What you notice when you’re not really there

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We rock up to a stranger's house. I open my phone to check the address. I adjust my collar, walk up to the door and knock. As I wait, my gaze travels to the two sad-looking balloons tied to the front fence. Someone eventually opens the door. 'Hi, we're the caterers,' my co-worker says.

Waiter carrying platters of food during an event. (Photo by MNStudio via Getty)We're shown to the kitchen, then left alone to do our work. If it's a good night, we'll leave with a thank you and maybe a tip. If it's a bad night, we'll be lectured about how to do our jobs, and a man will be creepy to me (an unfortunately not uncommon experience). 

As a server, I go out with trays of food, reminding myself to keep a smile fixed to my face. I do the rounds, taking note of who is eating what, memorising the faces of people with special dietary requirements. I'm mostly invisible to the guests. As I squeeze between groups of chattering people, more than once I have to maneuver to avoid someone backing into me. 

After one job, I sat in my friend's car afterwards, feeling completely wiped out. 'It was a long job,' I told her.

'Why's that?'

I described how people grabbed and reached around me while I held trays of food, how they would take minutes to dip their food in a sauce while talking to someone, and I just had to stand there. 'It's like they don't see you as a human person,' I said. In an essay titled 'Mr and Mrs B', the American writer Alexander Chee aptly described the experience of being a server as being viewed as 'human furniture'.

Still, there are also benefits to being the not-person in the room. In the same essay Chee wrote that 'being a cater-waiter allowed me access to the interiors of people's lives in a way that was different from every other relationship I might have had'.

 

"Working as a server helped me mature as a person. Now, I notice more often the people on the edges, so often unseen."

 

I've waitressed at yacht clubs, fire stations and in people's homes. In a small way, I've been part of people's celebrations. I've seen 16 year olds on their birthdays, old couples celebrating their anniversaries and, on one particularly memorable occasion, the absolute shock of the guests at a surprise wedding.

I learned a lot about people when I wasn't 'really' there. I watched the grandmothers who track me down to ferry food to their grandkids, and the antics of those children climbing under tables and breaking off into groups to make their own parties. I've  picked up the cadences in people's speech from all over Victoria, and overheard snatches of personal details of the lives of people I've never met. I took notes on the people who looked me in the eye to thank me, and the people who clicked me over or waved me away.

You also learn about the other people who work behind the scenes. Despite the stereotypes about people who work in hospitality, there is no one universal experience. I've met people who work as servers full time, students who work casually around study, and many others who do it as their second or third job.

One woman I was working with talked about her trans son and how helpful Safe Schools were, coming to her house to support her and her son. I mentioned I was queer and, after getting my okay, she quizzed me about what it is like to come out and to live as a queer person in Australia. 

As a collector of stories, interacting with people I wouldn't have otherwise, has helped my development as a writer, reminding me how each and every one one of us has stories worth telling.

But inadvertently, I think working as a server also helped me mature as a person. Now, I notice more often the people on the edges, so often unseen. Experiencing the difference in how I was treated after I put on a server's uniform has reaffirmed my belief in how important it really is to be kind, especially when you don't have to be.

 

 

Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

Main image: Waiter carrying platters of food during an event. (Photo by MNStudio via Getty)

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, work, hospitality

 

 

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Existing comments

An very thoughtful piece. As I read, my mind had glimpses of the many servers and their services. A reminder that they too are same as us!
Kirtan Varasia | 06 July 2019


Thanks Neve for this thought-provoking writing. I think of the uniform you must have worn, the uniformity as well as enriching conversations this opened up. Or perhaps closed down. It is important to be kind - kindness always leaves a mark however faint.
Pam | 08 July 2019


'Someone who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is NOT a nice person' the saying goes. Great piece (once more!) Neve; I especially love your own 'unseen' compassion toward scurrying grandmas and the children having their own parties. "On the edges, so often unseen" and occupying the place at the margins is discipline for the ego and tonic for the soul.
Richard | 11 July 2019


Thanks Neve for a very thoughtful piece . It is a good pick up for all . That term 'human furniture is very powerful . I enjoy your article and sense of justice very much.
Colleen Keating | 11 July 2019


It seems to me that Neve has the same way of seeing as God who has a preference for the poor and marginalised.
Peter Woodruff | 11 July 2019


Thank you Neave. This is a thoughtful reflection on being 'invisible" I enjoyed reading it especially because you are able to grow through your experience, refusing to be 'the victim' I am an older person (turned 80 recently) and in the last few years I am experiencing more and more frequently the feeling you talk about: the sensation that you do not register as a presence let alone as a person. I am also dealing with government agencies, in particular Mygedcare and I am been confronted more and more clearly with the disconnect between the marketing publicity championing 'the respect owed to seniors' and the lack of basic considerations shown in managing the services. I feel a lot of affinity with the way you have written this article, would you like to interview me and write about this phase in life, which is certainly being lived just now by many thousand Australians? Whatever you decide to do, please accept my very best wishes for you future. Thank you.
Antonina Bivona | 11 July 2019


That's a piece of good writing, Neve. Elisabeth Wynhausen's "Dirty Work" should appeal to you.
Ed Campion | 11 July 2019


On my first trip to Europe via Asia, I learnt just how much we rely on the kindness of others, and how much that colours our opinion of cultures both favourably and unfavourably. My daughter worked as a sales person in a suburban shopping centre while a student and that has given her a great respect for people in similar jobs, and an appreciation of just how awful some customers can be.
Frank S | 11 July 2019


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