No, Really, This is What I Do
When I was three, I told my mom that I wanted to be a waitress when I grew up, words that would rightfully strike terror into the heart of any parent. Two decades later, I got my first restaurant job. That was twelve years ago, and I have consistently had a restaurant job ever since. And, on an almost nightly basis, I have a conversation with a customer that goes something like this:
Them: “So, what do you do?”
Me: “This is what I do.”
Them: “No, I mean, what do you do. You know, for real, when you’re not here. Are you an actress?”
Me: “No, really, this is what I do. I like working in restaurants.”
Now, customers have said some seriously rude things to me, so in the grand scheme of things, this is not so bad. I take a deep breath, remind myself that they probably don’t realize how it sounds, and do my best not to say anything snide, a tactic which is met with varying degrees of success.
But it is one of the things that gets to me the most, probably because it took me a decade to admit to myself that the job that I saw as a fall-back was actually something I actually enjoy and am good at. As much as I have had to defend it to strangers, I have also had to defend it to myself, but it wasn’t until recently that I have actually believed it.
I was 24. I had just moved to Atlanta from New York City, leaving behind a perfectly respectable finance job, with its steadily growing salary and obvious career path, to join a band with my friend from college. I was finally free from the suffocating desk job, pursuing my dream, and I didn’t want anything to interfere. I wanted a job where I could show up, do it, and leave. No responsibility. No stress. Plenty of time and flexibility to, you know, be a rock star. I got a job as a hostess. What I didn’t know is that a hostess job is the gateway drug of the restaurant industry. The owners were quickly able to pick up on my inherent, overwhelming and extremely annoying sense of responsibility, and I became a manager six months later.
Pretty soon, something crazy happened: I started liking it. I learned about eating locally and seasonally, and the rich history of Southern food. The owner who ran the wine program took me under her wing, and before I knew it I had gone from drinking whatever to intelligently tasting and talking about wine with purveyors and customers, and building my own personal collection with hard-to-find labels. The confidence I suddenly had from being behind the bar and in charge of the restaurant rivaled the feeling I had being on stage. The band broke up, and suddenly the job that I’d gotten specifically to stay in the background was front and center.
A few years and a few restaurants later, unhappy in my relationship and blaming it on everything but my relationship, I was looking for something new. I was desperate and willing to try anything to get myself out of the restaurant and on a new career path, so when a couple of regular customers offered me a position at their candle manufacturing company, I made the jump. When I finally got up the courage to end my relationship and was faced with sizable leftover debt, I found myself back at the restaurant, working on the weekends to make some extra money. Three years later, long after my debt was paid off, I was still working those weekend shifts. The truth was I liked it, but even then I considered it my temporary, fill-in job. I was still searching.
One Sunday, during a lazy, boozy, all-day brunch I was hosting at my apartment (because let’s be honest, that’s really the only way to do brunch), a friend pointed out that I should pay attention to the stacks of fashion magazines taking over my apartment and turn my interest in fashion into an actual career. I thought the idea of me in design school was crazy, and maybe I’d had one too many mimosas (okay, probably), but after a while it actually kind of started to made sense. I enrolled in a fashion design program a couple of months later, scared to death. I loved it, and as it turns out, I was really good at it. I had finally figured it out, and it was about damn time.
A year and a half and one Associate’s degree later, I was ready to get on with it. I was planning to move back to New York, but in the meantime I couldn’t wait to start getting experience in my new field. I quit my day job and found a position with a local designer. Trouble was, it was part-time and paid almost nothing. Once again, I turned to the restaurant. My two shifts a week turned into five, and I was able to support myself while still pursuing what I loved to do. But New York had been calling me back pretty much since I left, and I couldn’t get back fast enough. Obviously, it was going to be amazing, now that I was impossibly stylish and beginning a fabulous new career. I sold my furniture and my car, put the rest of my stuff in storage, and headed north.
What I’d forgotten is how overwhelming New York can be, and when I got back into town, I didn’t know where to start. While I figured it out, I decided to get a job to get some money coming in. Through a friend, I was put in touch with a guy who owns several restaurants in the city, and he gave me a job waiting tables. What I didn’t know is that he was one of the top restauranteurs in the city, and my new job was at an iconic New York restaurant that had been open for over a decade. I’d come in saying that, if I had to get a restaurant job, I wanted to work at a low-key neighborhood place in Brooklyn; what I got was the biggest, craziest New York restaurant there is, along with the most challenging job I’d ever had.
That was four years ago. I’m managing again; I have had a dream of having my own place ever since that first restaurant so long ago, that has just percolated in the background for years, waiting for me to be ready for it. This doesn’t mean my other dreams are dead. I still sing, except now it’s in my apartment instead of on stage. Unless it’s karaoke…then I’m a total rock star. I do have some styling clients when I have time, and I still get so inspired by those same fashion magazines and by the people on the streets of New York. It took me a while, but I have finally realized that I don’t need to choose just one dream. And lucky for me, I have had the restaurant there to support me while I have explored them all, and in the process, quietly position itself at the top of the list. Well-played. And thank you.
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