Certain things change drastically when you get your shit together, go to college, finish a degree and stop working in bars and restaurants. One of the major shifts that I’ve noticed is how the holidays effect my day-to-day life. As my life inches further away from being comparable to Cheers and closer to something more in the line of Leave it to Beaver, this whole season takes on new meaning and emotion.
For those who haven’t spent considerable amounts of time working in the service industry, allow me to explain what the holidays meant to my previous self. The cooler weather in Phoenix alone brings the busy season for hospitality workers. This is, I have been told, opposite to the way things work in parts of the country where cooler weather is not as welcome as it is here. We have a snowbird population that swells the city headcount considerably in the winter months. This, regardless of the holidays, already makes it a busier time of year for wait staff and bartenders. The holidays do also add to that.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is a huge going out night. People seem to treat it like the kick-off to the holiday season. Short work week, 4 day weekend, perhaps people have traveled from elsewhere and arrived in the city early enough to see old friends before being locked to family for the remaining time. Whatever the reasons, Thanksgiving Eve is probably one of the busiest bar nights of the year. It’s no New Years Eve, but it does get quite busy.
Thanksgiving day is dead, but other than that the time between Thanksgiving and Xmas sees a noticeable increase in bar and restaurant sales. This makes the holiday season a prime money making time for anyone whose income comes mainly from tips. The money, however, does not come easy. A lot of the people who go out around the holidays really only go out around the holidays. These are people who tend to still think 10% is the industry standard gratuity, who don’t understand concepts like rush hours, large party reservations or the headache of splitting checks 15 different ways. Wait staff go to great lengths to train their regular customers on how to make their jobs easier, and this training all goes to shit starting the 3rd Wednesday of November and doesn’t return to normal till January 2nd.
But, even though the money/work ratio gets kind of nasty the overall take home is generally increased so it’s not all bad news. Stressful, yes, but also rewarding. The real stress comes from also trying to be a person experiencing the holidays while simultaneously being a person whose work life is getting its ass kicked by the holidays.
Thanksgiving Eve is great, bars and restaurants are busy, there’s money to be made. But there’s also Thanksgiving itself to deal with the next day. Maybe you worked the bar till close at 2 am, floor swept, money counted and trash taken out gets you home by 4 am. Mom text you earlier to say that everyone is getting together at Aunt Helen’s at 11 am which is just an obscene hour for you given your professional night owl ways. You feel obligated to make an appearance because, as your moms states in her guilt trip, “We don’t know how many Thanksgiving’s Aunt Helen has left.”
So home by 4 am turns into bed by 5 am, awake at 9 am to make the trek to the suburbs for the sake of Aunt Helen’s golden years enrichment. You may still need to be back at work sometime around 3 pm. Thanksgiving Day is a shit day to work in a bar, so all the extra money you made busting your ass the night before just becomes a wash in the two-day average. So you get to throw down a plate of food and leave before dessert to drag your 4 hours of broken sleep back home to get ready for an unprofitable night.
The boss knows Thanksgiving is a shit day, but won’t just close the place if they think they can make $10. That, and they’ve probably lined up some deep cleaning chores to take care of since you’ve got the time. You’ll be moving equipment and cleaning a years worth of grime and buildup, probably slicing yourself on a broken chard of glass behind a refrigerator glued to the wall with maraschino cherry syrup. Also, you’ll be getting paid a whole $5 an hour to do it.
After Thanksgiving you have Black Friday. Busy perhaps, but full of people who are just in an awful mood. The ones who have been shopping all day are embattled from the experience. I myself have always refused to be a part of that madness, so I can only imagine what it’s like to go through. It’s not all bad though. If you’ve been diligent throughout the year, you’ve cultivated a core set of well-trained regulars to hopefully give you some relief from the seasonal masses.
For the weeks leading up to Xmas, you bounce back and forth between overworked booze-slinger and holiday reveler. After all, you’ve got your own shopping to get done, friends and family to see, parties to attend to and everything else that others seem to just be strolling along through. This is where the stress ramps up. Sleep is reduced and energy expenditure increased. I’ve worked bars where busy shifts were literally comparable to playing 6 hour games of racquetball. When you can’t make all the functions or stay through all the courses of the meal, the guilt trips from friends and family increase. It always amazed me how the non-existence of Paid Time Off in the service industry escaped all the people who couldn’t understand why I didn’t just take the day off. Time in that job field directly equals money. Time off means zero money. Perhaps the day you skip was one of the bad ones, but schedule writers take notice of those who weasel their way out of bad shifts. Repercussions for such behavior were certain.
