My sister and I used to run cross-country in high school. It was a miserable routine of 6+ miles a day, usually across treacherous terrain, and in tropical humidity. But our team bonded over the pain, and our commiseration was a community of its own. One particularly rainy day, our coach, a fierce and competitive young woman, whispered - “You know what? Let’s just watch movies about running today!” We ran inside and flopped on the couch, breathless and giddy, promising not to tell anyone about our secret day off.
Later that night, back at home, my sister looked down at her dinner plate and sighed. “I just don’t feel like I deserve to eat,” she said, laughing. “It’s like I didn’t earn it.” Rampant eating disorders in high school aside, I knew what she meant. It’s like we hadn’t suffered enough to earn a reward, even though that “reward” was a basic human necessity.
I noticed this pattern more and more as I got older. In college, during the never-ending nights of writing papers at the last minute and cramming for final exams, we used to off-handedly brag about how little sleep we got. It’s as if there was a secret hierarchy of suffering, and we were all desperately trying to one-up each other. No one would ever dare boast, “Oh yeah? Well I planned out my schedule and I stuck to it, so I’ve been getting at least eight hours of sleep a night PLUS eating meals regularly, and I feel well-prepared for the end of the semester.” And why not? Why did we attribute heroism and admiration to whomever was the closest to collapsing from exhaustion? Shouldn’t those people have been embarrassed to admit that they had poor time management skills and took on more than they could handle? We should have admired the students who were eating healthy, sleeping eight hours a night, socializing appropriately, succeeding, and actually enjoying life, not the ones who were barely surviving.
But that was college, just a phase, an adolescent experiment in maturity and adulthood. Surely the real world would be different. …To be fair, I can’t really speak for any sort of experiences in the “real world,” because I have been working in the restaurant industry since graduation, and it’s an occupation far from “normal.” I’m not proud to say that I’ve thought more than once, This feels just like finals week in college.
Except there is no final exam, there is nothing you’re actually working towards, no promise of feeling accomplished. It’s simply one agonizing hour after another, crawling towards the end of your work week, then collapsing in exhaustion and sleeping through your days off until you have to force yourself awake and do it all over again. There is no cycle, no break, no progress. You don’t get graded, there is no end-of-year performance or showcase. The promotions are ultimately lateral, the management is as powerless and underpaid as you are, and the increase in responsibility comes with no corresponding increase in authority.
Perhaps in this industry more than any other, there is the added pressure of the party culture. Where we once used to brag, “Oh yeah, I haven’t slept since Thursday, but I got that paper in on time!” Now I hear, “After working that sixteen hour shift, we went out to that 4am bar and then back to my place. I haven’t slept since Thursday!” Maybe it’s different for the chefs, who in varying degrees actually love what they do, and are working the field they are passionate about.
But I don’t know a single person who’s dream career is to wait on tables. And that’s not to say it’s a bad profession - there are numerous benefits to the industry, and although there is a subliminal American pressure to work in one’s “dream job,” I find no shame in working a job that fits with your personal schedule and affords you the time and money to pursue other endeavors while still making rent.
I think that’s the problem: this industry is supposed to be just a job that pays our bills, and allow us the freedom to do what we want in our off hours. Yet for most of us, there are no real “off hours.” We work 11+ hour days and then spend all our “free” time recovering. The politics of maintaining your preferred schedule would require an essay all of it’s own, but let’s just say it requires an enormous amount of negotiating and sacrificing one’s boundaries to feel any sort of job security, and even that is a fickle illusion.
It’s gotten to the point where when I do have a day off, I don’t even know what to do with myself anymore. I feel like I’ve become a cog in the machine, and if I stop moving, I’ll cease to function. I can feel myself getting stupider. The longer you work in any sort of customer service, I’m convinced, the less you are able to read things like sarcasm or subtlety. You must take everything at face value. The customer is always right. No one ever lies. You are the face of the kitchen, the bar, and the company, and it is your responsibility to communicate with all the hierarchies while facilitating perfection. I am an emotional escort, offering a meticulously detailed experience with the expectation of flawlessness - and each guest’s fantasy is different, often changing several times throughout the evening. It is my job to keep up, to give them what they want before they know they want it, to read their minds, to make them feel superior without acting like a servant, to be flirtatious but not a flirt, to never sweat, and to do it all with a smile.
I skipped the eighth grade, I was my high school’s Valedictorian, I graduated Summa Cum Laude in four years with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting. I’ve written a book and been Juliet twice. I’ve worked at restaurants where the Bar Manager and dishwasher attended the same distinguished University. .. But the apron fits us all the same. Perhaps my theatre training served me better for this career than for anything else I’ll ever do, because no phrase has been truer in any profession than “The Show Must Go On.” I’ve been to shows where the stage manager had to abruptly announce that they had to pause or end early due to an emergency, but in this industry, I’ve seen raging gunmen outside the doors, toxic sludge flooding the drains of the bar, and fecal water dripping from the ceiling over the dish pit - and not once has service wavered or come to a halt. The show must go on.
The performance happens every night, with a rotating cast of 1,000, and you’re the last one they’ll remember. Your bow at curtain call is replaced with a monetary assessment of how valuable you are as a human, and it’s usually scrawled incoherently on the tip line at less than 20%. At the end of the day, it’s easier to bury yourself in work, to have the luxury of complaining, “I worked until 4am last night and now I have to work from 10am until 6pm!” than it is to come home, set your aching and bruised body down, and listen to the nauseating drone of tinnitus as the silence swallows you whole. “What’s new with you?” Suddenly becomes the most terrifying question, because every time your panicked heart searches for something to say, the answers become shorter and shorter.
And to top it all off, when you serve food all night long, you oddly just don’t feel like eating anymore. Whether or not you’ve “earned” it.