High school Kaia was a rockstar at public speaking. For some reason, it never phased me to be in front of a crowd and speak up. This was likely due to being the eldest child, being 100% comfortable with labels like “bossy” and “know it all.” Those are, after all, terms of endearment – right? Well, for some reason, all of this changed in college. Every time I had to speak in front of a crowd, I would get so nervous that the thought of it all would make me sweat. Beads of sweat. Dropping to the ground. Puddles. Wear your rainboots kind of puddles. To this day, I don’t know what that was all about, but it made my Public Speaking requirement that much more challenging. PTL that college is dead and gone — at least that part of it.
But a dear friend of mine who feels more like family than anything else recently asked me to speak at an event of his for people in the service industry. The purpose of this event was going to be a “tell all” of sorts for people who have had to deal with some serious bullshit customers, employers, etc. People who were asked to speak were to share stories of how they made the best of their circumstances in the service industry. Basically, it was going to be a night of stories and laughter and public speaking. Lots of it. Most everyone there was going to be a 10 year bartender vet, and I have only tended bar for about 6 months. Still, I knew I could (and would need to) draw from my yesteryear stories from high school where I most definitely, without a doubt, was working in the worlds most under-appreciated industry.
Of course I worried more than I should have about this — I was a nag about how much I was dreading it, too. Matthew would reassure me, calm me, remind me “you is kind, you is intelligent –” wait. No. Nevermind. He was more patient with me than I would have been with me. He basically just told me to show up, tell a couple funny stories and oh, yeah, be sure to cuss a little.
As I mentally prepared for this night of possible humiliation, or total exhilaration – I thought of all the funny people I loved and what makes their stories so good. All I wanted was to make people laugh. Jerry Seinfeld. Amy Schumer. My dad. My dad is the kind of guy who can tell a story. He can tell ALL the stories. He wouldn’t even have had to LIVE through something to tell the best story about it. If you had a story, you’d pull him to the side and ask him to tell it before you’d tell it on your own. That’s how good his delivery is. He’s so consistent. This wasn’t ever an explicit lesson that he sat down to teach me, but I learned over time that story telling is 50% being over-dramatic, and 50% believable and strategic lies. Don’t even act like this is wrong. Think of the best story-teller you know and say it isn’t so. The thing that made his stories that much better was how it always seemed so spontaneous, like the funniest thing he just said wasn’t something he thought about and mulled over for hours, trying to decide how big of a laugh or response he would get from bystanders.
I am no pro like him, so I had to map my words out in order to hope for any kind of success. And the one area in which I have undoubtably grown is in my writing. I can almost always express how I think or feel about something through written word. It’s a gift and a curse. Really. So I started writing out my stories and observations about what it was like for me.
In case you missed the event, here’s the bit I wrote out initially and based my (yes) three-indentation deep outline off of. I’m a freak, I know.
All you need to know and learn in life can come from working in the service industry. In fact, it is arguable that working in the service industry is like the right of passage into just being human, and being a productive, respected person in society. You know you’ve reached the other side, when you can say you successfully made 20 Strawberries ‘n’ Creme Frappuccinos for a group of angsty 14-year-olds on band camp tour in under 8 minutes. Respect. Gold medal. You know you earned another gem in your crown when you were able to smile, nod, and just walk away when that nasty man asked you if your boobs were real, or silicone. Just for your information, they are real. And no, I did not let him in on that privileged information.
The service industry is not for the faint of heart. There are a few life lessons that I have learned in working various service-industry jobs.
- My first service industry job was babysitting. You may laugh at this and may not even think I’m being serious — but trying to have a non-awkward relationship with the father of the children you were underpaid to watch in the first place was like a full-time job because you have to be careful to never cross “the line.” All the girls in this room know exactly what line I am referring to. Thankfully I have always been chubby chic my whole life so I’ve never posed an immediate threat at least as far as I can tell. I was always a safe bet. Plus I was pretty responsible. Again, you probably think I’m joking. But babysitting was the worst of all service-industry jobs because you were stuck with the same goddamn customer for at minimum, 2 hours. Sometimes you were there for 8 hours. Better yet, overnight. At least nurses who wipe other human’s asses are paid well. Bless them for their service.
- If you actually work your ass off people won’t think you’re getting preferential treatment, even if you are. For a summer I worked under my uncle at his kickass pizza joint in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I was secretly his favorite niece (sorry to any of my cousins who are reading this, but it was probably true since I came first). It was my ACTUAL first service industry job and I think that it made working in such a degrading work environment a little more palatable. The thing about this place was that it was a pizza buffet all the time but you didn’t have to buy the buffet. Buffets in general tend to draw in a very specific type of crowd. PIZZA buffets even moreso. The kinds of people who are attracted to pizza buffets don’t believe in tipping because they are basically DIY-ing their whole meal. Honey, if this was DIY you shouldn’t have left your house to begin with. Pizza Buffet Folk also have the idea in their mind that if they get stuck with a slice of pizza from the buffet that didn’t taste like it just came out of the oven, they are entitled to free shit. And lots of it. Honey, if it’s on the pizza buffet, you need to lower your standards. Or higher your standards overall and just never come to pizza buffets.
