay ever other week. In your question, you said "last week.")

I don't know what your hourly pay rate is; some states require that tipped employees be paid full minimum wage. The other way to say this is some states do not allow employers to take a tip credit.

Taxes are taken out of ALL of your pay; you pay income tax to the feds and to the state, depending upon where you work, on both tips and wages. Therefore, you may have weeks that you owe your employer. Instead of a paycheck and pay stub, you will receive a pay stub indicating that your taxes exceeded your hourly wage. This is much more likely, however, when you have weeks in which make a lot of money. If you made $43 in tips, then this does not add up.

Don't know if there may be an affordable tax professional in your area? You may be able to find somebody knowledgable to take a look at your pay stubs and figure out what is going on, be it legal or illegal. Even an hour's worth of her time may be worth your peace of mind.

Hope that helped.

Thanks for asking the waitress!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Employee or Customer Restrooms

Ask the Waitress!
Is it true that employees may not use public restrooms anymore in restaurants in Indiana? There are about 50 employees at my store & only one toilet in back for employees & its kinda gross & full of tools & cleaning supplies. Yesterday it wouldn't flush after I used it. It does not have a feminine waste receptacle either! Thank you!

Ew. My sympathies.

As always, federal and state laws may be different, but states must follow federal laws. Some states add more protections than the feds.

Federal Law

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) is the federal government agency that regulates your right to use a restroom while working. The Sanitation Standard states that employers must make a toilet facility available to employees. Employees must be allowed to use the toilet facility in a timely fashion. (There are some exceptions in the case of mobile work crews, but I don't that applies here.)

That doesn't give you much protections. It is saying your boss has to provide a toilet facility for you to use (and to use in a timely fashion; in other words, you can't be expected to wait an hour if you need to go.)

The American Restroom Association quotes OSHA as saying that the minimum number of water closets to employees is 3 toilets to 36-55 employees. With 50 employees in your store, it sounds like your boss needs to provide two more toilets.

To the best of my knowledge, the Sanitation Standard was written as late as 1998 and the intent was to allow employees to use the restroom to avoid medical conditions that occur when people are not able to void. This was a problem on factory floors before 1998; it may still be a problem today. I discuss that in more detail in Bathroom Breaks.

Indiana

A 2006 entry on The Labor Law Center Blog begins:
I think it is interesting to note that Indiana does not have any laws on the books specifically related lunches and breaks, except those pertaining to minors.
Doesn't sound promising; the Indiana Department of Labor may not have improved upon the federal standards.

Based upon the reading I have done so far, I think that your employer is not in violation of any law when requiring employees to use a different toilet facility; the issue here is whether or not the employee facilities are in compliance with existing law. I would look for these things:


  • Number of toilets per employees -- we already ascertained your boss may be in violation.
  • Either a toilet room with a closed door, or a different toilet room for each gender. 
  • A working toilet -- if it won't flush, it's not working, as he has to let you use the customer restrooms until it is fixed. 
  • There must be a hand washing facility for your to use, complete with soap. 

If those requirements are not met, or you feel the bathroom facility is filthy and, therefore, unusable, you may wish to contact your state's OSHA:

Indianapolis Area Office
46 East Ohio Street, Room 453
Indianapolis, Indiana 46204
(317) 226-7290
(317) 226-7292 FAX


If you are so inclined, you may ask your state's OSHA to come inspect the restaurant. I assume you can request anonymity, and employer retaliation is probably illegal.

Please remember I am not a lawyer and I don't even play one on TV. Just a stupid waitress. ;-) I am not giving you legal advice, but I am rooting and cheering for you. Laborers should be treated like human beings. Good luck, and thank you for Asking the Waitress!



Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Facebook and Federal Law: You May Be Protected

The First Amendment restricts the government's ability to stop citizen speech. We are (supposedly) free to assemble in public, free to speak, and free to make peaceful protests. Unfortunately, many Americans misinterpret "freedom of speech" to mean they can say whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want. This is not the case.

Please remember that right & wrong do NOT always correlate with legal & illegal. Take the Jim Crowe laws, for example. Blacks can not eat in this restaurant? Sounds wrong to me. But at the time, it was legal because it was what the law stated.

