As some of you fine folks have already read, I’ve worked as a babysitter and I’ve worked in food service before. You might not know that I worked as the assistant to the Poetry Editor at The New Yorker for a few years between those jobs. It was dope, in some respects (I chatted with one of my humor heroes, David Sedaris, who was working with one of his editors on an upcoming piece for the magazine). In other moments, it was massively intimidating. I ran the day-to-day workings of the poetry department; among my many other administrative tasks, I spent generous portions of my day reading hundreds of poetry submissions. And oh, what a menagerie of verse was there. Vividly-detailed odes to dom-sub sexual fantasies emailed by middle-aged men from their Hotmail accounts; rhyming couplets penned by retirees who really, really loved their corgis or the bluejays that flocked to the bird-feeder on their porch, and really, really hated their Hotmail accounts; and stark poems hand-written by inmates and mailed to our offices from correctional facilities all over the country. The heartbreaking earnestness (or anger, or despair) of the last set of submissions haunted me over the years I worked at TNY; looking back, I realize that those letters from jail started me down a long path of researching the modern American phenomenon behind mass incarceration.
But I digress. Because I worked extensively in theater — writing, producing, and performing in plays — while I was at The New Yorker, I eventually needed to leave the 9-to-5 structure to pursue an opportunity to produce one of my plays abroad. (This sounds fancy. It was not. I spent hours outside of work sending personal emails asking for donations to our GoFundMe campaign so that we could afford the trip. To save money, we rehearsed in one of our actor’s parents’ apartment). When I came back from tour, I applied furiously for editorial jobs. The silence (and implied rejections) from the dozens of applications I spewed out each week was deafening.
Cut to a month later. I’m walking out of a second-round interview at a small publishing house, tugging down the hem of the only pencil skirt I own (and only wear to interviews like this one, because who has time to commute and live a real life inside an article of clothing that consistently defies gravity and rides up your leg to hover perilously at a Your-Hoo-Ha’s-Out Level). The job I’d gone out for fit me like the skirt I’d worn to the interview (that is: badly. Similes = POETRY, AMIRITE?). I was certain that I wasn’t going to score the job. Strolling down a side street, the bright red-and-yellow storefront of a cheese shop caught my eye. I remember that a friend had encouraged me to stop by (“They give you free samples!”) and enjoy a crackers’ worth of brie.
The cheesemonger (yes: that is a real, professional title) at the counter was bearded and friendly. I love factoids, and this dude clearly did, too — he began spouting off about how goats recycle most of the beta carotene (an orange-tinted pigment that helps integrate vitamin A into the body, prevalent in the grass that goats graze on) for healing wounds. Because all of the orange pigment goes straight to healing the body, very little of it ends up in goat milk: this makes goat milk (and cheese) a brighter, purer shade of white.
WHAT. CHEESE IS SO COOL.
I asked the scruffy monger of cheese how much he made per hour. They’d just gotten a wage hike: $10 per hour. “Not too shabby,” I said. “Do you have a form I can fill out?” A week later, I was sitting in another interview (a surprisingly rigorous one, where the HR rep grilled me like a croque-monsieur…similes, people, POETRY) to work at the cheese shop. I got hired.
As joyous as certain aspects of the job were (our bosses required us to eat cheese, in order to keep up with the fluctuating tastes, qualities, and textures of each cheese shipment), it labor itself was hard. Any of you who has worked service knows how nine hours on your feet feels (especially when not allowed to sit down or lean against counters or walls), and how quickly your 30-minute lunch break evaporates before you have to smile and coo at the next customer spoiling for a refund-me-or-I’ll-call-your-manager-on-you fight. We all recognize the dark, adrenaline-laced clouds that roll in as Black Friday approaches; we can risk-assess merciless Christmas shoppers on sight (for all their much-professed “merriness” and festive Ugly Reindeer Sweaters, they’ll cut you to the quick if you forget to give them a gift receipt).
Food service is a school of hard knocks. Sure, I learned a lot of fun factoids about cheese. Less expectedly (and more importantly), I learned some hard truths about work that I carry with me to this day.
1. No One Is 100% Ready For The Job They’re Hired To Do.
I didn’t know anything about cheese, beyond the fact that I liked eating it. I was a greenhorn, cheese-wise and retail-wise. I’d worked some odd and inglorious jobs before (wiping baby’s butts and swapping their diapers, sorting 50 years’ worth of financial files into boxes and lugging those to a storage shed), but I’d never been behind a cash register before. I’d never charmed a hesitant customer into buying a product before. I’d dealt with disgruntled toddlers and fussy parents and demanding bosses, but I’d never wielded a 16″ knife or learned break down and clean an industry-grade meat slicer. I made the mistake of thinking that my pockets of ignorance made me less compelling, likable and interesting to my bosses. But what they’d really hired me for was my strong work ethic, curiosity, and my ability to learn fast (and sweet-talk customers even faster).
2. Asking Follow-Up Questions Is A Sign Of Intelligence, Not Ignorance.
I went through several stages of training and orientation before the floor managers allowed me to operate solo and free-style behind the cheese counter, pitching, cutting, weighing, slicing, and weighing on my own. A number of other mongers were hired around the same time I was, so I got to observe their parallel trajectories as we got the hang of our responsibilities. The mongers who earned the respect of the managers most quickly were the ones who asked at least one follow-up question during each stage of a training (I know we start at pitching cuts by the half-pound, but what if a customer insists on only buying a quarter?). Questions not only prove that you’re absorbing information, they also show how you’re playing out future scenarios and thinking actively about how to apply your lessons to real situations.
