In the latest installment of our collaboration with BUNCH Magazine, Features Editor Barbara Sueko McGuire shared some invaluable advice about finding your life's calling: don't let anyone pressure you to close the doors to your possible future pursuits without peeking behind them first. We wanted to learn more about how this open approach has guided Barbara’s own work, so we recently sat down to ask her a few questions about her personal career path. Like many of us in the creative entrepreneurial realm, she supplements her freelance passion projects with a steady position in the restaurant service industry–but her philosophy on waitressing is unusually empowering. Today, she shares her story about unexpectedly falling in love with a job that offers flexibility, freedom, and genuine joy, plus her scoop on the surprising links between writing and waitressing.
You wear many creative hats and supplement your income with your job as a server. Can you tell us about all the roles you have currently?
Well first and foremost, I’m a server. I actually don’t consider it a way to supplement my income, I see it as my career. Then my creative pursuits are just fun things I get to do because I don’t have to worry about making any money from them. When I do get paid, it’s amazing, but if I had that stress, much of the joy would be taken away.
But in addition to waiting tables, I’m also the Features Editor of BUNCH magazine, I write profiles for a couple different online publications, and I manage the social media for the restaurant I work at. I also do corporate freelance editing and writing, right now primarily for a health care provider.
What led you to waitressing? What are some of the things you enjoy most about your job?
I started waitressing after I finished graduate school, when I was living in New York. I wanted a job with a lot of flexibility because at the time I was really focused on my writing, and also teaching oral history and profile writing at Rikers Island Prison and at a high school in Bed-Stuy. I was barely making any money from those projects, and so I needed a job where I could work as few days as possible and still earn enough to cover my bills.
Without intending to, I sorta fell in love with it. I worked at a really great restaurant, Alice’s Teacup, which certainly contributed to my happiness, but what’s kept me at it for, geez, going on seven years? The people—both those I work with and those I serve. At Alice’s, and now at Swingers Diner, where I’ve served since moving back to LA five years ago, I have a serious contingent of regulars, and that makes a world of difference. Being a waitress is hard work, but when you’re surrounded by awesome people you get to also laugh a lot and have fun.
I’m also a huge traveler, and so being able to take off as much time as I want is probably my favorite aspect. I take a lot of vacations—really, A LOT. Last year I set this silly goal to travel somewhere every month, and I did. I work an incredible amount in between, picking up shifts to make up for the ones I lose, but I don’t think I could ever go back to a Monday through Friday, nine-to-five gig, with five vacation days and five personal days. I can’t even imagine that!
How has taking on this career path at this stage of your life been beneficial to both you and your customers?
I think the biggest benefit, for both myself and anyone I serve, is that I’m happy. I like my job, and it shows. I think that’s also why I’m quite good at it. Now don’t get me wrong, I have my days, and serving tables certainly has a long list of cons associated with it, but of all the jobs I’ve had (the others being “grown-up” careers), this has the most pros.
There’s so much I want to do and see, and so to have a gig where I only have to work three days a week to make ends meet is like a tiny miracle to me. Of course I pick up shifts on the regular and fill any time I’m not at the restaurant with freelance projects, so much so that some times I go weeks without a real day off. But those are choices, not mandates, and I have the freedom to say no to any of those things.
What have your experiences in the restaurant industry brought to your writing and vice versa?
I meet thousands of people every month, maybe even every week (I really have no clue, but I work at a busy restaurant), and man people are fascinating, even the ones who are horrible to me. I think waitressing has opened my eyes to different perspectives that I would not have otherwise had a chance to look at the world from, and I hope that makes my writing richer.
As for the vice versa, because I mainly write profiles, I think it helps me to see my customers as people, not just tables to be turned and money to be earned. Sometimes we servers can get caught up in that and forget, just like our customers do, that we are all just humans trying to make it through the day and doing the best we can.
At Clementine Daily, many of our editors have a long history in food service (in various capacities), and we think there are life skills gained in the industry that cannot be gleaned elsewhere. Do you agree? If so, what are a few of the lessons or life skills you have gained?
Patience, empathy, tolerance, a thick skin, to name a few. Being a server is not always pretty—let me be clear, there are the great things I talked about earlier, but there are also moments when I just want to walk out of the restaurant in the middle of my shift; when customers are so mean I have to run to the kitchen so they don’t see me cry. People can be cruel and many assume I’m uneducated. It’s that patronizing attitude that’s the hardest for me to deal with.
But then I have to take a deep breath and remember that their shit is not my shit. A huge lesson for me has been realizing that whatever attitude they’re giving or problem they have actually has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with them. This builds character and makes you internally stronger because you have to constantly remember who you are and what you’re made of so that the asshole commentary doesn’t penetrate. Not easy, by any means, and customers still get under my skin every now and then, but you have to have a strong grasp of your self worth to survive serving.
What has been your best customer experience to date?
Maybe six months after I started working at Swingers, one of my favorite regulars happened to be going through some really tough life changes. I hadn’t gotten to know him too far past the surface level, and I wasn’t sure if he’d even want to be my friend. But another server and I thought, what do we have to lose, let’s see if he wants to hang out. So we awkwardly asked him if he’d want to be “real friends,” and that was the start of one of the best friendships of my life.
This person is now one of my dearest and nearest, and I don’t know what I’d do without him. He’s saved me on numerous occasions, and according to him, I’ve saved him right back. We’ve had incredible adventures I would’ve never imagined, from traveling to Australia together to having dinner with Joe Walsh and Ringo Starr—WTF, right?!?
Do you have any personal mottos or mantras that keep you centered and focused?
Well, I do have one, but I’m not sure the language is appropriate, hahahha. Maybe it’s just me—I’ve always had a bit of a potty mouth—but I think serving lends itself to cursing because sometimes that’s the only way to release the stress valve.
So while I feel like it sounds brutally crass out of context, when I get incredibly overwhelmed and people are being unreasonable and orders are getting messed up by the kitchen and you’re so deep in the weeds you can’t even see a way out, it helps a coworker and I to just look at each other, throw our hands up in the air and say, “Dude, no fucks given.”
First of all, it makes us laugh at each other, which is huge in lightening up the situation. Secondly, we don't mean it literally. Both of us are very dedicated and committed to doing our jobs well. What it is, is a reminder that hey, it’s just food! It’s not life or death. It’s coffee and eggs, so let’s all just simmer and calm down. It’s a helpful pause that puts things into perspective.
What are 5 everyday items you cannot live without?
1. Carbohydrates. I’m not sure this counts as an “everyday item,” but man oh man I love them and my life would be very sad without bread.
2. Palmer’s cocoa butter lotion. My hands are so freaking dry from serving and that discomfort can be insanity inducing for me. I don’t like the smell and consistency of most lotions, but Palmer’s is perfection.
3. My dog Piggie Smalls. Again, I feel like she clearly isn’t an “everyday item,” but I’m not sure I have many of those. I think I can live without most things. My dog, however, is the love of my life. I joke that I hope to pass before her, but I’m not really kidding.
4. My Kindle. I am an avid reader, and have been since I was a child. I never, ever thought I would get an e-reader, but as soon as I found out you can check out e-books from the library I joined the club and it’s the best thing ever, especially when travelling.
5. Lip balm, preferably Chapstick, always spearmint flavor. I’m a bit of a freak when it comes to lip moisturizing. I sleep with Chapstick under my pillow and have no less than three different varieties of lip balm in my purse at any given time. Let’s just say I order in bulk from Amazon.
p.s. Have you met The Community Acupuncturist?