Popina Academia

January 15th, 2023

After a very eventful and exhausting week, I wanted to get back to the January theme of Origins.

This essay asks: how has working in a restaurant for most of my life affected me as a writer?

Let’s start with my restaurant history. Growing up in Faribault, I worked as a corn detasseler, at a grocery store, a gas station, and a bagel place, but I would say my first restaurant job was at A & W (pictured here).

When I moved out at 18, I got a job at Chili’s in Burnsville, worked there for almost four years, and was (rightfully) fired; got my longest-running job at Old Chicago in Apple Valley (almost thirteen years), and lost that one at the beginning of the pandemic; worked for three months in-between my OC job as a manager at a place called Vivo, where I thoroughly humiliated myself and was, again, fired; and I’ve been at my current restaurant job for two-and-a-half years.

Why has this been my life? And how does it connect to my writing?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when I found myself in a restaurant for the first time, I was also exploring who I was onstage in a theater. Whenever people ask me, “Can you imagine being a performer for a living? Having to ‘be on’ for hours at a time every day?” I can honestly say, “Yeah.”

Restaurant workers don’t get to have off days; off days lead to bad reviews and less income. A person who works in a restaurant has to be a heightened version of themselves at all times because our society has unrealistic expectations for service that doesn’t extend to every line of work.

No one tells a grave digger they would prettier if they smiled.

I’ve worked in restaurants for so long because I’m good at it, and it’s a legitimate skill I’ve sharpened, refined and honed. I care about what I do and who I do it with. I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of people, who come from every other field imaginable to “make some extra money,” and you either would or would not be surprised at how many of them are just incapable of service.

There are a lot of benefits to this kind of work for a person who fancies themselves a writer.

I always mention the flexibility of schedule; it’s a small part, but a helpful one. I am the onlooker of an endless parade of people, and I listen to them talk and watch them act; it informs the dialogue I write and the quality of characters I can imagine. I get to make connections with all kinds of folk, and those connections are invaluable and strengthen our community.

I get to hear people’s stories every day. I tell the same stories, over and over again, learning what parts work and don’t work, and then I tell them again, until the story I share seems to affect people in the same places in the same way. I learn how stories work.

When I first started serving, I noticed how people would adopt a fake personality to appease guests.

I made the decision then that I would learn how to be the best liar, the best actor, and thus the best server to ever live.

Over the years, I learned the opposite was true.

The people I worked with who I admired most all shared a similar quality, which I would finally distill into one word: vulnerability.

They didn’t lie. They elevated their own personality to match the kind of employee they wanted to be, instead of pretending to be something they were not. When they were having an off day, they were honest about it, and they were still able to do their job.

Whenever I am feeling overwhelmed, at any time, I remind myself to be vulnerable.

Whenever I am writing, at all times, I remind myself to be vulnerable.

And vulnerability isn’t one thing. It can be tragic, or hilarious, or universal, or skin-crawlingly intimate.

It’s the thing that truly connects people. Like having a great dinner in a restaurant. Like reading a life-changing book.

And it has been my absolute privilege in life to try to live one in which I could do both.

Published by dennisvogen

I'm me, of course. Or am I?

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