Last night, as I huddled over a container of cookie monster ice cream, melted dairy dripping down my bruised forearms, I started to think about service. It’s hard not to think about service at a school whose community service clubs are as competitive as its academics. But I don’t mean to talk about that kind of service. I want to talk about food service, in all its unforgiving, unglamorous, and minimum-waged glory.
I started working at White Mountain Creamery two years ago. A friend convinced me to apply despite my complete lack of food service experience. “Free ice cream!” she said. “Great tips!” I was sold. But I was also woefully unprepared. My first night, I unknowingly underserved all my customers. “Just one more scoop,” my supervisor goaded me on, eyeing the growing line behind the counter. I dug into the container of coffee ice cream with all my strength, cursing my weak arms and every customer in sight. By the end of the night, my arms were aching, my wrists were bruised, and a thick layer of dishwater and melted ice cream covered me like a blanket. I felt like I had survived a war.
I’ve learned a lot from this job. I’ve learned to scoop and frost. I’ve learned to put up with rude customers and low tips and broken blenders. I’ve even learned the art of mental math, though I still freeze up as soon as I stand behind the cash register (what’s 20.01-4.76?). More than anything, I have learned the value of a dollar and the inestimable power of everyone who stands behind a counter and makes your food.
Having served and scooped for minimum wage for two years, I am starting to see the horrors of the food service industry. Things are not always greener on the other side of the counter. Yet when I try to think of my most rewarding experience at BC, I don’t think of tutoring or making care packages. I think of every exhausting, messy, soul-crushing night at White Mountain. Those nights have done so much more than just fuel my sugar addiction. They gave me a sense of purpose and achievement, as well as an acute, and sometimes painful, sense of humility.
And now I have one tip for anyone looking to broaden his or her worldview or set the world aflame or become a man or woman for others. You don’t need to apply for a prestigious volunteering position or travel to an underdeveloped country. Just get a low-paying, low-dignity job. You will be exposed to more service than you could have ever dreamed.
Of course, I don’t mean to knock community service. Volunteering is kind and generous and extremely important. I’m down with the Jesuits. Yet there’s something that’s difficult to learn unless you’ve worked in the food industry yourself. You learn more than just how to count change and clean counters and restock topping containers. You learn about respect. Respect for servers and cashiers and dishwashers. And that respect changes everything. Each disrespected hostess and untipped waiter becomes a personal outrage. I abhor complicated orders and impatience and people who complain about their food. Every tired, grumpy, overwhelmed server is just someone trying to get through the night.
I remember walking into an ice cream parlor shortly after starting at White Mountain. Somehow I thought the girl behind the counter would sense my experiences and we’d share an intangible bond. “One scoop of cookie dough in a cup, no toppings please,” I requested cheerfully. She gave me a tired nod and retreated to the freezer to scoop my ice cream. At first I was disappointed. I wanted recognition. I wanted a bond. At the very least, I wanted a smile. But then I remembered the aching back and the overwhelming lines and the lack of “thank you’s” and “please’s.” I remembered the blank stares from familiar faces, as if the counter created a sort of disguise for each service employee, stripping them of their identity and value. I remembered the exhausting feeling of disrespect and silently slipped a dollar into the tip jar in solidarity.
As spring rolls in, campus seems to buzz with stories of internships and service trips. These are both noble and valuable experiences, but in the midst of all this buzz, I can’t help defending my small, unglamorous part-time job. In the grand scheme of things, this job isn’t small at all. In terms of my own self-awareness and understanding of the world, this job has been everything. In fact I’m starting to think we should all be embracing the unglamorous. It certainly doesn’t set the world aflame, but I like to think each server and scooper and washer contributes to a steady, slow-burning fire. We can do more than just serve customers. We can spread the respect and the humility that our minimum wage jobs instill in us, and we can truly become men and women for others. At the very least, we can count our tips with pride and eat our well-deserved ice cream with a sense of purpose.
Featured Image by Abby Paulson / Heights Editor