I recently realized that my dream of being a writer, which escorted me into the restaurant industry, will eventually escort me out.
One morning at brunch, during one of my first shifts, I remember a middle-aged man putting his hands on my shoulders and shaking me until my spine turned to jelly. He wanted to know when his table would be ready; he’d been waiting two hours, and I was the host responsible for this.
He was pushing his cerebral glasses up the bridge of his nose when Laura, a server, aggressively intervened with, “Excuse me, sir, can I help you?” and he redirected his anger towards her. When I finally escorted him to his table—feeling that every ounce of energy had left my body—he barked, “You’re really bad at your job. I plan on speaking to a manager to get you fired.” A coworker quickly guided me out of the dining room and through the swinging kitchen door, her hand on my shoulder. Down in the musty basement, I cried alone.
Acceptance into this restaurant family came quickly. In the quiet of slow nights, the crevice of the service station was my introduction to coworkers’ inner lives—and where my coworkers gave me the gift of learning about myself. Madysen, now a journalist, snuck me into big lecture hall classes at Columbia where I’d pretend to scribble my name on the attendance sheet. Courtney was my opera companion, and we’d stay out late at bars well after our shift was over, making philosophical arguments. I wondered why these smart people wanted to hang out with me, what they saw beyond my ability to bus a table. I ruminated on how frivolous my life was and how directionless I felt.
Although my romantic expectations of making it as a writer while waiting tables seemed to betray me with soul-sucking experiences, life was happening here at the restaurant. No day was ever the same, and the unpredictability of how a shift panned out parallels the unpredictability of life. I worked at the deli for four years, longer than any job I’d had prior and longer than I had stayed in college.
After the first two years working at the deli, I still hadn’t built up a portfolio of published work and felt I had nothing to show for myself. Everything I wrote was private and simply an act of catharsis—my way of surviving the emotional exhaustion that came with restaurant life. Witnessing my friends’ career successes in their creative fields, I felt lazy. I didn’t realize that all the things I did alone on my days off, such as walking around empty museums and going to the movies before night shifts, counted as my food for writing.
Much of what felt like laziness and leisure, at the time, included writing in a journal. While I was working endless doubles, I treated writing as an activity of leisure instead of a daunting task. I had a mental map of where to go before work to read and write—cozy cafes with antique lamps, under a short tree in the park that seemed proportionate to my size, or the safest place in the world: my bedroom desk. When I picked up my pen in any of those spaces, the inner workings of my mind that were still tangled up from last night’s shift began to unwind.
I found that handwriting significantly slowed down my thinking process, which added a contemplative quality to my writing and eliminated my compulsion to overthink and delete. It took my filter off. It was cathartic to speak as my genuine self on paper before a shift; I was preparing for the variety of voices I put on for other people while working. Solitude dilutes the exhaustion of tending to other people, and yet, I need these people I meet to write. This work is how I’ve internalized human dialogue, mannerisms, emotions in confined spaces. Although every waiter has a standard polite “script” to adhere to such as, “Still or sparkling water?” or “May I get this out of your way?” there are gradients in-between these scripts. I’m not taking notes when I’m running around the dining room, but there are specific moments that stick, that are worth remembering later—moments when work and personal life melt together.
A few years ago, at a soul food restaurant in Brooklyn I started working at after leaving the Jewish diner to travel, I became the designated waiter to Ms. W, who is now one-hundred-and-five years old and counting. The apartment where she lived most of her life was two floors above the restaurant. When I worked there, she came every day, twice a day.
I need these people I meet to write.
Everybody hated waiting on Ms. W because of her abrasive attitude and habitual complaints. She insisted on sitting at table twenty-two; no exceptions. Well-done salmon, extra-soft broccoli, cheesecake without toppings. I liked waiting on her because, for once, I knew exactly what to expect. She also took a liking to me, and she seemed to hold some notions about my willing submission to her demands. I didn’t care if she yelled at the other waiters to “go get my Chinese waiter;” I found her neediness endearing.
One lunchtime, waiters went around the dining room, asking everyone to sing for Ms. W’s one-hundredth birthday with the arrival of her usual cheesecake. A man rushed out to buy balloons. The collective sentimentality and awe thickened the air. When the dining room was loud with singing and clapping and the vibrance of life, I heard Ms. W screaming above the noise, “I said no toppings! You all know that I hate toppings!” When a young woman wearing a low-cut top bent over her table and gleamed, “Oh my God, you’re so cute! Happy birthday!” Ms. W replied, “What are you wearing? How will you ever expect men to respect you?” and the young woman’s face melted to the floor.
It’s Ms. W’s authenticity that haunts me. She was unapologetically herself, and although she was cruel at times, she saw no point in changing to benefit others. I grew up code-switching, knowing that the self I was at home, where a different language bounced off the walls, needed to be altered once I got to school. I don’t doubt that, at some point in her century-long life, society asked Ms. W to change depending on who she spoke to. To what extent am I capable of being this authentic? Of not changing the tone of my voice when I write, when I’m telling a story?
Restaurant service moves fast and so does time. In my twenties, I floated through other restaurant jobs and moved all around Brooklyn before ending up where I work now: a Korean restaurant owned by a woman who had, at nineteen, opened a restaurant in the West Village with her mother. Two restaurants later, her mom still makes our kimchi. We all call her “Umma”—mother in Korean. These days, I seem to gravitate toward workplaces that prove relevant to my memoir; in this spot, the rice-heavy dishes remind me of home. I’ve waited on some of my favorite writers and magazine editors here, too, but I no longer back down in conversation when they ask if I am also a writer.
It wasn’t until I nailed down my journaling practice that I felt comfortable answering that question positively, writing for public consumption, or courageous enough to make myself vulnerable by working with editors and being read by strangers. Putting myself out there by pitching my ideas and starting projects of my own led me to ask myself this question: Who am I writing to? The answer, I hope, is anybody who is willing to listen.
After a year of lockdown, I returned to work at the same place. It’s comforting to be around customers, even under these strange circumstances. My mask hides both my gritting teeth and earnest smile. The absence of work provided me with a challenge to create without the familiar stimuli of others, to think about my future. Is it time for me to transition from the service industry and write professionally? Over the years, I’ve lost sight of my end goal time and time again. In the lapse of time spent working during the pandemic, I realized something: My dream of being a writer, which escorted me into the restaurant industry, will escort me out. Ice will melt in my drink if I leave it alone for too long, and it’s best to savor it while it lasts.