Putting Food on the Table
A highbrow turns to 'lowbrow' labor – and likes it.
By Kerry Rodgers
It's my graduation day, but I’m not smiling. Someone in my midst is making that joke again—the one where they predict that in a few years my big brother, who is receiving his master’s in engineering, will be a millionaire, whereas I, getting a lowly liberal arts BA, will be flipping burgers.
Bellows and backslapping ensue, but the suggestion that I would ever be degraded to such a modest occupation makes me bristle as I force a toothy grin.
I graduated at the height of the dot-com delirium, when classmates were scoring signing bonuses the size of tuition checks. I knew computers and big business were not for me, but I sought to prove that my parents’ investment in my education wasn’t for naught. I’d made it this far in life avoiding the minimum-wage doldrums. No need to start now.
Real jobs for fuzzies do exist, the flyers from the Career Development Center assured us, and I was determined to land one. Consequently, I spent the next few years in a cavalcade of quasi-legit occupations: art gallery manager, high school drama teacher, middle school art teacher. The pay was never great, but at least they sounded okay for the family Christmas letter.
All along, what I’ve really wanted to do is write and paint. It’s just that no one at the White Plaza career fair was ever hiring for that particular skill set.
A few months ago, I had an epiphany: I didn’t want to pretend anymore that I cared about anything else. I chose to buck the Responsible Vocation for something simpler and more transient, something to earn my keep while I hoarded my energy for creative pursuits.
They say it’s impossible to escape the Delphic oracle. As it turns out, while my brother is not exactly worth seven figures, he is certainly living the high life. And while I’m not exactly reduced to flipping burgers, I am serving foie gras and Beaujolais. Okay, I’m not really serving the stuff. I’m a few significant notches lower in the food-industry hierarchy: a hostess.
I may not spend my time sweating in a greasy kitchen, but let’s just say this is not a job that utilizes my knowledge of Hegel or Kant. Nor did my prospective employers gasp in awe when they read my résumé. As a rule, restaurateurs don’t care if your background is studded with academic honors and prestigious internships. They’d prefer you to have spent your summers working at the local Denny’s.
And perhaps for good reason. While I may be overeducated for my job, I have been humbled to discover that I am, indeed, underqualified. I am challenged to figure out how to arrange tables to squeeze in two parties of six at 8:30 p.m. Saturday. When asked to recommend a good cabernet, I randomly point at something pricey on the wine list and avoid opening my mouth, lest I sound like a tyro.
And yet, for all my initial arrogance about lowbrow labor, I have to admit I like the work. It’s social, it’s morally straightforward, and it’s a good on-your-feet workout. Plus, at night’s end we get to eat like kings (or investment bankers, if you must).
Hostessing leaves me time and mental space to do my real work, and my identity remains intact as long as I can keep an Atlantic Monthly behind the counter. Hey, Albert Einstein worked in a patent office.
Still, not everybody gets it. Recently, a customer boasted to me that he was a grad of some other university across the bay. “Then our alma maters are rivals,” I replied with a wink. “You went to Stanford?” he asked incredulously, his eyes scanning the room, his face twisting in confusion. “Then why are you working here?”
“It beats flipping burgers,” I answered, with a smile that was genuine.
Kerry Rodgers, ’98, lives in San Francisco.
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