Thank You, I Already Have “A Real Job”

Waiting tables can be an efficient way of earning money

I started waiting tables straight out of college, when it became clear that my degree in art and creative writing had not impressed any of the hundred jobs I’d applied to. With a resume full of lies and fake references from friends, I got a job at an IHOP off the highway in Northern San Diego. It was sandwiched between two gas stations and several mid-rate hotels. I wore a men’s oxford cloth shirt and a polyester blue apron, asked people if they preferred bacon or sausage, and endured glares from soccer moms when pancakes were undercooked.

People made fun of me all the time for my job at IHOP, telling me to quit and pursue a real career — but they couldn’t argue with my income. Even though IHOP was a cheap restaurant, I still made enough in tips to payroll $900 a month in rent, going out with friends, and buying new clothes and hardcover books.

After six months of working at IHOP, I was hired at the breakfast king of San Diego, Hash House A Go Go. In one year of working at Hash House, I was able to save $13,000 to move to New York City, all while paying that $900 rent and making few sacrifices in my lifestyle.

When I got to New York, I quickly got hired at a highly publicized, just opened restaurant in the West Village. New York was more expensive than San Diego, but I could still afford Beyonce tickets, drinks at Employees Only, and planning trips to Mexico with friends.

The sheen of the money wore off when I started to be scheduled seventy hour work weeks at the restaurant because so many employees were quitting after abusive behavior from management. I was making between $3,500 and $4000 per month, but I barely had time to sleep, let alone to get done any of the creative work that I’d ostensibly come to the city to pursue. When I started having panic attacks at work, I knew I had to quit my high paying job to preserve my mental health.

I left the job in April and spent a few weeks living off my last paychecks and $1200 tax return, making a plan for how to create a lifestyle that didn’t ignite my anxiety disorder and would allow time for my creative projects.

I was finally doing what people had been urging me to do for three years: stop serving, learn some real skills. But the people who so loved to throw these bromides at me seemed to forget one essential element: how to pay rent and buy food while obtaining these so called ‘real’ skills. I had some money saved up but not enough to get an unpaid internship that might or might not lead to a paying job.

I ended up getting a part-time serving job where I work only weekends, planning to use the open days to pursue freelance creative work.

Whereas for the past three years I’ve made every dollar from tips, I now make around $300 a week at the restaurant where I serve on weekends. I earn the rest of my money from a combination of freelance writing and digital media strategy. When I say the rest of my money, I mean about $200, sometimes $250. Since I quit my full time job, I’ve been on a strict to the point of absurdity budget of $2000 per month. When you take out my $1050 rent, I’m living on less than $250 per week, and not saving any money.

The frustrating thing about this algorithm (aside from trying to live off $250 per week in New York City) is the efficiency of the time I spend in these two vastly different pursuits. I work around 8–10 hours to earn the $300 I make at the restaurant. I go into work on Friday night at 4:30 and leave just before 10:00, go in on Saturday around 7:00 and leave by midnight. The rest of the week I barely think about the restaurant. If we have a new menu item I write it down a few times, consider the pan searing and kaffir lime glaze. I make between $30 and $40 an hour. It’s an extremely efficient use of both my time and my brainpower.

The rest of the week, I spend an average of six hours a day, six days a week at my computer: writing, pitching stories, working on assignments from freelance clients, or searching for new work. On average I make about $200 a week, with the occasional article assignment that pays an extra $50 or $100. One skill I’ve honed while freelancing is math. When I pool the number of hours I spend working and then calculate how much I’ve made in a week, it generally equals out to $5 per hour.

All of my clients pay me fair rates for the writing work I do. But with fluctuating assignments, time searching for new opportunities, and multiple hours spent working on assignments that are a fixed instead of hourly rate, it’s going to take me many months of practice to build a consistent and decent income. I’m extremely grateful to get this chance to gain experience and pursue interesting and fulfilling work — but I wouldn’t have enough hours in the day to earn the money to pay my rent if I didn’t have the restaurant subsidizing my income.

Dismissing the service industry as “unprofessional” and berating people who work in it is classist. It can provide people with financial stability while they gain footing in an increasingly competitive work market.

Besides, part-time and freelance work is one of the only ways I’ve found to gain experience when a person isn’t (yet) qualified for other full time jobs. Telling people to leave the service industry ignores the fact that most people who are working as servers don’t have a family safety net to pay their rent while they pursue months of unpaid work. I still have a large chunk of money in my savings account from my initial move to New York, but I want to keep that money stored for emergencies rather than spending it on rent while pursuing unpaid opportunities that might or might not turn into jobs.

I used to feel ashamed that I’ve spent so much time walking in circles around restaurants, carrying plates of fancy New American food and explaining what a sous-vide is. But in reality I’m extremely thankful to every restaurant I’ve worked in: without these jobs, I never would have saved the money to move to New York, or to take the writing classes that taught me the ins and outs of pitching and writing for the web. I don’t want to stay working in a restaurant forever, but it’s been an invaluable source of money for me while I make my way to getting a full income from writing.

Becca Schuh is a writer and waitress living in Brooklyn. Her work has recently appeared in Refinery29, Bustle, The Washington Post, and The Rumpus. She once had a dream that Obama nominated Maggie Nelson to the Supreme Court. Follow her on Twitter @tamingofdeschuh

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