It was not without more than a hint of irony that I purchased Barbara Ehrenreich's book, “Nickel & Dimed” on my first day of catering work in 6 years. The book is a classic piece of first-person journalism: the author gives up the life she knows to work various minimum wage jobs around the United States and document her experiences.

I was buying the book so I could talk about it to the journalism students I teach one day a week; when I finished paying for it, I looked down and noticed that I held the book in one hand and my heavy, steel-toe non-slip work boots in a plastic bag in the other hand. I couldn’t help thinking, if I saw this scene in a book, I’d say it was positively contrived for dramatic effect.

Ehrenreich, a well-known writer with a PhD in Biology, worked as a house cleaner, waitress, and Walmart employee, in order to conduct a journalistic experiment. I was preparing to put my two degrees to use as a waitress out of sheer necessity.

A few weeks ago, I signed up with a hospitality recruitment agency. Luckily, within a few days, a recruiter got back to me and asked me how soon I could work, since I had plenty of experience from different jobs I worked before and during college. After an orientation day, I was put on for my first shift at a large catering venue.

Piece of cake, I figured.

But I’m a bit rusty. And the (used) shoes that the recruiter gave me were tight on the left foot and loose on the right, and both extremely heavy. What resulted was my invention of an unusual shuffle-gait something akin to Kevin Spacey’s character in The Usual Suspects, but it was the only way I could manage traipsing around with dishes in my hand for an eight hour shift.

Thus, it was with immense gratitude that I volunteered for the job of putting stacks of glasses into an industrial washing machine and polishing each of the 120 glasses individually. It was sweet relief to stand in one place(and not have people eye me with curiosity).

Despite keeping busy the entire shift, for some reason, the day felt like it was a lead-up to a workday that never really began. We did chores – sorted out stacks of knives and forks, wrapped a hundred and ten fork-and-knife pairs in napkins, etc. – and served a buffet lunch to the same number of people, including people with pesky individual dietary requirements.

But by the end of the day, I felt like I was still waiting for the work to begin, and it wasn’t because I wasn’t busy or tired by the end of the shift.

It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but, I think it was because I didn’t really get to talk to anyone.

In my usual line of work, it is, quite literally, my job to talk to people. I’m a journalist by trade, so my work consists of asking people questions to help them draw their stories out from the backs of their minds to the tips of their tongues. Even if I’m not directly interviewing someone, I’m often talking to my bosses, or any of my several coworkers, about how to accomplish our goals.

But no one cared what I had to say when I put a ladle in my hand and chicken curry under his or her nose.

Maybe that’s why, as soon as my coworkers took a joint lunch break, their personalities bubbled up and erupted right out of them. It was like somebody shook up a can of coke: the break room was a raucous party of quick-witted banter, light-hearted jibes between staffers, and a cacophony of laughs. Suddenly, all of the responsible employees who I had seen silently stacking cups and methodically pouring coffees had become boisterous and fun-loving characters.

Alas, however, as soon as the break ended, everyone went back to the business of working. Solemn eyes and closed lips met the clank of plates and the thud-thud-thud of inappropriately heavy boots for the rest of the afternoon, but for a few stolen moments. Whenever we talked, or felt like sneaking in a few bites of the leftovers in the kitchen, we huddled closely together and giggled mischievously, like children disobeying their parents.

If only in body language, we agreed not to rat one another out for our crimes of enjoying these simple pleasures.

The common misconception I dislike most about people in the hospitality professions is the assumption that we are dumb, or huge failures, upon whom everyone else has permission to look down.

Yes, when we are doing our jobs correctly, we are all but invisible, and that is not a problem. It’s the condescension, and blatant lack of manners(e.g., the snapping fingers and the “hey you, get over here,” types of attitudes) with which people often address those wearing any type of service uniform that I find wholly unacceptable.

Regardless of what kind of trousers or shirt, or silly shoes, any of us might be wearing, each and every one of us deserves to be treated with respect.

That’s not to say that everyone was apathetic or rude towards us; in fact, there were many generous, jovial souls at one small cocktail party at an upscale locale in the center of the city.

Maybe it was because there were only about 40 guests, and, including me, two servers offering drinks and hors d'oeuvres, but by the third round of melba toast slices with gourmet chicken and cheese, I felt like we and the guests had practically become friends. We made a few polite jokes here and there, and we caterers made sure that everyone got what he or she wanted.

There is absolutely a distinct reward in anticipating someone’s desires(is that wine glass is almost empty? does that person look hungry? thirsty? like she’s wondering where the bathroom is?) and satisfying them, even before they have to mention it.

I’d watch in the corner of the room to see who was discreetly eyeing the food or beverages I was carrying, and then I’d slide my tray right under their noses with a devilish smile; they, in return, would send me a gracious nod or wink. It was similar to the way we caterers looked at each other whenever we stole a moment for a conversation or for a snack: like we shared a devious little secret.

Although I’ve only been on the job on a few occasions, for the time being (in spite of my shoes), I’ve found a certain job satisfaction. I’ve been able to put a few chicken-and-bacon-on-melba-toast induced smiles on strangers’ faces. How many people can say that?

Photo by: Adikos