I worked my first training shift at my first restaurant job on November 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump was elected president. We somberly folded napkins at the bar as the floor manager briefed us on menu changes, cover counts, and the rest of the minutiae that constitute a pre-shift meeting at a fine-dining restaurant. It was surreal to hear about that day’s cheese selections while simultaneously contemplating the monumental political and cultural shifts we would soon see in our country. The mood was subdued, and upon seeing how upset many of us were, our floor manager abruptly stopped her monologue on the subtle differences between the day’s bleu and Gorgonzola.
“I know a lot of you aren’t in a good place right now,” she intoned, “but we’re going to get through this together because we’re family.”
I immediately recoiled from the intimacy of the word. Who exactly was family? I looked down the bar at the servers, runners, and backwaiters seated next to me — strangers I had known for only a few hours. Were they family? The sous-chefs to whom I’d never spoken? What about the chef who owned over 40 restaurant properties internationally and would no doubt never know my name? Was he family?
I was familiar, too, with the way employers can use the term family to their benefit — manipulating employees to pick up extra shifts, work longer hours, and commit to unpaid training all in the service of some kind of “familial obligation,” which, no doubt, wouldn’t extend in the other direction should the employees find themselves in need. So I was wary of the term when I heard it used by management at meetings and equally so when I heard it from co-workers over drinks after work. I entered the restaurant on that first day determined to keep everyone at arm’s length.
These people, I decided, were co-workers, not family.
Serving was always supposed to be a day job to pay the bills. I had been warned by friends with experience in the service industry not to get too attached. One close friend gave me this advice in the days before my first shift: “Don’t go out for drinks with them, don’t sleep with any of them, and don’t get involved in any of their lives.” Many others told me how difficult it had been to transition away from the stable money and employment of server life and into a “real” job.
But a year after that first, melancholy training shift, and despite my best efforts, I realized that, yes, this was my family — whether I liked it or not.
We spent some important moments together; everyone cheered for me when my first piece was accepted for publication, and we had seen one another through births, deaths, addictions, and recoveries. But these milestone moments weren’t what made us a family. Nor was it our shared language of 86’s and FOJG’s and PPX tickets. Nor even our shared secrets, like the time a famous director came to dine and gave me flirty eyes.
They were my family because they annoyed the hell out of me but I had to spend time with them regardless. We were family because we didn’t choose one another, but we had to find a way to get along anyway.
My coworkers had become a sort of un-chosen family, and almost four years after that first training shift, when the coronavirus shutdown meant we would no longer see one another every day, I was surprised to find that I, unfortunately, missed them.
I missed the way Tom surreptitiously slid me a bitters-and-soda under the bar at the end of a particularly grueling shift. I missed Robbie waxing poetic about malolactic fermentation while I frantically tapped an order into the computer, my section absolutely burning to the ground. I missed the collective dread of a menu quiz at a pre-shift meeting, and I missed the sweet silence that hung in the air as we sat at the bar after a long shift in the wee hours of the morning, counting tips.
Work at my restaurant was loud and chaotic, and it’s easy to remember it only for its unpleasantness. A shift often felt like seven consecutive hours of wealthy older women screaming at me about bottled water, but as I spent the past months sifting through my years there, I realized that what made it even remotely bearable was my co-workers and the camaraderie we built because we had no other choice.
It’s tough to cling to a life in New York City without a source of income. As the months wore on, many members of my own un-chosen family were forced to leave the city, creating a sort of restaurant-staff diaspora. The literal and metaphorical distance between us raised a key question about the state of our bond: If we were no longer obligated to spend time together, would we stay in touch?
The fact is, many of us have moved on. While so much of our time used to be spent focused on the restaurant, a lot of us have started down the path to new careers and, in some cases, completely new lives. A few former co-workers have banded together to create a record label, some have gone back to school, many have moved back home, and, ahem, at least one of us has begun a full-time freelance writing career, wherein, on a good day, I don’t put on pants until 2 p.m.
I suppose these relationships are necessarily mercurial and finite. No one can stay at the same job forever — especially servers. I’d like to think, though, that our familial ties haven’t dissolved. Rather, they have rearranged themselves as we once again subvert a traditional definition of family. We don’t have to see one another every day or constantly text memes to our group chats, because that’s the thing about family — you can’t really ever get away from them. They’re still in my corner, and I’m in theirs. We’re rooting for one another as we each take steps toward our new and uncertain futures.