Something about me is that I’m 23. This means that I’m allowed to be “figuring myself out,” to make mistakes, to run at full blast.
You can find me between many different life paths, unable to close doors on potential and possibility. Full-time jobs present a stifling box that shut me off from doing everything. But the gig economy of writing, selling art, and working with kids doesn’t pay bills reliably. And as someone who refuses to give anything up, I was yo-yoing between running out of money and running out of steam.
I started hosting after leaving corporate life, working only weekends and living down to brass tacks. I spent my weekdays on my own artistic projects, finally able to cobble together part-time gigs in all my little niches of interest. I learned that the service industry is always there for the support I need, to be “a landing place for transitioning,” as Lily, one of my friends, puts it.
I currently balance working in service with teaching full-time. And while I am staving off burnout, I feel firmly close to what I want my life to look like.
As a server, whenever I tell customers I’m a teacher, they thank me for my service as if I’m in the military. But really it’s a social butterfly’s dream, making small talk, smiling and laughing every few minutes, darting in and out and between new faces.
When I first met Makayla, she joked that she might do something other than serving once she’s less pretty. Makayla is a server at the restaurant where I’m a hostess.
Makayla has been working since she could. Money meant freedom and independence. And serving would be the best money. When the pandemic hit, Makayla took a break from college. Joining an understaffed team of three, she dove right into being a diner server. Everyone was always needed, and there were a solid 18 days straight she worked at one point, from early in the morning until the afternoon. But it was a high-demand, high-reward system, fostering intimate relationships with her coworkers and her customers. To this day, she says the most money she has ever made was Christmas Eve there, when all her regulars came in bearing envelopes.
Now resuming her time at UNC, she works the peak restaurant hours at night and takes classes in the mornings, a schedule that sometimes “feels like every moment is accounted for.” She echoes a lot of common sentiment that “it’s hard to describe what it is about zooming around that is enjoyable, but I feel like I respond very well to the opportunity to hustle.”
As my friend Lily says, “The [local] hustle industry kicks ass right now.” Thanks to the service industry, they have been able to carve out the time to “turn a fascination and hobby of mine into a skill.” A self-taught tattoo artist, Lily started a home studio and found community around it. The unique schedule of a server who picks up bartending shifts around town allows them to work three days a week, opening up the week to creative collaboration.
I met Lily when they gave me a tattoo, and I have the cutest little fruits on my right arm to prove it. The tattoo was bestowed at a Barbie party that I found out about via Instagram, hosted by someone welcoming strangers into their home for the sake of connection. It was there that I met a couple of other part-time service workers with richly woven lives outside of work.
Connection is a big part of what makes bartending appealing to Lily, that they get to see humans connect literally in front of them while enjoying something interesting. The DIY tattoo scene holds a similar structure, with artists as young as 20 or 21 emerging with unique styles, feeding off of each other’s creative energy in a city that is queer, cool, and changing.
Grace agrees that when it comes to working service, “the perks make it worth it.” For her, it has more to do with the coworker crowd of fellow musicians that goes hand in hand with the industry.
When Grace graduated college with an environmental studies degree, she found that her next step seemed to be reliant on a lot of things falling into place. And when your future seems to demand a lot of waiting, you might go into the coffee industry, which Grace did and refers to fondly as “acoustic bartending.” She originally chose her studies for the human interaction, and now cafés provide her with “emotional support customers.”
Through the service industry, Grace has met everyone that she ends up playing music with. At the café, she gets to take control of aux and shamelessly plug local bands. A coworker referred her to a job at a local farm when she wanted to follow her roots back to the dirt, and she ended up finding a lot of common threads weaving together surprisingly at a farmer’s market.
Grace feels more connected to her community and local food system as a barista and farmhand than she was at a job that followed the college degree. She actually just got her dream job! Grace is now a local farmer’s market manager, something that she only realized she wanted thanks to the service industry.
Isabella had some idea upon graduating that she wanted to work with kids, but she knew a classroom would come with paperwork, headaches, and the dulling throb of censorship. She had gotten into bartending as a summer job during college, and she soon saw the potential of flexibility in the industry.
I met Isabella this summer at the Museum of Life and Science. She is one of their Innovation and Learning fellows, learning how to engage kids while supporting nonprofit administration.
Occasionally, she goes straight from the museum to behind the bar, and the workday lasts from nine a.m. to 11 p.m. Isabella says she loves the contrast, but it can get emotionally taxing. Kids have demands similar to the average customer: patience, understanding, validation, and the ability to have their needs met with a smile. It can take a lot out of you.
I asked Isabella if she’s happy with the exhaustive way we incorporate our passion into our lives. We talked about how full-time service would make more money than splitting it with education work, but she says she loves the fellowship for giving her next steps, and she loves bartending for the leeway to figure out what she loves.
In this industry, Lily says there are no burdens of having to “pretend to be happy making someone else money.” You are allowed to love what you love about life, whether it’s something that makes you money or not. The job itself won’t always be something you love, and the industry has been due for a labor rights upgrade for a while now, but working in service is a skill you can take away for yourself.
It can help you live your life. It can be a welcome break from chasing your dreams because here, there’s an immediate gratification to the rhythm. You do the work and you get paid. You do a better job, you get paid more. It’s the “meritocracy” that America promised.
Elim Lee is a Georgia peach who took a detour in New England and came back to her roots in the South this past year. Her least-in-progress, most-finished project is her children’s book Needle and the Too Big World. Follow her on Twitter @wellwhatgives and Instagram @elimscribbles.
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