When I left home at 16, my father had only one piece of advice for me. He told me, “whenever you're in doubt, work at a restaurant; at least you'll always eat.” My first job was at the Sidewalk Cafe on East 6th street in New York and I worked the graveyard shift, from 1am-9am. Now, twenty years down the road I have accumulated an archive of experiences that makes me great company on a long flight or a killer team member in Trivial Pursuit. I have travelled to very nearly all corners of the world and have had the fortune of working on projects that meant something, often everything, to me. I very nearly completed a PhD in Political Science and if you really wanted to hear about my thesis I could tell you in painstaking detail. I have been a part of things and I have gone at things alone, and I have often straddled the precipice between points of no return and yet have managed to come back in one very seemingly not broken piece.
I have also worked in a ton of restaurants.
I have worked in nearly every kind of restaurant, under every type of condition. Mexican, Japanese, New American, Old American, French, Moroccan, Italian, Fusion, Fission. Diners, breweries, banquet halls, nightclubs, drive-ins. Michelin-starred, Health Department condemned. I have worn polo shirts and served endless brunches, and I have worn suits while pouring 700 dollar bottles of sake. I once worked in a restaurant in Lawrence, Kansas where I had to wear a denim shirt and a tie with bottles of Tabasco sauce on it, with a pair of pleated khakis. Pleated. Khakis.
Restaurants have acted as a sort of refuge for me, a place where I could return to and hide out from all of the other mistakes I had perhaps made or the failures I had come a little bit too close to realizing. When I showed up somewhere with no money I knew that I could work in a restaurant and eventually I would right myself (and also, I'd always eat). Waiting tables was how I could regroup before heading out to the next step, the next real job I was going to have.
At a certain point the file labelled 'professional CV' that migrated from one computer to another over the years would stretch and bend in creative ways as I would have to fill in all of the gaps between times that I wasn't doing 'serious' work. The restaurant jobs would be filed into another CV, a much less formal document where I was called 'Ginger' instead of the hopeful 'Virginia' that people would call me once I got that grown up job that I would be doing that would make me so smart and successful and require business cards and out-of-office emails. I was a waitress on the down low, undercover yet hiding in plain sight.
I returned to New York in 2012, after living in Algeria for more than two years and many other stops beforehand. I was trying to finish a thesis that I thought would make every cruelty I had both seen and suffered somehow worth it. But it was not and would never be worth it, and no amount of thesis writing could change the fact that I was terribly sad about all that I had seen, and done, and could not do. And then I didn't know what to do.
So I did the only thing I always knew how to do. I waited tables.
'Waiting tables'. An unavoidably derogatory term that belies the very indignity of the position: waiting for someone to decide what they'd like to eat so that you can serve said choice to them and then be held accountable for their dissatisfaction thereafter. A power differential that says that he or she who waits is less than he or she who is holding everything up. I wait, you decide and I can do nothing but wait and be subject to the whims and vacillations of your decisions. That somehow you have the power to decide and I must wait in anticipation of the result and hop to it once you've done so implies somehow that you have succeeded where I have fallen short. Waiter, waitress, server. That's what we are, waiting and serving.
I remember once at an event soon after I returned from Algeria, I was passing hors d’oeuvre and spotted a person with whom I'd attended high school. I was holding the tray, asking people if they wanted salmon puffs or whatever godforsaken finger food I was shilling and there it was in front of me, the personification of how little I had accomplished. Someone I had to serve, who knew me when I had all those big dreams and big talk and when I went out on my own because I could not be held back. I held the tray in front of my burning face and made a beeline for the other side of the room. I don't think he saw me, and I told no one about it.
Any of us who have worked in a dining room have felt this or any of the other emotions that run across the spectrum from humiliation to despair. We've commiserated with each other over beers (or more) after our shifts at the local, we've talked about each other's projects and the things we actually love doing. We adhere to the code between us that this is all temporary and that eventually we'll all get out even though we all know that this may well be us in it for the long haul.
Except that I have recently had something of a change of heart, something of an even profound change of heart and I hope that all of my fellow service people might consider this as well. I have recently come to understand and even accept and even embrace a simple yet undeniable fact:
I love working in restaurants.
I love working in restaurants and even more, I am good at it. Do you know what? I am actually damn good at it and it is not given to everyone to be damn good at it because it is an actual job and a skill set that takes time to develop. That's right, here it is and I'm saying it, I think it's a great job and I've learned more from restaurants than I have at nearly any of the other 'real' jobs I've had. I have met incredible people and developed relationships with them that have an intensity of shared experience that is incredibly rare in jobs where people are not committing crimes together or some other such thing that swears them to secrecy. The people I have met are funny, and brilliant, and sometimes idiotic and mostly just like any other people that one might meet but they are almost all possessed of the ability to laugh at themselves and their circumstances whilst managing a chaos of nearly insurmountable proportions at least three times a week (and maybe even twice a day on Saturdays). And indeed, being able to claw my way back from the chaos of fifty people's hunger and the swelling consequences of it is a challenge that, when met, is utterly exhilarating. Being able to feed any given number of people on any given day without incident and even with positive outcomes is a feat that cannot be overstated, and doing so with even the slightest trace of poise and humour is Herculean. Because while you may not realize it, you (and I and really everyone) ask a lot of people when you pay them to cook for you and you get really mad when normal glitches happen. Working in a restaurant is a window into the very worst parts of our human nature. But often, behind the scenes and while a bunch of misfits are folding up napkins and talking trash, it is a glimpse into some of the very best parts of us, the funny parts and the parts that let us laugh and cry and then laugh about it all again.
We now work in a place, and in a culture where a restaurant is very much an extension of the home and as such, those doing the serving are not so far removed and different from those doing the eating. It's evident in the language: the 'cameriere' is quite literally one who manages the room and while we in English have translated it to mean 'waiter' we do so at the risk of losing the importance of the term. Here, I talk more with people and people talk more with me, and they know more about me as a result. It helps that I'm a foreigner, that I'm from New York, and that I happened to have found myself in this small Italian town. It all makes for a great story and even though I don't always want to tell that story I'm usually not bothered when asked. But more than that, I'm not ashamed of the work that I do and I no longer pretend that this is yet another stopgap between now and the time that I actually get down to doing what it is that I like doing.
My father recently volunteered with his local church to help cook a Thanksgiving meal, to bring people together and share something with them. He might well be serving them in the U.S while we are serving people here in Italy and then we might all sit down for our meal together, after the last guests have left. Because he was right, if you work in restaurants you'll always eat. And every now and then, it might not even be that bad.