May 2014—I’d just graduated from a relatively prestigious university with a 3.8 GPA, a bachelors in English, and a writing job already lined up. This oh-so-effortlessly fit into the imaginary timeline I had in my head. I had every intention of landing a job right out of school, doing exactly what I wanted to be doing.
The job fell through.
And so I did something that never fit into my imaginary timeline. I got a job in the food industry.
Initially, I thought this hostess-turned-waitress job would be a few months, at the most. A temporary way to pay some student loans while I looked for something else. I never thought I’d stay in it as long as I did, I had no idea how hard it would be, and I never would have dreamed I’d learn so much about the world, people in general, and myself.
1. I learned that you’re inherently no better than anyone else.
I lucked out in life. I’ve had every opportunity to succeed. I like to think I’d never treat anyone like they’re any less than me because of it, but there’s nothing like a year of waiting tables to make damn well sure of it. It’s humbling.
No one here cared that I had a degree. Not that I expected them to, really, but when it comes down to nearly thirty hungry, impatient, and mostly drunk people in your section on a Friday night, your background in Liberal Arts isn’t going to help you. Neither is your morality, or your beliefs. If a one-armed republican atheistic leprechaun got those drinks to those tables in a timelier manner, it would be the one-armed republican atheistic leprechaun who got the tips that night.
Some of the smartest people I’d ever spoken to had no business being on that floor. Some of the hardest workers I’d ever seen in my life were not legally permitted to have jobs in this country. When it comes down to working in the restaurant industry, you’re not so much a person as you are a pair of hands, and your boss does not care where these hands came from or where they’re going. No one cares about your race, your sexual orientation, or your political beliefs. They just care that you do what you’re told.
2. I learned that waiting tables is way harder than it looks.
When I signed up, I figured the job description would call for memorizing a menu, navigating a touch screen, and maybe carrying three plates at once. I was very wrong.
Yes, you’re expected to get people fed. But you’re also expected to be their therapists, their advisors, their dieticians and their verbal punching bags. You’re expected to be there when they want you and scarce when they don’t. You’re expected to clean toilets, carry sixty-pound boxes, fill thousands of ramekins of sauces, and pick up the slack wherever it happens to be running short.
You’re also expected to roll with whatever comes at you. If you get eight of the most insultingly loud, sexist people you’ve ever met in your life, you’re expected to smile and ask them if they’d like another round. If you get seated once during a seven hour shift on your feet, you’re expected to walk out of there with ten dollars to show for it and not a single complaint.
3. I learned that people will see you as expendable.
The main restaurant I worked at was busy. I’m talking two-hour waits on a Wednesday and a strict no-reservation policy, because the place was already chock full on mere walk-ins.
For a server or a busser in America, salary and number of customers have a direct relationship, and the amount of applications that came into this place was through the roof. People wanted your job. And when people want your job, the owners and managers realize that they don’t necessarily need to “fix” you; they can just replace you.
I’ve seen people get fired over checking the time on their phones. I’ve seen people get fired over he-said-she-saids, and conversations that should’ve been kept private. I saw an otherwise great waitress get fired because the manager (who’d never liked her to begin with) set a fork down on the floor, and when she didn’t immediately see it, was deemed “careless about the customers’ safety.”
People filtered in and out of this place like clockwork, and “job security” wasn’t exactly a common theme here. It starts to weigh on you.
4. I learned that there are shamelessly appalling people out there.
There are people who will fight with their significant others in front of you and ask you to choose a side. There are people who will harass you in front of their friends just to seem cool. There are people who will sit in your section for four hours and then stiff you on the bill. There are people who will lie, blatantly, through their teeth to your boss, and ultimately get you fired over something that you would never dream of saying to another human being. These people exist, and I guess when everyone else in their lives stops taking their crap, they start taking it out on the people who are paid to be around them.
5. I learned that there are incredible people out there.
For every one of the aforementioned people, there are dozens who are exactly the opposite. There are people who will talk to you like a person, and ask about your interests and aspirations. There are people who will tip you double the amount of their bill, just because they have the means. There are people who will write little notes on your receipt, telling you that you’re wonderful or that you made their day or that you should keep your head up.
These are the things that got me through the back-to-back doubles and the four AM closings. This article is meant to be informative; not preachy. But if you take anything away from it, take away the knowledge that the people who serve you are just that—people. The server’s apron does not make them immune to emotions, slip-ups, and stress.
6. I learned that you are more than your job.
When I first started, I was only assigned two shifts a week. However, people soon found out that I was willing to work whenever in order to save up some money, and soon I was covering up to four or five days on top of my own two.
Soon a temporary (part-time) job that I’d never even really wanted became my identity. I started dreaming about it. Having nightmares, actually, where I’d forget orders or drop plates or get caught acting out of line. I started giving up holidays, time with my boyfriend, my writing, my job-searches, all to be at that restaurant. I made index cards so I could memorize nearly three hundred beers, and their respective brewing processes. In the end, I’d given my all, and my all wasn’t good enough.
This lesson was the hardest for me, but also the most valuable. Jobs will come and go. Especially when you’re figuring it all out. But when you start to identify as a job title rather than the person who’s been through all these experiences and has come out better than before, that’s when you start to lose your humanity. It’s also when the whole image you have of yourself crumbles, because without that job, who are you? The immediate answer would be “no one.” The immediate answer is wrong.
I don’t care what you do. Whatever it is, you’re not merely a plate-carrier or a house-builder or a grocery-scanner or a human calculator. You’re a person with passions and opinions and emotions and all the things that make us human, and you owe it to yourself to acknowledge those things and act on them. Even if it’s just once a week on a Sunday morning, or late at night after you get out of work. Act on them. Because there’s a difference between making a living and living, and it might do us some good if we occasionally recognized that.