Ah, May. My Facebook has been flooded for the last two weeks about finals. Graduations have all come and gone and here I am wondering how it’s been five years since I walked away from the University of Maryland with a degree and without a warrant for my arrest.
If you asked me five years ago – fresh out of college with a hunky Ivy League boyfriend and a job at some random company no one but my friend who got me the job had ever heard of – where I would be at 27, it wouldn’t be here. I was going to be some freelance editor at some magazine or a marketing firm and have benefits and paid time off and a job my mother could brag about. Because at 22, I didn’t know any better.
A lot has changed in those five short years, and thank God. Because what I thought I wanted and needed at 22 turned out to be entirely wrong. And I was lucky enough to spend those five years figuring out exactly what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be rather than being one of those people who wastes years trying to be something they think the world expects them to be only to realize they want to be a chef or a dog breeder, not a junior partner at a law firm or a guy who spends 15 hours at a trading desk.
A huge part of that has been my job in the service industry. When my awful, shitty, I-prayed-for-the-subway-to-crash-every-morning job terminated me after six miserable months, I had no idea the blessing it would be. 2008 was a year a lot of people lost their jobs. Some never found one again, I was lucky. I got a one-day-a-week hostessing job making a hundred dollars a week at a steakhouse in Midtown Manhattan. In five years, I have managed to turn that one day a week lunch shift into a four day a week job that affords me enough money to live in a great apartment in the city, go on vacation, and have a good life while pursuing my writing career, which thankfully managed to get a huge boost this year when I signed with UTA and began writing my own TV show. I couldn’t have survived without my hostessing/cocktailing/bartending job. I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I had to travel, write, and fuck up had I not taken this job.
So here, friends, are my top five reasons why everyone should have a service industry job on their resume at some point in their lives.
5. The Art of Tipping
I don’t care if you go on to be a lifetime waiter or the CEO of Google. Learning the value of an adequate tip is something every person should be required to understand. Since I began cocktail waitressing and bartending, I have never left anything less than 20% on any check, even if the service sucked. Why? Because I know what it feels like when someone gives you an extra three dollars. I know how shitty it feels when someone stiffs you on a $250 check. I know that waiters and servers and bartenders do more than put my food down, crack a beer, take an order. I know what sidework is. I know what time waiters arrive at a restaurant as opposed to what time the restaurant actually opens for business. I know that just because a server isn’t spectacular, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t busting their ass behind the scenes.
In my opinion, a service industry job should be like the Israeli army – every person should be required to participate for six months to know what it feels like when assholes spend five hundred bucks and stiff you. To know how important it is to work your hardest for every single dollar you earn. To know what it’s like to be on your feet, sweating your ass off, and being humbled by people who in all honesty, can make or break your weekly paycheck depending on whether they know to tip well. Because then everyone will know. Most service industry workers make between two and five dollars an hour. Our livelihoods depend on your tips. And your good time depends on our work. And in a place like New York, anything less than 20% for good service is like indentured servitude. Do you work for free? No? Then why would you expect me to? If you go out and get served, expect to pay for that service.
Working in a service industry position will be that knot on your finger to remind you every time you go to stiff a waitress that she’s gotta eat too. That stiffing her is like showing up at the office and doing work and having your boss say “fuck you, I feel like letting you work for me for free today and for the honor of being in my pesence.” And when you go on to be big and famous, you will remember what it felt like when some generous soul gave you a 50% tip just for the hell of it. Whether I go on to be the next Lena Dunham or not, I will never forget how it felt to get paid for the work I did at the mercy of those who never had a clue how much work I actually did. And because of that, I will always know how to be an appropriate tipper. And I will always give someone that sigh of relief when they open the checkbook and see I did the right thing.
I have learned a level of respect for people that most of those who don’t work in a service industry position never interact with. If you asked me at 22 if I thought the majority of my friends would be Mexican dudes who don’t speak fluent English, I would have probably laughed at you. But I see how hard my busboys and barbacks and food runners work. I talk to them in broken Spanish about their families and other jobs. I laugh with them and joke with them and they help me out when I need it. They are polite to me, respect me, and have made every day since my first in that bar bearable. I’ve spent every major holiday for the last four years or so celebrating at the end of the night with Coronas and bar family meals. These guys who have become like second family.
