A Portrait of the Waitress as a Young Artist: Empathy, Judgment, and no we don't serve 'green juice'

 Miguel has been sassy lately, for my last two shifts he has refused to make my breakfast – normally a morning routine – and passed the duty on to Adan, who all the servers hate for a reason probably similar to the reason I started saying only Miguel could make my breakfast, which is to say, none at all.

The daily spin of eggs with jalapenos, avocado, and peppers doesn't taste as good as usual, I can't tell if it's Adan or the egg whites I chose over my usual real eggs in fear of cholesterol – since I eat between 6 and 9 a week, working at breakfast restaurant.

The eggs/veggie combo is on of the last things I'll eat at my restaurant, the others being red potatos and discarded blueberry cheesecake waffles. Soon, it will be nothing – well, I'll probably never fully give up the discards. Miguel was really the only reason I still ate at work, having a personal chef who will make you anything you ask for was too good to pass up. Now that our flirtation has turned to everyone from bussers to other cooks asking if I like him, and him refusing to make my food, I don't have a reason to keep eating on my breaks. I'll just as soon fall even deeper into my Californism and wolf down some of my fat-free Greek yogurt or make a kale smoothie before work.

This will represent the last visible severing of ties between my life and the lives of my customers as they eat at my restaurant – not that me eating two eggs with veggies cooked inside, 'omelet style' (the cheaper way to get an omelet) bore any similarity to 90% of the menu items.

It didn't used to be like this. I didn't used to be like this. I used to go out for brunch at chains too, I used to eat out on holidays. I never went to the gym, I didn't buy or cook vegetables – I barely prepared my own food at all. I'm pretty sure my diet in college consisted solely of eating out, shitty commons sandwiches, green salsa, quesadillas, goat cheese, and beer.

Some of this is adulthood. Perhaps some of it is being a snob, but I think it must be fairly universal that waiting tables is a many months long class with daily coursework in “Who I do not want to become.”

I'm not talking about eating at chains anymore. That is convenience, and the fact that I never go out to breakfast because I'm working breakfast.

What I'm talking about now is the grander themes of the people we become while we're not paying attention.

I'm sure it's easy, with the media on child rearing the way it is, to become a parent who scowls when I say we don't have skim milk or snaps at me to not put any butter near their child's plate, but apparently has no cognizance of the fact that they're teaching their children to be rude to people of lower social classes working in the service industry. Or that they're teaching them that chain breakfast food is a fun reward, a habit they'll spend the next ten years trying to break.

I assume it's painfully simple to become a person who complains about hash browns under another table, a syrup smudge in front of you, or a piece of avocado on your waffle, but doesn't give a single thought to the factories the meat you're so happily consuming was prepared in. It's hard to research how the food you're consuming is produced, hard and scary. It's easy to complain about something meaningless that's right in front of your face, and it's easy to tell yourself that you are important because you can tell a waiter or a busser to clean it up for you.

It's hard to be a service worker and realize that you can no longer use putting other people down to justify your existence, because it's done to you so many times a day that you lose count, and all you know at the end of the day is that you never want to be that person, and you're going to have to figure out some other way to give your life meaning. But that kind of hard can't just be thrown away like a pamphlet on meat consumption, that kind of difficulty must be confronted every day when you go into work and another person tells you to “go get someone to clean this up,” and you have to turn around, go to the kitchen, grab a wet dish rag, and watch them avoid your glance as you stand in front of them, cleaning the tiny 'mess' that they presumably thought you were going to go grab someone of even lower perceived social status than yourself to deal with.

Unfortunately, waiting tables hasn't only given me perspectives that make me want to live a more intentional life. It's also made me impatient. When I'm in the weeds with two new tables and someone tells me they're ready to order and proceeds to spend ten minutes looking at the menu and saying 'hmmm' as I watch my manager glare at me from across the store, I don't feel sympathy. I resent every time in my life that I've been this person, I resent this specific person for having no awareness of their surroundings, but mostly I just want to tell them that it's basically all the same.

It's made me a worse person in some ways – I shamelessly laugh at people who ask if we have mint lemonade – “Oh yeah, let me just go pick the mint out of our in house herb garden.” Someone once asked if we had green juice. Or my personal favorite, when a woman asked if our tilapia was wild caught.

