Balancing on the Knife's Edge
(and Learning to Move with the Blade)
Written by Lindsay Bowyer // Edited by Chelsea DuDeVoire
My first job of waiting tables was at a Japanese Hibachi restaurant.
I was 19, a full-time college student, and had been working odd jobs since I was 15. Being fortunate enough to have the bulk of my tuition covered by Bright Futures, I took out some modest student loans to help cover the rest. I could retreat to my parents in truly dire straits (such as car repairs), but most other expenses like a cell phone, groceries, and a lot of my art class supplies were my responsibility. I was (and still am) proud of my grit, and of what I perceived to be “real world” experience I gained in that job. Like most millennials, I was raised to believe that by virtue of my own intelligence and inherent value, I could do most anything, and I had no reason not to believe it. I was a good student, excelling in my advanced classes, and well-liked by most of my teachers.
Then, on top of the nation being struck by a recession, I fell pregnant unexpectedly, about a month after my 21st birthday.
It was the first time I had ever had sex.
My daughter's father and I separated before she was born. As is so often the case in times of crisis, we discovered we were ill-suited for one another as partners. He graduated high school not long before me, then went on to work a 9-5, leaving me with few options beyond working nights and weekends. Thus, the work I saw only as a means to get through college at the time became necessary for my survival. First one, then two, and now seven years after graduating, I remain in the service industry today. Aside from a brief period of time spent teaching at a small private school (where 40 hours a week was not enough to pay my meager bills), my resume remains remarkably unimpressive.
This is the part where I fall into an extraordinary amount of internal conflict. To some, my story will seem like an echo of every cautionary after-school special their parents hoped would sink in: Study something “important” with good job prospects, or this is where you’ll end up. And if you’re a girl, you better keep your legs shut. God forbid you need government assistance for you and your baby born out of wedlock.
Others might see it as an indictment of my parents, or the public school system in their failure to provide comprehensive sex education; a condemnation of a system that failed another otherwise promising young adult. In my mind, both lines of thought lead to the same nauseating conclusion: of people feeling sorry for me, and ultimately dismissing me as another statistic, a pre-destined have-not. I wonder from time to time what my daughter’s father has experienced. I wonder if he's ever been asked, “but who’s going to take care of the baby?" like the constant question I answered during pregnancy. There were strangers at work who would say, "oh sweetheart, are you even out of high school yet?” Or perhaps my personal favorite, which came from a man my father’s age, “so you didn’t like him enough to marry him, but you liked him enough to...?”
On good days, I’m defiant in the face of these ugly experiences. I remind myself that I’m smart, I’m educated, I have a bachelor’s degree. I was a good student, proud to study what I loved. I adored my professors and looked forward to classes. Collegiate academics were a wonderland to me. To this day, I have recurring dreams about finding myself in a university lecture hall, delighted at having snuck in undetected.
On good days, I knowingly remind myself that basing one’s value off their job is a classist myth supporting an antiquated system designed to pin members of the working class against each other. On good days, I remember the words spoken to my grandfather by THE Mr. J.C. Penney: “Any work that’s honest is work that’s dignified.” And despite the frequent claim (made even by some of my own co-workers) that our job is not “real,” the money I make and the bills I pay with it are most certainly real.
On good days, I remind myself that waiting tables isn’t for forever, that my daughter is getting older, and that things will change in due time.
Some days, however, are very bad days.
On bad days, I believe those thoughts I imagine are in people’s heads. I can feel their pity and disdain to the point that it makes my skin crawl. I read it on the faces of my guests when they ask if I’m in school and I tell them I already graduated. On bad days, I recall with embarrassment the surprised expression of a co-worker upon learning I have a Bachelor's degree. On bad days, I can tell you exactly the last person I remember debating raising the minimum wage with, as they used the argument “so people flipping burgers deserve a raise now?” I remember a banal argument with a stranger on Facebook, regarding a topic I can’t even recall, with said stranger saying, “judging by your job, you’re exactly where you belong.” I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to take the sting out of that comment, even from a stranger. Although I know it’s bullshit, it remains like a broken bone that doesn’t quite heal.
On bad days I look at my closest friends, and I look at my boyfriend’s friends, who all at once seem to be buying houses, having babies, getting raises and taking awesome vacations, and I feel a space between us so large and so deep it might as well be the Mariana Trench. I look at myself, my humble little two-bedroom apartment, my Renaissance-woman-born-in-the-wrong-era art degree, my wimpy savings account, and my lack of career advancement - and the crushing sense of loneliness makes me feel like someone took stinging nettles to my insides. Some days are very bad indeed.
But as I age, I learn more and more that I am not made by my bad days nor my good days, but the in-between days. Those are the days that balance on a knife’s edge, that can make me sharper or cut me to ribbons with one false move. I am learning how to move with the blade of these days. My job may not be glamorous, and the hours can be very long as well as physically and emotionally draining, but my job puts food on the table and a roof over mine and my daughter’s heads. It’s the first job where I’ve had health, dental and vision insurance.
I may not get any raises, promotions, Christmas bonuses, or paid sick days, but I do get to take my daughter to school every morning, walk her to her classroom, and kiss her goodbye. And in the afternoons, I get to pick her up and be the first person to hear about her day. I might miss a lot of weekend events, parties, concerts and the like, but my daughter sure does love it when I chaperone her field trips, which something I get to do any time I want.
I may have to deal with drunk and entitled idiots (and sometimes a dreadful combination of the two), but I’m never too tired to write or call my Senators about their upcoming Congressional schedules. My job is never too much to keep me from voting, from signing petitions, from donating the little extra pocket money I have here and there. My job will never silence my feminism.
I may not get to see my friends as much as I like, but I still recognize opportunities to practice kindness and compassion, even at a job that can feel alienating and impersonal. And even the most rotten shift at work doesn’t diminish the sense of family I have with my co-workers, unlike any other staff I’ve ever been a part of. My job also didn’t keep a wonderful, loyal, hardworking man from falling in love with me.
Although the work I do has little consequence and garners little respect, I still find joy and fulfillment in the same things I always have: my artwork, my stoop garden, the natural world, learning, and most importantly, my family. Those things remain constant, steadying; grounding elements that remind me why I go on living.
There may be some people who read this and convince themselves that I’m letting small, “social successes” distract me from changing my life; that they’ve made me complacent. And with all due respect, I will say the same thing to them that I said to that small, pathetic stranger who tried to use my job to silence me: I am busting my tail to give my daughter the best life possible, and so far I’m doing a damn fine job of it. She is happy, healthy, smart as a whip, and attending one of the best elementary schools in the Southeast. Last year, on my first ever paid vacation, my boyfriend and I took her more than halfway across the country and showed her things most people go their whole lives without seeing. So yes, I am exactly where I need to be right now. Because if working and living and growing up has taught me anything, it’s that where we belong can and does change.
You may see me while you’re out grabbing a bite or a drink, and if you’re a certain kind of person, you may unconsciously feel a sense of superiority or smugness over people like me. That’s your business, and I hope you find ways to bring joy and honor to your heart. But know this: I am getting better and better at navigating my in-between days, and I am dancing on that knife’s edge with more and more grace. My Nana told me once that like my mother, I would bloom where I’m planted. And even now, in my humble position, I am working to carve out a garden for me and my little family.
Lindsay is originally from Dallas, TX, but has been a Jacksonville, FL native for 17 years. She's a proud graduate of the University of North Florida where she received her Bachelor's degree in art history and psychology. She loves to read, take walks by herself, hang out with her daughter and boyfriend, and daydream about their next adventure. She works at a locally owned restaurant to pay the bills, but is an artist and writer to survive.