Feature Writer: Rebecca Potts
Artist and waitress REBECCA POTTS shares her thoughts on art and service from her mid-twenties through her forties.
How far back do we go? Do we count my stint as a hostess at Grady’s Grill, where I ate my weight in loaded baked potatoes because it was the cheapest, most filling thing you could get with your discount? Ok, then let’s start there.
I started working in restaurants in 1995 after I was forced to quit my job at the mall selling Manic Panic hair dye and toe rings due to an unfortunate incident involving secret shoppers. I was in college, majoring in sculpture. My friend was making decent money paid in cash waiting tables, so I thought, “why not?” This led me to Bianca’s Italian Eatery, where I learned many things, including the words “Abbondanza” and “Zabaglione.” Twenty-one years later, I’m still making sculpture, and I’m still waiting tables.
A chef friend of mine used to tie on a neckerchief before the start of every service. He called it “putting on the Yoke of Servitude,” a title I would later borrow for a sculpture. Once one labors under that yoke, it can be difficult to remove. Scheduling and income flexibility has helped keep my studio going through almost fifteen years of struggle in New York City. Waiting tables allowed me to spend months away at artist residence with the knowledge of solid work available upon return. It has even kept me off the subway at rush hour! But, the real bonus is the network of people you meet: all of your colleagues and their web of connections from past workplaces, the “regulars” you form relationships with, and the underground stream, which is the “other” thing that many of us do in addition to working in a restaurant. In this city, the restaurant is somewhat of an equalizing portal to almost any subset you can conjure.
When I arrived in here, fresh out of graduate school and ready to conquer, I made a decision. While many of my fellow art school graduates went to work for galleries, or at museums, or for other artists, I chose to bed down with the devil I knew. I wanted the maximum time in the studio and the maximum pay for my efforts. I didn’t want to be tied to a desk job, other people’s visions, or deadlines. I was in my mid-twenties, stubborn and sure I wouldn’t be waiting tables long. I would soon have representation and be living off of my art! What the short-sighted youth in me knew but refused to bend on was that those entry-level art world jobs often transitioned into positions with benefits, promotions, and a host of valuable connections. Did that guarantee eventual success as an artist? Hell, no, and it certainly lacked street-cred or appealing backstory. So, I picked up a Zagat and hit the pavement.
Seriously, that’s what I did. I had these little wallet-sized maps of the city, and I would covertly use them to navigate neighborhoods that seemed an easy commute or that at least sounded familiar. I would come upon a restaurant and then look it up in the Zagat—there was no Craigslist for jobs yet. If the check average seemed high enough and it had a good rating, I would go inside and drop off my info. Sometimes, you had to take a test when you dropped off your credentials to see if you knew about food, wine, and the industry players. The food and wine I could fake a bit, but the restaurateurs? I soon realized that it wasn’t just the art world which could be snobby and elitist.
One day, I got a call from a guy who said he had seen my resumé and wanted to know if I still needed work. When I asked what the job would be, he told me he needed someone to work the phones, and asked if I liked talking to people. It took me a few moments to realize that the type of customer service he was looking for was definitely not PG-rated. Shocked, I asked where he had gotten my phone number. It took some pressing, but he finally admitted that he got it from “X” (an unremarkable but still in business restaurant). But, did a host or manager give it to him? Sell it to him? Did he work there? That part, I never figured out.
The first place to hire me was a small restaurant in Brooklyn. Of course, it was properly vetted by my Zagat system. I lasted three months. It was run by a couple who frequently used their relationship issues as the extra ingredient. I later met others who had suffered under this good cop/bad cop terror team. They preyed exclusively on us dewy-eyed recent arrivals, as no one already in the business would go near the insanity. I fled under the premise of a job at a gallery. It was a lie delivered poorly and in haste.
Next came a place in TriBeCa delivering steakhouse classics to the political consigliere during power lunches. I wore a vest and a button-down in the unflattering color of goldenrod. It was not the best place to find patrons of groundbreaking contemporary art such as my own, but there were interesting moments.You know the joke people make when they order decaf? The one where they say, “Let me get your number. If this isn’t decaf I’m gonna call you up at 1am!” Well, the guy making it happened to an important state politician. He’d been delivering what he believed to be “zingers” to me all through his meal. Just playing along with the joke, I wrote down my digits. Sometime after midnight, my boyfriend and I were hanging out, and my phone rang. It was the geezer, calling me from his hotel room, asking me what I was wearing and if I wanted to come to his hotel in midtown. I tried to keep up the ruse for entertainment’s sake, but my boyfriend laughed audibly, and the guy realized I wasn’t alone and hung up. I thought about alerting the NY Post, but feared I’d end up in the East River attached to a concrete block.