I'm afraid that it's making me more judgmental and rude, because of the way I regard these idiotic questions. At the same time, it's making me less judgmental in an entire other way. There was certainly a time in my life when I couldn't have named a single person in my day to day life for whom English was their second language. Now, the lack of him cooking my recent breakfasts nonwithstanding, I consider Miguel to be one of the pillars of my everyday life. You can laugh, go ahead, but name how many people you spend 25-30 hours of your week with. The people who you'd call screeching to them “Where were you today! I was so worried about you! I thought you were dead!” when they don't show up somewhere they're supposed to be. The people who you look forward to seeing every day, who you shoot glances at when other people are being crazy. Not only are Miguel, and all my coworkers – servers, bussers, cooks – my support system in that context, they've also taught me something incredibly important about all those words I've been throwing around – judgment, sympathy, empathy, compassion.

The reality of the service industry is that you're forced to acknowledge that every person, from 16 year old bussers to hosts going into the air force to servers with three kids to the divorced cook that you actually find yourself with a real crush on, has just as dynamic and complicated a life as your own. You don't get special privileges because you made your own degree or read five books a month or don't want kids because you hate the prioritization of the American family unit. Everyone's life and excuses for missing work and hangovers are equal, if anything yours are a little bit less equal because your problems are usually more selfish, you have parents who can bail you out in an emergency, and you have no mouths to feed but your own.

And it just may turn out that when every man you meet is a jerk and you've told some of the regulars in your life the same story three times before they remember it, Miguel asks you questions about your old roommate going crazy and your new house, things you barely remember telling him. Your coworkers remember every story of a man wronging you and curse them just as vehemently as the friends you've had for five years. You stop in to see your old manager and you wonder why you feel so great after the long talk you have, and realize it's because it's the first time you've sat and talked to someone for over and hour without the conversation halting because you're doing an activity in weeks. It makes you understand their lives and the legitimacy behind them with a love and urgency that you hope one day, you may just be able to extend to the next rude customer.

 

A Portrait of the Waitress as a Young Artist: The Fear

I get asked on a fairly regular basis why I don't have a 'real job.' (Or told to get a 'real job,' depending on the rude level of the person I'm talking to.) I'll address the use of the term 'real job' later. Their reasons have ranged from: I should get on a career path, I'll have to start at the bottom if I want to go anywhere, waiting tables will never give me benefits and/or a retirement package, I'll never be able to get a job I want if I don't start getting experience, et cetera, adult things, typical rat race mumbo jumbo, et cetera.

My responses have varied each time I've had the conversation. Sometimes I talk about the stark reality: I'm trained for nothing, I have no connections, I don't know where to start with looking/applying and nobody has been able to tell me. Other times I go with the logistical: I probably couldn't find a traditional office job where I'd make more than 10 to 12 dollars an hour, and I can't survive on that right now with my rent where it is.

I also have no particular interest in the jobs that people suggest to me. I don't want to write product descriptions or pamphlets or whatever else copywriters do.  I respect it as a profession but unfortunately I don't think I could manage it - my traditional schooling didn't go so well, so I don't think being required to write textbook words about random things would go so great either.  The only other job that people have suggested to me is random office jobs, which due to their lack of detail sounds like a not real thing anyway.  Even if they do exist, why should I do them over the job I have now? People say it could get my foot in the door somewhere, but where? What is this elusive door and where would my foot be eventually leading to?

I don't see the point of getting a job with the purpose of using it as a stepladder to this idea of a future job, when I know already that I don't want that future job at a random office or copywriting for anyone.  I'd rather figure out how to do the things I want for money than get a job that will only lead to working in an office for the man.  Sure, there might be office-y real jobs out there that I would enjoy, but a random job as an assistant or copywriter isn't going to put me on the path to those anymore than working consistently on my writing in my spare time is.

