Why the Service Industry?

May 14, 2010

Dear Stella,

During my last trip to NYC, I had lunch with a friend who lost her job at a prominent magazine. Not surprisingly, given the recession, she’s had trouble finding another job. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she told me, “I’m a journalist. What if I can’t get work as one?”

Her anxiety about her predicament got me thinking about why I’m drawn to the service industry, where nothing is stable. We can be fired at any time, for any reason; we can also quit at any time (there are no contracts), even make a powerful statement if we need to by walking out during a shift.

Sunday night: work feels familiar. I take pleasure in the fact that I am developing a routine that is my own, that I feel comfortable behind this bar. Tommy, the barback, and I have a rapport—I’ve learned how he works; I’ve learned how to communicate my needs to him, and he’s learned how I work and when to stay out of my way behind the bar.

On Monday night, however, I arrive to find that he’s quit. Just like that, I’ll never see Tommy again. Tonight, I’ve got to be my own barback, and I was so dependent on Tommy that I never had to learn where the fruit and ice and fresh herbs are myself. So I’ve got to wing it under pressure, figure out how to solve new problems in a hurry. And let go of the fact that I also miss him. On Wednesday, there are two new barbacks, each with their own system and personality, so the next challenge is learning—quickly—how to work with each of them.

My schedule is also never set. Some of it is the service industry in general; you can try to guess when the crowds will come—if it’s sunny, if it’s a weekend, if there isn’t a competing event in the city that night. But you can never predict. Sometimes two bartenders will be scheduled and one will be sent home because it’s dead. Sometimes one will be scheduled and one will be called in because it’s crazy busy. So I have to be okay with not knowing when I will be working in any given week. Then there’s the actual work of serving, which is totally unpredictable. You never know who is going to walk in that door, what baggage they might bring, what situations you might have to handle, and how much money you may or may not make.

As teachers in fancy universities, we worked in a system that creates the illusion of stability. University professors strive for tenure, the highest form of “stability,” as once you’ve got it, you can stay in it forever and your job won’t be threatened by your radical ideas or, in some cases, your own resistance to change.

This illusion is nice and also dangerous because nothing is actually stable and finite, and we are ill-equipped to handle this truth.

I am drawn to the service industry for its radical instability and what being in the thick of such turbulence can teach me. Perhaps I am throwing myself into the fire for self-preservation.

I think about my friend’s statement, “I’m a journalist,” and how we tend to identify ourselves and others with occupations. There is satisfaction in it, and the label allows us to bring out certain aspects of ourselves. When I was a teacher, for example, I felt responsible and together; I was identified (and identified myself) as a do-gooder, a smarty-pants, but there were also limitations. I had to model being the Good Citizen all the time; I had to show self-restraint and make Good and Right choices. Once, I ran into a student at a karaoke bar in the East Village; I was drunk and horrified. I had a quick conversation with her as if I was a drunk teen pretending to be sober in front of my parents. Being a teacher also made me feel like The Establishment, and this label became constricting, not just in terms of being able to let loose a little, but also in terms of my creative ideas.

As a bartender, I’m the opposite of The Establishment, and I love that. My authority doesn’t come from the Good Citizen brigade that wants to mold young minds into other Good Citizens; it comes from playing the role of the badass. The bartender label gives me the courage and freedom to make choices in other areas of my life that go against the grain. It’s like that shot of whisky that gives you courage to talk to the guy/girl at the end of the bar; except I’m not drinking it, I’m making it, and I’m not walking toward the guy/girl, I’m walking toward my unpredictable future.

My point is not, however, that I’ve exchanged one ill-fitting label for another better-fitting one. My point is that both labels are and are not me. It’s the moving between labels that is significant and powerful, I think, and educational.

Who am I outside the labels? If I am neither just a teacher nor a bartender, who am I? Without nouns, I’m left with adjectives: I’m adventurous, I’m curious, and I care about making a positive impact in the world. These descriptions may be true, but they are also neither totalizing nor constant.

What feels most true is that I am slowly becoming a more flexible muscle, capable of change myself. And I am learning how to be okay in the midst of a constantly changing world.



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