There’s a slight calm after Xmas now that all the shopping and most of the parties and get together’s have occurred, but it is a calm before the storm call New Year’s Eve. This is the culmination of the Holiday Season, the closing ceremonies. If you’re a young go-getter of a bartender, you might be excited to work New Years Eve. You’ll get dollar signs in your eyes at the high sales-potential and, if you’re like I was when I was younger, just be looking forward to how fun it will be to be busy all night. These nice feelings about the potential of this evening are soon ruined for anyone who actually works a few of them.
In the biz, we tend to refer to this evening as Amateur Night. This is the night where you see a massive jump in the raw count of party goers. These people, to put it bluntly, are simply not good drinkers. A lot of them only go out on this one night a year, inevitably black out and so by January 1st they’ve already forgotten any social lessons they may have otherwise picked up during their party time. Any lessons they do remember the next day will slowly be forgotten over the course of the year and they will show up next December 31st like a brand new bad drinker. This gives a different connotation to the New Years Baby icon. The babies I had to deal with came in the form of grown men and women crying and vomiting because they thought 6 shots of Fireball in the car outside sounded like a fun way to kick off the evening.
People tend to stress themselves out on New Year’s Eve, as well. There’s so much self-imposed pressure to party the right way. It’s an amazing, albeit stressful, thing to witness. People stress themselves out about what they wear, where they go, what they drink, when they drink it, who they drink it with, who they kiss at midnight, yadda-yadda-yadda…and when this inevitably blows up in their faces, it can be like having a room full of intoxicated bride-zillas. This phenomenon occurs in both men and women, but the bride-zilla comparison was the only other instance I could think of where a human attempting to create a perfect moment falls apart in emotional ways when the perfection doesn’t happen. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy for these people, which is the really interesting part. They don’t understand that it is exactly their pursuit of the perfect midnight moment that keeps them far away from enjoying the evening, and, of course, trying to explain this to any of them just falls on def, drunk, ears. You just gotta roll with it.
So the shit show to end all shit shows is the cherry on the top of the shit show holiday sundae for people who make their living in food and beverage service. We all die a little by the end of it. Depending on the gig you’re working, you could still walk away from it all with a decent amount of cash. The money will be sprinkled with blood, sweat and tears, but at least there was some sort of reward for the abuse.
Now contrast that with my post-college, business casual Scottsdale office life. My week this week is short. HR sent out an email on Friday letting us know we could dress casually all week (which I love) giving me a nice little Casual Monday today. My weekend coming up is long, 4 full days to do whatever I want. Non-food and booze related industries tend to slow down this time of year. People take vacations and offices run skeleton crews. I’m going to be one of them, in fact. I’m taking 40 hours of PTO starting the day after Xmas and leading up to New Years. I’ve gone from the holidays being the busiest, most stressful 5 weeks of my entire year to the exact opposite. I get to kick my heels up, spend time with the kids, do any shopping I might do at my leisure. Oh, and I also expect an annual bonus to make the whole thing sweeter. I no longer have to save all year to make Xmas happen for the kids. Not that my kids are overly materialistic. I’ve raised them to value experiences more than things. But whatever presents I do buy or trips we take them on can easily be paid with additional income that is given to me just for working hard all year. Never you mind how much my bonus is, but it is enough to change the December game for me.
I don’t feel I’m being boastful about my improved economic and work/life situation. I’ve earned my spot here. I fought for it. I don’t feel bad for enjoying it. I also try really hard to not forget where I came from and what it used to be like for me. Now I am one of those people going out more, seeing friends and family with less worry, spending more at bars and restaurants. I am one of the well-trained regulars now, and it feels good. So long as I don’t lose my memory of what it was like to live the other way, I will keep not feeling bad about enjoying my success. If you’ve never walked a mile in the shoes of a waitstaff person, then take my word for it when I say they are getting ready to go through some shit for the next several weeks. Be nice to them, and tip them well.