A huge part of my life for the last six years has been the writing, selling and editing of my debut novel, Dear Lucy (out this week!).
A huge part of my life for the last nine years has been waiting tables at Edward’s in Tribeca, where I started working when I was 20 years old, testing the big-city waters during the summer of my junior year.
An American bistro with cramped wooden tables, cheap wine and a menu that never changes, Edward’s has long been a haven for aspiring artists. It is owned by Edward Youkilis (the uncle of Yankees slugger Kevin Youkilis), an artist who moved to Tribeca in the 1970s and used to run with the likes of Andy Warhol and Helen Frankenthaler. Mr. Youkilis has been in our shoes. He doesn’t kid himself about the reasons his employees are waiting tables. He respects and supports our aspirations. And every Tuesday night we have Starving Artist Night at Edward’s, when we offer $5 wine and hamburgers. This is about as perfect as any New York restaurant job is going to get.
But there are downsides to any job—to any career—and the downsides of working in a restaurant are intense, especially in the entitled and demanding climate of New York City. There are customers who refuse to make eye contact with you. There are the wavers and finger-snappers (yes, it’s true). Others try to convince you to let their dogs sit on their laps (without the proper companion-animal documentation, mind you). And of course there are those who are perpetually unsatisfied.
But hardest for me to make peace with is a type of customer who seems harmless enough at first, but has the power to leave me feeling more deflated than all the rest combined. It begins with the customer asking a simple question: “So what else do you do, when you’re not waiting tables?”
I have no problem with this question. In New York, chances are your waiter is also an actress, writer, musician, comic or student. Those aspirations are probably the reason she is living in the city.
What follows usually goes something like this:
Me: “I’m a writer.”
Customer: “What do you write?”
Me: “I wrote a novel.”
Customer: “Are you going to try and publish it?”
Me: “Yes! Actually, it is being published by Simon & Schuster.”
Customer (trying unsuccessfully not to look horrified): “Oh, then what are you doing here?”
I smile and excuse myself.
What offends me about this question is that while the customer has recognized that there was a chance that I, the server, might be pursuing other interests, the customer couldn’t also anticipate that I, the server, might also have any degree of success at that pursuit. Does my working in a restaurant necessarily mean that I couldn’t sell a book, or that my co-workers couldn’t land a role on Broadway, a record deal or a teaching job in their field? Is success inconceivable for the likes of us? Would the customer feel better if waitressing was equated only with failure? Would the customer feel cozier being served by someone with only broken dreams?
The answer that I don’t give the customer is this: I’m working at one of my jobs. Writing a novel takes a really long time, and before you sell it, it is unpaid work. Serving has been my paid work through college, graduate school, writing and revising my manuscript, finding an agent, selling the book and editing the book all over again. Waiting tables might not be a childhood dream, but the opportunities it has afforded me are blessings. I have a flexible schedule, I make a good hourly rate and there is little intellectual or artistic drain. I have a supportive boss and work with interesting, talented, driven people, people who are so passionate about what they do that they make all kinds of sacrifices to be able to stay in New York and give themselves the best possible chance at success.
But the important question is not why my writing and waitressing make the customer so uncomfortable. Instead, it is why the customer’s reaction makes me so uncomfortable. By acting like my dignity has been wounded, which it usually has, I am subscribing to the same classism, snobbery and criticism as the customer. Being offended suggests there is merit to the customer’s disapproval.
I vow, the next time a customer asks the dreaded question, “What are you doing here?” I will relish the opportunity to reply, “Living the dream.”
Because isn’t that what New York is all about?