If everyone – every U.S. citizen, I mean – waited on tables for six months, minimum, I think the people in this country would be in a better place, be more grateful, for example. If everyone spent six months or a year working in a nursing home, in a pre-school or grade school, maybe, just maybe, we’d see people change their opinions and choices around life, death, and everything in-between, including exercise, diet, smoking, hospice care and euthanasia, as well as contraception and abortion. Maybe. It could happen, and regardless it wouldn’t hurt. If everyone in the U.S. chambermaid-ed (a word that is gendered, and therefore suspect right out of the gate) for two summers during a good old-fashioned tourist season in a hot or even just slightly warm spot (the spot I did it in was tepid, at best), I believe the world would also be improved. It suddenly occurs to me that in both seasons of White Lotus, we don’t see that segment of the help, the invisible chambermaids who clean up the messes in bathroom and bedroom, make the beds, change the sheets and towels weekly or daily, empty the trash cans, and pick up room service trays – all for minimum wage, and tips! And for tips, if they’re lucky. Hm. Those invisible, essential workers, invariably women. 

Yes. Yes, I did. I waited tables on and off for almost a decade, and chambermaid-ed for two whole summers and a part of another, before and between my years of college, and yes, both of these jobs were also an education. Did it make me a better human per my opening statement? I think so. I like to think so, anyway, but then I would, wouldn’t I? Substitute teaching is another job everyone would benefit from doing – especially those who criticize teachers and like to talk about those ‘long summers off’. As far as I could tell during my seven years filling various positions at the local K-12, those long ‘free as a bird’ summers are only long if you’re a parent waiting impatiently for school to start again. I did that too, I substitute taught, and my respect for teachers took a lovely leap upward, although they were already high, with a few individual exceptions. Just as in every profession, I encountered a handful of people in the education business who had zero business being there. Ah, humanity. So sublime, and so horrid. And, everything in-between.

I stopped having waitressing nightmares only a handful of years ago after thirty-plus years of having quit that biz, the anxiety of too many tables, endless demand, not enough servers and customers who were demanding and selfish bubbling up in my consciousness. Caffé Pertutti. Hanratty’s. West Side Story. Arno’s. Big Nick’s. Shakespeare’s Tavern and Playhouse. When I finally decided never again, never, ever again would I do that, wait tables for a living, I stuck to it. I was twenty-eight, and never will I ever not be grateful for the women and even a few men I met and befriended during those days, but never will I ever cease wondering at the vagaries of people (the customers) and their food. Good lord. What a lesson in humanity, and everyone would benefit from that, eh? Whatever happened to Segundo, I wonder, my favorite ever busboy, a real gentleman, such a hard worker, and so sweet. Never did he ever hit on me or make crude gestures as we passed, never did he ever show resentment toward me for being both a lot taller than he was, and speaking English better. Hell, he spoke English and Spanish, so of the two of us, he was the more linguistically gifted. What a mensch. Segundo for the second of his mother’s sons. Working with people whose backgrounds are very different from ours is a very good thing, and the restaurant industry is chock full of that mind and heart-broadening opportunity. 

Helping out in my dad’s store, as a kid, was also an education; I learned that rubbers were not only rainy-day foot wear, for example. I knew we had Dr. Scholl’s sandals, which of course I loved (red leather straps, always), but rubbers? ‘I don’t think so. You could maybe try the department store across the street. Hold on,’ I shouted, ‘Dad! Do we have rubbers?!’ My dad, helping someone else, rolled his eyes, laughing, and came right over. We did, it turns out, have rubbers, stowed behind the door of the back room, where many odd, mysterious and even dangerous things were kept. My dad took the blushing twenty-something man in his capable and compassionate hands, leading him to where he was able to discreetly make his choice of a product very much not in the footwear line. Oops.  