3. Professional Tap-Dancing Is A Skill, Not A Lie.
At a certain point in the training, I had to make the jump from “shadowing” (literally pacing behind a full-fledged monger throughout their shift, watching which knife-type they picked to cut which cheese, memorizing which little punchlines and factoids helped close a sale) and begin working independently. That (inevitable) moment of jumping into the deep end without water-wings is always slightly disorienting, but this is CRUCIAL to remember: just because making your own judgement call in real time feels like tap-dancing doesn’t mean it is tap-dancing. You’re not lying…you’re relying on yourself. (POETRY.)
4. Be Loud.
The mongers (all male, I should add) who were hired and trained along the same timeline as me were all yellers. The store was noisy, cavernous, and full of foot traffic; a basic speaking voice got lost in the shuffle. A deep bellow brought customers back to you, because you seemed more jovial, confident, sure of your showmanship, product quality, and pricing. So I started yelling. And being loud made me speak more confidently; I stopped holding back my opinion (and frankly, sound knowledge) when customers and coworkers asked me for help or advice. My managers started talking to me about a promotion.
5. Take Up Space.
I’m not a terribly tall or large person, so hefting 50-pound wheels of gouda onto shelves above my head or throwing 30-pound legs of prosciutto onto the industrial slicer without losing my hand were challenges that put my physical disadvantages on public display. As a monger, you have to work rapidly, cleanly, and confidently: there is no place to hide from managers’ and customers’ and fellow mongers’ eyes, because the cheese case is entirely made of glass. Part of our standard safety procedure was to call “Behind, knife behind!” when we were moving behind our mongers’ backs with a knife (which was…all the time). My confidence climbed as I grew used to announcing myself instead of apologizing for myself. I made more sales.
6. Don’t Wait To Be Rewarded With Opportunities: Ask For Them.
One of the mongers who was hired and trained after me was promoted from the (soul-crushing) job of manning the cashier to the (exciting, theatrical, treat-laden) job of mongering behind the counter before I was. He had the same level of experience and cheese knowledge as me (that is: zero), and he was, truthfully, a little clumsy and ham-fisted when it came to cutting the cheese precisely. But he was loud, confident in his mistakes, handled the products with flair, and never apologized for…anything. The managers flagged these behaviors as not just confidence, but qualification. I had been hitting the books, but because I wasn’t as loud, my managers made me shadow for three more months than he had. It sucked. I finally asked outright to begin going behind the counter. They put me there, and only then could I prove that I was every bit as charming and effective as my male colleague.
7. The First Shot You Get Might Be Your Only Shot.
Self-explanatory. I paid intense attention to every detail whenever my managers allowed me to work behind the counter, because they only let me back there during (rare) slow moments when I wasn’t needed at the register. I made the most of brief intervals of work to prove that I could deliver.
8. Some Coworkers Won’t Like You, And You Won’t Like Them; You Can Still Work Well Together.
That dude I talked about in #6? I didn’t like him, and he didn’t like me. There wasn’t a dramatic moment of betrayal or indignation; I just resented him for being a 6-foot-plus, slightly-entitled male who was enjoying default preference and positive bias from our managers. He didn’t like that I joked off his attempts to pull rank on me and command me like a floor manager when he was my trainee. But you know what? We saw our discord for what it was, and tacitly agreed not to stoke the embers of our mutual dislike. We focused on the task at hand when we had to work together, didn’t bother to pretend that we enjoyed each other’s company, and — over time — each appreciated the other’s quiet honesty and commitment to professionalism.
9. Stand Up For Yourself.
I learned this from a badass chick who was on her way out of the cheese shop just as I was starting. She noticed the dynamics I’ve described in #6 and #8, and one day, she pulled me into the walk-in fridge. “You see what’s going on, right?” she asked me. “You should have been on the counter months ago, girl. He’s not good at cutting, and he doesn’t know half as much as you do. Next time he tells you to clean something for him or fetch something from storage, push back. He has no right to be bossing you around.” It was, in all honesty, one of the most inspiring moments I’ve had in a workplace. I’m still grateful for the talking-to my coworker gave me, and her bald acknowledgement of both the gender discrimination of our managers and my own failure to stand up for myself. I watched her cooly and professionally brush off Mr. Entitled’s commands and focus on her own performance. I did the same. And it felt BALLER.
10. Know Your Quitting Points.
The management at this store was, at times, less than above-board. We were promised handsome bonuses after the holiday sales. Our floor managers would walk behind the counter, crowing the day’s net profits, to drive us to work harder and push more cheese during the rush hours. Thanksgiving was hell. Christmas was hell. New Years was hell. My “bonus” check came: $49. Before tax. We all joked bitterly (if quietly) about it, but other poor practices (the gender bias I’ve described above, compounded by serious verbal violence that one manager used with the kitchen workers with impunity, and a few other questionable workers’ rights issues) put me over the edge. It wasn’t worth the money any more.
I learned an immense amount as an assistant editor at The New Yorker, to be sure. My work in magazine publishing accounts for the largest chunk of my resume, and my time there was both formative and deeply enjoyable. Some of my most powerful, universally-applicable professional lessons, however, have come to me through cheese-mongering. The service industry is a vastly underrated source of professional learning and personal growth; because of my work in food service, I believe in my ability to maintain a calm, collected demeanor when yelling prices by the pound over an irate crush of customers while holding a 16″ knife in my hand. I’m no longer hawking cheese, but I sure as chèvre am trying to live up to the emboldened, scrappy, hard-working ethic I developed behind the counter.
Image via Unsplash