I have had a job since I was 13 years old. Now, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t do it because I wanted to, or because I had some moral high ground about it, I had little-to-no choice in the matter. My parents forced me, and then finances necessitated it. Being underage (and under my parents’ reign) or in school required, nearly at all times, a job to make my living expenses. But I’m not your grandfather, I’m not here to tell you it “builds character” or whatever. It probably doesn’t. But regardless of what I gained from it, I have worked in retail shops (high and low end), restaurants, cafes, and ice cream shops. I’ve done it all. And I feel, looking back on these jobs, glad for having done each one, no matter how much it may have sucked at the time. Though I have spoken before about how unfortunate it can be when people in the service industry take on horrible, put-upon attitudes, there is truly nothing worse than people who treat service workers like crap.
Growing up, I was often surrounded by that special slice of upper-middle-class that is just entitled enough to convince themselves that their children shouldn’t work. Whether they should protect their delicate sensibilities and “focus on their studies” (which, nine times out of ten, just translates to dangerous blocks of free time to be filled with binge drinking) or they don’t want to clutter their 15-hour-a-week unpaid internship over the summer with making some actual money, I knew a lot of people who never really had to work. Their parents just sort of handed them a credit card and said, “Remember to take the fingertips and teeth off the bodies before you bury them!” or whatever speech comes with that kind of carte-blanche access. And though I’d love to pretend that I have some holier-than-thou stance on the whole thing because I knew what a hard day’s work meant at the age of 15, I’m really just jealous of it. I still have friends who, at 24 and a full year out of school, live entirely on their parents’ dime in a more-than-decent apartment. Sure, it’s a little sad at that point, but I’d still take free stuff over having to supplement my income. And though I might not trade places with them now, the 19-year-old me who was working the holiday season at Abercrombie and Fitch (a fate much worse than you could ever imagine, and I’m sure you imagine that it’s horrible) would have given anything to be them.
But folding endless stacks of tee shirts that shoppers are only so giddy to knock over (seriously, how do people manage to napalm an entire section of cardigans just to pluck an extra small off the top?) or making an endless assembly line of Frappuccinos for a horde of screaming pre-teens does one good thing for you: It makes you, from then on, respect and appreciate the hell out of the people doing those jobs. Work in a restaurant, you’re forever a good tipper and don’t go crazy with the special requests. Work in a coffee shop, you will never camp out in the back for an entire day after buying one muffin. Work in a clothing store, you’ll never leave a heap of clothes in the dressing room for some poor sales associate to find and let out a resigned “Come on, man, really?”
And that’s the thing that I have now grown to resent about my friends and acquaintances who’ve never had to work these jobs, they are almost without fail the people who have no qualms about being absolute toads towards the people serving them. They are the crappy tippers, the yelling customers, the people that walk into a restaurant or store with the general attitude that they are inherently better than the staff. I have seen a grown-ass man, 26-years-old, who was unemployed and living off his parents’ good investments while he tried to get his career as a “filmmaker” off the ground try to leave a 2 dollar tip on a 45 dollar bill because “Come on, she’s just a waitress, and I’m on a budget.” I could do a PhD on all that is wrong with that scenario, but I’ll sum it up to the basic principle that he thinks she is not deserving of respect or compensation because she is, in his mind, a lower class than he is. And whether you’re shouting at the salesgirl or barely looking at your barista as you bark your order, you are demonstrating that you feel entitled to just crap on an entire group of people because, whatever, they make 8 bucks an hour.
When you actually work these jobs and get to know the people and the culture that staff these places, it’s impossible to ever pass judgment on a service worker again. Especially in an economy like this, the idea of looking down on any kind of employment is insane, but even in a flourishing economy, it’s ridiculous. I’ve served coffee with an Ivy League grad, folded sweaters with one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever met, and done shots in the kitchen with two of the funniest guys to ever wash dishes. And none of them, it should be said, based who they are as a person or how they judged other people on what kind of job they were doing or how much money they were making. And to see people who’ve never had to be degraded by customers or forced to smile when someone makes it clear you are not worth their time act as though they deserve their “social status” when it was by pure luck that they didn’t have to work these kinds of jobs is, frankly, kind of nauseating.
So I encourage everyone, no matter how much money is at your disposal, to spend at least one summer slinging drinks, folding shirts, or manning the frozen banana stand. Because there are some things money can’t buy, and one of those things is how to interact with a waiter so that he doesn’t want to hang himself in the walk-in freezer the second he leaves your table.