• In Service: Writers on Making Ends Meet in the Service Industry

    “It’s easy to remain clueless about how the world works for most people.”

    The following is number four of a six-part collaboration with Dirt about “The Myth of the Middle Class” writer. Check back here throughout the week for more on the increasingly difficult prospect of making a living as a full-time writer, or subscribe to Dirt to get the series in your inbox.


    In 2023, Dirt‘s most popular essay was “Bad Waitress” by Becca Schuh. Fans of the essay pointed to one line in particular that encapsulated the tension between “creativity” and “service,” as well as the assumption that they must always be mutually exclusive: “I suspect it’s easier to teach a waitress to be a writer than an intellectual to be a waiter.”

    We reached out to six writers for their firsthand accounts of working in the service industry. As you will read below, no one experience is the same.

    Daisy Alioto


    by Rick Paulas

    I’ve been a bartender for four months now. My previous service industry experience was at a Boston Market in high school and a Cosi in college. But one day at my local bar, after being let go from a fake email job, I asked the manager how one becomes a bartender. He said he’d show me.

    The first lesson was to not put the towel over my shoulder. That’s an easy tell in movies that they’re faking it. When you’re washing glasses or reaching for well pours, that’ll fall off. The rest has come relatively easy.

    There’s a move I do at parties and happy hours when I don’t want to talk about myself—which, why would I?—where I just rattle off questions. What’s your day like? What’s going on this weekend? What’s up with work? It’s projectile filibustering. Talk show host vamping. In journalism I used this tactic to snag better quotes, but behind the bar, it helps pass the time.

    We’re not a “turn and burn” bar, we’re a steady neighborhood joint. We’re open until 4am, so a lot of industry comes in after their shifts. They introduce themselves and soon drop how they also work at a bar. It’s a way to trade checks of general vibes and gossip about who’s been on one, if someone’s had to break out the Naloxone. Customers in February 2024 were wilder than usual. Maybe coming off a Dry January, maybe general hopelessness. Industry tips better than anyone else.

    Will I go back to writing as a job job? I was on that grind for more than 15 years, and I’m not sure I have the mindset or editorial Rolodex to make rent again pitching three dozen stories a month. My website clips are quickly becoming ghost links as publications die. It might have been a fun career while it lasted, but the bar actually pays on time.

    Rick Paulas is a bartender and writer based in Greenpoint, Brooklyn who most recently released a 3-mile walking audio ghost story starting at the Pulaski Bridge.


    by Laurie Stone

    I started catering in 1999, at age 53, soon after being fired from the Village Voice. In 1999, I spoke on the record to a rival newspaper about unfair pay cuts at the Voice, and the next day I was told to clear out. I had been at the paper for 25 years.

    Shortly afterward, I hatched the plan of becoming a cater-waiter. I can’t explain why. I don’t care why. A friend had a friend who owned a fancy catering company, and I got a job there. I was setting up writing workshops and residencies at art centers, and I thought I would quit catering once I stabilized my life. I didn’t stabilize my life, and I didn’t quit catering.

    The secret of a mistake is in the ways it is also not a mistake. Have you ever thought you lived in a place you were only passing through? Or thought you were a visitor in the place where you lived? Sometimes, in the garden of forking paths, you move past the possibility of return, and you ride it.

    There was a boy in my class in high school everyone thought was the one who would go into the world and look back at the rest of us from a distance. He wanted to be a writer. He wanted to be some kind of artist. His family had a big business, and he didn’t become a writer. One night, I saw him at a gala dinner party at Lincoln Center, a benefit for an organization whose board he sat on.

    We were 54, and I recognized him immediately, and I was the waiter at his table. I didn’t say a word to him. I hadn’t spoken to him in high school. Other boys were better looking and kinder than him, and I couldn’t understand the source of his power. Did he notice me at the dinner? I was wearing a tuxedo and a necktie. You could kill someone at a dinner like this, and no guest could pick you out in a line up.

    In the high school I went to—a country day school you had to pass a test to get into—the authorities around me as well as the zeitgeist of the early 1960s had zero expectations about the future of a girl like me. I mean any girl in any social class, and oh the freedom of being tied to zero expectations for you. The freedom, while no one is watching you, to become whatever you want to become. Like a writer.

    Recently, I was nominated for a PEN award for my most recent book. The same month, I catered a bat mitzvah for a family in New York City. The venue was dipped in sequins, and during the party two performers at two pianos sang songs by request, reminding the guests of the best moments of their lives. The food arrived late. The rental arrived late. No matter. Richard, the man I live with, and two friends made the buffet tables tempting and the guests happy.

    In bed the next morning, Richard said, “I think there are cultural lines some people won’t cross. They say to themselves, ‘I don’t see myself doing that’, and to cross beyond ‘the things I wouldn’t do’ is to go against a sense of their dignity. You are insensitive to the ways you are seen and are always surprised when people think less of you for doing something. It’s a useful inability. You can go places you wouldn’t ordinarily go and you can write about the attraction of these places.”

