It’s been exactly 38 days since I waited my last table. The last time I wore my stained, potato-sack apron and stinky work sneakers, the last time I was flagged down to refill a water bottle that was still half full and the last time a customer asked me the question that 99% of all service industry workers dread: “What else do you do?” At 36, I was about six years past when I swore I’d get out of the business. When I finally did, it didn’t feel quite like I expected it to.
I took my first restaurant job at 22, after graduating magna cum laude with a degree in the very lucrative field of art history. I owed $40,000 in student loans and had moved into my first shitty studio apartment, so I needed to start making some cash. When you’re that age, working in a restaurant is actually pretty awesome. As anyone who’s ever been in the business can tell you, it’s a uniquely dysfunctional family. There are the inevitable hookups and love triangles, the partying and the after-partying — and yes, I’ve participated in all of the above.
There were plenty of late nights, too much good Chateauneuf du Pape and questionable romantic decisions. There were also plenty of inevitable lows beyond what I’d consider a right of passage. I’ve hostessed for hours in stilettos on a marble floor, placing tufted stools (“tuffets”) under customers’ handbags so they’d never have to touch the floor. I’ve been told I have a nice ass by one (married) restaurant owner, and called a see-you-next-Tuesday by another. But it wasn’t until I turned 30 that I started to transition into the bitter, Negative Nancy server that no one wants to be, and certainly no one wants to be served by.
When I first moved to LA to pursue writing, I waited tables at a hip restaurant in Silver Lake frequented by my idols — including Jenny Lewis and Miranda July. The gig was tolerable because I was still in my twenties and on the side I got regular magazine-writing jobs, made art and curated shows. Then the economy tanked and many of my go-to magazines bit the dust. I took a second server job to make ends meet and at the same time, embarked upon my first grown-up relationship; between those two commitments I was too busy to think much about the fact that I was no longer pursuing my dream. Plus, I was able to pay my bills. Soon enough, though, I noticed my already limited time with my boyfriend (a cook, also working two jobs) was dominated by my complaints about work: the customers that dared to ask for a side of Dijon with their filet of beef in bordelaise or requested to swap the cumin-roasted carrots that came with their chicken for plain mashed potatoes.
The closer I got to 30 — the age I swore I’d be done with waiting tables — the more I honed my craft of artfully showing my annoyance at customers without actually getting myself fired. It took a lot of energy, to say the least. My then-boyfriend told me that I was “a writer who didn’t write” and though he was an ass for saying it, he was totally right. That ever-present question — “what else do you do?” — didn’t help. I compared myself to everyone around me who seemed like they were living their dreams, or even worse, living the dream I thought was mine.
When my ex left me, I broke down in a way I never knew possible. But a funny thing happened: instead of misery, my heartbreak manifested itself as empathy for others. I started seeing a therapist and at her suggestion I took a writing class. I began writing again and the years that followed moved by swiftly. New gigs were trickling in, waiting tables was simpler and more painless. I no longer cared when someone asked what else I did; I felt confident in my answer (not that I owed them anything). I wouldn’t say I reveled in customers’ often inane requests, but I sure as hell didn’t mind them the way I used to.
By the time I found out that the restaurant where I worked for nine years was closing, not only was I past the days of feeling sorry for myself, but I also was genuinely going to miss it there. During that time, I had been witness to so much life. Customers went on first dates and then got married. Some divorced. Some had babies and others lost them. Little ones turned into grownups before my very eyes. There were those who had confided in me the intimate struggles of their relationships or their childhoods. Customers learned my name, hugged me when I ran into them at the grocery store — some even told me that I was their favorite server.
As the end neared I was happy and excited about what was next for me, but it was still so bittersweet. On my last night, a regular came in, one who just so happens to be a well-known actor and comedian. “What are you going to do, Ashley?” he asked with genuine concern. For the first time I told someone what else I did and it felt pretty freaking great. 38 days and no restaurant nightmares later (“I forgot to bring table 2 that second glass of Pinot!”), I still feel proud and hopeful. But if I have to take another order again, that’s okay, too.
Ashley Tibbits is an LA-based freelance writer. She’s still not sure whether its appropriate to mention her cats in these things. Follow her on Instagram here and check out her website here. Ice cream from Morgenstern’s, follow on Instagram @morgensternsnyc. Lizzie Fortunato bracelets. Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.