You might look at them as immigrants or day workers; As people who exist in the background and don't deserve to be acknowledged or respected. I have learned to value these guys as actual people. I have learned a sense of humility far too many people in this city do not have – that I am certainly no better than anyone else simply because I have a college degree, or because I’m white, or because I speak English. In fact, I have met far more d-bags from Georgetown, Duke, Harvard, UCLA, UVA, and Cornell with a complete lack of personal responsibility than I have from Mexico. And our barback probably makes more money a week than they do getting their bosses lunch at UBS. He’s also a lot fucking friendlier. I don’t snap at people, I don’t wave at people, and I certainly know better than to treat the people who handle my food and drinks like they are anything less than my equal. This is a quality so many of those people who have “real jobs” seem to be lacking. Respect.
3. Manning up
I remember being embarrassed for the first few months I worked in a bar after I was fired from my first “real” job. All my fiends were working for companies like Alliance Bernstein or going to grad school and here I was taking reservations and clearing tables. But then a lot of those people who came into my bar after work started losing their jobs too. Lawyers, Bankers, Traders. VPs. And then I wouldn’t see them very often. But they’d pop back in every few months after an interview or a meeting with their headhunter. And they would talk about how bad the market is, how they’re running out of savings, how they moved home. And while I get it -- the market sucked, economy blew, dad’s offing their families because of debt -- I also used to wonder how many of them were willing to eat their pride and take a job they deemed “below them” in order to pa their bills. The tragic answer? Not many.
Yet here I am, five years later, still employed, making good money and paying every bill on time with money to spare. The biggest problem I found with my generation -- the millennials -- is the level of entitlement. We all went to college, kids, and we all graduated. We aren’t special, even if our parents told us so. No one “deserved” a job more than anyone else in those days. And the idea that any job was ever not good enough never crossed my mind. I didn’t have to move home, I got to move out. I didn’t have to ask my mom for money so I could sit at home all day and pray a company that provided health insurance called me, I made enough money to buy my own. I didn’t need to wear a really hideous suit to work in order to feel like I was doing something with my life. I found all these people complaining about a lack of jobs just didn’t want to work in a job they couldn’t talk about at their Hampton’s share. A service industry job isn’t glamorous. It isn’t high end or fashionable, but when you work at one, you begin to realize neither is banking. Or marketing. Or IT. Or sales. My job might have been messy, but I didn’t feel the need to go sit in a bar on a Monday and have thirteen Stella’s to “unwind” from my day as a bartender. I didn’t need to drink my worries away in order to go back to the office. I didn’t have to be miserable going home and bringing my work with me. Those people with “titles” wee no happier than I was, and more often were actually far more miserable.
I stopped being embarrassed of my job when I realized I got to take three vacations my second year there. I got to be home every night at 11:30, I could make plans with my friends, and, above all, that I could pay my bills and not have to worry about downsizing. Or about pink slips. or about severance. About layoffs. I have not one regret that I found a job that has helped me carve out a writing career, given me flexibility to travel and relax, taught me the value of the word “labor,” and above all, a sense of pride that I knew being independent was more important than bragging about a title. I did not wait around for a good opportunity – I took an opportunity and made it good myself. I grew up and learned the art of doing what you had to do to make ends meet. A lot of bartenders, waitresses, and hostesses are more financially stable than those still waiting for that callback from Cantor Fitzgerald.
2. People skills
There are days I have to count to ten. There are days I lose my temper. There are days I cry in the bathroom. There are days I tell my friends at the service station I hate everyone. But those days all add up to my ability to handle anything. Woman screaming at me because her steak came out medium well not medium rare? The table’s too small? Her drink’s too weak? The wait’s too long? The food’s not good? Trust me, I’ve dealt with it. I have managed to make the angriest lawyer laugh, the most assholish banker feel like an idiot, and the most unfriendly, Anna Wintor-like woman ask me about my life. I have regulars in my bar who love me because I know exactly how to deal with them, whether they are anti-social hermits who just want their food and booze or they are crazy lesbians who hate men and won’t give an order to anyone with a penis.
