While Christmas shopping today I was recognised by some girls from my high school. It means a lot to me because I was kind of a someone in high school – often in the limelight and usually for a good reason – so university has sometimes made me feel small and invisible.
Anyways, the girls were working at a bookstore as a holiday job. They are still in school. I asked a little about school and future plans. [Talented as they are neither are interested in becoming cashiers or saleswomen].
Upon asking till when they were working I was told seven. At first I took this as 7 January, but I then realised they referred to the time of day. They are working till 18 January, the day before Eastern Cape schools open for the new school year.
I felt sorry for them (“At least we are earning money,” they said). But I was also proud of them.
I waitressed a little in Grade 9, 10 and 11. And I hated it.
I wasn’t fortunate enough to get a job at a fancy hotel, which I hear is rather more pleasant. Instead I worked at chain restaurants where staff relations were a living nightmare and being a waitress also meant being a cleaner, a cook, a cashier and a general crisis manager.
I hated having to memorise the whole boring and unimaginative menu and being quizzed on it every morning. I hated how being the youngest meant that I could be given the least tables and the moodiest customers. Once I worked at a seafood restaurant and I hated having to learn how to de-gut calamari and to clean prawns. I hated that a customer could shout at me for a mistake the kitchen or the computer made.
Once I worked in the smoking section for a whole Sunday (bear in mind I was only 16, so legally speaking this never should have been allowed in the first place). I had customers smoking thick Cuban cigars and I remember having to tell myself to breathe.
Another time I was working the Sunday lunchtime shift. Two guys came in, ordered meals and sat down to watch the day’s rugby. They drank beer after beer after beer – the type with the twisty cap, so by the end of the day my hands were raw. And when they finally left, they paid with tonnes of small change and gave me a 50c tip – which wasn’t even 0.05% of the final bill.
So I hated being a waitress, but by the end of that December I could buy myself an awesome hardcover book about the history of the printed press, some nice stationery for the new school year and some good Christmas gifts for my family.
I also learned that while I wanted to “help people”, serving their food was definitely not the way I intended.
Since that time, I have never not tipped a waiter at least 10% – unless their service was absolutely, indisputably atrocious. I met some people who raised their children on their tips and who honestly considered turning to prostitution, since that would bring in more money.
I experienced what it was like to spend a whole day on my feet, something most of my classmates have not. I think my feet and back might handle clinical rounds better than some of them, next year.
I mastered “service with a smile”, which I still think is a necessary skill.
Most importantly, I can say I have worked for money, even though my social circumstances did not necessitate this. I meet many young people who have never worked, simply because they have never really needed to do so.
Some may call that lucky – I call that lacking a certain element of life-experience.
So even if one day I or my spouse earns millions, I think I will see to it that my kids have a summer job, at least once. I don’t deny that it sucks, but something in it seems necessary.