To say the least. First of all, I can think of no other job where one’s income is so completely at the mercy of other people’s whims; rarely in the professional world is there so little connection between the amount of work provided and its compensation. In most jobs the harder you work the more you make. In service, this is not always (in fact, rarely) the case. In most jobs, you have a set salary that you can count on pay period to pay period – in service your income can swing wildly night to night, week to week, and month to month. Also, the job itself is just incredibly stressful – nightmares about work are an all too common occurrence (I always wonder, do lawyers have bad dreams about briefs being misfiled?).
I’ve been a server for most of my adult life, and a student of Buddhist/Eastern philosophy for the same. After only a couple of years of frustration with bad tippers, campers, special orders, d-bags that come in 5 minutes till close, crashing kitchens, backed-up bars, rude guests, and the myriad of other annoyances and grievances that come with the profession both minor and major, I was getting pretty burnt out. I started to wonder if there was anyway I could do this job and not want to murder multiple guests and co-workers in the process.
In what I can only describe as a (painfully) slow and ongoing process, I began to see how the principles of peace and acceptance I was reading about in my off hours could be applied to that chaotic and hectic world I inhabited five nights a week. My book, “Zen and the Art of Waitering,” and this blog are the results of that realization, and it is my hope that the lessons therein can be an aid to both waiters and non-waiters alike - to anyone in stressful situations who feels stuck, to anyone who feels forced to suffer in the present moment just so (hopefully) they can be happy some point in the distant future, and to anyone else looking for a window in a locked room. I also hope you think it’s at least a little funny.
A good friend of mine who’s been in the restaurant industry for years once described waiting tables as “spiritual boot camp.” And it is. Serving forces us again and again into acceptance, letting go, not taking things personally, detaching from the results of one’s actions, going with the flow, and being kind to others regardless of how they treat you (that one might be the hardest).
From years of service, I think I’ve learned a few main lessons. One: inner peace is not some mystical state to be obtained through years of meditation or going to stay with a yogi in the mountains of Tibet – it is a choice we make, again and again. Two: the idea is not to put up with our lives right now so we can finally be happy once we graduate school/become a famous actor/publish our screenplay/get a “real” job/etc, etc. The idea is to be happy while we’re working towards those things. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Life is what happens “in the meantime.” Third, and most important:
It’s only food.