By some stroke of luck and friendship, my second day in New York I had a job. I started work at a burger joint that specializes in frozen margaritas. I’m a vegetarian and it was 20 degrees all February.
“I’m going to be a waitress,” I told my dad, enthralled over my big break.
“You have a college degree and you moved to New York to be a waitress?”
“No, I moved to New York to be a writer.”
When at work I feel confident in what I do: I smile at the customers, answer their requests mostly efficiently, perform my song and dance (Hi my name is Lyndsay, I’ll be taking care of you today.) and swoon them into tipping me graciously. I bring in high sales for my employer and big enough bucks for my bank account. I feel accomplished and drained as I fall into bed, freckled in margarita and smelling of fries. Unless, of course, I decide not to go home: then I am freckled in margarita, smelling of fries, and closing out the bar down the street with my co-workers, gouging ourselves in free Jameson shots.
Outside of work, though, away from my co-workers but with those who do things like work on spreadsheets, or sit at desks, or use words like accounts and investment and capital (what is capital?), and do the stuff ordinary grown-ups do, I feel 17 again, when I first started working in this industry. I go to dinner and silently critique the habits of my friends, hiding in embarrassment after watching them flag down the waiter. I make lectures on 20% tips. I explain, “oh, I am sure the waiter is busy with another table,” as they groan over how long the bread bowl is taking. I am constantly on the defensive, constantly perfecting my apologetic eyes, as if this industry somehow managed to sneak its way in and define me.
It may not define me, but waiting tables does pay all my bills and takes up over 40 hours of my week, so it does define a huge portion of my life. How do I feel about that?
I recognize that there is, seemingly, a natural, “right” order of things: the great expectancy that is the societal norm. Things are to go in this agreed upon order, to fit into boxes, and while I seek pleasure in rebelling against it, the clutches of these societal norms are often difficult to break. “What do you do?” people ask. “I write fiction,” I tell them. “And I’m a waitress.” Something about saying that always sounds simultaneously ridiculous and pretentious. I have my bachelor’s degree, and I have collected my share of the student loan debt, and, hell, I’ve started careers in both journalism and public relations. With my reputable title of ‘adult,’ I have been told that my working hours are from 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., and I am to put everything on Excel spreadsheets, and I am to work at a desk as opposed to the bed I am laying in now. There’s a part of me that thinks: “What is this restaurant gig doing for my resume?” I think: “What happens if becoming a writer doesn’t work? If I don’t get into grad school? If my book doesn’t sell?” I worry: “Am I just being lazy?” And when a guest scans the menu only to order onion rings (clearly not on the menu) or thanks me with a mere 10% tip, I think to myself: “is this really what I do for a living?”
I like working in restaurants. Most of you probably suck as customers (I’m sorry, it’s true), but ultimately I enjoy the work I do. I generally work nights, so I can sleep in just a little and write through my whole morning. I begin most work days already feeling accomplished, having eaten a good three meals, putting in the time at the gym, and writing a page or two of whatever story I am working on. Sometimes, when I’m really lucky, I even have time to fantasize about my OKCupid crushes. And after all this, I go to work. I have developed the skill of sales, of time management, of independence. I have learned what it is to be both underappreciated and famed amongst strangers. I can turn on the charm I keep hidden in my time often spent as an introvert, hovering over a notebook, putting ink to pages. And it forces me to really believe in myself as a writer, as this life of instability and constant risk provides me no security in much else besides hope.
What I learned most, though, is what it means to be an artist. A real artist, like that trite expression everyone thought would fade away with the 20s. I work with too many actors, a handful of singers, a dancer or two, and we all do this for the same reason: to pay bills and to allot time for our craft. It is this alternative thinking I adore the most, the idea that our job does not define us. Our work does.
And to cope with the bad shifts: I learned there is an inevitable turnover, as all things are temporary.