Unemployed, a grad student rethinks the world of work

After a stint as a waitress, an unemployed grad student lets go of her habit of dividing those who have careers and those who just work.

Taylor Weidman/The Christian Science Monitor
At work: a waiter walks with a tray of beverages through a restaurant in Boston, Mass.

After I was laid off about a year ago, I got two months pay plus severance and then I went on unemployment. Things could have been worse. But seven months later, after getting rejected from every permanent job I applied to, I was feeling pretty discouraged. So I drove to New York to visit a friend.

We met up near a restaurant where I had worked six years ago, a fancy French bistro in the West Village. My unemployment income doesn't normally accommodate splurges, but we were hungry and I was curious, so we stopped in for a snack.

When I was there, almost everyone I knew on staff regularly had work-related nightmares. But even though the hours were long and the customers occasionally atrocious, the tips were consistent. Besides, and this was important, I had assumed it would be my last waitressing job.

My friend and I had just sat down when I saw Lina, a soft-spoken Hispanic woman who made the coffee drinks. We had always spoken in Spanish and mine was rusty, but we talked long enough for me to notice that there was something different – the distance I had always assumed between us was gone.

Back when I worked there, I made a distinction between people like Lina, for whom I imagined that place was the destination, and people like myself, for whom I believed it was simply a place to pass through. Back then I thought my future was going to pick me up like a train and carry me everywhere I wanted to go – grad school, a great writing job, and marriage, all before I turned 30. But that wasn't what life had in mind.

Things went smoothly at first. I went to journalism school then worked at a newspaper in the Midwest. But afterward, wanting to return east, I took a job as an editorial assistant at a magazine in Massachusetts. It didn't feel so great, a master's degree later, holding the same position I had held right out of college, but it was all I could find.

When the magazine closed last winter, my tenuously propped up self-esteem collapsed altogether. It felt as though somewhere along the way the life I was supposed to be living had begun to diverge from the one I was actually living, and now they were worlds apart.

I tried to scramble my way back to where I thought I was supposed to be, but I was in a field of employment that had been imploding even before the market crashed. When I heard that a tiny, fine dining place in my town was looking for a server, I retyped my waitressing résumé and dropped it off.

It turned out the owner and one of the waitresses had just broken up. "Could you start tomorrow?" he asked. Which is how I ended up working at his restaurant. And how I ended up getting fired after three weeks, when they got back together.

That wasn't the lowest point, though. That came a few months later, after a bunch of new efforts all reached dead ends. But it was around then that I started questioning my expectations for my life. Maybe I was never going to have that big career. Maybe no one was going to give me some prize just for trying. So I got a dog and learned how to be a better cook. I applied to a ton of jobs and got rejected from every one; except for a job cleaning rental apartments for new tenants in late August. During breaks I'd snack on foods that had been left behind, sitting outside with the other cleaners.

At one house, the tenants were still moving out and I asked one of them if she was a grad student. While I scraped at the grime around her sink I saw this searching look in her eyes. Was I her peer? Was I a college kid? But then the look disappeared. I knew how things must look to her, like she was passing through this apartment, this town, while for me it was the destination. She assumed a distance existed between us. But it didn't bother me. I knew it wasn't true.

Because an unexpected thing happened in the course of being unemployed – I discovered the way I'd been dividing up the world didn't make any sense. I realized that no train was coming to carry me off, and instead of waiting by the tracks I may as well get going. And at the restaurant where I used to work, Lina was no longer someone I was passing by. She was someone I was listening to, as I struggled to remember my Spanish, as she asked if I was married yet (no), as she told me that she now has a 2-year-old child.

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