    In the world of catering, I operate neither as a tourist nor a resident. I’m more of a floater or a flaneur, someone whose identity is liquid. I love standing on my feet for ten hours. I love being no one in particular and all the people I have been so far. I love being around chefs, bartenders, and waiters. Inside the group that serves, the group that eats is indistinct. Working shoulder to shoulder opens up a world of understandings of the ways we are seen by those we serve.

    It’s instructive being the help, instructive being a word used maybe by people who can move in and out of the role, although everyone who wears a uniform—even one, like a doctor’s lab coat, that upgrades you on the food chain—knows the Pirandellian pleasure of slipping into a set of assumptions, while inside you’re a volatile element, a pile of crispy leaves, a fox sunning herself beside a stream.

    What I mean by instructive is that working in a service job reminds you that you are a wind-tossed snowflake with no purchase on permanence. The ephemeralness of everything is pressed on you below stairs, as you look out and see how you’re seen. If you’re never in this position, it’s easy to remain clueless about how the world works for most people. Catering has taught me better than anything that what we take to be identity is mostly a case of mistaken identity. It’s self-important to think it’s a big deal to be unimportant.

    Laurie Stone is the author of six books, most recently Streaming Now: Postcards from the Thing That Is Happening, which was long-listed for a PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel award. Use code LAURIE for free shipping. She is a frequent contributor to The Paris Review and Evergreen Review, and she writes a monthly column for Oldster Magazine. She writes the Substack Everything is Personal. To subscribe: lauriestone.substack.com/subscribe


    by Becca Schuh

    Sometime in the past five years or so, I became convinced that I’d transcended some sort of veil between types of lives. I’d spent so much time working in restaurants that I knew more about fine food and wine than the average rich person, and I let this lull me into a false sense of security that I was somehow closer to actually being well-off myself. I went from working scheduled shifts at restaurants and physically seeing the money I put into my bank account to freelancing, and since I was working as hard or harder than I did while waiting tables full-ish time, I felt like I could continue living within the same sense of means.

    I made social connections and did favors, either assuming that one day these things would translate to currency, or not caring whether or not they did. I photoshopped the necessary documents to get an apartment when I was unemployed, and the fact that it worked convinced me that real-life requirements are just a facade.

    I failed to recognize that I was also building a facade within my perception of reality, and the construction bills would come due. Yes, I could talk circles around a rich person when it came to wine and food, but that didn’t make me rich. I tested the limits of abiding by your delusions instead of the rules, and although nothing materially horrifying happened as a result (beyond unfortunate credit card debt,) I hit a wall and realized that what I’d been doing wasn’t sustainable, and I’d have to crawl out of the hole before I could hope to actually find the place of security I’d convinced myself already existed.

    The availability of service work for creative people is a bit of a double-edged sword; yes, it is there for you when things get really dicey, but that availability makes everyone you’ve ever met think that you’re set for life and can just walk into the nearest bar and pick up a cocktail shaker the moment your bank account runs below $200.

    Many of my friends and acquaintances have never waited tables in their lives, and they still manage to not declare bankruptcy / move in with family when they are let go or their work has dried up. So, either everyone I know is secretly rich, or, there are less demeaning and demanding types of temporary work. Are those gigs too sacrosanct to tell a person who has worked in service about for fear that the service person might infiltrate the white collar world?

    I’m being a bit facetious here, but not entirely. I think there’s a bit of a fantasy that someone with bartending or waitressing experience can just go pick up any on and off job for any length of time, but alas, just like the white-collar world, it’s much more complicated than that. Most service jobs aren’t actually looking for someone to come in once or twice a week in addition to whatever other work they do, they’re looking for people who can work full time—or more than full time—including evenings, weekends, and holidays.

    The places that you can kind of dip in and out of, taking time off and still having time for a separate professional and personal life, are quite rare. It’s a 100% worthwhile set of skills to have in your toolbox as a self-sufficient working person, but it’s not the plug-and-play get rich quick scheme it’s often touted as.

    Becca Schuh is a writer living in Brooklyn. She is one of the cofounders of the Triangle House Review. She has published several essays with Dirt, including Bad Waitress.


    by Ash Croce

    For years I was a living product. Theatre school, pursuing an acting career, and paying all my bills by serving drinks in bars made me carve myself into whatever version of myself would get the most money. I worked in different facets of the service industry from the age of sixteen until twenty-nine, and I was really fucking good at it. I was a smiling wind-up doll with an impressive beer knowledge.

