The day I wore a hole through the bottom of my $150 running shoes—walking straight through an inch of green and grey rubber—I could feel the kitchen boil over from its typical 99 degrees to a more comforting 104. By this point, the sweat rolling down my face only became a concern if it threatened to drip on food. It was around 6 o’clock and I’d been standing for 8 hours. I began to feel the sagging puddle of where the rubber in my shoes used to be mixed together with the line of sweat dripping down from my back. I still had 4 hours left until home.
My mother likes to say she waited tables between semesters because it reminded her of why she went to college. I repeated her line a dozen times this summer, chipping away at the pitying looks of old high school friends as they catch me, sweaty-faced and smiling, waiting tables at Doogans, a local restaurant. Doogans is a small-town sort of place—the managers worked their way up from busing tables, two-thirds of the staff went to high school together and the biggest fear of any worker under 25 is becoming a “lifer”— otherwise known as making a career out of serving.
The entire restaurant is a hotbed for strong personalities. Our bartender spent three years in the peace corps where he tromped through the Ukraine picking up the language while attempting to pick up women. The huge taxidermied and antlered animal that hangs at the end of the bar was shot by the owner during a hunting stint in New Zealand, which he ventured into with an Athens bar owner. Among the societal anomalies is the night shift dishwasher, who — it is often said — came with the building. He and his shock of white hair sporadically insist you belt out a tune for him, and his only response to “excuse me” is, “did you fart?” And then there’s the slew of 20-somethings — bouncing through, raising children, pursuing master’s degrees and making a living — in transition just like the rest of us. Despite the fantastic mix of experience and humanity, a lurking sense of embarrassment hovers above the younger staff, as if there was a silently reached conclusion that no pride is to be had in this business.
Every once in a while I would serve a table interested in my future plans. I spewed a line or two — usually two — about coming back to school and going out into the world. By the end of the conversation the air around me changed. All of a sudden I wasn’t just some waitress frittering my life away in unskilled labor, but a person complete with hopes, dreams and most importantly, a future. I began to discover that a prerequisite for respect was an exit plan. So I shared escape routes and asked others about theirs. We talked about “out of here” and “freedom” like they were palpable and in our hands.
Despite all this big talk, I had no desire to leave. I found a place where I was free to laugh and joke, where I was able to earn respect and ask questions, where my only expectation was to do my share of the work until it was done and then grit my teeth and do more. I found new ways to move, sweat and joke. Every night I walked away with a handful of money, proof of a job well done. I learned that people could be incredibly resilient; they see the worst of the world, thicken their skin and keep moving. There is so much pride to be had in hard work and an honest appreciation of the people around you. Everyone has dreams, everyone has plans, and they don’t have to be exit strategies in order to be legitimate. My experience was not big, and it certainly was not fancy, but it was real, hard and important. It showed me a different way of life, inspired me and encouraged me to think. What I learned this summer is not every experience needs to be a résumé-builder; sometimes it’s okay to do things because they build you.