In the restaurant industry, “I’m so broke,” was a constant server/bartender lament. Frequently, I good-naturedly nodded my head in agreement. “I know,” I said, pretending to be worried about making rent or having enough money to fly home for the holidays. “Me too.”
The truth is, I was never broke when I worked as a server, or as a manager for that matter (a career I dabbled in briefly). There were stressful weeks, to be sure, for when you don’t have a set salary to rely upon, you’re anxious about every shift paying off. When I was feeling slightly greedy (read: I just had to have those brown leather boots!), I’d take on extra shifts, offering my services to every halfway lazy server I ever worked with. Calling in sick in this industry isn’t really an option, although recent NYC laws are changing that, but you can contact a coworker when you’re too hungover/tired/not in the mood to work. And people like me, anxious to make another buck, will probably take it on — even if it means working nine days straight.
As a server, I wasn’t exactly rolling in the money, but I was unarguably comfortable. The tips where I worked — often trendy, consistently busy little spots in downtown Manhattan — allowed me to not only pay my rent on time each and every month but to have enough left over to split the cost of pricey dinners out with friends who worked in law or finance, friends who made easily three times what I did. I shopped carefully, choosing vintage pieces and things on sale. If there was a show I wanted to see, I went and didn’t stress much about the cost of the ticket. I suppose I’ve always been pretty careful and conscious of my spending, but being a full time server kept my worry at bay.
I was never completely sold on the restaurant management route, even as I was going about it, but my memory of paychecks in publishing, my former industry, was nearly enough to make me not want to return. Yet, soon enough, I found my way back into writing and editing via internships. Of course, since they were unpaid, I also found myself waiting tables again. When one of the internships turned into a full time job opportunity, I was elated. Here was my career-changing break!
When I received the offer, however, my excitement quickly dissipated. It was barely more than I had been making back in 2007 when I first moved to the city and snagged a job as an editorial assistant. Kind of appalled, in spite of the possibilities of what this one job might lead to, in this, my career-change, I considered turning it down, trying my hand at freelancing while continuing to wait tables at the extremely lucrative restaurant where I was employed.
Negotiating across a series of mostly disheartening emails, my future boss and I reached an agreement that I figured I could live with, or, as it were, on. The final offer I ultimately accepted still seemed like a paltry figure and was, indeed, lower than industry standards according to Indeed.
In a way, I figured I had little choice but to take it, if this was a career move I wished to make. Although I have nothing against professional servers who choose to make a lifelong career in the service industry, I knew that wasn’t a tenable option for me. Besides, I’ll admit it was disappointing to see so many intelligent and creative individuals moving from restaurant to restaurant, following the money and afraid to make the transition for a more stable 9-5 gig based on financial reasons alone. I didn’t think I could afford to be one of them.
And so it was that I reentered the cubicle, except this time the cubicle was a table in an open office format. The size of my bank account decreased, and I didn’t even have health insurance off the bat to help justify the reduction.
I suppose I had always known that making the career move, if and when it came, would mean taking a major pay cut, but I hadn’t thought about the other ways the new career-oriented gig would affect my finances. My grocery bill skyrocketed, and without those free shift drinks at the end of the night, my wine rack was soon empty.
For a little while I was able to keep one shift a week at the restaurant when I started my new job, a blessing that probably saved me a lot of initial transitional stress. The Sunday nights didn’t bother me, and the extra money was so good that I went in each week with bated breath, just waiting for my manager to inform me that the coveted shift was no longer mine.
Eventually that happened this past winter. Ilissa delivered the old, “it’s not you, it’s us” speech, and I said I understood completely. It wasn’t fair to the other servers. I appreciated being able to hold on as long as I had.
When I got home that night, I fell into my partner’s embrace and sobbed gently. As a non-industry person, save for a stint at Johnny Rockets when he was a teen, he’d never understood the value of that type of work and how not just anyone on the street could do it well. As much as I’d tried to explain it to him — how it was different in a big city like ours, how it really wasn’t so bad because I was passionate about the food and the industry’s latest trends, how I was constantly meeting awesome people with aspirations unlike anyone else I knew — he didn’t get it. Or wouldn’t.
After expressing the requisite compassion, he offered a solution: “This is actually a good thing. Now you can work on your writing! And your website!”
Ha. If only getting published and paid for it was as lucrative as picking up an extra serving shift.
Stacey Gawronski is an editor at Refinery29, and her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, New York Family, Yahoo Shine!, xojane, and more.