That time I almost left my food service job
As food service workers, we're positioned to absorb the collective anxiety, frustration, & grief that everyone has been navigating since 2020
A few days ago at work, my coworker said something random that sent us bursting into laughter — the loud, shrill kind. Mid-laugh, I noticed the silence of a customer four feet in front of me, whose order I’d almost mindlessly placed into the register (three years in, this job doesn't ask for much mentally).
Watching her credit card from above a mask, her eyes seemed cold. Impulsively, I imagined she saw our outburst as a failure to center our attention around her experience as a customer, and therefore perceived us as rude, unprofessional food service workers.
Later that morning, we received an online complaint about our counter staff: that we act like we’re “giving away free food” and “superior to everyone else." "What is their problem?” the comment repined.
Far-fetched or not, I can’t resist linking the two: this lady was offended by how we’d laughed as if she weren’t there — in her face, as it were — and felt compelled to express this insult to our manager. In my head, the two merge into a display of how notions of work and respectability intersect within social contexts of instability.
"What is their problem?" Well...
As a child of immigrants who pursued a creative profession, I’ve wrestled with the underlying axiom of what constitutes a “successful” career: human worth is determined by productivity and the level of prestige associated with that productivity.
I struggled with this idea as a pre-teen, wondering if my love for music could blossom into a career. Then a second time, applying to college as a flute performance major. I spent my college years scrambling to reconcile the expansiveness of my interdisciplinary education (what most would call "scattered") with the increasingly-pressing need to support myself after graduating, rich in student debt.
By senior year, I'd let go of notions of productivity and prestige. My post-graduation plan was to freelance as a flutist while working part-time behind the counter of a local bakery, where I was surrounded by seasoned freelance musicians.
Then a pandemic disrupted our lives. After graduating, I doubled my shifts at the bakery.
When I think of the summer of 2020 and the fall that ensued, I think of silence, sunlight, and the kind of stillness that births a season of upheaval.
After my shifts, I’d walk to the nearest place to sit and think about how I’d finished my 6:30am-noon, but the rest of the world was still working — eight hours at least, five days a week, on top of the myriad responsibilities of sustaining a middle-class lifestyle — maybe a family, too.
To my 22-year-old self, it seemed clear "the rest of the world" had conformed to social conditioning that to live was to work, to construct an image of success and respectability.
With the caveat that working part-time meets my financial needs, working less opened my eyes to how expansive life became when you decentered work and took some time to internalize: success or respectability couldn't change the certainty of mortality.
Sitting with this in 2020, I spent less time thinking about my career and reputation, more time deconstructing my deepest limiting beliefs. That fall, I shaved my head and got my first tattoos — honest reflections of what was happening inside me.
Quarantine whisked us all into a more introspective lifestyle, but the pace of my change was intensified by the sheer amount of time I spent not working.
What are the roles of work and their meanings in our lives? Perhaps as myriad as the possibilities for balancing a career with every other realm of life. A balance remains elusive, but I'm convinced a healthy one decenters work as a means to pursuing other activities, cultivating other identities from which we derive deeper fulfillment.
So as my peers set off to grad school or high-paying jobs, I worked at a bakery and launched a Patreon to generate income from creative work.
Working behind the counter, I slowly began to position myself outside of "respectability." I’d watch as customers walked in — the sense of importance they’d carry into the store, how it clung to their business (or workout) clothes. I grew acquainted with the blankness of their voices as they spoke to me, casually refusing to acknowledge my presence.
Many of our customers are kind, but I was getting just enough experience with the not-so-kind ones to conflate affluence — a certain appearance of respectability — with a conspicuous lack of kindness. I grew wary of, almost antagonistic towards, whatever might lure me into becoming "like them," too self-important to treat food service workers with respect. Like an impressive job.
In March of 2020 I wrote this post about working in customer service. Two years later, I envy its optimism — drained by the emotional labor of shouldering customers’ entitlement, sometimes rudeness, with a veneer of deference in a wealthy, mostly-white neighborhood as a woman of color and daughter of immigrants.
Days after writing that post, quarantine began, heightening tension. Sometimes tragedy softens customers, moves them to kindness. More often, they're exhausted by the ongoing state of crisis. Their exhaustion finds an outlet where it's deemed inconsequential — how they treat those of us in the service industry.
As food service workers, we're positioned to absorb the collective anxiety, frustration, & grief everyone has been navigating since 2020. After two years, I was reaching my limit.
On another level, I was growing restless and disillusioned about a creative career. For two years I’d poured myself into creative work. But next to the conventionally successful, tangibly impactful work of my peers, somehow it still seemed inconsequential.
So I swallowed my gripes towards respectability and prestige, and applied to "real jobs." I decided to compromise, fitting creative projects around a full-time job that offered not only financial stability and health insurance, but the certainty of an impact — not to mention an escape from the looks of condescending customers.
But the jobs didn’t work out. I found myself back at square one, uncertain if leaving the bakery, where my coworkers are dear friends, would hurt more than staying. Uncertain if I could stay.
Last week, something about learning I wasn’t offered a job made it feel as if the sky had cleared, lifting months of uncertainty off my chest. Suddenly I relearned how working part-time opens a gateway to whatever creative projects I could dream up. It allows for an ownership of time I’ve felt almost guilty for, but through which I've been able to sustain my practice as a flutist and writer — which I deeply respect as work, however invisible or trivialized by others.
Moreover, being a part-time food service worker keeps me in touch with a lightness of heart that evaporates any willingness to conform to appearances of respectability or success. It's a lightheartedness that emerged from deconstructing my deepest limiting beliefs, and that still sends me bursting into laughter during a shift — even as a customer watches her credit card with cold eyes.
Maybe the news weighed heavily on her. Maybe like all of us, she was strained by entering a third year of COVID. Maybe she was grieving a loss — personal, collective, both — and didn't have energy to humor the intrusion of a stranger’s laughter.
Or maybe I could have been less callous. In this essay, Dr. Sunita Puri writes about collective grief: "Can we feel tragedy together, without an artificial line between those who are ready to move on and those who can’t see a way out?" She advocates for reaching through the connective tissue of loss, even to a stranger, especially if the loss isn’t our own.
While I could have been more sensitive to this woman's presence, I don’t regret having allowed joy — its vibrance, spontaneity — to fill that space. However unstable and frightening the world is, all of us could use the kind of joy that changes, if only for a moment, everything.
If I could revisit the sound of my laughter against the wall of her silence, I’d be less quick to equate her silence with hostility or condescension. I’d let go of the impulse towards defensiveness, the need to feel secure in a momentarily-fraught setting.
We're so quick to project walls between ourselves and others, something like this will happen again. When it does, I hope to draw more from what working in food service taught me. For one, to speak with kindness even when it's the last thing I want to do — not out of submissiveness, but out of compassion. For another, to see customers the way I want them to see me — as carrying a thousand invisible burdens, but still capable of sharing deep, expansive joy — the kind that changes, if only for a moment, everything.