What a great piece. Glad to see it on front page of HN.
I worked for years in retail, in camera shops, and I understand the episodic hilarity and mundane heartbreak of a career in service. But it was washing dishes in a restaurant, my first ever job, that made me aware of the time-pressure intensity of food service, and that it's a lower-risk version of the old space/air travel aphorism: 'Flying is hours and hours of boredom sprinkled with a few seconds of sheer terror'.
You work a whole shift, but only a slim segment of it matters, when work and concentration become hyper-compressed. Dishes break, people break, and there are no breaks - it continues relentlessly like a forced march, without reflection, until the blessed first minutes where you sense that it's beginning to abate.
If you're of a reflective mood, you think to yourself not only that the frantic and merciless nature of the job will never change (even if the restaurant closes, the same experience is happening in an endless continuum all over the city), but that it has probably been like this for as long as there has been civilization - a millennial succession of workers (slaves, the earlier back you go), chopping vegetables and scraping plates (copper plates, if you go back far enough), back to dining establishments and the kitchens of the influential in Roman times, Egyptian times.
It's a strange thing, but participating in these activities that are most visceral and least threatened by automation, they feel like a kind of time travel, or like being in one of the less objectionable circles in hell.
We've always been at lunch with Oceania!
I don't know. I never graduated to waiter, but I worked as a busboy a few times. I have much sympathy for wait staff. My recollection is that the waitresses were always decent to me.
Still I don't buy, "I suspect it’s easier to teach a waitress to be a writer than an intellectual to be a waiter." One of my other low-paying jobs was as a copy editor, and I have seen how commonly schools have failed to teach PhDs to be good writers--I don't see why the randomly selected waitress should be better. I should say that the demands of the two jobs are quite different, anyway: the waitress has to be able constantly switch attention to multiple people and multiple tasks, the writer (or programmer) has to be able to focus on one thing for relatively long times.
How nice to read a long-from piece online, simply and clearly formatted, with no adverts, popups, affiliate links, or such nonsense. Just genuine writing.
> The work was the only thing that kept me out of my anxiety.
I know it's a trope for knowledge workers to romanticize physical work, but I find the opposite when programming. The work increases the mental anxiety.
That was excellent!
> The life of the American worker is inherently undignified
This is true, and even goes for highly-paid, high-status gigs. In fact, I think that sometimes, companies consider high pay, a license to humiliate.
> Waitressing didn’t seem permanent. Nothing ever does.
As the adage goes, "life is what happens while you're busy making other plans".
If there's one thing this piece made me think of, is that you should either be happy doing what you're doing or be on the path to do that.
I have friends in their 40s who have worked in the service industry for decades while planning to do "something else later", and they're not the happiest of my acquaintances.
I gave up on this article about 1/3 of the way through. I could fill dozens of pages with my aimless years after I quit college, but I wouldn’t think to bore people with it.
My foodservice experience was highly unorthodox as it was always either an underage/under-the-table or supplementary part-time arrangement in one of my family's establishments. The last time I was yelled at for something that wasn't my fault I decided to quit and got a better-paying day job a week later.
On an unrelated note, that final restaurant job was as a bartender at a cocktail bar frequented by white-collar workers. On a slow day I was asked to wait on a table which I'd never done before. They ordered a red Bordeaux blend; I messed up the bottle service by failing to pour a sample to which the eldest gentlemen in the party retorted "Well I hope I like it!" (despite the initial pour being to check for quality, not preference, but I digress). I made it up to him by providing a few minutes of free IT consulting to the chagrin of the rest of the table and ended up with a beefy tip :o). All's well that ends well, I suppose...
This is probably the most surreal article I’ve read on HN, only because I grew up in Mira Mesa and have eaten at that very IHOP, probably even while she was a waitress there. It’s astounding how small the world can seem sometimes.
"I leaned into the idea of serving as an identity. I joined all the Facebook groups, followed #serverlife and server memes on Instagram."
I think this is one of the most toxic things in todays society, work becomes your identity and therefore you relate to it and it becomes you, or you settle to what that identity is. You are also surrounded by people in the same role, and depending on that you change to fit in with your new peers. The social media groups also re-enforce the same idea of that's all that it is.
As the author wrote in the beginning:
" I always said, soon, soon, things like this cannot last forever. I thought I’d get too tired to keep waiting tables, I thought if I waited much longer I’d lose the chance to get a ‘real’ job, in publishing or media or who knows what industry."
