By Dan McKeon.
Illustrated by Michael Julings.
Whenever I’ve been in a restaurant or bar, I always turn a blind eye to bad service. You can even enjoy it if you let yourself. They’ve already completed the service offered and their mood is really none of my business. I’d be prickled by friends commenting on long wait times or that the barman didn’t enjoy their joke, because I had seen inside. I knew the delicate, jagged near-misses it takes to get your ham, egg, and chips.
For as long as I can remember, putting food on other people’s tables was how I put food on the table. Pubs, cafes and every service job in between was how I got by while pursuing comedy. I remember well the times that customers would get annoyed at me for their food not being up to scratch, and then the chef getting annoyed at me because the customer got annoyed. The indignity of the job had dried on me like spilled lager into a uniform. That isn’t to say it doesn’t have its perks like the adrenaline rush, the simple economy of shift payments and the camaraderie of lock-ins, but for most of the time I was preoccupied with its hardships.
By 2020, I reached new peaks of apathy, being deliberately, obnoxiously shite at customer service in a chain cafe. I would turn up in shoddy uniform, usually hungover, and the only thing I devoted time to with any sincerity was stealing as many pastries as possible by the end of the day.
In my mind, it was all justified because of how put upon we all were. Customers could be awful, breaks too short and bosses unyielding, but workers’ rights were not my entire motivation. The anxiety I’d fostered in the previous year had spiked and now left without the comforts of university friends to allay it. It manifested in impulse purchase diets, jumping at every chance for booze or weed, and always filling silence with something to take me out of myself.
All of this was the obvious reason for my troubles, but I had to assume it was the universe’s fault for not getting me where I wanted to be instantly. I acted out like a spoilt brat, surprised that I had to “work” for “money.” I had slacker complacency with none of the good vibes.
Most people in service jobs will know the bonding rush of sharing a story of when a customer is difficult with you. The justified rage and moral confirmation, the absurdity of it, even managers are inclined to say “Jesus, who was that?” But often, the reasons I’d be outraged were just regular interactions. It’s harder to sell someone ordering a decaf latte as a hardship, let alone as a real story even though I gave it my all to bemused indifferent baristas. Their shrugs told me I was in the wrong but I’d scowl and blame them for not being on my side.
I externalised everything, taking out my own lack of self-care on whatever was in sight. Everything was in absolutes. All bosses didn’t care. All customers were entitled bullying mums with impeccable outfits (as annoying as they were I couldn’t argue
with the drip). These and more: all things that I was projecting because (twist!) I was the entitled moron who only cared for himself.
I didn’t realise that I was on the cusp of burning out. In my victimhood, perfectly ordinary circumstances felt like they were towering over me. My mind was constantly on the future, guilting myself for not doing enough earlier, not doing enough now, and just not being enough. These were all just methods to justify my self-hatred and it was so much that I let it spill out onto family, friends, co-workers, and complete strangers.
And then the pandemic happened and with no work to speak of there was no outlet for all of this. No bogeyman to blame my spirals on, other than plug sockets, burnt bacon, and my mum who really didn’t deserve it. I was still blaming anything but myself. All the hate I was espousing now only had my four walls to extend meaning it inevitably crashed back onto me. It took time but I finally joined the dots and took the right steps away from the habits worsening me. Although I never did download Headspace.
The thing about blaming everything else around you is that it’s the easy option. It feels like a complete balm to remove yourself from the equation but works to taint your own beliefs. In my case, it centred me and as much as it was self-hatred, it was blended with arrogance and self-importance. I was protecting my own ego because if I stopped for a moment, I’d see how scared I really was.
This isn’t to say that work circumstances can’t be an impactful factor of mental health but rather that just ticking a box, my problems became a shield for me to ignore what was causing my vitriol. It’s like how you ignore the crazy scene in a Where’s Wally? book because you want to find him, overlooking all the things that make it difficult to see him.
I couldn’t see that I was the main factor of all of my issues and I certainly didn’t know what my co-workers had going on outside of the café. They might be going through the exact emotions I was, but knew better than to make them someone else’s problem.
It’s not a quick fix once you realise that you’re the villain of your story. I do feel the old pulls towards utter deflation and self-destruction but at least I can see my patterns outside of a timesheet.
So if you’ve got a server whose vibe suggests they want to spit in your food, it’s probably because they think they’d deserve the same. What I’m saying is, in those cases, you should leave the biggest tip possible.
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