Before I decided that I wanted to go to Michigan, I applied to a much smaller liberal arts school in New York. Eventually, however, I figured out that it wasn’t the place for me.
But the admissions director gave me an unexpected gift in the form of a handwritten comment on my acceptance letter. “Working in a restaurant should be required for everyone,” it said. “It shows you the best and worse of humanity.”
My essay, you see, had been on the subject of my trials, triumphs and travails working as a hostess at one of the few ethnic restaurants to grace my small town. My first months there were some of the best of my life, with the rush of customers providing some small measure of adventure and excitement and the camaraderie with my co-workers providing me with the first place where I ever felt I belonged. But after returning from a trip abroad to Belgium, I was greeted with an out-of-control New Year’s Eve crowd and their attendant complaints on my second day back. I became gun-shy around the hoards of customers I had previously tried so hard to attract to our humble eatery.
When I left for Ann Arbor, I was certain my hostessing days were done, and I was glad. But, surprise — no place wants to hire seasonal help, and soon I was begging my old haunt to take me back. And they did, this time as a waitress.
I expect many of you have held similar jobs and also meditated upon your experience, so I’ll try and keep it original. Despite my reluctance to start a third stint at the place, I find there’s no shortage of lessons hidden among the baskets of bread and the cloth napkins. First and foremost, it’s shaped my ideas on immigration. I’m not going to get embroiled in the immigration debate here, but suffice it to say that I’ve witnessed foreign-born neighbors — friends from the restaurant as well as, more recently, other people from around my town — come under unnecessary scrutiny for everything from the mere act of their existence to chatting up young girls (the latter committed by an unfortunate food runner who should have, admittedly, been keeping his nose a bit cleaner). The implication is always that they are illegal, even when it’s not the case — and it’s usually not. In the past two weeks, I’ve noticed two older white fellows fly into an incongruous rage at men of the nationality my restaurant represents — one parked in what the angry man deemed an improper manner, the other accidentally blocking another driver’s path through a grocery-store parking lot. (For this small infraction the white man screamed an obscene name at him.)
As someone who doesn’t know too much about being discriminated against, I try not to cry racism at everything. But my work in the restaurant has given me both a more thorough appreciation for the challenges faced by immigrants and a compassionate attitude towards my brothers and sisters in tricky situations. And when I’m a victim of racially-motivated assumptions — customers of other ethnicities assuming I don’t know anything about the cuisine — I can put the minor situation in perspective.
As you may know from my previous pieces, I can be overly sensitive. But I’ve learned, time and again, that you can’t function in a restaurant if you let yourself be lost in fear that you’ll mess up. There are some angry customers I will never be able to get out of my mind. In the future, and armed with the humility necessary for service work, I will let them roll off of me like raindrops. They will keep me in check, but they will not damage me. And I can only hope that with my winning ways, I show them that it’s not such a big deal if your food is a little slow coming out — and that your waiter is normally just as worried as you are.
In the long run, most of my restaurant experience will go straight into my novel, and I will have to remind myself of the lessons I’ve learned. I’ll have to tell myself I’m not just trying to get revenge on past difficult patrons with my anecdotes. But for the summer, it’s good to be back. It prepares me for being an actress, after all.
And if you do go out to eat, it’d be nice if you tip at least 18%. Some of us are using the money to go to a ridiculously expensive college out of state, just because somehow that’s where we fit in.
Anna Paone can be reached at email@example.com.