How I Make My Job Waiting Tables Feel Meaningful


So, when are you going to start your real job search? I mean, I assume you’re looking for other work too, right? What was your degree in again?

These are all questions I’ve been asked in the 10 days since I started my job as a waiter. Before I get to how I’ve come to answer these questions, how I’ve come to make my job waiting tables feel meaningful, let me give you some background information.

I graduated in 2012 from a small liberal arts college with a degree in sociology (as a side note, if someone tells you they got a degree in sociology, don’t subsequently ask them “what are you going to do with that??” I know you want to, just don’t. Trust me. You can think it, just don’t say it.) In college I did collegey things that didn’t seem nearly as epic at the time as they do now. This nostalgic rosification of the college years, the body’s natural stimulant for alumni donations, is something that I can intellectualize to a certain extent but have no power to control. College, complete with its sleep deprivation, its heartbreak, its lack of exercise coupled with sustained bursts of alcoholism and gluttony, and then of course did I mention its heartbreak, is now inexplicably remembered as the best time of my life. Fuck yeah, college!

After graduating, I moved back in with my parents and lived in their big house on a hill with a beautiful mountain view for a little over a year. During that year I entered a post-undergraduate malaise that transformed my mental framework back to one I had never wished to revisit. My thoughts no longer revolved around school times and fun times and the messiness in between the two like they did in college, but instead they revolved around my neuroses and my parents’ neuroses and the messiness in between the two. It was unpleasant at first, the change I mean, but as new things that become normal things are wont to do, the thought patterns became what I could only assume was indicative of who I inherently was, forgetting that just a few months ago they weren’t who I was at all.

During that time I half-heartedly looked for work online while my parents’ Netflix account took forever to load (come on fucking wifi, ARRRGGGHH, this is bullshit. MOM!). When it came to my “job search,” I wanted to be make sure of two things: that I wouldn’t settle for something below me and that the older generation knew that the current job market wasn’t what it was when they graduated and they should adjust their expectations and pestering accordingly. In other words, if I’m being honest, I wanted to be careful not to get a job but to make sure it looked like the terrible job market was the culprit and, thus, it was this that was getting to me and causing my depression when in fact it was my own guilt at my laziness and lethargy that was. During these months, during this year of my life, it felt like I was waiting for something. Yes, I was definitely waiting for something, it’s just that to this day I have no idea what it was. Guffman, maybe? Godot? Superman? If so, none of them came.

Fully aware I needed a kickstart, aware that this couldn’t last forever and that I was taking advantage of my parents’ combination of love for me, and sensitivity to my sensitivity, I decided to move. Not to an apartment in the neighborhood, I knew that would likely be the equivalent of vowing for nutritional reasons never to enter a Taco Bell again but with the caveat that I could still use the drive-thru. It wouldn’t be enough. No, I needed to change my whole mind. I needed to alter my daily motivations. And, to do that, I had to change my zip code. I had to alter my time zone. Or at least these were the short proclamations that I kept repeating to myself in my head until they became truths.

So I decided to close my eyes and throw myself into the great, exciting unknown: somewhere else. It’s a right of passage, I thought to myself. Everybody does this, and now it’s time for me to. On October 4th 2013 I moved from Portland, Oregon to Boston, Massachusetts. I moved in with a friend from college and her friend who I had never met or spoken to before getting on the plane. And that was that. A new life had begun, a new version of me was born.

In the weeks before the move, I had readied myself for what was to come. I had fully prepared for the anxiety I would feel in a new place, and how that would only make the job search harder than it had been in the comfort of my childhood home. I would have to give myself time to get my feet to stop from shaking in their shoes before walking and running. It might even take a month, I thought to myself, and I and everybody else was just going to have to be okay with that.

But then something odd happened in my first week in Boston. Something that I had not foreseen. Something I hadn’t planned for. I got a job. As a waiter at a restaurant located just a few blocks away from my apartment, a restaurant that I had half-heartedly sent my resume to just days before, just so, you know, I could tell everyone I was trying. And not only was it a job, but it was full time! A real, full-time, 40 hours a week job. Look at me go! Fuck yeah, adulthood! I was proud of myself, and I was so relieved that the soul-corroding whisper that for a year had never missed a day to remind me of my complete inconsequence to society had finally been shushed. I didn’t realize the relentlessness of that voice until it finally shut up. And I could breathe.

But then, immediately, on my first day of work, came the new, real voices. The ones that opened this article before I got longwinded with backstory that you probably skimmed. First it came from a coworker. So, are you looking for a job within your degree too? You know, to go along with this? What was your degree again? Then from a patron, So when is your real job search going to start? You can’t stay here forever you know. And then from my cousin. So, this is just a short term thing, right? You’re still looking for something else too? I answered all of their questions the same way. I told them I was still trying to get settled, that once I got all the way moved in that yes, I would look for something else, something more substantial. Of course I would. Chuckle chuckle chuckle, self-deprecating comment, chuckle chuckle chuckle. I said these things, but in my heart I knew they weren’t true. I wasn’t planning on looking for something else anytime soon. Fuck, it had taken me over a year to get here. This was my something else. Can’t I just hang out here for a second? Please? With each time the primacy of my table-waiting was questioned I grew more frustrated. Why can’t this be good enough for now? Why can’t this be my real job? I’m good at it, I’m making money, I’m working hard. What else do I have to do to make this enough? What other parameters do I have to fulfill here? Seriously, tell me, I’m listening.

But then I realized that these are questions that only I can answer for myself. And, in that realization, I’ve finally gotten to the titular question of the article. How do I make my job waiting tables feel meaningful? Or, to broaden the question, how can any young person do a job in the service industry, be it in a restaurant or in a retail store, and have it feel important enough to stay there for more than a passing second. Now I’m not sure I have a complete answer to this. No, strike that, I know I don’t have one. But, as I’ve gotten more and more questions about what’s next, about when and how I’m going to get my real, my actual career started, I’ve honed my ability to not let it get to me, to not feel inadequate and dishonest every time I answer with a different version of don’t worry, very soon, I promise.

The next time someone asks me when my real job search will start, if I have the guts to say it, this is what I’ll tell them. I’ll tell them that this job, waiting tables, this is what I’ve come up with on my own. As my real job. And because of that, it’s meaningful. No, it’s not perfect; no, it’s not what I dreamed of doing when I was 5. It’s not serving the planet, it’s not serving the greater good, it’s just serving hamburgers. But the most useless thing I can do right now is degrade it, as much as I want to sometimes, as much as the virtual mouths of my most respected guardian angels are telling me to. Because by degrading this job I’d be degrading myself, as I am right now, by degrading this job I’d be ignoring the fact that I’m a kid trying to become an adult, trying to become independent. I’d be ignoring the fact that that process takes time and effort and energy and this job is going to let me have those things while still making money, while not feeling guilty for being lazy and whiny and needy and self-centered. Sure, I can see the job’s faults, I can see its limitations, I can even see that it’s temporary. I can see all those things about myself too, about where I am right now as a person. But if I look at every road as a bridge then I’ll never get home. I love this job and I respect this job because, for me, right now, it’s home.