“Go take a break, Gretch,” the head server says over the din of the DJ and the shuffle of dancing wedding guests. I take my tray of empty glassware and head to the back.
I sit next to another server on a rolling cart and flex my toes, my arches aching. I know I should take full advantage of the 15-minute respite. My fellow server and I eat our plates of mac and cheese, aioli asparagus and dinner rolls with honey butter. He doesn’t talk much, but often makes lifting tables after the end of the night seem effortless. In his life outside of here, he designs clothes and moves furniture. He always finds the best things at the Village Thrift. As soon as the last song plays, he changes out of his black work clothes and looks way cooler than anyone should at 1 a.m. after a nine-hour shift on their feet.
But even he is well-versed in the vanishing act of the wedding server. We, the staff, are the invisible members of the wedding party, the ones who keep things running. We pay attention to stepparents at opposite tables with equal care; we know to stop serving wine during the best man’s awkward, rambling toast.
Eating my plate of food left over from the buffet, I realize I am one of the lucky ones. This, along with a string of other part-time work — freelance publicity and writing gigs and various other side hustles — has left me with a newly minted master’s degree in creative writing and full life, even if it is an unstable one.
I am also fortunate to work for a company that is small and treats its employees well. Our bosses know us by name. Our clients, attracted by the local-food craze, are usually nice people, complete with Chicago’s big-city style and Midwestern sensibilities. It feels good to carry plates of garden-grown veggies to bridesmaids in repurposed warehouses, or to set out baskets of fresh, whole-grain rolls at company picnics. I know that the care of us, and of the food, isn’t always the case. Another server tells me: “The other catering company I work for, they throw all the leftover food out. We aren’t allowed to eat any of it. We also aren’t allowed to talk to each other if we are out on the floor. It’s miserable.”
Perhaps for this other company, having staff members speaking to one another would unravel the illusion of invisibility. Suddenly we become human, complete with emotions and dreams and thoughts and agency. If we can speak, then maybe we, “the help,” also notice uncomfortable truths. Perhaps we will figure out that the guests who cling desperately to their salad forks as we try to clear them away for dinner service probably don’t dine out at nice places often. We can tell the difference between old money, new money and no money — by the seams in a dress, by the fabric of a handbag, by how well a suit is tailored. “Effortless” is an expensive look. “Timeless” would cost me a month’s pay for a single outfit.
If there is one thing I have learned from working as a catering server at weddings, it is that wealth is not measured in how much someone makes, or how much they can afford to buy. Instead, it’s displayed in how much someone can waste. Power and money show in how many glasses of expensive scotch a person can leave half-empty, how many floral arrangements a wedding party leaves wilting in a dumpster, how many dresses guests can afford to wear only once. I have even seen the power of waste call out through the hollow way some women say “No, thank you,” as I walk past with a plate of hors d’oeuvres — their eyes hungry.
I know that, in some ways my pinstriped apron signifies that I am there to help guests clear things up and throw things away. But it also signifies, at least for the night, that I am lower in status than those I serve. Maybe this apron along with the fact that I am: a.) not an immigrant; and b.) well-educated signifies my fingertip hold on passing for middle class. One job loss, one sickness and I will hit the icy water, unable to pay for rent or groceries, or unable to make payments on my loans and credit cards. Yet I am one of the lucky ones: I can run back to a family basement if I need to; others cannot. Maybe wedding guests can see this etched in the pinstripes; maybe they fear it themselves.
If more wedding guests looked me in the eyes and asked me how I was, would the fact that I can’t afford to waste things make me less of a person? Would they look at me and see themselves?
I often wonder what would happen if they asked about the Matador tattooed on the arm of the bartender handing out drinks. Would they see him? If they saw the books in our bags, would they understand that the luxury of a stable life and a savings account often has nothing to do with intelligence, hard work or even education? Would they understand that it has everything to do with luck? Where you were born. Whom you know.
I doubt any of this will change. Instead, I will say this: The next time you’re at a wedding, tell the bride and groom and their parents to tip their servers, and tip them well. Usually, we are the sort of people who can stretch that little investment further than you think. Be kind, say hello, remember our humanity, even if it seems lost in the whirlwind of someone else’s fairy tale. We, too, have errands to run, dreams to catch, loves to win and lose.