When I met the partner at my talent agency for the first time, his main question was “how are you so good at going in blind and just knowing what to say?” It’s because after five years in the service industry, I read people. Very well. And I know how to handle every personality from bankers who make millions of dollars and think they shit gold bricks, to Hispanic guys who are trying to learn English. I don’t have a choice. My paycheck depends on people liking me. It depends on me being able to know exactly what to say, exactly what to recommend. If someone thinks I’m a bitch, I don’t get paid. It’s as simple as that. I don’t get a warning, I don’t get reprimanded, I don’t get taken into the boss’s office, I simply just don’t get paid. The service industry forces you to find every facet of your personality and teaches you which parts to utilize at which times. I don’t get intimidated by anyone. I have CEO’s who love me, ask me to bartend their private events, talk about me to their clients like I’m one of their children. I have dealt with enough types of people in my five years as a server to know every angle, know every strength, and know when to play them up. There is not one personality I haven’t borne witness to. It doesn’t mean I like every one, but it means I know how to deal with and capitalize on every one. It is a skill I never would have had if I stayed behind a desk working an Excel spreadsheet for software and marketing events for the rest of my life as the shy, little assistant. I was forced to be a people person and found out I was surprisingly good at it.
1. Having a life
There are days I legit hate my job. I’m tired, I’m cranky, I hate my customers, my feet hurt, my back hurts, I’m annoyed, people suck, that guy’s an asshole, that woman is needy, blah blah blah. But I can honestly say I like my job. I laugh at my job. I have fun at my job. I hang out with my friends at my job. We talk about life and love and our big breaks, who we will be in five years and at the end of the day, I leave the bar and don’t have to take any of it home. I don’t have to request time off, I don’t have a limit on how much time I can take off as long as someone can cover me. If I need a break, I take a break. If I need a vacation, I take a vacation. My life belongs to me, not my boss. I know I am not performing heart surgery and at the end of the day, my job at the bar has taught me the most important lesson in life and that is to prioritize. Those things you think are important -- the things you worry and stress about -- more than likely really aren’t. Those moments in life you can’t replicate, those are. Those trips, those memories, those moments that matter. You cannot find them behind a desk, in a conference room. And you can’t get them back after you missed them for a work function, for those extra couple hours in the office that your boss didn’t even acknowledge. Unless you are performing heart surgery, you are not performing heart surgery.
Some people let their jobs and careers define, direct, and dictate their lives. Whether they can go out, see someone, date someone, go somewhere, go to a wedding, a funeral, an audition, a doctor’s appointment. Home for Mother’s Day. Because so many people have jobs that they think make the world go round. Working in a service industry position has reminded me it’s just a job. It’s just serving beers. And there are way, way more important things in life. Some guy might get pissed because I didn’t bring out blue cheese on his salad. You know what I realize? This guy has no control over ANYTHING in his life that something that small makes him blow up. That isn’t me. And it never will be. Because working as a bartender has made it possible for me to take a step back and realize my job is my job, not my life. I don’t have to sell my soul to the corporate devil in order to make money or live in the city or feel cool. I don’t have to let someone yell at me, berate me, scream at me, make me feel like shit, in order to be employed. I missed out on nothing the last five years because I was able to figure out that some things were more important than my job. Like spending time with my family. Going out to LA to try to sell a show. Going to Charleston to take a break from the rat race and remind myself that somewhere in this country I could sit on a jetski and not give a shit about the guy who orders Knob Creek on the rocks. Those moments saved my life. I got to do what I wanted to do – write and tell a story – while paying my bills and having a life and staying humble and that for me is the greatest part of working as a server. The life I was able to have when I reminded myself that my job is just a job and doesn’t have to dictate my life.
I serve beer. I am not curing cancer. And no matter how badly I might fuck up, it is not something bad enough to ruin my whole week over. And that’s the same with most jobs and most people who take their jobs just a little too seriously. You think the sun rises and sets on you and your assistant managerial executive marketing IT position. It doesn’t. And if you got fired tomorrow, the world would still turn. Working in the service industry reminds you there are loads of bars and tons of restaurants and none of them are worth losing sleep over. So enjoy your life, pay you bills, and hope for the best. I did and I am the happiest mother fucking up and coming writer you will ever meet. And it’s all because of a little job at BV’s.
Follow Stef Williams on Twitter here.
Bartending photo via Shutterstock