True, sometimes life becomes rote – the sweeping motion needed to clear the table of crumbs and sticky spots; the flip of the glass cup in my hand to stand it upright on the table; the shaky placement of the salsa tray on top of the chip basket to free up another hand.
These things never change.
Sometimes when it gets busy, I stop thinking. I just rattle off the standard greeting to each new table. My mind already has skipped ahead to whether or not I’ve already fired up the medium-rare ribeye.
When this happens I think of Sartre’s nameless waiter in Being and Nothingness. All we know is that “his movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid.”
Sartre sees what he’s doing, sees that he’s not thinking, sees that he’s just a set of standardized mannerisms. “All of his behavior seems to us a game… He is playing at being a waiter in a café.”
Am I playing? Am I unfree? I’m scared the answer is yes. I know a lot of people at my job just see me as a blank face. They don’t really want to talk to me. That’s normal; it doesn’t bother me. But I guess, by Sartre’s definition, it means I’m unfree. I’m fading into an assigned role. I’m sticking to the script of greeting, water, drink order, food order, check, goodbye.
ROOM FOR ME
There’s not much room for Marley in between those things. In fact, sometimes, I even go nameless, just like Sartre’s waiter– if the table is in too much of a rush to get their drinks, I skip the introduction. I efface myself.
There’s also that strange, unavoidable power dynamic. It’s written into the name of my job: serving. Everything I do is dictated by the guest: where I walk, what I carry, how I speak.
I accept certain limitations on my freedom when I work. I can’t tell a guest off for being rude. Nor can I express my anger.
When I think about these things, I start to feel nervous. Or maybe ashamed is a better word: ashamed of the fact that I find so much joy in something that is so menial.
Then I see Jesus at the host stand and I know he’s overheard something funny from the dinner party downstairs. Or I see Cat, a regular, get seated in my section. Or I see DJ José walk by and remember to ask him the name of the track he just played.
My work provides me with a real community. That’s something I’ve never had before. Usually, I clock in and make small talk to speed up the hours before my lunch break.
At my restaurant, though, I really enjoy my coworkers. Everyone is reaching out to each other– we’re a group, a team (however corny it may sound), a place of support, mutual griping, coffee breaks, and under-the-breath-jokes.
But the community extends beyond the servers. It includes the customers too. Waiting, to me, is a genuine thing.
Or maybe this is just a slave mentality speaking, and I need to do some inner work to liberate myself from my false consciousness that tells me work is fun. But I’m suspicious it might actually be fun in real life, not just in my addled, brain-washed head.
I love talking to tables and getting the small windows of opportunity to learn about someone’s life. I love making someone’s night a little better– especially for the first dates, the anniversaries, the birthdays. It’s joyful to see other people have their joyful moments.
As for power dynamic, strangely enough, I feel like the one in charge most of the time. I know the menu. I know the drinks. If someone’s being mean, I may not tell them that the tamale is not the best thing on the menu.
If someone’s being super sweet, I’ll do my secret workarounds on the POS system to save them an extra $5. And of course, no one is exempt from the server-stand gossip.
Mostly, though, I’m happy to serve people. I’m giving people something tangible: an hour or two free from work, decisions, stress. It gives me a feeling of caring for people.
At worst, it’s a one-way thing: I take care of them, and they forget about me. But I’m happy to report that most of the time, I’m cared for and respected in return. People value what I do for them. They even pay me for it!
I’m not saying that people can only have meaningful interactions when there’s a transaction. I’m all for gifts and altruism and general kindness. But I’d be lying if I said that the payment isn’t affirming– I do the work, I make someone’s night better, and it’s proven by the tips I receive.
on equal footing
In fact, I feel like the exchange puts us on equal footing. Both customers and servers have something to offer. When I work with a table, I’m giving them something of value- my full attention. And in return, I get paid.
Waiting has made me a better person off the clock, too. I’m a better listener. I can tell when someone needs something, I can tell when my advice is being solicited and when someone already has their mind set on something.
I also value my time more. If someone is giving me the emotional equivalent of a $5 tip on a $150 bill, I’m not going to give them the gift of my full attention.
When I wait tables, I know I have concrete worth. I have that worth when I clock in and that same worth when I clock out.
At my job, I want to be paid, and I want to be fulfilled outside of it. Both when I’m waiting and when I’m just living my life, I take pride in making people happy. I’m pretty good at it, too.
If this is brainwashing or false consciousness or unfreedom, so be it. I’ll be at the server station laughing with my friends. I’ll be happy.
About the Article
Visiting the life of a student working her way through college.