Observing people, many people, people I knew in our small town, beg, plead, cajole and even vaguely threaten my dad to refill their prescriptions days or weeks or months ahead of schedule, was an education of a whole other kind. It made me certain I would never, ever do drugs, ever – and would do my damnedest to avoid ever taking prescription drugs. Okay, well, I did do recreational drugs, in college mainly, and might’ve done more, but as a pharmacist’s daughter, there was something I objected to in having to pay for it. Pay for it? Hell no. And while it was clear that there were others ways I could have access to drugs as a comely young thing, that wasn’t ever gonna happen either. Hell no. It was fun while it lasted, I’m glad I had those experiences, and thankful I had zero addictive inclinations, but no. 

Oby Atkin (Obediah, I guess?), who owned an antique store in town, came in every other Saturday or Sunday when I was a teenager and bought a hundred or two-hundred dollars’ worth of porn magazines. I always felt embarrassed and awkward when I ran into his wife in town, but she didn’t seem to get out much. Doc Ferraro, the dentist, wrote script after script for his much younger wife, tried to charm me, and my dad, distracting us with banter while scratching his Rx pad. And he was charming, but everyone in town knew something was off, especially after his wife drove into a friend’s house one night. I don’t mean drove into their driveway, I mean she drove into the actual front of the house, crash, bang, boom, so they had to get a new porch and front door. You see a lot, know a lot, living in a small town, serving John and Jane Q. Public over the years. And, no matter what, my dad was discreet; he might hear the gossip, be told people’s secrets in that same backroom, but he didn’t share, ever, even about those calls, the ones that came in late at night because someone he’d known his whole life had swallowed a bottle of pills, drunk a fifth of scotch, and reached out to him because they’d changed their minds, and knew Dick wouldn’t judge, would only help, which he did. 

My last waitressing job was at a schmancy steak house on the lower west side. I can never remember the name of the place, which is indicative of how much I hated it there. The customers were Gordon Gecko wanna-bes who treated the wait staff horribly or with a niceness that stunk of noblesse oblige, all of it depending on how the markets had been that day or week, bullish to bearish. The brothers who owned the place were very different, as in one was mostly absent and nice when present, and the other was ever present and presented as what he was: a short, fat hateful pig. He liked to humiliate the old guy waiters, especially in front of younger female employees like me. It clearly got him off, screaming at sixty and seventy-year old men, immigrants who need the work, and who as union members were within several months or years of being able to retire after decades on their feet, having built new lives in America. He’d shoot me sidelong glances as he strutted his stuff in the kitchen, having said his worst to these men, men who were always kind to me, the new kid on the block. What a schmuck. At that job, if you weren’t busy, you were required to stand with your back up against the wall, hands behind your back. This little shit of a human being, who was several inches shorter than I was, liked to push his belly and pelvis up against me as I stood there motionless, and – if not helpless – stuck for the moment, peering over his head. Oh, how I would love to rip the smirk off his face for all the young women I’m sure he did that to, over the years. Maybe I could send a copy of this to him? I do remember his name, if not the name of the restaurant. Yick. 

Two full seasons of chambermaiding at the Mathes Hotel in Fleischmanns, New York, May – September rounded out my time making up beds and cleaning up after strangers. It was an early twentieth century hotel that had been updated in ‘50s and neglected ever since. My days there were in the late seventies. The Mathes was closed all winter, spring and fall, had minimal maintenance on a daily or annual basis, with entire facilities and wings shut down because the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Mathes, didn’t have or didn’t want to spend the money to get them up on running, or to make needed repairs. It was a strange place, faded and hollow, filled with returning long-time customers who were, like the Hotel itself, on their last legs. Both my younger sister and I had residents die on us that first summer, as in we were the ones who discovered their bodies in their rooms when we went in to clean. Then, after reporting the unsettling news, Mrs. Mathes shooed us away, bustling in to go through the individual’s personal effects. The woman whose cabin-ette I cleaned, the one who I discovered dead in her bed, was shipped back to New York City or New Jersey with all arrangements made by Mrs. Mathes. No one in her family bothered to make the trip, which seem hard, and tragic. She had always tipped me well, and was palpably, painfully lonely. I had made conversation with her, but I was on the clock and Mrs. M didn’t like us to dawdle, ever.    