Many people don't get "out."
The same can be described of other groups too, can be hobby groups like cars, or other activities and such - we choose to involve ourselves with other people.
Personally, I've known many people at a distance join such groups/roles/jobs/interests and change to something worse/negative and then cut off - because it became their prime identity.
Just an interesting observation, but many times I feel people go with the easiest/path of lease resistance. Change is hard. Persistance is harder.
> For so many years I thought that I was missing an element of secret knowledge about how actual jobs worked, and that therefore I would be stuck forever. But now that I do other work, I see it all for what it is: everything is a system. The restaurant is a system, the content management is a system, the computer is a system. Everything is so much simpler than I imagined it was. I thought I was doing an easy job, but everything is an easy job when you know the system. Other professions weren’t magic. They were systems too.
Reading this article made me wonder if I could hack it as a waiter. I’ve never really done any manual labor in my life - just a few part time jobs as a student that made me realize I am bad at it compared to some of my friends for whom it came so naturally. Driving a truck, building things, interacting with customers, etc. Programming, on the other hand, has always just come so naturally to me that it’s hard to imagine myself doing anything else.
I agree with the author that with most careers there is a system, and once you learn the ropes it makes things dramatically easier. And sometimes the only thing holding someone back is that first opportunity to get in the door and start learning the system. I think writers especially must struggle with this as the career path is not as well-defined as other trades.
> Why don’t websites hire service people to write about food? How do ‘restaurant journalists’ exist, when servers who are also artists are standing right here? A book critic once told me, “a website could never be staffed by service people, the quality of the writing would be too low,” and I wanted to laugh. I suspect it’s easier to teach a waitress to be a writer than an intellectual to be a waiter.
But I don’t really agree with this premise that anyone can be a writer. I struggle to write - every paragraph is agonizing for me. I think I could definitely get better with practice, but if it were my career it would fill me with so much anxiety and self doubt that I wouldn’t be able to function. Same as if I were to be a waiter (assuming I didn’t just get fired in my first week).
I think that the author is underestimating the value of her journalism degree, and her natural inclination that made her want to study journalism in the first place, to her eventual success in that career once given an opportunity.
What a nice change of pace for the HN front page. :)
> The job at that bar was the best job I’ve ever had, in concert with the life I’d always wanted—publishing my writing, running a literary magazine, having several close circles of friends, living in the city I’d always dreamed of. I loved my apartment and I had the money to do things like get facials and use ClassPass. I took vacations and went to literary awards or friends’ book launches and plays and fancy dinners, and one night when I was sad I bought a pink suit, and then I felt better. Waiting tables gave me a life I didn’t think I’d be able to attain for myself.
Remember when a job such as being a waiter still meant you could in fact survive and have money left over for the occasional niceties in life like a bit of relaxation, or a frivolous purchase like (gasp) some clothing that isn't needed for a particular purpose?
All gone...because billionaires drowning in yachts, jets, vacation homes, and ultra-luxury, hyper-sports cars...aren't satisfied, and also want tax writeoffs they get because politicians tell us that if they don't give them a tax break, someone else will get the trickle-down economic benefits.
The greed is so extensive, they've gotten the USSC to rule that workers are now liable for damages to their employers, from striking...in what is almost certainly a response to the railroad strikes that scared the shit out of the 0.01%.
This was a great read, thanks for sharing the link!
The next time you eat in a restaurant, and you're feeling snarly cos you had a bad day, and you can't be bothered to be nice to people just doing their jobs, keep this article in mind.
Beautiful & original blog design!
A problem I've always thought about
"What app could help waitstaff move onto better paying positions?"
- They are very tired after the day so can't really learn after work.
- They usually don't have the resources to do a dev-bootcamp and dev-bootcamps don't seem to be well done.
- Copywriting is dead.
Solving for time is hard.
Author refers 3 times to 20-pound plates of potatoes. Is that really a thing? I’ve eaten at thousands of restaurants and don’t recall anything like that but I’m not the most observant person.
> "I do think being a waitress has done one great thing with respect to writing: it has made me understand deeply and fundamentally how many writers are full of shit"
Ha ha. Somehow reminded me of Charles Bukowski. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ilmOZvpOa8
She seems to have been utterly financially comfortable, living alone in an apartment. Was it the crop top tips?
Great writing style, loved the story!
I read this like hearing the voice of Max from 2 broke girls.
Great writing. Love it