In, "Work and Facebook Do Not Mix," I defended a private employer's right to require employees to not discuss work issues via social media outlets such as Facebook not because I think employers should rule our every waking moment, but rather, because I knew that the First Amendment does not restrict a private employer from doing so.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB,) bless their souls, are taking a stand on behalf of employee speech. In, "Federal Labor Law Picks Up Where The First Amendment Leaves Off," I discuss the five employees of Hispanics United of Buffalo who were fired for discussing work on Facebook. They sued and won, not because of the First Amendment, but because the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects employees who wish to discuss work outside of work hours and off of work premises.

This is good news for labor advocates. However, it is not a free pass to slander your employer or your customers.

The terminated employees of Hispanics United of Buffalo prevailed because their Facebook speech served specific purposes. They were attempting to help each other defend against an accusation of laziness. They were expressing their concerns and their frustrations. They were offering each other mutual aid.

They were not slandering nor sabotaging their employer's business. They were not attempting to harass, bully, or intimidate.

The NLRB recognizes that social media is the new "water cooler" for employees. The conversation had by the five ex-employees above would have taken place at a local restaurant, bar, or park in the days before everybody jumped on the internet. The NLRB is attempting to apply old laws to new technology and new lifestyles in order to protect the long-standing rights of those of us who labor for a living.

Viva la worker! :-) 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Guest Post: Tips When Dining Abroad

Virginia Cunningham is a writer and world traveler who enjoys traveling with her family to experience different cultures, cuisine and music. Whenever she is visiting a country with which she is unfamiliar, she makes sure to brush up on that country’s etiquette.

Please enjoy her guest post: Tips When Dining Abroad. 

Tips for Dining Abroad

Getting around a foreign land can be challenging as is, and when you add dining into the mix, it can altogether be an entertaining or problematic experience. To ensure that your stay in a country is as savory as the food you’ll be eating, here are some tips to consider when dining abroad.

Don’t be afraid to tell your waiter or waitress that you don’t understand the menu. Ask him or her what they would suggest for you to try. This will ensure you get a chance to try the restaurant’s specialties and that you won’t be staring with a lost look at the menu for too long.

Perhaps you see other patrons digging into what looks to be a delectable dish – don’t be afraid to ask the waiter or the patrons themselves what they are having and that you’d like to try that dish as well.

Scout out popular eateries, dishes or holes-in-the-wall before going on your trip so that you are prepared once you reach your destination. Some sites even help you do research on a location based on specific topics such as “nightlife” and “foodies,” so that exploring what a town has to offer is easy and enjoyable. 

Learn some key words beforehand. If you’re pescatarian and refuse to eat any other type of meat, you will definitely want to learn how to say “fish” in the country’s native language. Furthermore, bring a handy dictionary along with you, either physically or via a smartphone app, so as to not stumble around for choice words when ordering.

Even if you do stumble and totally butcher the name of a meal, never fear! Most places will be understanding that you are a tourist and would be more than happy to assist you in getting you to learn more about their country and cuisine.

If all else fails and your adventurous palate has gotten the best of you, simply smile and point to what you want to try.

When traveling and eating abroad, it is also important to be wary of how your food is cooked. If it’s raw or looks undercooked at all, you may want to avoid it altogether - while the locals may have the stomach to enjoy such foods, just be aware that your body may not be as well-equipped. The same idea goes for drinking water – you may not be able to stomach tap water like the locals, so bottled water is the best option.

When going on a trip abroad, it is important to realize that there will be customs that are different from the ones you are be accustomed to, especially when it comes to table manners. For instance, the following are examples of international dining etiquette:

Japan:

During funerals, the deceased’s rice bowl is placed atop the coffin with chopsticks sticking upright in the rice – thus, never place your chopsticks upright when eating! Instead, place them flat and parallel to the table.

Middle East, India, Africa:

Eat with your right hand only, because the left hand is considered to be used only for other bodily purposes. That is, unless you are left hand dominant, in which case, don’t use your right hand for eating.

China:

Don’t flip a fish around once you’ve finished eating one side of it – it is considered bad luck. Instead, don’t eat the bottom part at all (as the most superstitious would follow) or you can pick behind the bone to get to the meat.

