Human beings are relative creatures. To appreciate and enjoy the world, you have to think comparatively. To that end, I have several items on my Life Bucket List that I hoped would give me some empathy on what other people go through and perhaps it would help me despise my “real” working life a bit less. I’ve waited tables and tended bar at various points and after these experiences, I’ve come to the conclusion that blue collar work is hard. Like really really hard. Also, I’m bad at it. Like really really bad at it.
The first time I worked as a waitress was during winter break of my second year of law school. When school was in session, I also worked as a database representative. The contrast between those two jobs was stark. That previous sentence is a gross understatement.
As a database representative, I helped the first year law students craft search terms for their writing assignments and gave general advice on how to use the database. I occasionally refilled the paper and toner for the printer. I sat in a comfortable chair and surfed the Internet or did my homework. I received my pay – $12/hour – mostly for being available.
In contrast, my first night at the restaurant, I worked from 4:30pm to midnight. I swept floors, bussed tables, served as a hostess, took drink and food orders, made and served drinks behind the bar and even washed a few dishes in the kitchen. I kept a constant smile plastered on my face. I was on my feet the entire time and by the time I fell into bed at 1 am, my knees and lower back were so pissed at me that they kept me up all night in retaliation, making snide, hurtful comments about my bucket list. I made $10 in tips and $33.75 for my hourly wages ($4.50 an hour for 7.5 hours). I had one table of six people and they only had appetizers. I also had to give 10% of my tips to the bar and 2% to the dishwashing staff.
In Judge Judy’s memoir, a book I probably quote either way too much or not nearly enough, she posits that the ultimate measure of financial success is working less for more money. I agree with that statement enough to put it here on my blog. When you reach financial independence, your money is making money for you while you do nothing.
As a database representative, my boss was a woman just a few years older than me. After the initial training, I received no supervision or micromanagement. I didn’t clock in or out. The company trusted my competence and my reliability. I appreciated that a lot.
The owner of the restaurant was a medical professional by day and a jerk by night. I wrote this post because I came across a list I made of the things he did during my first shift that made me feel bad.
Why I Didn’t Like My Restaurant Boss
- He went over every single table I had already set up and proceeded to move every napkin, fork, and knife a quarter of an inch one way or another.
- He yelled really loudly about some towel someone had put in the wrong place: “Who the hell did this? I want to know right now. This is WRONG and it needs to be fixed immediately.” It wasn’t me, but it made the entire place tense up.
- The chef asked me to taste the mahi-mahi (that’s a type of fish apparently) and I declined, citing my diet. The owner hears this exchange and says: “Great, how the hell are you going to recommend dishes to customers?”
- Continuing the same conversation from above, he asks me why I’m vegan and if it has to do with my Muslim religion. I tell him I’m not Muslim and he says, “Oh, so it’s a stupid liberal hippie thing?”
- He called me “Little Girl.” Repeatedly.
- A group of very well dressed guys offered me, quite politely, $20 for a lap dance. I know that’s technically not my boss’s fault, but I’m comfortable blaming him. Down with the patriarchy!
- Customers asked me, more than once, if I was old enough to serve drinks behind the bar. They joked that they could barely see me over the counter. I know that’s also not my boss’s fault, but it’s easier to rage against a specific person than ‘genetics.’
As a database representative, I had a 401(k) and there was potential for growth. If I hadn’t decided to work as a corporate lawyer in a big law firm, I could have taken a position like my boss’s job after graduating.
As a waitress/bartender, I had no sick days, no paid vacation. There was no position of “Senior Waitress.” I suppose I could have anointed myself some cool title, but that feels rather loser-ish, eh? I don’t understand the incentive for lifelong waitresses. I know my body couldn’t handle it. There might be an increase in your pay as you get better, but that curve flattens eventually. Even if your nametag boasts that you’re the “Waitress Manager,” your customers won’t tip you more than 20%. Anecdotal evidence might even show that, as you get older and less attractive (in this youth-obsessed world), your tips might actually decrease.
Comparing these two job experiences made me understand that it’s not only about how hard you work that determines your financial success, it’s about how fungible you are. I’m rather embarrassed it took me that long to realize that fact. When I decided to tackle “Be a waitress” on the Life Bucket List, I ventured out in search of work on a Friday. By Saturday, I had five offers of employment. As much as I’d like to believe I’m a superstar, I don’t think that was a particularly impressive achievement. Smile. Look presentable. Appear eager. Job is yours. As a database representative, I had to be a second or third year law student. That narrowed the competition quite a bit, but it also meant not just any schmo off the street could apply.
I continued to work as a database representative for the rest of my law school career. I quit the waitress/bartender job after two months. I felt bad about my inability to hack it, but I tend to make myself feel bad about a lot of things, so I think that’s just par for the course.
I did vow to tip really well after that experience though. I tipped a lady in Thailand $5 for a $20 massage. She hugged me with tears in her eyes. Okay, that story doesn’t have much to do with this post, but I feel so many things whenever I recall that memory. She must have had such a hard life. I stayed in a fancy hotel in Cambodia that came with my own driver. At the end of my four-day stay, I gave him a $5 bill. He told me it was too much, but I insisted and the gratitude on his face broke my heart. While in Argentina, I gave a cab driver $100 Argentinian pesos on a $54 ride. The shock on his face and the incredulous way he said “really?” thrilled me more than I can say. So maybe that’s the point of this tirade; tip well. You’ll feel good. The tippee will feel good. The world will sing in harmony. Except me because I can’t sing. I’ll just mouth along.