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On Serving

On Serving
By Lilly Milman • Issue #7 • View online
It’s time we take a hard look at the long-term physical & psychological impacts of being a server in the US.

The first time I got home from serving a double shift, I made a beeline for the couch in my living room. Once I sat down, I realized I couldn’t get up — like, literally, I had to use my arms to press myself into a standing position, which hurt my feet and legs so much that I instantly fell back into the warm embrace of the couch. I fell asleep before I got a chance to eat something or change out of my black uniform, covered in splotches of dried marinara sauce, pizza crumbs, and oil. This was the first of many, many, many nights when I sat down for the first time only after walking home around midnight following a 10-hour shift. After a week or two — when my body became accustomed to entire days spent standing, walking (or, on busy nights, jogging) endlessly in circles, carrying trays heavy with pizzas and pasta dishes in scalding hot plates — I stopped falling asleep immediately after getting home. I even started going out after doubles with friends and coworkers, pushing our way into bars crowded with boat-shoe-clad college guys and girls in thigh-high boots and mini skirts while still in our stained uniforms. The soreness was just one of the things you got used to. 
… 
The kitchen was the only place where we could hang out for a minute without being watched. We weren’t supposed to allow customers to see us idle, we were always told, or even worse — on our phones. So, in rare free moments, when every table had been checked on and food all delivered, we leaned against the back wall of the kitchen to take pressure off of our legs, hoped for someone behind the counter to make a mistake on an order so we could eat, and caught up with each other about what was going wrong that night (usually, everything was). But after I returned from taking a few days off to go on a trip with friends, during which I posted a photo on Instagram in a bathing suit, I couldn’t walk in without being hollered at. For days, I ran in and out, only coming in when my table’s food was ready, finding something else to do instead of taking a break during lulls and ignoring digs about going to the beach. 
… 
According to a 2015 study, serving was listed among the most stressful and demanding jobs one could have — ranking higher than neurosurgeons. Updates on the study since then show not much has changed, given the fact that tipping wage is still only a couple of dollars per hour, customers still harass employees with expectations that strip waitstaff of humanity, sexual harassment in the industry is still rampant, and everyone is still just looking for a place to sit down for a minute. I only cried at the restaurant once. “It’s always the quiet ones,” my least favored manager growled at me, after refusing to take the cash and receipts I owed her. I was at the end of my shift, and had just finished polishing a mountain of silverware. “Why do you think you’re so special?” I didn’t know how to answer the question. Mostly because I didn’t think I was special, I thought I had been told to leave because my shift was over and I had nothing left to do. She kept me there for nearly an extra hour after I clocked out because “you don’t get to decide when you leave, I do,” and tears stung at my eyes, not quite dripping down my cheeks, until I walked out of the building. 
“I’m done with this place,” was a threat shouted daily between wait staff and managers. But even though we were always proud of the people who actually went through with the promise, there was also a comfort in knowing most people didn’t mean it. Because on Mondays, when hardly anyone came in other than the supervisor of the weekly customers’ game night, with his table stacked high with games, we had Connect Four and Uno tournaments. Because sometimes the bartenders made snowballs in the blender out of crushed ice and it was always so funny when you got hit with one that you couldn’t even be mad. Because we all used the phrase “I appreciate you” instead of “thank you” when acknowledging a favor, and nothing could make someone too tired to refuse help to someone else. 
I’d be lying if I said I missed being a server, and I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve been able to work from home through the pandemic. But I’ve found myself at times nostalgic for that deep sense of camaraderie I had with my coworkers from that time — one that I think stems from the fact that we were all suffering in small ways and all stunk of overpriced Italian food. I also think it’s because devoting 30+ hours a week to serving others (which means learning: “I’m always wrong” because someone else is always right; idleness is the enemy to earning because “customers won’t tip a lazy server” no matter what havoc that wreaks on your body; it’s easier to make yourself scarce than it is to stop sexual harassment) changes something in you. 
I’ve struggled to find studies on the long-term psychological impacts of serving, but anyone who’s worked in food service knows that there’s just something different about people who have been through it. My friends who are servers are generally the first to help clean up after dinner at someone’s house, the most patient and understanding when something goes wrong at a restaurant or cafe, the biggest tippers. But there’s something insidious about being humbled by way of being demeaned and getting accustomed to the idea of your body not being in your control for 8, 10, 12 hours per day — and that’s fertile ground for research. We’ve talked about the stress on the job, but what about what comes afterwards? Maybe I’ve always been this way, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the years after I quit my restaurant job, I’ve continued to accept working conditions that I don’t approve of. I have to stop myself from saying “I’ll just get used to it.” Even still, I often don’t even realize I’m letting the good overshadow the bad — even when the bad impacts my mental and physical health. Perhaps this is naive of me, but I am hoping now that servers are finally starting to say no to these conditions, this country will finally take a closer look at the long-term psychological and physical impacts of being a server.
As always, thank you for reading.
For nights when you’re too tired to do the dishes, something low-key.
Orzo with Asparagus and Parmesan
  • 2 tbsp. salted butter
  • 4 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • One bunch asparagus, roughly chopped
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • 1½ cups vegetable stock
  • 1 cup orzo
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 cup parmesan, freshly grated
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter in a pan over medium heat, stir in scallions and garlic, and cook for about 3 minutes until scallions are softened. Stir in asparagus and sprinkle salt over the pan, stirring until it begins to soften, about 3-5 minutes. Stir in wine and bring to a simmer, then add stock. Add orzo, lemon zest, and ½ tsp. salt. Cover and simmer until most of the liquid has been absorbed and orzo is soft, about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat, stir in parmesan and cover for a minute.
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Lilly Milman

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