My buzzer goes off on the dimly lit floor, but the apron knotted at the small of my back absorbs the vibrations. I weave my way out of the dining area, past the host stand, through the bar space and into the kitchen to fetch the entrees, making sure to move with simultaneous briskness and poise. I steel myself as I brace for the three-plate carry: seat one — handkerchiefpasta, sideofbrussels; seat two — halibut, nocouscoussubancientgrains; seat four — NewYorkstrip, medium. How did I end up here? Me: a young, black vegetarian, setting a slab of dead animal in front of this upper-crust white gentleman in the hopes he’ll tip well and not call me “hon”?
I’ve worked at the fine dining restaurant in the Statler Hotel since the beginning of my junior year. Twice a week, I tuck my septum ring inside my nose, wrap my braids into a neat bun at the nape of my neck and don the uniform and name tag bearing my major and expected graduation date. The learning curve I’ve had to ride these past two years has been more of an upward-sloping abstract squiggle than a curve, and while I’m far from being the worst student server, I’m farther still from being the best. Yet I’d argue that I’ve learned more from serving three-course meals than in any of my Cornell classes.
Half of all U.S. adults have worked in the food service industry at some point in their lives. It’s like a rite of passage for many Americans — especially immigrants. I remember tales of my mom’s experience as a 19 year-old immigrant college girl working at Roy Rogers, but I remember just as clearly her encouraging me to study hard to avoid flipping burgers for the rest of my life. Even then, it was clear that class is a precarious enough reality to suspend us between the distressing material concerns of the lives of the majority and the comfortable detachment of the one percent of the world.
My job as a server is a box of chocolates. You know that adage about not truly knowing someone’s character until you observe how they treat the waiter? I’ve been that waiter — on the receiving end of every possible dietary restriction, special occasion, background, whim and temperament. There are nights I recycle the same old jokes ad nauseum, knocking cheekily on the glossy wooden table with a summary of my post-grad plans as yet another guest remarks on my upcoming graduation, but there are also nights I’ve met individuals who have revived my conviction in humanity’s goodness and couples whose love has brought tears to my eyes. There are nights when a party of four leaves without paying, but there are also nights like when my friend received an $800 tip from a mysterious solo patron. There are regulars — the professors who come for their routine Monday lunch, the Sunday brunchers and the alumni parents — but there are also adorably nervous first date-ers, the occasional son of a United States cabinet member and families who haven’t treated themselves to a night out in years so they could see Cornell for the first time at their beloved graduate’s commencement.
Whether it’s in between study sessions or last minute because I overslept, when I show up for my shift the meticulously organized chaos of my beloved workplace bears the ambiance of home for the night. It’s an escape; a six-hour mental and physical exercise in which I must heighten each of my senses, suspend the impulse to take even a single thing personally and devote all of my energy to making sure I do not eff up a reputable and well-oiled fine dining apparatus in which I am a mere cog. We’re compensated by the extent of guests’ satisfaction and the subsequent caliber of their gratuity etiquette. If we’re lucky, the hard work pays off.
However, there are costs to the highest-paying student job on campus. The job takes significant physical strength, a sharp memory, nuanced intuition, thick skin and a lot of patience. The thick skin takes you the farthest. It pushes you into growth mindset when you screw up your tickets and Chef Bob reprimands you; it shields your ego when a group of kale salad-ordering srat girls gives you Cinderella Story-style “diner girl” treatment; it keeps your feet moving and a smile on your face on nights when your life outside of work feels like it’s swallowing you whole. But there are some things a thick skin hasn’t protected me from: Last fall I took a couple weeks off after I was sexually harassed twice in one week by the same group of men in the guest elevator. (I’d been so excited to ride it while the service elevator was out of order.) I’ve cried in the back station after forgetting the same thing for the fiftieth time and feeling incompetent in front of my supervisors. As someone who does not wish to support the slaughter of animals, I’ve struggled to prepare meat products, and as a climate conscious Gen Z, I’ve felt deeply conflicted about the waste created by our establishment and the broader industry. There are times when these occupational hazards have made me wonder if I have bitten off more than I can chew.
But it’s even in these moments that I’ve found the paradigm of student work is a reproduction site for the inequalities of our lives outside Cornell. Reflecting upon my mother’s warnings about a life of flipping burgers, I often consider the inverse relationship between class privilege and one’s proximity to working class jobs like those in the food industry. If, for example, I need to give up a shift or take a month off because of a heavier academic load, I won’t go hungry — but not everyone can say the same. Employees range from hotelies who need the industry hours to meet their graduation requirements, to full-time workers with kids to students who work six seven-hour-long shifts every two-week pay period to pay their rent. It’d be impossible to hold one of the only student jobs in which Cornell students work alongside full-time working class employees without reflecting deeply on the value of money: We all need it, but some need it to feed their kids, while some of us need it to pay for spring break.
This job isn’t a typical campus job in a lot of ways — whether it’s the hours, the level of responsibility we carry or the fact that I’ve picked up more about food and wine pairings than HADM 4300 could teach me — but the most significant to me has been the realization that, at least for the time being, I have more in common with the working-class adult co-worker than I do with a wealthy alum. “I wonder if that will be me one day,” I’ve caught myself wondering at times upon encountering alumni who seem so detached from the daily worries of people trying to make ends meet. It’s humbling, awkward and fascinating to realize that although at Cornell we can learn about labor rights, inequality or the endless lists of genetic and anthropological traits that make us 99.99 percent similar to one another, our education is ultimately pruning us to leave service jobs like this behind upon graduation, setting us on a trajectory to join the educated elite. I often feel as if the Cornell experience asymptotically parallels that of the “real” world, never intersecting; but the existence of jobs like this highlight that the two are not as distinct as they may seem.
No matter how easy it is for a college waitressing gig to serve as a cute lesson on how to treat people in the service industry, I recognize the mobility I have in doing so is not common. What good is the illusion of solidarity if you’re blind to the precarity of your own socioeconomic status? Learning how to be decent to others is more about realizing just how human we all are. It’s not enough to be defined by how well you treat the person serving you.
Edem Dzodzomenyo is a senior in the College Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ed’s Declassified appears every other Friday this semester.