A few weeks ago, I quit my job and became a much happier person.
Don’t worry – it was always meant as a temporary gig. Nothing career-defining. Just waiting tables to pay my way through the summer. When I applied it seemed like a good enough idea. A small diner four blocks from my apartment had just laid off much of its staff. A call for new personnel went up over Twitter. The job demanded, it seemed, little more than someone who could show up on time, handle five booths, operate a dishwasher, and resist the urge to steal anything.
I worked three shifts a week. The pay was garbage, of course – less than $3 an hour plus tips, which varied from night to night – but it was better than the whopping total of $0 I’d made interning for the past two years. Plus, I thought the free meals and minimal responsibilities would more than make up for it. And after all, this was to be no more than a three-month stint to secure some pocket money.
I lasted a month and a half. The boss didn’t look too brokenhearted when I put in my two weeks.
My time at the diner was brief. But in that time I learned many things, some worthwhile (how to prepare Eggs Benedict, how to enjoy whisky milkshakes) and some not-so-worthwhile (where to reliably find extra ketchup packets on the supply truck). Here are the seven I’d tell fellow post-grads considering restaurant work for quick cash:
1. Unless you have a Spartan will and grandmotherly patience, don’t take overnight shifts. Ever. Aside from destroying your sleep schedule (weeks later and mine’s still out of whack), they will drain every ounce of your empathy as you diffuse near-brawls, deal with the pushy after-club crowd, and tell the drug dealers next door to please put a shirt on when they come in to order takeout. Maybe you’d enjoy hauling drunkards up from their tables after they’ve passed out and spilled syrup everywhere. But consider yourself lucky if, by sunrise, you’re only thinking about acting out a Travis Bickle fantasy.
2. If you can, watch the kitchen staff in action. You’ll pick up cooking techniques here and there. Soon enough your meals at home will vastly improve. On a related note, you may get the urge to blow $50 on your own deep fryer.
3. Small talk with your coworkers is the most valuable thing you can get from this kind of job. The cook who worked my shifts has a past that stretches from the Army to tow trucks to strip clubs. He has stories to tell. The waiter who worked before me on weekdays always stuck around to chat. He used to be a corporate banker, but quit after getting fed up with the rampant greed that surrounded him. Any good, outraged political blogger would covet his insight.
4. Though you’ll come to instinctively distance yourself from them, talk to your customers as well. You never know if someone will waltz in with the latest scoop on local rent prices or development news. I served waffles to high-profile neighborhood reporters and at least one staffer at The Washington Post. And chat up your clientele even if you can’t use them to network. They’re not all whiny divas, I swear. Reminding yourself of this might check your suspicions that they order the complicated stuff on purpose. Humanize everyone you interact with, even if they won’t always do the same for you.
5. Alcohol is a good way to make it through your shift (especially when working weekend overnights and kowtowing to the afterhours crowd, who all had better nights than you). But you gotta watch it. There’s a point – and it isn’t always clear where that point is – when enough whisky milkshakes in your system will make you tired, sluggish, and pining to be anywhere but where you are. Suddenly, you’ll look down at the blurry shorthand on your pad and wonder why the hell am I doing this? Why aren’t I in bed? And because you’re halfway drunk and unable to multitask, the whole table will have just ordered without you hearing a thing.
6. This is the worst part: Your 20 years or more of education don’t mean jack here, and actually bring further pain to your already wounded dignity. So forget Foucault, Sontag, and Camus, at least for now. Camus won’t cook that irate patron’s omelet any faster. You won’t want to think about Sisyphus anyway.
7. If you think this sort of mindless labor will leave you with plenty of time and energy to write (or paint, or compose music, or whatever), think again. You’ll spend your off-hours sleeping or in some otherwise comatose state. Your feet will throb, your knees will ache. Guarded about your tips, and bitter about your shirts getting ruined by grease and bleach, you won’t want to enter the creative mindset. And even if you did, you wouldn’t have the psychological fortitude. All you’ll really be able to do is make yourself comfortable as possible before it all starts over again. Or you might think about getting the hell out of there, like I did.