Featured Writer: Aduni Lemieux
Life in the Service Industry
New Yorker ADUNI LEMIEUX shares a story about her time at a Chicago café and the empowering nature of working in the service industry.
I never did what I was told. Most of the time, little brown girls are not afforded the luxury of rebellion. I was lucky; my parents and community loved and supported me. I was educated, revered, and positively reinforced. I was told I could be whatever I wanted. So, like any spoiled brat, I translated that to doing the least.
All I ever wanted to do was wait tables. The “exasperated server” fit so neatly to my ideal of what a starving artist looked like, and 15-year-old me would be nothing but an actress. So, I took my first service gig at a coffee shop called Café Tutti. It was owned and operated by a lovely Italian family on the southside of Chicago that was not sketchy in the least bit, and I am not afraid at all of being murdered by them for snitching about their business practices at all. There were cousins and uncles that would grab cash out of the ‘til randomly during the day. Nothing was ever ordered, and I met my first actual punk and hippie. When we worked together, it was some Jean Paul Sartre shit. There was No Exit, no breaks, it was always a little too warm, and there was some gaudy ass pastel coffee shop art on the walls slowly driving us all mad.
Ultimately, it is the freedom I remember I felt there that still holds me to this industry. I couldn't be at school by 9am, but I would make it there by 7am (at least four outta ten times) because the draw of money for pot was more feasible than the long game you played with education. I was fascinated and committed to learning the difference between a macchiato and americano because the desire for financial independence was more beguiling than academics.
The action of serving was so empowering. I still associate it with the privilege of survival. I would be a plumber if I had any real talent, but I have a specific set of skills that can always pay the bills. I can pretend to like people. Making music, doing performance art, acting, waiting tables, bartending, expediting, and managing all have one thing in common, as well: you don't like mornings. You will get up, though, if it's to do what you love … and to be honest, I just love to make people feel. For better or worse.
I often have to tell people I'm a manager. The white dudes in suits I work with don't. It's always fun to assert my authority to people that don't see me as a shit because of their prerequisites. The attitude is, "My steak is $700, so surely someone other than this colored girl is making sure that it's cooked properly.” I have to constantly correct people because they think I'm a hostess. It's often accompanied with a look of surprise and a, "you are?" To be fair, I am wearing ripped jeans, a Kimono, and what my band-mate calls a sex necklace (my leather choker). I feel like my grey hair and sadness behind my eyes should balance out my youthful look. It motivates me to give a little more and take a little less shit. I relish the moments when the upper crust really show their ass. It validates all the things my folks worked so hard to instill in me. I really will always love a shit show of a service gig. Snatching someone's beer out their hand, smashing it at their feet while yelling at them to get out is priceless. I'm one of the few that have had the honor.
My beginning in this industry ended unceremoniously. Like most of my professional relationships in those early years, Café Tutti and I parted ways abruptly. I showed up to work and the locks had been changed and the restaurant was gutted. Anything of worth had been removed, including refrigerators and light fixtures. No warning. No final check. That was that. Like any teenager, I was scorned and smitten all at once. It's an abusive relationship that I still humor at almost 40. I didn't scratch and claw myself out of a Red Lobster uniform just to make more dough. I struggled and sacrificed relationships so that I am in a place where I work for whom I want, believe in what I do, and am appreciated for my efforts, which is downright unheard of. Not to mention the fact that I only work four days a week.
Tutti is Italian for "All.” From that first shift to the one I just finished, I was and I am all in. Tomorrow I'll want to kill myself. But I won't.