These were the reasons I always cited when having this conversation, but I knew that there was something else that made me feel it was the correct choice for me right now. I figured it out the other day: it's the fear. If I put all the energy toward getting a 'real job' that I put toward my writing, my art, and settling into my house, I'm sure that I could find one. I probably wouldn't like it, but sometimes I don't like waiting tables either. Maybe one day I would like it, or at least be content with it. That contentment is what I don't want. If I grew content with a 'real job' that paid well and seemed like it was on a socially acceptable path, I might accept that life for myself, in whatever field I ended up in. I'd have weekends off, so I'd probably spend them hanging out with my friends instead of how I spend my days off now which is generally working on writing. I'd grow used to the 'real job' and the lifestyle it offered, and I might forget how important an artistic life is to me.  I'd probably be all set up for a decent life, and I wouldn't be afraid that all my other efforts wouldn't pan out.

That's the thing. I'm terrified that I'll be waiting tables for the rest of my life. I'm terrified about turning 26 and not having health insurance, and that in ten years I'll still be where I am right now. But I need that fear. Because of that fear, I think constantly about how I'm going to get myself to the type of life I want as an artist. Because of ze fear, I spend almost as much time working when I'm not working as I spend at work. (Figure out that tongue twister.) I write, I paint, I read, I try to research how to make these things go anywhere. That research part isn't going so well, so any help there would be appreciated. I look for ways to get involved in the San Diego creative community, I've contacted strangers to ask if I can be involved in a literary magazine.  (And they said yes!  Stay tuned for future news on this.)  

If I got a 'real job,' then I'd know I wouldn't be waiting tables for the rest of my life. But it would be no guarantee that I'll eventually find a way with writing or live the artistic life I want. And in the end, that's the real fear. A 'real job' would be a nice way to placate the fear and learn to accept another life, but I don't want to do that. I want to figure out how to make it work with writing and art, and the fear that waiting tables gives me is the best way I know how to push myself every day. I don't want to get so comfortable that I forget how important this life is to me.

And that's not even touching on the fact that with this supposed 'real job,' I would probably have far less time to pursue art and writing. If in five years I'm still waiting tables but have produced a large body of work, it will have been worth it. There's a grand tradition of creative types supporting themselves in the service industry, and I'm happy to join it even if it's getting less common with the techie-rat race-longing for traditional forms of success-thing that seems to be happening now.

Lastly, fuck 'real job.' I've been using it because it's the most common term, but seriously, fuck that. I not only work hard, I also am becoming practiced in a myriad of skills that although I don't know how to list them on a resume I probably wouldn't get from this elusive office job people tell me to get: dealing with insanely rude people day in and day out, prioritizing six tasks that all basically need to be done immediately, walking and working and smiling through cramps and other forms of pain, sacrificing holidays to go to work and generally have people be assholes. Working with people from very different walks of life than myself and spending 30 hours a week with them, learning just how real this job is in their lives and getting close to them. So let's retire this phrase, yes?

A Portrait of the Waitress as a Young Artist: Labor Day, Literally

I've been stewing on the idea for a while of blogging about my life as an artist who happens to be employed as a waitress and the dynamic of that lifestyle. Here I am, making good on that plan.

It's a big topic in my life with a lot of intricacies, but I'm going to start with just a short musing on the day that will be now in 20 minutes: Labor Day.

A holiday about taking a break from the hard labor of life, you say? Not so for service industry workers. While many Americans get a break from work, we work harder to serve them while they relax. They get annoyed if our businesses are closed, so our managers keep them open to make more money. Then they get rude if service is slower than their expectations for their glorious day off. A day that should result in higher tips often ends in lower ones because people have unreasonable expectations of service workers who get slammed on a holiday.

Of course the real irony is that many of the people who have labor day off work a jobs that are much more revered and cushier than service industry positions. The people doing the most labor in the first place end up being the people who don't get a break at all, and continue to be the servants of the higher classes.

This is every holiday in the life of a service worker, but it takes on special significance with labor day. When I walk home from this coffee shop, I'll pass numerous bars where youths with better jobs than me are out celebrating that they have the day off tomorrow. I'll be heading home to sleep so that I'll have my wits about me when they're glaring at me because their food is taking too long and they're too hungover to be polite.  Not to mention the more common offenders, large families who expect you to pay attention to no one but them because they are white, privileged, and important. Don't get me wrong, I like my job. But I do wish that people thought a little bit more about how they treated their slaves, I mean, servers. And that I'd occasionally have a holiday off. Alas, that's the price one pays to get off work early and have time to pursue a creative life.