A fly on the wall of a Michelin restaurant
The tables have turned.
Talk about bad timing. By the time my US work authorisation arrived, I realised I wanted a break from being paid to write. And so, I applied for work at a local bakery and a nearby winery’s tasting room. In the end, though, it was an upscale inn (with a fine dining restaurant attached) that — notwithstanding my total lack of hospitality experience1 — hired me as a part-time innkeeper in late March.
I’ve written about travel and hospitality for about a decade now. But, as I quickly discovered, writing about a Stellenbosch wine farm’s journey to zero waste is a little different to picking blood-soaked tissues up after the turkey vultures and rats have been ransacking this NorCal inn’s overfilled rubbish bins again…
Speaking of tissues: why do [thankfully only some] guests leave used ones strewn about their room upon checkout? In the middle of a pandemic, nogal. It’s enough to wish that taking (and passing) a Being a Guest 101 course — and a vaccine passport — were mandatory for travellers.
One day an almost literal mountain of compost arrived. It was deposited directly in front of the cottage where a millionaire property developer/former San Francisco city supervisor was staying — and remained there for several days. Despite its odours being carried on the breeze through his windows, he miraculously didn’t raise a stink about it2.
It’s occurred to me: probably what makes comedic depictions of hospitality on screen so funny — I’m thinking specifically of shows like John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers or my new obsession, HBO’s The White Lotus — is not so much about how OTT they are, but how much of their hijinks are rooted in reality…
What’s this? Oh, it’s just a mostly mellow(ish) electro playlist inspired by my commute along Route 1.
The job is helping me to brush up my rather rusty social skills. I had kinda forgotten how to make small talk, or interact comfortably with a rando on the phone — and now do a credible job at both. But the tasks I enjoy the most involve only inanimate objects (which typically are far less annoying than humans — or at least the idiosyncratic, overbearing types that the inn attracts). A short list:
Picking and arranging flowers to place in rooms prior to guests checking in
Polishing cutlery and glassware while the cooks play heavy metal as they debone rock cod
Folding napkins while staring out at the roiling Pacific
Stacking dirty dishes in the dish pit
Tolstoy believed that physical work “was a necessary condition of the utility, quality, and pleasantness” of his writing. He suggested in his book, What to Do?:
The activity of man to which he is drawn, is […] divided into four kinds: First, the activity of the muscles, the labour of the hands, feet, shoulders, back — hard labour by which one perspires; secondly, the activity of the fingers and wrists, the activity of skill and handicraft; thirdly, the activity of the intellect and imagination; fourthly, the activity of intercourse with other men.
I thought that it would be the best thing so to arrange the occupations of the day that one might be able to exercise all these four faculties, and to return all the four kinds of production of labour, which one makes use of; so that the four parts of the day were devoted, first, to hard labour; secondly, to mental labour; thirdly, to handicraft; fourthly, to the intercourse with men.
My therapist told me about Post Office. Charles Bukowski’s novel was based on his experiences working in — you guessed it — a post office3. While I don’t intend to write a novel about my own new workplace, the inn has inspired a rash of not-very-good poems. Don’t worry: I’m inflicting only one of them on you. It goes like this:
On the notice board next to the timesheets
a cutely illustrated poster urges you
to take some space for yourself —
a well-placed reminder for the cooks when
they’re clocking out of a sixteen hour shift
or arriving on their official day off,
ignoring the timesheets, sneaking in a few
hours extra, off the clock, because
there’s too much to get done
and not enough time or hands to do it.
At first I thought it was kinda cool when we did a
meditation at the end of our daily meeting
but I quickly changed my mind —
the ex-monk millionaire, Andy,
has a really grating English accent and
what I thought was ten minutes
of eyes closed while on the clock
turned out to be an “optional” use of
one of my two paid ten-minute breaks.
We had a walkout. The newest cook.
Right before service. Crying.
No one followed him out,
no one tried to get him to stay.
Chef and the other cooks did
what they always do —
they made it work.
Guess he hadn’t been using
Headspace™ subscription enough.
I went full-time for about a month. Following the departure of our head innkeeper, I thought I’d help plug a few gaps in the shift schedule (I also wanted to buy myself a bicycle, so the extra $$$ was a not insignificant inducement). Over the course of those gruelling weeks, my sense of self — and self worth — crumbled. I felt like I was Alex the Writer no more; I was just Alex the Tray-Carrying Automaton. Why should this matter, though? Was my identity as “writer for hire” that dear? (Apparently so.) Was I harbouring some residual shame / internal snobbery about service work? Yes, I’m embarrassed to admit that’s a possibility. But there were other things to blame too: not least internalising the fraught energy of an over-stressed, understaffed, high-turnover working environment.
I got ample opportunity to experience what lies behind the shiny veneer of a Michelin-starred restaurant. But I scarcely had any time or energy to do the things I found meaningful. There’s a strong connection, I suspect, between the pursuit of meaning and happiness & self-worth. While I no longer believe the former has to occur on the job, if it can’t be done off the clock (because there’s no time, or you’re too exhausted — or both), misery is inevitable.
An eight-hour plus shift can easily feature over 10k steps and a couple dozen staircase climbs. My preferred method of unwinding afterwards involved guzzling a local, lightly wooded Chardonnay while reading the Financial Times. I now totally get why alcohol and drug abuse are pervasive in hospitality4 (though I suspect bingeing on those salmon pink [web] pages may be a less common occurrence in the industry).
There are plenty of downsides to freelancing: rampant uncertainty; fluctuating income; and (certainly in media) stagnant pay rates. But I soon realised how much I’ve been taking freelancing’s positives for granted — among them, no commute; lots of flexibility; and more time to devote to things I truly care about.
I recognise I’ve been lucky. I became an innkeeper out of curiosity, a desire for something different, to interact with people face-to-face after a long, pandemic-induced hibernation. For many, many others, service work is not a choice; due to lack of opportunities, this has long been one of the only ways to make a livelihood. I’ve gained a humbling, deepened sense of respect (and hopefully greater empathy) for those for whom full-time service work is not a choice — and far greater insight as to why so many people in hospitality abandoned this sector when other opportunities (such as in construction, or warehousing) arose. Many don’t intend to come back. And me? Well, I’m back to part-time at the inn, and have just been appointed operations manager to an annual writing conference (also part-time). In the weeks ahead, I’ll be ramping up my (paid) writing too.
Links I’ve been loving lately: “America’s Dead Souls” (The Paris Review) | “Blue-Collar Brilliance” (The American Scholar) | “Corporate ‘Mindfulness’ Programs Are an Abomination” (Current Affairs) | “The invisible addiction: is it time to give up caffeine?” (The Guardian) | “The Lockdown Showed How the Economy Exploits Women. She Already Knew.” (New York Times) | “The Great Resignation: How employers drove workers to quit” (BBC) | “What If You Could Do It All Over?” (The New Yorker) | “Work less and be more creative — a radical prescription” (FT)
With a deep bow of thanks to Tre Borden, Erin Conway-Smith, Jenny & Anda French, Alan Jacobs and Craig Mod.
Though in fairness, being an executive assistant at the onset of my career — which involved catering to the every whim of a brattish editor-in-chief — was a pretty good primer.
His magnanimity may have resulted from his relief/gratitude at being able to use the inn’s landline to conduct a very loud (and very confidential) conversation with his lobbyist about pressuring elected officials to change their minds on a vote that didn’t go his way.
I read the first ∼two-thirds of Post Office; it’s mildly entertaining, though the casual misogyny grossed me out. Incidentally, William Faulkner worked in a post office too.
I’ve reined in my Chardonnay consumption, but continue to mainline the FT.