by Sarah H Griffin
Four years ago, soon after completing a master’s degree and when I was well into my middle-30s, I taught college English full time as an adjunct. This means that my combined income from instructing plus supplemental work in the library still came to less than 20,000 a year. So, that summer, I took a job at the sort of hotel where the most humble of rooms started at two grand a night. There were many seasonal jobs of this sort available in the Adirondacks because in the summer the mountains were flooded with vacationers and residents of the opulent weekend ‘camps,’ tucked discreetly down long, unmarked driveways.
The room price of this particular hotel included complimentary excursions, open bars both indoor and out, and customized meals by a French chef and crew so attentive that each leaf of each salad was expunged of imperfections. But what guests really bought was the experience that we, the staff, were told to deliver: the answer to any desire or whim was always yes. Truffle popcorn at 3am – yes. Breakfast of lobster and champagne while bobbing in a boat on a remote lake – yes. A hot latte and fresh croissants delivered to your cozy cabin suite, although the skies have just let loose a reservoir of water and marbles of hail – yes.
It was understood that the comfort and pleasure of the guests took precedence over any need of ours. First, one was to polish glasses and iron the table cloth – then, and only if absolutely necessary, take a few seconds to figure out why one’s ankle throbbed, or there was blood trickling down one’s arm. I worked with women in their 20s who already had carpal tunnel and permanently injured backs from lifting heavy trays. One legendary manager (before my time), in a panic that nothing go amiss at dinner service, postponed going to the hospital despite labor contractions to the point that she eventually had to deliver her baby on the floor of the pantry.
We were under strict orders to accept no tips. The guests were pressed upon this point, so none were ever offered. It stung to pour down the sink, daily, bottles of wine that cost more than my day’s wages and that had been carelessly left uncorked during the night, but for me it would have been even harder to also accept charitably donated pocket change.
I am not proud to explain why this was true, but that summer led me to a humbling and important understanding about myself, and one very relevant to the theme of division – in this case, as defined by social status.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the roles of guest and server translated to a separation far deeper than the technically superficial one of our different daily activities. The nature of the service we did (not high skilled, not charitable) drew a clear distinction between those who had versus those who needed, and that distinction was a deep gulf that could not be bridged by anything we had in common, or anything that might have made us equals.
This was particularly palpable whenever I tried to break the barrier. One morning my job was to deliver a white tablecloth brunch to an island glade. As I put the final touches in place – aligning the three forks in right order, steadying the chairs with wedges so they were as stable as possible on the mossy ground veined with roots, draping a folded napkin around the neck of the chilled wine – I listened to the group laughing as they scrambled from the rowboat onto the stony beach. Three men, in variations of salmon-colored shorts and expensive flip flops, and two women in sundresses and floppy hats, teetered into view. They were jovial – the sort of guests who take advantage of every possible luxury they can cram in during their stay. And I realized that they were my age at most, possibly younger. We were, at least in that way, peers.
I broke the code of silence that was standard while we worked; I don’t remember, now, what exactly I said – some interjection into their conversation, something to show that I too was in on the joke of how difficult it was to navigate woodland terrain when one is still hungover. But I do remember that the one I addressed registered a flicker of surprise that was quickly suppressed by a polite nod. He ‘mmm-hmmmed’ vaguely, but whatever it was I intended to say next wilted when he turned away abruptly to survey the table.
The other time, while serving cocktails to a family group enjoying sunshine and appetizers on the porch, I heard my alma mater (where Junior had just joined the crew team) mentioned. “I went there,” I blurted. “Oh, really?” said the grandfather, sitting at the head of the table. But even as he said it his eyes slid sideways back to his group, and I knew that further conversation was not welcome.
Perhaps I’m making mountains out of these molehill rejections? After all, they were there to be with family and friends – why would they want to spend this time indulging a stranger? True. But, for one, opportunities for congenial mingling and meetings was one of the features this lodge advertised. For those who elected to, there was communal dining and communal activities and guests regularly intermixed, finding shared interest in their histories, travel, children, or real estate. There was never, under any circumstances, that sort of human-to-human, equal-to-equal, sort of exchange between those who served and those who received.
But it was not the divide itself that was a revelation. I was already deeply familiar with it. While growing up, I was on the other side. Where we lived in rural DR Congo there was no electricity or running water and most food came from the gardens, so the work of daily living – cooking, cleaning, and maintenance of home – was labor intensive. Almost every household, regardless how humble, had more than one person working on daily chores: younger sisters, cousins, or older aunts and neighbors. At our household the staff was particularly large but, more to the point, I was not part of it. After school, instead of an afternoon of chores in the garden or kitchen, I read books, or maybe went swimming in the river. No other girl age nine, ten, eleven was exempt from duties. And that is what created the barrier. Our different skin colors symbolized the radically different spheres of needs and concerns we lived within: socio-economic division, and the division of social roles, was the impermeable barrier between me and my peers and between me and people I loved.
My childhood was defined by the isolation of privilege and a complex mix of resentment, guilt, and grief. By the time I was in my 20s and living full-time in the US, this had evolved into a sense of self characterized by a trait I celebrated in myself: I railed against the injustices of tribalism; I raged against superficial differences superseding our innumerable commonalities.
But the sobering lesson of that summer was this: my indignation at the division between servers and served, and my attempts to broach it, were not motivated by nobility. I was not on a crusade to change the culture of that place, and to stand up for the humanity of my fellow servers. Instead, I was trying to be seen as different – better – than how I felt I was perceived. I wanted those I waited on to recognize that I too was educated, I too had traveled, I too could hold my own talking art and culture. I wanted to be seen as being in some ways one of them – one of the elite. And in so doing, I was validating the very premise of socioeconomic tribe and the hierarchy of value that defined it.
For me, the lesson changed my sense of self. Intellectually, I passionately support a humanistic definition of tribe; I believe it’s character and actions that should determine a person’s lot in life, not region, race, religion….
But when it came down it – when it was my identity, my lot in life, that was in question – I found myself scrambling for entry into the very tribe I’d spent most of my adult life rejecting.