This is Sunday, just your typical Sunday at the Broken Yolk, and today Kim Harper will take care of over 100 people. That’s 100 hellos and more than 100 smiles, and by the end of it, Kim Harper’s smiles and hellos will still seem honest as a child’s, as warm as fresh quiche. She’s like a still point in the rush, relaxed as though aloof to breakfast bedlam. Even when the guy at the next table sounds short with her, she doesn’t roll her eyes or tinge her sincerity. She overpowers the negative energy with genuine kindness.
It might surprise you to learn that Kim Harper has a master’s degree in journalism. She owns her own home. But the Broken Yolk is where she makes her ample living. “You know, I have a lot of people who say to me, ‘You have a degree? What are you doing here?’ And I’m, like, ‘I’m here because I enjoy it. I chose it. I chose to do this. I like to do this.’ ”
Growing up, we were taught about the noble professions — doctor, teacher, firefighter, engineer. From ages 4 to 17, like most children, I went through stages, wanting to become each one of them. Athletic but delicate, I even tried, and subsequently respected, at a safe distance, those overheavy labor-intensive trades, like toiling in construction. Instead, I stayed in school and studied to write. And to make money while I studied, I waited tables.
And now I’m a full-grown adult, married and stable. I have a master’s degree like Kim Harper. But, like Peter Jargowsky and Kim Harper, I’ve decided to earn my livelihood by waiting tables. (Now, I’m not sure what the significance of this is, but I am currently a wAiter and a wRiter, with a difference between my vocation and my avocation of only one letter.)
Anyway, Jargowsky and Harper are more or less “waiter-naturals.” That is, they each more or less innately wait tables. Not I. The first night I worked in a restaurant, one of the customers made me cry. It took seven years before I became even comfortable at my tables. (I’ll tell you more about those stories later.) And yet the money, and then later the sense of something higher, kept Jargowsky, Harper, and me committed to the waiting game.
We acknowledge that an air of the deadbeat surrounds the humble servant. We know what people see beneath the studious appearance — that we are lazy, unfortunate, or, at least, in a certain way, lesser. Indeed, a myth pursues the server, and the trouble is, that myth’s got legs; it’s a myth with history.
The fact of the matter is that waiters were always of a lower social caste. They had their quarters in an annex or in the bowels of the house. They worked in full view but lived on the sly, alternately within and away from the watchful gazes of the masters. And even these days the average waiter hasn’t finished school. He stays out all night and sleeps until late.
But none of those perceptions bothers the Career Waiter anymore. I’m cool with all those old connotations of being a server. The stuff that bothers me now about the job is actors and students. I mean, they’re the ones who give waiters a bad name, forgetting orders and mis-adding checks, not filling sodas, and taking their own long, sweet, slow time, chewing gum and chatting while customers linger neglected in their service sections.
Or maybe my trouble, the trouble that I had with this career back when I got started in it, was that I saw waiting tables as being less of a job because it’s just a trade. You learn it on-site. There’s no required school for it.
But what if a person did finish school, and then finished the next level of school, and the next level even after that. And if that person owns property and goes to bed and wakes up with most of the rest of the people in our daily world? Can that person enjoy being a Career Waiter? Has he or she discovered this profession’s underlying nobility? Or has this hypothetical individual merely scaled the Pinnacles of Purgatory, reached the Apex of the Ordinary, and achieved a Zenith in Betweenness, a Summit of the Second Class?
For me, the Career Waiter’s story is not about those dreams he once had, those misty dreams that fell beneath the Great Table-Waiter’s Wayside. It is not about how he was supposed to be a schooled specialist. It doesn’t have anything to do with how he was going to win professional grants and contests and publish copious books, or how he was planning to live a stable life in a big house on the outskirts of a glamorous city. The Career Waiter’s story is not about time off with pay, with which the Career Waiter would travel and stay in villas in small European towns. It is not a story about transfers to other divisions in powerful corporations.
Instead, for me, the Career Waiter’s story is about how he has first accepted, and then finally celebrated, his lot. Now he wins contests for selling the most scallops, and he publishes copious bills. He lives unpredictably, a year or two in each new place, renting apartments on the outskirts of assorted restaurant rows. He gets no paid vacations — ever. And when the Career Waiter becomes bored, he packs his belongings into a van, and he moves. He just moves.
The truth at the center of a Career Waiter’s story, the motivation behind it, is this: Career Waiters earn, in many cases, just as much money as the practitioners of other occupations, but instead, Career Waiters work far fewer hours, usually 25 to 33 hours per week. I personally have traveled and lived and worked all over the United States, and even in other parts of the world, and of course I never take my work home at the end of the night. Instead, I have more time to write. The fact is, this alternate lifestyle — working when other people play and playing when they work — is pretty great.