OP-ED Service Industry

In modern America, one thing you have probably heard before is that everyone should work in a restaurant at least once in their lives.

Over the past year, I’ve had the experience of working as a hostess and a server in a local restaurant. There were so many things I learned that servers are responsible for and many things that are out of a servers control. And there’s so much that I’ve learned that I wish everyone else just knew when they go to eat in a restaurant or whenever they pick up a To-Go order.

For one, it is still common procedure that servers earn an hourly wage of $2.15 an hour. This is just enough to cover the taxes that are taken out of each paycheck, meaning– the only earned income is what the customers tip you. And then, each restaurant has its own system for how those tips are distributed out, so a server may only receive 90% of the tip you leave.

I find myself trying to earn 25% tip at each table, begging in terms of honest communication, saying without actually saying, your tip helps me live, helps me pay for vet bills, supplies, food, ect. I am in the fortunate position that I have the money already for most of my bills, while some of my co-workers depend on the income to pay rent, Utilities, and other necessities in order to survive.

There are then some customers that bring the urge to say, “We too are human. With feelings, hopes, desires and people we care about, the same as you”. When they point to things for us to do, rather than dignifying us as equals with a question or a statement.

Or drop things beneath the table, shrug their shoulders as I get to my knees and crouch to pick up the things they discard.

Threaten to walk out when they don’t get the table they want.

We aren’t entitled to react to the brevity, to the curtness of a customer, and to some extent the harassment of the wealthy. We aren’t entitled to the bad day, rather we smile, apologize for errors that aren’t ours and compensate meals delivered correctly but critiqued or sabotaged by a customer.

I put on my black collared shirt, dress pants, and black shoes, I place on a mask of extroversion as I greet you. You don’t see the story, and in many cases the only purpose I serve is to serve you.

And I wonder, do they believe one day we can be their equals? And if they believed one day we would be equals, would they treat me as they do now?

Would they roll their eyes as I race around, forehead beaded with sweat, eyes fogged as I move around trying desperately to earn the 25%? Would they accuse me of ruining their night when their entrees come later than expected because a larger party came in and the kitchen can only work so fast?

When I chase them down because they forgot to sign the bill, do they know that I will receive nothing if they don’t? No.

And I don’t expect them to compensate me for a bad day, or to know that sometimes I stay up late wondering why they see me as less then.

And there’s an option to speak up when I avoid the end of the bar because older men who have had a few too many drinks ask me what my plans are after work. Compliment my eyes and can’t see the rest of my face but know I’m young and that they have more money and resources.

Ask me to pull my mask down, and when asked to apologize hand me a hundred dollar bill and proceed to tell me how beautiful I am. While I go to the back and stare at the money wishing I didn’t have to take it. Wishing that I won’t have to interact with them again, but know I will. And though I need five minutes to digest the interaction, but there’s no time to do so as entrees are ready to be brought to tables.

I smile with my eyes, crinkle them at the corners. I’m fine, they don’t bare the burden for the discomfort I feel.

And it should be simple to say something. Light-hearted, flirting that I shouldn’t take too seriously. But if they don’t come in again, because I took something to seriously, then I am responsible. And if I don’t have the courage to say something, then its my responsibility.

And if I cry on my walk home, check behind me to make sure they don’t follow, thats the reality that I have to bare.

Yet I wonder why they chose me. Chose my friends to say things too that under other circumstances they wouldn’t. If I were sitting with them at the bar, would they still feel entitled to say anything to me?

If I were dressed in something outside my server uniform, would they approach me? 22, thirty years younger? Does something in my eyes invite them in?

So I ask this, do you see yourself in the people you depend on? The cashier at Forever 21? The custodian at your school? The server for your table? Do you see their hearts and minds when you talk with them? Or do you see the uniform and decide they exist only in the realm of your interaction? That they don’t deserve the same respect you give to your peers.

If you come in late, do you see the sacrifices that takes? The kitchen staff who stay an hour after closing to fulfill the orders are then unable to say goodnight to their middle school children. Share a glass of wine with their spouse. The server who can’t leave until you walk out the door of the restaurant, even if the rest is barren. Walk home after midnight at 16 thirty minutes where at any time that journey could be interrupted, their lives changed forever?

This isn’t my argument for higher pay, its an account to plead for respect. Respect that would be given in other circumstances. An account to ask for grace when something goes wrong. Asking for kindness in small interactions because they do make the difference.