The man who taught me how to make a drink likes to say I was a diner waitress from Ahoskie when he first met me; I hope, in many ways, I always will be. I know enough now to proudly claim those beginnings.
To date, I’ve spent just over half of my life in this industry, with a few breaks here and there. But I always came back, and service simply shoved a bar towel in my back pocket and told me to get to work, no questions asked. It’s the ultimate job security, and I thought it was a curse for many years: easy money in, easy money out. Working with your friends, commiserating afterward. Long days and late nights and a back that never stopped hurting, feet that were never not sore, and more alcohol than you could shake a stick at.
We all have our own assumptions about what service is, what life in the service industry does to a person. Sometimes those things are true, but mostly they aren’t. I often joke that working a service job should be a requirement for everyone, for at least a few months, at some point in their lives. I think we’d all be a little nicer to one another, a little more patient. I think we’d all have a better understanding of how many people it takes doing everything the right way to make something work efficiently.
I started waiting tables when I was fifteen at a cheesesteak-and-cheeseburger joint in northeastern North Carolina. My mom had to sign a waiver before they’d let me work. I wanted a job for all the reasons kids want jobs: spending money for gas, clothes, food. The independence that comes from not having to ask someone else for things is powerful. It was a short-term plan. I’d go to college, get a “real job” right after.
Fifteen years later, I’ve worked in Southern steak-and-seafood joints, basement bars, meat-and-threes, Asian restaurants, and even had a short stint at a Cracker Barrel. Now I’m managing a bookstore housed in Brewery Bhavana, a Chinese dim sum restaurant and Belgian-style brewery, slinging words and ideas alongside cocktails in a breathtakingly beautiful space. Looking back, I can’t imagine a life that service is not a part of. Service has brought me all this way, and while I’ve spent most of my life searching for a place that felt like home, I seem to have found it, instead, in an industry.
Service is woven into the very fabric of our community. Raleigh was founded, in part, precisely where it is now because a committee decided it needed to be located within at least ten miles of a popular tavern. Somebody had to pour those drinks.
Service has long been a basis for decisions. Deals are made over meals and cocktails, relationships forged, connections broken. Restaurants and bars serve many purposes; they are safe spaces, celebrations, suspensions from reality. They become second homes, both for those who work in them and those who choose to spend their time and money within.
I laugh when I hear the term “lifer”; we are all passionate, intelligent, caring individuals, and most of us could do any number of things for a living. We all choose service for our own reasons. The most frustrating question I’ve been asked in all my years in service is, “What do you really want to do?” As though caring for people, night after night, is not enough. As though every smile, every basic human moment, is not powerful.
Service has taught me to put others first, to place my own wants and emotions on the back burner. It has taught me to ask questions and listen closely to the responses. It has taught me to be less reactionary. Service has also given me courage. As a bartender, I learned to say no to people, to stand my ground, to smile through the trenches.
And I was never alone in those moments. During a rough patch in my life, service was sometimes the only reason I left the house. It was the strangest medicine. Serving guests necessitated conversation, pleasantries, smiling; it saved me from falling deep into my own neurosis.
Unfortunately, choosing to live a life of service can also alienate us. As service industry professionals, we are a curious dichotomy of visibility: the most and least seen, we are in/visible. We are the means of people getting what they want, all while working hours that exclude us from participating in many of the things we care about.
But in those liminal spaces, we carve out a world that is all our own. We master a language rooted in observation: eighty-six, behind, corner. We measure time in poured ounces and courses. We move through spaces with ease and intuition. Moments, in repetition, become music that we carry within us: The whir of a juicer. A knife slicing through citrus. The particular refrain of bar conversation and laughter. The clinking of glasses, one against the other.
Home is a sense of belonging, not a place. I have found mine in service; I have found myself. And Momma used to say you never meet anyone nice in bars.
illustrations by steve oliva