Like many recent college grads, much of my time since culmination has been spent looking for a full-time job. When I’m not fantasizing about landing an entry-level position in my field of study (journalism), I’m a bitter waitress.
I didn’t start out bitter. I just wasn’t prepared for the toll that waiting tables would take on my emotional health and self-image.
My entry into the world of waitressing began the summer after my first year at SUNY New Paltz. Freshly traumatized from the stress of hefty research papers and all-nighters, I was hurting for money and eager to line my pockets with quick cash to get ready to go back and do it all again.
Over break, I returned to a seafood restaurant in my hometown where I had worked bussing tables the year before and they hired me as a server.
From the start, I was surprised by the amount of daily conversation that revolved around my appearance. The last time my coworkers had seen me, I was 25 pounds heavier, and more than one person reminded me of it.
But comments about my looks were just the beginning. As I settled into my new job, I was blown away by how much people (customers and coworkers alike) felt entitled to touch me because I was a server.
What I discovered is that serving food to strangers is complicated in ways I hadn’t imagined. It has everything to do with the people you have to please for the sake of keeping a job. There is no rest while working a double, or a triple. It is 10 to 14 hours of nonstop people pleasing and because it’s a profession with such a low base pay, it’s people pleasing for tips.
A customer bit me once. She had been sitting with her friends at a table for a few hours, drinking, and apparently had one glass too many. The entire time I waited on them, she kept commenting on my service and the way I looked until finally, as I was clearing the table, she reached over and bit me. “You’re cute enough to eat,” she added after, as I pulled my wrist away from her mouth, her dirty wine glass in my hand. I awkwardly walked away, feeling disgusted and confused.
I felt gross. My skin felt slimy and it was a humid day by the bay — but the way I felt had more to do with the way I had been treated.
This set the mood for the rest of my shift. I continued wondering why this woman felt it was her right to touch me. I also noticed that other tables that night took similar privileges, though nothing as outrageous as biting.
Customers commented on how “pasty” my skin was, how much makeup I was wearing, how sweaty I looked — and the amount of people who thought it was appropriate to grab my arm or touch the small of my back to gain my attention was too high to count.
At the end of the night, sweaty, sore, and sunburnt, I began my tip-out and grew increasingly frustrated at the events of the day. I felt like a stereotype, the scorned waitress who complains about customers who don’t tip properly (which is always without a doubt 20 percent). But it was more than that.
My attempt to positively influence my earnings by “sucking it up” failed miserably every time. And anytime I was stressed or less than peppy on a busy night, it clearly reflected on the tips people would leave for me.
The whole experience made me question myself and the moral standards I set in different social situations. If I had seen another friend or coworker being bitten by a drunk customer, I would never have stayed quiet — but serving tables lowered the bar I set for myself in the hopes of another ten bucks.
Serving food to the public for money made me tolerate people telling me what I should do with my degree. “Journalism is a risky field, you know,” they’d say. “You should have saved your money.” I’d laugh in reply as I hurried off to my next table.
So, journalism may be a risky field, but I’ll take my chances. My conclusion by the end of the summer as a waitress is this: Customers believe servers are a part of their meals, which is why so many have little qualms with asking the polite waitress for her number, knowing full well she cannot say no without appearing rude — or giving their waiter an unsolicited opinion about their master’s degree.
It begins to change you. I would find myself, along with my coworkers, going on Yelp during our downtime to read about what customers had to say, and I would find myself praying that they didn’t say anything negative about me. We would look, pretend like it didn’t bother us, and try to finish the rest of our shift with some sense of dignity.
But it didn’t stop there for a lot of us. We’d continue to offhandedly mention when customers would complain about us.
In a panoptic world, being watched implies being judged. Serving tables completely diminishes any doubt. Customers are judging you and it affects the amount of money you can bring home.
The majority of people who work as servers are people who are trying to get ahead: college grads who want to make money before taking the next step; new parents who want extra cash to feel comfortable; aspiring restaurateurs who want to know the ins and outs of the business. When the need for money is in demand, there’s a lot people are willing to forgive — sexual harassment, belittlement, overt prejudice — all in the aim of getting that 20 percent.
Slowly but surely, I’m working my way back from being bitter. My time as a server proved to me that the way we are treated by people makes an impact. But whether that impact is positive or negative depends on how we react.
I could (and should) have been treated better by many customers, but I also should have learned to take their words at face value and let the animosity roll right off my shoulders. Instead of letting the words of strangers impact my self-image, I could understand that what they said is not who I am.
I can’t control everything around me, but I can control how I react to it. We have a lot of power in our lives and sometimes the power depends on which direction we want our day to go.
Meg Tohill is a mental health advocate and writer looking for her next big adventure.