Twice that summer Mr. Mathes cornered me, or tried to, in the upstairs hallway, attempting to cop a feel. He had to have been in his sixties or seventies. I was eighteen. I told Mrs. Mathes after his second attempt, and she looked at me for a long moment, silently, finally telling me to get back to work. He was easy to outrun, so I let it go, and he never tried it again so maybe she said something to him? Mrs. Mathes was short and stout and efficient. They accepted cash only, and it was clear she was the one in charge of the money and reservations, the business side. It appeared to me that she and the Mister were fading away in concert with friends, albeit paying friends, all together in that place where, twenty and thirty years prior, they’d had experienced real enjoyment after the war. Many of them lost family in the Holocaust, but Mrs. Mathes didn’t talk about the past, none of the guests did either, at least not to me. 

Cleaning is simply not that much fun, in my opinion, except the part where you’re done and it looks great and feels like an accomplishment. And, chambermaiding was – not too awful, just not a job you want, long-term. Nice to be done by 11a.m. most days, not nice to find dead people, nice to get decent tips occasionally and not nice to clean up other people’s messes. The Mathes Hotel had a cook who firmly believed in a daily dose of stewed prunes with breakfast, and that created problems for us, the cleaner-uppers, more than once. I remember standing on the front lawn as I crossed from the laundry back toward the hotel proper, watching almost as if in slow motion as a poor man tried his best to get down the long front porch and inside to the bathroom before crapping in his pants, and on the floor. He got about half-way. I begged and pleaded with my sister to clean it up, and in exchange I did the room on the 2nd floor, the one with the woman who had regular problems of a related kind, but I’m pretty sure my sister got the short end of the stick. I was just happy we made it through that summer without any more deaths. 

Maybe the real lesson of all the different jobs I had, waiting table, clerking for my dad, chambermaiding, was to see humanity at its best and worst and everywhere in-between, to prepare me for life out in the world, outside my fan-dam-ly. I was also able to see who and what I didn’t want to be, or how I didn’t want to be. I already knew I never wanted to make people feel like shit, although life has taught me that is almost inevitable, because there are those who already feel like it, are constantly look for confirmation, and are impossible to avoid. I knew I didn’t want my dad’s business, or job (neither did he, as it happened), or my mom’s, as a teacher. I didn’t want to wait tables or open a restaurant, own a hotel or manage one. I also didn’t want to manage a disco or move up through the ranks at any of the many places I worked as a teen and twenty-something, including a stint at the MTA as an information operator, one of those people attached to a phone headset who gave out train information, now, I believe, all automated. What a dead-end that was, for me. For me. Not for others, who had and have different needs and ambitions. 

If you have talent or talents, and intelligence, drive and desire, and are interested in many things the possibilities are – potentially – endless. I once loved a very handsome man who told me his life was largely defined by all the women, and men, he’d said ‘no’ to, and it’s like that, in a way (he really was so, so gorgeous). But – it’s getting to yes that matters, getting to yes and a place of purpose and meaning – if you’re lucky, that is, and don’t have to make a living right now to feed kids or whatever meter is ticking regardless of ‘purpose’, or doing something that is deemed a contribution to society. All work is a contribution of some kind or another, even if it’s solely about putting food on a plate, yours or the plate of someone you love. 

Maybe none of these jobs made me a better person, a better citizen, after all, but they did allow me time and experiences I would not have had otherwise, time to grow up and find out what I wanted to do, which ultimately was rather simple and, wonder of wonders, right back where I started as a child. Why is it the simplest answers so often elude us? Not that I didn’t know what I wanted, I just wasn’t sure how to get back there, get back there through the maze of expectation and projection, safe, sound and solvent, never having once again to wait tables or do any job that was a test of endurance and generosity of spirit. And what I wanted, all along? To read, write, talk to and be with friends, grow shit, watch good content, and absorb all the political news I can stomach. That’s it. And speaking of stomachs, I also wanted to eat good food cooked by myself, and, on occasion, by others (bless them), served by others (ohmigawd, thank you, and may your waitressing nightmares be few), paid for by me without a scintilla of financial agita, including a nice fat tip. Simple pimple.  

 *Lloyd Dobler, from the great flick, Say Anything, written by Cameron Crowe