I was in the weeds before I knew what that meant. I’d bussed and waited tables for a few months then, working my way through School, and I’d found myself behind the bar at a new restaurant in Seattle. It was there, as a bar back, that I first heard the term “in the weeds.” Little about that night was special, but the dining room filled up while I had my back turn, and a a deluge of drink orders hit me one after another. I tried to handle it. I struggled to muddle lime for caipirinhas and mint for mojitos—we sold a ton of those—and the sweat on my forehead betrayed my frustration at struggling to catch up but feeling trapped under the weight of orders. “James, are you in the weeds?” It was the owner speaking, and smiling a bit. I looked back at her: “What?” The small cluster that had gathered all laughed. “He’s so green he doesn’t know what ‘in the weeds means.’” The owner was right. I didn’t know what in the weeds meant. But I was learning fast.
Over the period in which I worked in restaurants, I ended up doing most everything. After the bar, I waited tables again, and, later, I ended up cooking for a spell. (There were even a few shifts I pulled as a dishwasher.) In every capacity, I learned, one could end up in the weeds. What, exactly, the weeds were depended on what one was doing at that point. If one was a server, the weeds meant having three four-tops just seated in your section, and not being able to visit any of them, because you were dealing with getting the order for a six-top. If you were a cook, the weeds meant you not only had dupes across the whole rail, you’d started to double up on them. If you were a dishwasher, it meant you were getting yelled at because the line needed some ovals to plate things, but you had a tray full of glasses in the dishwasher with 60 seconds to go. But those are all specifics. The universal truth was that once you were in the weeds, it was going to be really hard to climb out. Odds were, once you were in, you were going to be stuck there until the end of the rush. And everyone was going to to know it. Being in the weeds sucked.
Food writer and chef Michael Ruhlman gets a bit at the importance of the weeds in a restaurant kitchen in a 2005 interview:
You can’t lie in a kitchen—that’s what I like most about it. You’re either ready or you’re not, you’re either clean or you’re a mess. You’re either good or you’re bad. You can’t lie. If you lie, it’s obvious. If your food’s not ready, then it’s not ready. If you’re in the weeds, its clear to everybody—you can’t say that you aren’t. So I love that aspect of it. I love the immediacy of it, the vitality of it.
Eventually, I left the restaurant industry. I moved across the country and finished school. For the most part, I didn’t miss the late nights and grease-stained clothes. What I did miss is the honesty Ruhlman speaks of, the focus that comes from knowing that you and everyone else knows exactly how well things are going. That focus seemed elusive in the rest of the world. I think, too, it’s that clarity that a lot of former restaurant workers miss, and so we’d cling to little bits of that world, dropping little verbal crumbs to signal to others we’d once spent time working in restaurants. “Maybe we can grab the two top in the corner,” someone might say, or even say “I’m kind of in the weeds today, can I get back to you later.” For a long time, whenever I heard someone say “in the weeds,” I’d ask whether they’d worked in restaurants, and the answer always came back in the affirmative. I appreciated this fellowship: if someone could survive a restaurant shift, it meant they could steady their nerves, prioritize on the fly, and smile even when it wasn’t quite clear just how things were going to work out. So: “in the weeds” was ours. I thought.
Not long after I began working at an agency, a PM found me with my face buried in a content inventory that sprawled over a giant spreadsheet. She asked me a question about the inventory, which I couldn’t answer at the moment. I was too low to the ground, I told her, and would need a few minutes to look at the bigger picture. “No problem,” she said, “just let me know when you get out of the weeds.” I was a bit taken aback by her words. I wasn’t behind—if anything, I was ahead of schedule—and here she just called me in the weeds. What gives? I let it go, but kept it in mind. Soon, I started to hear other people say they were in the weeds, and never in the way I understood. I started to ask these people about their restaurant history and, to my surprise, that’s not where they’d gotten the term from.
“It’s because we don’t want to say in the shit” said one coworker, which made some sense, but borrowing a military saying didn’t seem to capture the whole meaning by this in the weeds. Instead, people used it to mean granular, or low level: in the weeds was being caught up in details, or being unable to see the forest for the trees. I guessed I could see how this meaning would work, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to say it to mean that. The weeds mean too much to me, too much about what I’d once done, who I’d once been, for me to overwrite that meaning.