- For those of you who haven’t already heard me talk about how great it was to grow up in Wisconsin and how much of a Packers fan I am, for a while I worked for this 24-hour bakery/diner up there called Perkins. I was a hostess. I worked there ONLY because I wanted to go to Europe over spring break and ALL of my pay checks went directly to that. For months it was the least rewarding work ever because I didn’t get to spend any of the money I was making. No shopping sprees, no shared Cinnabon with your BFF. Anyway, what I learned there is that you can tell people what they want pretty easily. Maybe I just have the gift of persuasion, but I whole-heartedly believe that even if people think they know what they want, they could be wrong. As a hostess, I was in charge of selling our bakery items as people were waddling out and paying their bills. Cookies, cakes, pies. I was the top Boston Creme Pie seller and it wasn’t because of my sex appeal. Believe me. It’s all that sweet talking. I would say things like “I bet your girlfriend could go for that stuffed eclair right now!” And “lemon meringue pie is the ugly duckling of this display case!” And guess what. People actually bought that shit. I told women that the checkout was a “judgement free zone” in order to get them to add-on that extra slice or two of Reese’s Peanut Butter Pie to go. Too bad the calories still counted when they got home and ate both alone in the comfort of their own bed. All it took was making them think we were in it together. “We deserve this slice!,” I would say.
- You have got to get extremely comfortable with your sexuality and fast when you’re working in the service industry. I think the first time I ever felt noticed in a sexual sense was when I was 14 at that bakery/diner and the boy doing dishes kept making eyes at me. And I think he proposed, but I can’t be sure because we spoke different languages. I would go on to receive multiple marriage proposals, and it only took a couple for me to catch on and also realize I didn’t have to feel guilty for saying no to these men who didn’t even know my name. For a while I worked at this bar here in Chattanooga my friends and I affectionately call “Secret Bar.” Secret Bar, at the risk of giving away too many details and disclosing the actual name and location of said bar– was in a hotel and so we had a lot of businessmen come through. No offense to men in the room and especially no offense if you’re a BUSINESSMAN in the room who travels but you are basically all pigs. One night a guy told me “if you don’t quit doing that I’m going to fall in love.” I was literally polishing glasses, and the only eye contact he was making was not with my eyes. When a group of men is in for business they are even more dangerous because they only want to talk about sex with you as if you’d been waiting all night or your whole life to have this discussion. They would open with things like “now I know you’re probably a good girl but…” And go on to tell me really inappropriate stories about their lives as total sex maniacs and jackasses. If any of them really thought I was a “good girl” (and I’m not saying that I’m not), they should have demonstrated a little more self-restraint. But alas. I think businessmen confuse bars and strip clubs sometimes or at least assume that as a woman I would know where all the “best strip clubs in Chattanooga” are. Like “OMG my BFF Becky yes, she works at Diamonds and Dusk and she’s totally working tonight. Tell her I say hi!!” Spoiler alert: I don’t know, and if I don’t secretly give you the address to a place where you will get murdered in an alley, you are lucky. I am admittedly a feminist. And I believe that strip clubs are degrading to women AND men alike. I lost track of the amount of times I had to hold my tongue as one man asked which strip club I would personally recommend to him. Some businessmen believe that just because they were willing to make horrible life decisions while out of town and away from the fam meant that I, as their bartender, was also down for this. No, no thank you I am not interested in hating myself with you. I’m not even flattered but I’m saying “no thank you” so that you still leave me a tip on your credit card before you head to the strip club. Please dear god do not leave me cash.
- Don’t do anything you don’t want to. And especially don’t do anything someone is forcing you to do that would be publicly embarrassing. I worked at a beloved Texas Roadhouse for about a year and a half while I was in high school and if you’re not familiar with how it works at Texas Roadhouse, they play the song Cotton Eye Joe once every hour, on the hour — and the entire staff corrals around the main bar area to do the choreographed line dance. In my entire year and a half there – not once did I do this dance. Every single time I heard those faint fiddles, I booked it. No way in HELL I was going to do a little jig for minimum wage and a bunch of awkward sexual glances from MORE busboys I never even shared a word with. On a semi-related note, if you work in the service industry it helps to know multiple languages. Just FYI. Unless if you lack a thick skin, just stick to English.
- Sometimes people cannot handle your greatness. Haters gonna hate. Amirite?! Once I was hired to work for a nail salon slash tanning bed and worked only one day before the owner called to just say “never mind” about coming in ever again. According to her, she mailed my check for that one day of work but I swear I never saw it. What a little devil. There are just some people that are never worth it to work for, and I thank God every day she made that decision for me before the situation ever escalated.
All in all, working in the service industry is the best and worst. Despite all of the weird people I have come across and all of the disrespectful things that were said and done — I love it all and wouldn’t trade any moment of it for the world.
Okay, maybe I would trade the one sexual harassment complaint I filed against a co-worker at the bar who told me “I’m not really into rape.” Don’t worry. He was fired.