Sunday, October 5, 2014

Class warfare: Your server isn't who you think she is

Guest: Didn't you folks change the menu a few months ago?

Me: Yes, it changes every few months to keep it fresh and introduce new dishes to our guests. I've only been here a few weeks, but if there's something you used to order that isn't on the menu now, we will gladly make it for you if we still have all the ingredients. 

Guest: Oh, great! A few weeks, huh? So where did you work before you came here? 

Me: I was a journalist for 12 years.

Guest: (Looks up from menu, surprised) Ohhh, wow. (pause, half smile) What, ah, what brought you here?

At first this was an awkward conversation. It actually has played out several times in my three months at the restaurant, which is interesting. I think it's pretty nice that guests show an interest in their servers. I like those people! But what I found to be so interesting is that there's an assumption that something "must have happened" to result in this "step down." It's entirely possible that what I'm reading between the lines isn't there at all, that maybe the guests aren't surprised at all that a journalist in her mid-30s would now be working as a waitress. But the instant reaction to look up and examine me, as well as the pauses in conversation as they try to discern what questions would be appropriate and not insulting, tell me that there's a certain level of intrigue there. What would cause this perceived fall from grace?

My old standby answer is "school." People instantly understand that. They think, "Oh, that makes sense. Graduate school is expensive, and so this is just a way to get by until she finishes her degree." And that's true. My foray into the restaurant industry is a way to pay the bills while I pursue my master's degree. But there's a lot more to the truth that wouldn't be appropriate to divulge. Like ...

Actually, print journalism doesn't pay well at all. I make a lot more here in about 20 hours per week than I ever did as a journalist. Sometimes I wonder if I knew what a crazy amount of money I would be making if I wouldn't have left a lot sooner, school or not. 

In America, it's rude to talk about money, right? Yet, it's certainly a major factor in sizing up someone's worth and value. That's what I find so interesting about the white collar vs. blue collar discussion. I make way more as a waitress, which is considered blue-collar work. My step-dad works in a factory, and he makes great money. Electricians, plumbers, contractors -- I have gotten to know very well over the past 7 years of home-owning that those folks make a very good living. So what is it, then, about an office job that still makes it seem superior in people's minds? Why does the kind of work you are doing to make your money trump the actually sum? Why -- when I wait on people who don't work but who have family money, or those who are entry-level with massive student-loan debt, for examples -- are they superior to me because my money is made while wearing a uniform?

With most curious customers, I don't mind at all, and I certainly don't take it personally when I get those "class-questioning" kind of looks. But I admit that waiting on people I know -- especially high-roller acquaintances I used to interview as a reporter -- can be brutal. In lieu of the curious eye contact I get from strangers, there is a decided LACK of eye contact with these folks. Many who know I left the newspaper business to go to school bring that fact up immediately (Oh, Amanda ... you're in school, right?) in order to mediate the awkward recognition that our relationship has markedly changed. You used to take me to task, and now you are serving me French fries.

All I know is that beginning my work life at Perkin's at age 16 was absolutely invaluable. Among the numerous life lessons learned was the fact that your server is so much more than his or her job title. The best kinds of customers are those who understand that
and demonstrate it with kindness.

No comments:

Post a Comment