Amazingly enough, I’d lucked into a studio share only three blocks away from the restaurant. It was kind of unheard of back then to find an affordable work space in Manhattan, even more so now. I would work there before my night shifts or do double shifts and go to the studio in between them. That time was magic for me. I was finally here, doing the thing I had set my sights on when I was just a kid.
I think one reason why this business works for me is the camaraderie. In a ten to twelve-hour shift together, you have lots of time that gets filled with talk. The studio can be a very lonely and isolating place. Going there after working in chaos can make it more of a creative sanctuary. The great thing about being a server is that you don’t have to take it home with you. You break it down at the end of the night and put it back together the next day. It is a set of known problems. It leaves you space in the head to incubate ideas. Perhaps the biggest risk of working in the industry is to getting mired in the quicksand of the after-hours decompression party. The art of not taking it with you and carving out boundaries between your work life and your creative life is something one must fiercely guard.
Over the years, my co-workers have often assisted me with art-making. Every night for many months, spent corks were saved for me in brown bags hung at the end of the service bar. I built many sculptures from them. Sometimes people still bring me bags of stuff they think I will find interesting—people love to be part of the act of creation. Quite a bit of my work has come out of the idea of service and the repetitive action.
Of course, there are awkward moments in this business, too. There are the physically challenging situations, such as the time I was delivering the specials to a table and got vomited on by someone running for the door, but just kept on going so my customers wouldn’t notice what happened. That’s dedication, folks. And there are the psychological challenges: the person you never ever want to see again at your new table. That food order you forgot to put in? Of the thing that sold out? Oops. There are the regulars who come in after a long absence and say, “You’re still here?” a bit accusingly, as it reminds them of their own ancientness.
I have been at my current serving job for twelve years now. That is not normal in the restaurant world. It’s downright weird. I have health insurance and a 401k. That is also not normal. I’ve worked election night three times there. I’ve watched couples meet, fall in love, get married and have kids during my tenure. Now, I am second in longevity only to Blanco, who, as the story goes, “came with the building.” We took a tough hit with the loss of one of our Elder Council last month (four, now three of us ladies in the 40+ crowd that have worked there for around a decade). She took a leap of faith in her writing, an inspiration for us all.
I have had other jobs, but always while serving. I have many skill sets and passions, but making sculpture is the thing I do. And, as you cross from decade to decade, you see the attrition rate. You see who is and who isn’t still “doing it.” It’s hard. It’s a sacrifice. And not everyone can hang on. As I continue, I realize that simply still “doing it” is an incredibly brave and audacious act. I have learned that satisfaction and fulfillment are more real in the moment than in some ideal, abstract future. The restaurant work provides the resources and space for my life’s work to happen.
Writing this is bittersweet for me. I drew a big red circle around December 20th sometime this past spring. It was to be my last day of work at the restaurant. I have been working on a lot of side projects, both inside and outside the studio, and I was getting ready to make a bold sink or swim gesture. It was time to take off the yoke. But late one night at the end of September, my sister called. Something was wrong with my dad. I jumped on a plane. He had a rare viral brain infection and a lot of brain damage. We ended up losing him. Everything was different. Again. We had just lost our mother a little over two years ago, as well. Work was very understanding. They said, “Take as long as you need.” I thought about not returning to my job at all, just figuring something else out. But, that idea seemed too big for everything that had just happened, a recipe for coming undone. Waiting tables seemed like a haven, the human-to-human component a lifeline of sorts. I couldn’t fathom any more newness. The hard parts of this job are still hard: the long hours on the feet, stress, humans behaving badly—but dealing with them is well within my skill set. My breaths are bigger, longer, and deeper. Many people are appreciative, and kind, and generous. I watch the new generation of my co-workers and chuckle or shake my head at their escapades. I give advice when asked, which is more often than you think, and I find that amusing. So, as the calendar turns, my exit-date having passed, I’m still here. My studio is now a mile down the road from my apartment. I’m still working in two worlds, but they are worlds I know well and they are exactly what I need right now.
Rebecca Potts, Artist/Waitress