Chile:

It is rude to eat with your hands. Use a fork and knife instead, even when eating fries.

Moreover, while it is considered polite to finish all of the food on your plate in many Asian countries as a sign that the food was appreciated, in the Middle East, it is best if you don’t finish everything on your plate as this is a sign of the host’s abundance of goods.

Thus, it is important to research etiquette before you travel abroad. Also take cues from the locals as to what is acceptable when it comes to dining out.

If all else fails, talk to a local who is willing to teach you the ropes – you may even make a new friend!


Bon appetit!

Monday, July 29, 2013

My Kingdom for a Waitress Job Description

People take their job descriptions for granted. A math teacher is unlikely to be required to shine the floors in her classroom. The pizza delivery guy does not have to bake the pies. A financial analyst will not be expected to design the company's website.

According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 70 percent of waitstaff in the fifty states are women. The industry is considered "pink collar," which means that it is blue collar labor dominated by women.

 It is also highly unregulated. It was a rude shock to discover that waiting tables comes with no expectation of a job description in most states. A few states have put in place that waitstaff job duties must relate to the dining room, but most states leave this up to the employer.

This means that waitresses reasonably do more than just walk your food. We clean the dining room, polish silverware and glassware, fold napkins... nothing in the dining room should be dirty or out of place. In most states, we earn less than minimum wage, but rely on the tips that diners leave us for our service.

Other jobs that I have performed while working as a "waitress" for tipped minimum wage include, but are not limited to:

 Janitor

 I have cleaned bathrooms as part of my job description, including scrubbing toilets. No restaurant owner I have worked for supplied gloves or other safety supplies for the waitstaff/janitors. I have brought in my own disposable gloves, at my own expense. I have also worked in places where I was allowed to use food-handling gloves from the kitchen. However, I am the only waitress I know of who ever bothered to cover her hands as an extra precaution while cleaning public toilets.

Window Washer

It makes sense that a waitress would use some Windex on windows in her section of the restaurant. Especially after a brunch shift, children may have left greasy handprints on the inside of the windows.

It is another thing, however, to give a food server a large bucket of sudsy water and a sponge, ask her to stand on a ladder and clean the restaurant's outdoor windows. Some of those ladders felt old and rickety.

Shoveling the Walk

This is something that I got away with not doing. A passive-aggressive manager yelled at me in front of my tables "Somebody has to step up around here!" When no waitress on our staff:

  • Bundled up in hat, coat, gloves, and boots; 
  • performed hard labor; 
  • came back in not sweaty or smelly from shoveling the walk; 
  • did it fast enough so as to not fall behind in table service; 

that manager went out and did it herself in her work clothes. After that, the restaurant scheduled the dishwasher to come in a little early and paid him a full wage to shovel the walk in the winter. If any waitress had caved in, we'd be doing it to this day.

Dishwasher

Another fun trick some restaurant owners like to do is send the dishwasher, who is making at least full minimum wage, home or simply not schedule him at all. It then becomes part of the waitstaff's job description to wash the dishes at less than minimum wage.

Cook

Lots of restaurants require that waitstaff also prepare food. This would be legal if we were paid at least full minimum wage for doing so. Instead, we are often paid our usual tipped minimum wage for preparing salads and desserts.

One restaurant required us to make salads for the next shift. Part of closing the lunch shift was preparing salads for the dinner shift. And yes, the dinner shift made salads at the end of the evening for the lunch shift the next day. If you think your salad is not fresh, it is because your salad is not fresh.

Another restaurant owner I worked for liked fancy-looking desserts, and required servers to make them so. Canned whipped cream was not good enough, so he insisted that we make whipped cream in the back. During a busy brunch shift I panicked because the whipped cream was loose. I had no time to go back in the kitchen and beg the cooks to let me use the beater in the middle of the shift. I ended up serving a dessert with imperfect-looking whipped cream, a sin in my boss' mind. I had a full section and couldn't spend a large amount of time working as a cook in the kitchen trying to perfect whipped cream. For this, I was threatened with job loss.

