Notes on Inherent Dignity from the Service Industry
The last restaurant I worked at was a new oyster bar run by the group that owned several of Chicago’s most popular establishments. There’s a special kind of pressure that comes with opening a restaurant and that pressure usually translates to high demands with low pay. For instance, management required us to use miniature Moleskin notebooks to take orders, and I naively assumed that an off-brand miniature notebook that looked like a Moleskin would suffice. That misunderstanding was cleared up when a manager asked to see my notebook on a routine inspection. He flipped through the pages of my off-brand Moleskin, slammed it down on the bar, and then berated me in front of the whole service team. I can deal with that kind of treatment if I’m making a living wage, but I often walked away from shifts with less than $70, which is less than minimum wage in Chicago. When you add that to the emotional stress I carried from losing my job after being ejected from evangelicalism months earlier, you can imagine the struggle I faced to keep a positive attitude on a given Friday night while scraping half-eaten coleslaw and horseradish off guest’s plates in the dish pit.
As my spirit tanked, I gave in to the dark human tendency to comfort myself with a story that said I was actually better than my colleagues in that restaurant. Sure, some of them might have had power over me within the walls of that oyster bar, but they were going to be stuck in that industry for the rest of their lives while I was going places, I told myself. My inner dialogue devolved from there, and it wasn’t until my last shift that I realized the effects of my unchecked ego.
As one of the more compassionate managers did my final checkout in the office above the restaurant, she whirled her computer chair around to face me and said: “I want to leave you with one piece of advice as you move on from here, Julie.” Surprised by her serious tone, I locked eyes with her as she started: “We all know you’re better than us.” My stomach dropped. “But my dad always told me to do the very best I could do at whatever job I was doing because there’s dignity in doing good work. I know you don’t want to be in restaurants for the rest of your life, but this is where you are right now. It’s worth thinking about how you want to show up to your next role because the attitude you bring to a job says more about you than the place where you work.”
I was mortified. It hadn’t occurred to me that the stories I created to self-soothe were so transparent. I had only intended to ward off my own self-loathing—not convey a sense of superiority to my colleagues. My initial embarrassment over realizing my co-workers saw my arrogance quickly turned to shame over the beliefs themselves: beliefs about myself, other workers, status as it relates to work, and what makes a person valuable. I would’ve told anyone at that time that every human being has inherent dignity that’s completely unrelated to anything they do. But evidently, I didn’t truly believe that, which is sobering and sad.
That conversation with my manager has been on my mind recently because I’m back in the restaurant scene for the foreseeable future. I moved to New York a little over a month ago and hit the ground running looking for any job I could find. Restaurants tend to be one of the more welcoming sectors for writers, actors, and artists of all kinds, so I’m back in the game.
I’m starting this new season of work with a sense of gratitude toward the hospitality industry. Throughout the pandemic, countless restaurants converted their spaces into food kitchens to serve hungry people who were out of work. And there’s something truly special about places entirely focused on nourishing people. Whether it’s with cold drinks and comfort food, or making connections that lift people’s spirits, restaurants are places where people can be reminded that they matter.
As I’ve started training for my new role, I’m reflecting on the stories I told myself about my former colleagues. I’m thinking about religious communities who subconsciously believe people in full-time ministry are somehow holier than those who aren’t. I’m thinking about friends who only swipe right on dating apps if the potential connection is a lawyer, or an accountant, or a professor. I’m reflecting on the stories we tell about work and status in the United States, how we attach value to people based on where they fall in a fabricated professional hierarchy. And I’m excited to learn some new stories about dignity, community, and what makes for a meaningful life. I look forward to processing some of those questions with you all here.