The first time I met my manager at Distrito during the spring of 12th grade, he asked me if I’d ever worked in food service before. “At a country club one summer,” I replied. “Well, it’s pretty much the same thing here. Instead of kissing up to golfers, you’re kissing up to Penn students,” he said with a sarcastic smile. I didn’t tell him where I had just committed to attend in the fall.
My time at Distrito is measured in its relationship to Penn students. My first shift was on Cinco de Mayo, just after Distrito had reopened from an extended COVID–19 pandemic closure. We weren’t doing reservations and when I showed up at 3:50 p.m. for the start of my 4 p.m. opening shift, the line of customers trailed down the block.
Bearing masks slipping below noses and PennCards in phone wallets, the mass of nacho–seeking patrons writhed before me. The host stand was the only thing that protected me from certain death at the hands of the crowd.
The end of May saw seniors who’d been drinking margaritas for four years bring their parents to one last happy hour and an enormous catering order from a loyal customer. I trained new hosts—a Penn sophomore and three juniors—for a job I hardly felt competent performing. I could teach them how to make a reservation, ring in a takeout order, and greet people with the right balance of cheery and cheesy, but I didn’t know how to teach them what tone of voice to use when asking the manager for the friends and family discount for their entire high school friend group without a reservation or how to make an entrance to a party three hours late and desperate for dinner. The skills listed on the job posting weren’t the ones that made the job difficult.
After a slow, sticky summer of work, a barrage of two weeks' notices were sent from upenn.edu email addresses to our manager, who complained to me about the unreliability of student workers. Instead of quitting, I took the first month of school off. "To adjust," I said.
When I came back in late September, I started serving. Every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday, I came in at 3 p.m. and left when the last of the silverware had been polished and put away, usually some time around 11 p.m. After move–in, my job had lost some of the fun. Friends who had offered me advice all summer weren’t there to hear my anguished worries about the cute guy in my writing seminar, and secret glances at Instagram were traded for furtively written Canvas posts.
My homework schedule was based on my work schedule, and I often collapsed into bed still smelling of tacos. I once wrote a paper for my urban studies class last semester from the iPad at the host stand, frantically swiping back to OpenTable every time I heard the jingle of my manager’s keys. My eating habits adapted to Distrito: breakfast before my 10:15 a.m. class and lunch scarfed down on the walk to work. When I was on campus for dinner, it felt like an unfamiliar privilege to eat at 7 p.m.
The reality of a student worker is a lack of flexibility from two parties competing for your time and attention. School and work defined my life, leaving little room for friends and family. I encouraged friends to come to Distrito for their pregames so that I could feel more included, but I ended up not being able to say much more to them than, “Would you like salt or sugar on the rim?”
The word server is, in and of itself, somewhat demeaning. Perhaps not as bad as waitress, but the job is one of catering to someone’s every desire, and trying to predict what they ask for before the thought materializes. Our income depends on it. As a student at a restaurant serving my peers, it felt derogatory to introduce myself to a table of people I’d seen in classes or clubs. “Hi! My name is Grace, and I’ll be your server. How are you all doing tonight?” I pretended not to know people until they decided to recognize me, a deferral of power that rendered me flat.
To exist in the plane of service makes it difficult for others to see you as an equal. Though I stood right next to them, my garishly colored Distrito T–shirt seemed to fit even more unflatteringly when I saw the made–up faces of friends and acquaintances. My scribbled notes of carnitas tacos with extra salsa felt at once shameful and empowering. Here I was, serving you, but I was working, and I had a real job. I could spend my hard–earned money on dinners out with friends instead of asking for it from my parents. I tried to balance my embarrassment with smug feelings of superiority. A fragile coverup for my social insecurities, it never lasted long.
I often wished that I just didn’t have to work. I tried to blame my dismal math grade, my lack of date night invitations, and an overall feeling of discomfort and dissatisfaction with college on the fact that Distrito took up so much of my time. In all honesty, I was just stuck with the age–old Ivy League experience of feeling like an impostor while struggling with not being top dog anymore.
But my time at Distrito taught me the value of time management and cemented more good memories than bad ones. I decided to take another break, this time of undefined length, at the start of this semester. I’ve since found a different job, one that is less demanding and much more boring. I'm no longer entertained by the antics of my coworkers, stories of drunken big–little reveals, or discussions about which server has a crush on which food runner. Instead, I spend more time with friends and have found a healthier work–school–life balance.
Plus, now when I go to Distrito, I can actually enjoy the food on the menu.