The list goes on. I remember one slow shift during which the manager on duty decided it was a great time to strip and wax the bathroom floors. The idea that the restaurant owner might pay a professional to do this when the restaurant was closed was unthinkable.

None of this extra work stops diners from complaining if we are not at their table the minute they want us. I have come out of the dish room and had customers gripe, "We thought you must have been texting your friends in the back. We want..." Sometimes I tell them what I have been doing, but if the job was too gross, I refrain.

When service suffers because waitresses like me are "Janes of all trades," our tip averages go down. Therefore, requiring us to perform various and sundry job duties that have nothing to do with serving food does affect our ability to earn an income.

Right now, at-will employment laws and right-to-work states are fighting back against any progress laborers have made in protecting themselves from grotesque exploitation. What we need are rules and regulations that protect laborers in all trades, including "pink collar," so we can earn a living, enjoy basic safety at work and have jobs with reasonable expectations and a reasonable degree of job security.

This post is part of BlogHer's Women@Work editorial series, made possible by AFL-CIO.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Mommy, What is Hooters?

I just found an awesome website, Girls Can't What?  with a highly relevant post that may have been written in 2007, but sadly is still newsworthy.

"Mommy, What is Hooters?" is a short anecdote about (obviously) trying to explain to a young girl about soft porn masquerading as the restaurant industry.

I keep track as best I can of how and why people find Under Cover Waitress on a place as large and easy to get lost in as the internet. I have to admit that it pains me to see that my biggest draws are articles about Hooters, such as Hooters Girl Requirements. Usually it seems that people are trying to get hired, and some of the comments are as sexist and ridiculous as the worst Hooters patron.

When I discuss things such as the requirement to entertain while dressed in little more than a bikini, it is with sadness, derision, and anger. Sure, I've been called uptight, b*tch, even frigid because of my political and feminist viewpoints. I find it amusing, really, because those who know me in person must get accustomed to my loud and frequent laugh, well-developed sense of humor and love for good fun, good company, and good food.

May we empower our daughters to rise above and be better than many factions of society would approve. Society has extremely poor judgement.  

Friday, July 19, 2013

My First Writer's Weekend: Jailhouse Interview

I recently joined Writer's Weekend. Every weekend, a selection of prompts is sent out and writers craft a 1,000 - 2,000 word short story based upon the prompts. It may be off-topic for the restaurant industry, but it is a lot of fun and I do love to write.

This weekend, I was supposed to maintain the theme "sexy" in addition to responding to my chosen prompt. Oops. I was already about 700 words into my story when I remembered that, and was truly on a roll. Instead of changing where I was going with the story, I simply hope my fellow Writer's Weekend participants will forgive me.

I responded to this prompt: "A woman who cannot die grabs the wrong briefcase in San Francisco."
Please enjoy my short story.

The Plight of the Immortal: Jailhouse Interview



Sometimes, I wish I could die.

I've known I was immortal since I was very young. I was born in 1945 in a concentration camp in Austria. While liberation was not far off, the conditions I survived as a newborn, including lack of food, water, and the presence of typhus and lice seemed to be a modern-day miracle. Modern-day miracles such as this earn the attention of an international organization, the Society of Immortals.

The Society has been around since the dawn of time. Nobody knows why a handful of creatures periodically come into this world unable to perish, but we do keep watch for each other. When people survive the impossible, the Society contacts them. When children survive the impossible, such as in my case, the Society watches until we attain 16 years of age, then they make contact.

There are famous immortals, but the Society does not approve of their fame. Harry Houdini is immortal. Not to detract from his cleverness at hiding keys and untangling himself from chains, he was never at risk for drowning. The Society encouraged him to end his career and simulate his death in 1926, which was supposedly from a ruptured appendix.

The Society does not approve of immortals calling attention to themselves because in so many cases it causes trouble.

Mortals can subconsciously sense immortality, and you mortals usually respond like wild animals with hackles raised. The Salem Witch trials began as a response to immortality. One of the tests was submerging a supposed witch in water. If she sank and died, she was considered mortal. If she floated up and breathed, she was a witch. No matter how long we remained submerged in water, we would eventually rise to the top alive. Many, many mortals died as a result of this confusion and panic during the Salem Witch Trials.

