A little over three years ago, I began serving at a Tex-Mex restaurant known for its kitschy, colorful interior and an emphasis on friendly service. The Tyler who started this position was unsure of herself, awkward in new interactions, and carrying a permanently furrowed brow. The Tyler who still works this position today is much different – she’s friendlier, lighter, more confident, and daresay easygoing at times.
This transformation did not happen overnight. In fact, I still get shit from management to smile when I’m in the kitchen. (Why do I need to smile at the ice in the beverage station, I ask?) But over the course of these three years, I learned how to craft an “onstage” identity that gives me emotional and cognitive distance from the things that happen to me. This helps with anxiety and panic, in social situations and otherwise.
I also learned the pure joy of being in a rhythmic work flow. And maybe most importantly, I learned the value of that oft-used phrase, fake it until you make it.
Up until these last couple years of my life, I used to don this little turtle-face grimace when strangers smiled at me. It was like I didn’t know how to smile and share a moment of two pleasant beings existing in the same moment of time and space. In my college years, I walked around campus with my head down and my hood up, headphones lodged in my ears and afraid to meet anyone’s gaze or be gazed at. I had friends, but I found meeting new people impossible. I used to more frequently have days where my heart felt so heavy that there was no way my mouth could feign the smallest smile.
Then came serving, and the need to appear pleasant and happy at all times. When a server is “onstage,” or in the dining room under the eyes of paying customers and managers, there is a certain decorum demanded of him or her. Servers must have egos, thick skins and senses of self-worth that are unwavering in the face of assholes. One bad tip (or several in a row, as streaks do happen) cannot shake the server, because that sense of pride and self-trust outweighs the reality of a night’s tips.
Horrendously bad tips ($2 on $100) can still shake me to my core, and I run into the walk-in cooler to bust into surprised, angry tears privately. Sometimes I don’t make it to the walk-in. But eventually, all crying must cease because the show must go on. In fact, the show is currently going on at all the other tables in my full section. If I think of it as a show, I can create in these situations a certain distance: I think, these people don’t know who I really am, so their perception (revealed to me through a tip) doesn’t matter.
With time I adopted a number of behaviors that once seemed false to me, but I realized they are my genuine expressions. I just wasn’t in the habit of using them before. Now I know that I can create a better mood for myself by flicking that “onstage” switch and placing my worries aside. If I’m depressed all afternoon before work for a legitimate reason, I find my mood is lifted by having a few pleasant interactions with my guests. It doesn’t erase the real pain I’m feeling, but it proves my resilience. I can set aside time for wallowing and feeling, and I can abandon it at other times. I can smile with my teeth showing and make jokes and dig into the lives of my guests and completely lose myself in the present moment. That’s a kind of therapy in itself. Fake it ‘til you make it, anyone?
This “onstage” persona has bled into the rest of my life and changed it for the better. Now, when walking around downtown streets or walking through the grocery aisles, I can feel comfortable when I notice strangers’ gazes. I can revel in the idea that I’m visually stimulating to other people. I can meet people while out and about and participate in the art of genuine-yet-surface-level interactions. I finally found that surface-level doesn’t always equate to empty. Sometimes you can just shoot the shit with another human being and both can walk away satisfied.
And, a final note about the joys of manual labor, because working in a kitchen has literally taught me how to work: finding my flow and gliding around the dining room and kitchen makes my body feel purposeful and fluid like a well-oiled machine. I’m still clumsy and drop things all the time, but when I’m in the zone, it’s a sight to behold, much like a figure skater effortlessly just doing her thing.