As I’m planning my California road trip, buying plane tickets to Hawaii and Texas, and feverishly saving for a three-month galavant through Southeast Asia, I’m sometimes asked a question about work. Someone that doesn’t know me that well will wistfully gasp, “Your job lets you take that much time off?”
It’s at times like those that I realize how good I’ve got it. As a waitress.
That’s right—a waitress. It’s an inglorious job that people outside of the restaurant industry tend to look down on. It doesn’t exactly scream “motivation,” and at its worst, it screams “uneducated” or “Hooters girls.” Sigh. But the more I dig into the travel writing world, the more I’ve come to appreciate my “day” job. And despite the lack of benefits and security, it couldn’t be a better gig for me right now.
I didn’t plan it this way. But I majored in Creative Writing, and it’s not like there’s full-time gigs writing poetry. I hosted and served (and managed a local swimming pool) to get through college. I left the country for the first time after graduation, fell in love with traveling, and decided to stick around restaurants, if for nothing else than the time off (and getting to sleep in).
I’ve never worked a 9-5, never worked in an office, and never felt stifled or constrained by my job. I forget about the corporate trap of 40+ hour work weeks, because I’ve never lived it. I come across blogs with lengthy “About” descriptions detailing the karate-chop someone gave to the confines of corporate life (“I quit a job with XYZ company, sold everything and took to the road”), and I think, “Huh. That’s a life experience I totally can’t relate to.” I’ve certainly felt claustrophobic and stuck in my own life, but never because of my work.
There are trade-offs for the freedoms that come along with being a waitress—big ones. I work holidays and weekends, have never had a paid day off in my life, and the idea of a retirement plan or dental insurance is for me as exotic a fantasy as, say, traveling around the world is for some. But I swap all these securities for the one thing I can’t live, or travel, without: the ability to pick up and leave, yes, but also to not feel trapped.
And while I sometimes stress about the fact that it’s been nearly 10 years since I graduated high school and I’m “still a waitress,” I can’t help but feel I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be right now. Here’s why:
Earlier in my “career,” I nervously asked my manager for an additional 4 days off during a month when I was already out of town for 2 weeks. He laughed. “Of course you can have the time off. That’s why you’re a server and not working for an insurance company.”
The number one plus of restaurant work for a traveler is the ability to take time off. It’s just a part of the culture—and why the cliche of a struggling artist or musician working as a server is so prevalent. The idea of being constricted to 2-3 weeks of vacation a year—paid or otherwise—scares the crap out of me. No wonder people quit their jobs to travel the world.
Allowing for time off is rooted in a deeper aspect of restaurant culture: flexibility. At most places it’s totally acceptable to switch shifts and in-times in order to accommodate whatever else is going on your life. Which is great for me now.
Shifts in most restaurants aren’t the grueling 8+ hour affairs they are in offices. My shifts currently average 5-6 hours, and are sometimes as short as 3 hours. This means that, even on days I work, I have time to write, and take care of all the tedious tasks/errands that come with being alive.
Because restaurant work is tough and doesn’t require traditional education, it’s chock full of immigrants. Mexicans and Central Americans fill the restaurants of California—which means you’re constantly immersed in Spanish. It’s impossible not to pick up a little Spanish in California restaurants. I’ve given myself pre-trip crash courses when I declare that no one should speak to me in English (this doesn’t really go as well as planned). As of late, I’ve been pretty lazy on the language tip; even still, I hear Spanish all the time and understand a fair amount (“Oh, Lorena, tienes un novio?”). I’m even picking up some random Mayan words (“pibil” means “baked”).
Being Active and Talking to People
Last year, I interned for several months at a rad travel website. Everyone was super nice and I enjoyed all the writing work I was doing, but the work environment felt totally alien: everyone sitting at desk, quietly clicking away on their keyboards. I was not used to the quiet, the immobility, the comfort and niceness of it all.
Restaurant work is visceral, and I like that. I tromp up and down stairs for hours, carrying trays of drinks and stacks of plates up my arms. I sweat. I spill salsas and half-eaten food down my apron. I sometimes have to pee for an hour, but am too busy to go. On a busy night, I’ll wait on over 100 people—interacting, reading them, talking and joking, making sure they have a good time. It’s intense and draining and I kind of love it.
But before you swap that comfy gig at the stifling job you say you hate, check out the other side of the scale: the restaurant work bummers.
And I don’t just mean health benefits. These days, most restaurants in the Bay Area offer some kind of health insurance (albeit chintzy and hard to qualify for). What I mean are all the other “kushy” benefits (benefits that are automatics for all workers in some other countries—but that’s another post…).
I can take all the time I want off, but none of it is paid. That extends to paid holidays and sick days. If you’ve got the flu, tough. Maybe your landlord will accept a doctor’s note. Even those legally required 10 minute breaks are the stuff of waitress fantasy. Maybe someday we’ll unionize. Until then, we pop DayQuil and work sick.
It’s not just the lack of unions; the lack of security in the restaurant world again goes down to the very nature of the job. When times are hard, as they are now, one of the first things people cut is eating out. Or worse, tipping. And there’s no safety net under the waitressing tightrope.
In most restaurants, you earn minimum wage (in some states, they can pay you under minimum wage; I knew a server in NYC who made $3.12 an hour!), which is usually just enough to cover taxes. So essentially all the money you’re making is from tips. If you have a slow night, get a string of 10% tippers, or, oh say, the economy totally falls into the shitter, you’re quickly screwed. There’s no guaranteed income to fall back on. By the same token, though, you can make insane amounts of money when times are good. But if you don’t know how to budget, it can devolve into a feast-or-famine lifestyle.
Hard on the body
The restaurant industry is great when you’re young and energetic and can’t stand the thought of sitting in a chair all day. But it’s not an industry to grow old in. Long hours on your feet, carrying trays and plates, seriously wears you down. By 23, I already had chronic lower back pain and an interstate roadmap of varicose veins criss-crossing my legs.
But these are the markings of someone who works for a living, like the calluses of my dad’s hands, the unwashable black under my brother’s nails: work you wear, that wears you. Whether I planned it this way or not, waitressing as become a part of me. And until I scramble my way to the top of travel writing heap (wink, wink), it’s not a bad way to earn my rent, fund my travels—and get the hell out of town.