You have heard about immortals and the mortal response to us all over history. Gladiators were often immortal, and those attempting to find ways to kill those who could not be killed devised the cruelest weapons for battle.

Many medieval torture techniques came out of desperate attempts to kill immortals. Can you imagine surviving the Iron Maiden? We did.

As a young man, Torquemada discovered an immortal who had been born into a Jewish family. His eventual response was disastrous.

When mortals act on their fear of immortality, countless innocent mortals suffer and die.

Jesus of Nazareth may be the most famous immortal. He earned the wrath of the Society when he refused to wait to come out of his tomb; protocol back then required he wait 70 years, not three days.

Jesus still can't resist getting involved and calling attention to himself; he gains fame now and then under different names until the Society tells him to simulate his death and be quiet for awhile. Remember Ghandi? Same guy. He was never at risk for truly starving himself during the hunger strikes, but they were no less painful.

Immortals are taught to be careful not to call so much attention to ourselves, however. When we do, history changes, and usually for the worse. Wars get started. Civilizations self-destruct.

Catholic Queen Mary of England was aware of the existence of immortality, and it frightened her. Her burning people at the stake was never about Protestantism; it was about immortality. She incorrectly believed that if she burned us at the stake we would not survive. It takes over one hundred years for the ashes of a completely burnt immortal to heal, which is why Queen Mary could believe that immolation worked. Unlike other mortals who attempted to murder immortals, she never saw her victims appear again.

Which brings me to my dilemma.

A few years ago I was in a crowded BART station during the morning rush hour. I had a leather briefcase full of manuscripts and historical documents from World War I that I had been researching for the Society. I made the mistake of setting my heavy briefcase down to rest my arm. If I could take one moment from my eternal life back, it would be that one.

My train swept in and waves of people rushed in and out of the cars in a surprisingly orderly fashion. In order to get a seat, I jumped and grabbed my briefcase from the ground as I joined the wave. I noticed nothing different in its heavy weight.

Lucky enough to get a seat, I sat for a moment until the train was underway. People standing were packed in like sardines. I cracked open my briefcase and reached my hand in -- only then did it start to dawn on me this wasn't my briefcase. My hand touched stacks of bills. In my initial shock, I opened the briefcase wider and looked at what was in my hand. The bank had treated the money in an attempt to catch the robbers, and blue dye blew up all over me and the people around me. I froze. There was nothing I could do, nowhere I could go.

Of course, the people screamed and pandemonium ensued. Someone hit the security buzzer. The train stopped and the police escorted me off the train.

Being rather naive, I wasn't initially worried. Had I known I had a briefcase full of stolen money I never would have opened it on public transit, and certainly not on such crowded public transit, at that. Of course, if that argument had set me free then I would not be speaking with you now.

The money had been stolen just a few days prior by a sociopath who had lain low and was now attempting to flee the country. He had stolen the money after a series of murders. I was now connected to the serial killings of at least six people.

This criminal mastermind had gotten away, but the police had me. While they never believed that I was the killer, but they never ceased to believe that I was helping the killer escape and had deliberately traded briefcases. The prosecution argued that the money was meant to be payment for my helping the killer escape. According to the prosecution, my biggest mistake was being too greedy to wait to open the briefcase full of money. Had I opened it in private, the money would still be useless but I might have escaped detection.

The jury agreed with the prosecution. The judge gave me life in prison.

So you understand my dilemma.

Here I sit in my jail cell. How many years will it take before guards start getting nervous?
Will I become the subject of a modern-day folktale about the ghost of the women's jail, perhaps similar to the Legend of Sleepy Hollow which is based upon an unfortunate immortal's history.

Will the other inmates begin to think I am a witch, or possessed by the devil? Will humanity find new ways to beat and torture me because I cannot die? I am truly frightened, both for myself and for others. How many mortals will die arduous deaths because of the fear and panic my very existence will incite in the hearts of men and women as the years wear on and I never die?

It is only a matter of time.

My only hope is that you believe me. If you do, will you please help me? If you could please smuggle in a canister of gasoline and a lighter, the Society of Immortals and I would be truly obliged.


Please?