    I’ve always had a lot of pride in my work. Working in hospitality put a tangible dollar amount on my value. Good night? Sales were high, tips were high, people were happy. I went home in a cab, tipsy from post-shift drinks with the glow of someone who had physically counted out the hundreds of dollars they had earned that night. I worked ill and injured. I once had a full panic attack in the dishroom—I was back on the floor after a shot of whiskey. Those shifts almost meant more. I could drag a broken body to work and put on a perfect show.

    This all came to a head in 2021. Craft beer had its own “Me Too” movement, I outed my abuser, and shifts became time bombs of triggers ready to knock me out at any moment.

    These days I work as an administrative assistant at a private elementary school and I write freelance for several clients and publishers. When I had a panic attack at this job, my boss sent me home. I still got paid. I felt like I didn’t deserve it.

    Some days I feel like I’m in the process of rebranding the product of me. She thrives in spreadsheets and Google Calendar now, and she writes about the industry that almost drowned her. She can still serve it all with a smile.

    Ash Croce (she/they) is a writer, actor, and director living in Brooklyn with her two cats. As a writer she has bylines in Vinepair and TimeOut New York writing about the service and beverage industry. Ash is a co-founder of The Shrill Collective and co-directed/produced their serialized thriller podcast, The Rat King. She likes throwing dinner parties, romanticizing life, and dressing up. 


    by Danny Lorberbaum

    I’m a fiction writer who lives in Brooklyn, but four days a week I also work as a Server Assistant at a fine dining restaurant in Midtown. At menu meeting, I learn about the differences between our two Rosso di Montalcinos by the glass and taste the new blood orange and Campari sorbet. During service, I run food, fill carafes with filtered still or sparkling water, and reset tables.

    When I’m at the restaurant, that’s fully who I am; I can’t think about writing. There’s a scene in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee in which Chee, a former steakhouse waiter, thinks about his novel while waiting for his section to be sat. I could never do that. For me, working at the restaurant forces me to step away from fiction and exist entirely in the world.

    I prefer to keep my two work lives separate, but sometimes they intersect. A decade ago, when I was applying to MFA programs, I met Colum McCann during a busy lunch shift. It was a fortuitous meeting; two years later, he would be my thesis advisor at Hunter. Twice, my agent came in to dine with a publisher. Both times, I swapped shifts so she wouldn’t have to see me running food. A few weeks ago, a publishing executive who’d rejected a novel I wrote happened to stop in. Never having met, I poured his water, served his red snapper, and bussed his table after he and his guest had left.

    I choose to work at a restaurant because it gives me time to write. The three days I’m at home I work on stories. I write in my apartment in the afternoon, eat an apple, and take a walk in Prospect Park. When I get home I write for another hour or so, then cook dinner with my wife. During my days away from the restaurant, I rarely think of it. If the writing is going well, it’s like remembering an old dream or a scene from a past life.

    Danny Lorberbaum’s stories have appeared in One Story, VQR, Guernica, and Southwest Review. A graduate of the MFA program at Hunter College, he has received fellowships from the Elizabeth George Foundation, MacDowell, and The Center for Fiction, where he was an Emerging Writers Fellow.


    by August Croft

    Since I began my freelance career in 2019 there have only been a few select moments in my life when I felt truly confident in making a living from writing.

    One of those moments was while my partner and I were camp hosting, volunteering our time in exchange for a free campsite where we could park our vintage travel trailer. Our living expenses amounted to roughly $600 a month, which made my poorly paid writing side gigs and sporadic article assignments feasible enough to support our lifestyle. $600 a month for two people is a fantasy in this country, something I knew when I returned to living in a rental home.

    So I worked harder. I wrote faster. And I got good at it. I was capable of writing up to 10,000 words every day and I was making enough to justify applying for a mortgage. I felt secure, to an extent. But the rest of me felt anxious, anticipatory. When was the rug going to get pulled out from under me?

    Writing as a full-time career helped me purchase a home. It paid my mortgage for around nine months. It was a great nine months but it isn’t my reality today.

    While I still have my mortgage, I’m now paying it through cooking breakfast burritos and prepping deli meat. I’m paying it through latte art and the same customer service background that paid my bills before I pursued content writing, before I pursued what I thought was my dream.

    Writing isn’t a full-time career path I can comfortably rely on anymore for a myriad of reasons. Mostly, I need the reliability of food service. I returned to an industry I swore I’d never go back to because people need coffee more than they need my words.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m so grateful to be able to pay my bills. But now I’m back where I used to be: too exhausted after long food service shifts to put pen to paper, to write the words I truly want to be writing.

    I’m hoping to find a better balance soon. I’m hoping for a lot of things.

    August (they/them) is a freelance writer based in Oregon. With a keen focus on the occult and Pacific Northwest history, their work has been featured with Theatre Vertigo as well as Portland’s Fertile Ground Festival of New Works. They have performed with Bag&Baggage Productions, Pulp Stage, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

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