Featured Writer: Sara Harvey
Life in the Service Industry
Funny Brooklynite SARAH HARVEY discusses falling in love with cafés and why working in the service industry is an expensive luxury.
When I was 28, I slept on one side of my bedroom in Powdersville, South Carolina and worked as a newspaper reporter at an enormous steel desk on the other side of the room. The newspaper had schlepped the desk into my apartment because it was the one-person bureau office for Anderson County.
I left the apartment for interviews and city council meetings, but because my coverage area could literally be as large as Delaware, I did a lot of reporting by phone. I should have made more lunch dates because at the end of four years, I felt very, very isolated. I applied to a cafe downtown to give myself time to figure out what to do next, and I ended up spending ten years in the service industry. I felt like an orphan adopted at Christmastime; I loved it.
I did all the hard things: snake drains, slice up my fingers in the kitchen, shoot welts onto my belly with steam wands. Once, I unknowingly carried a live rat though a café in a trash bag. At a food shop in Manhattan, I had to crouch through a dark, puddled cellar to get to the paper cups and napkins. At the same job, a woman in her eighties in an Upper East Side penthouse screamed “Fuck you!” when I delivered her sandwich. I’d even used the service entrance. I would be so exhausted that by the end of my shifts, I willed myself not to sweep up in slow motion. But, I slept really well.
Wendell Berry writes about disconnection in relation to agriculture in his essay, “The Pleasures of Eating.”
“Most urban shoppers would tell you that food is produced on farms. But most of them do not know what farms, or what kinds of farms, or where the farms are, or what knowledge of skills are involved in farming. They apparently have little doubt that farms will continue to produce, but they do not know how or over what obstacles. For them, then, food is pretty much an abstract idea — something they do not know or imagine — until it appears on the grocery shelf or on the table.”
This resonated with me because I felt like my work had become as abstract as functions on a screen. My pay was a figure on a bank statement and, though I was covering communities, people had vanished.
I had gotten into a bad situation, but restaurant work wasn’t reactionary. I realized it was the way I personally wanted to touch, taste, smell, work my muscles and enjoy basic human interaction. My notebooks from back then are full of grit, jokes, and ice-cream.
A notebook entry titled Cleaning the Shake Machine, 2/9/08: “Throw the lever and let the already-frozen mix squeeze out into this two-gallon bucket. Josh got me the big ten-gallon bucket instead. It was falling out at the pace of shake-making, a succession of ice-cream slugs. They looked like beautiful, white pumpkin stems, even curly at the end where the sections pull, thin, and separate. Luke, my kitchen mate, got in front of it and pulled some pin, and it poured out as fast as gravity. A satisfied face. You’ve done this before?”
When I moved to New York, I wanted to see that city from the street level, too. I had hundreds of 15-second conversations a day with people from every art and business, in the West Village, Upper East Side, South Street Seaport, Williamsburg, and Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. My beloved co-workers ran the gamut.
I figured out how to work in a team, how to handle frustration, how to do physical work, how to get out of my own head for eight to twelve hours at a time, how to calm down, how to have fun, how to drink a shot of Bailey’s in a glass of Guinness, how to take pride, and how to make damn good coffee.
Working in the service industry was an expensive luxury. I didn’t have health insurance for a decade, and I left my last coffee shop with no savings. I broke a back tooth at my first café and got it pulled seven years later. Thankfully, I never fell in a cellar.
It was also hard to get back into a job, with a gap on my resume as big as a molar, where I could both write and make enough money to save or invest. I did, though, last year, and now I’m saving for my own shop. Barista4ever.