Art by Li-Ya Wen

There’s a kind of worm that, when you chop off its head, retains its memory. The planarian worm has a brain like ours, albeit rudimentary: two lobes, specialized regions. Scientists look to planarians for research on early brain evolution. The planarian is regenerative — if you chop off its head, it will regrow in a week. This creates fertile ground for research on identity, memory, and brain function more broadly — when you chop off the worm’s head, who does the worm become? Scientists did a study where they trained the worms to eat food on a rugged dish under bright light. Then they’d chop off their heads and wait for the heads to regrow. It turned out that the worms would retain their training, continuing to eat under a bright light despite the species’ natural aversion. This undermines everything we think we know about memory — even muscle memory is supposed to be stored in the synapses that control muscle function, not in the muscles themselves. But still, the newly headed planarian runs toward its food chunks.

I think about the corner of the Internet where girls ask their boyfriends, “would you still love me if I was a worm?” Boyfriends hate this question. They want to say no, and girlfriends get mad when they say no, because it’s like, why can’t you just play along, it’s never actually going to happen, you won’t get tested on your answer. Girls want to be loved even if they were worms. Girls kind of feel like they might turn into a worm, even though they tell their boyfriends they won’t. Maybe one day they’ll stop trying so hard to be pretty, and decent, and adorable, lie down for a minute, and all that will be left is a worm. What they’re really asking is “will you love me if I stop working so hard” — a crawling mass, asexual reproduction, chop their tail off and you get two of them. Moving to feed. Life is consuming and discarding. Head empty.

Maybe boyfriends know this, which is why they hate the question. They secretly know, even though they don’t let on, how much work their girlfriends put into being lovable enough for them, how much work they put into hiding the worm. Boyfriends hate this question just like my college boyfriend hated when I asked if he would still be with me if I took a semester off and moved home to Boston, a two hour train ride away. He hated it because he knew the answer was no and he knew that it wasn’t quite hypothetical. Boys don’t like to be tested, because they might be held to the answer.

My whole life, I’ve mistaken labor for love. My psychiatrist tells me, “Becca, you can’t be adored 100% of the time,” and I know she’s right but that doesn’t stop me from trying. She says that people who mistake adoration for love have a hard time sustaining relationships, which is why celebrities are always getting divorced and remarried; they transformed their identities into perpetual external validation machines, which means they can be adored whenever they want if they try hard enough, which makes it difficult to tolerate the realities of mutually loving, sometimes monotonous, inherently vulnerable relationships. To them, love is work, an earned accomplishment in exchange for their labor. Being loved is their job, and they’re always trying to get a promotion.

That has nothing to do with me, but I can’t hold down a relationship any more easily than I can hold down a job, and I want one more than I want the other, but only one will pay me to live. In “Uses of the Erotic,” Audre Lorde writes about labor as love: “there is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love.” I used to quote it all the time, before I needed money. She believes in this energy, something like living in alignment, where your actions produce this feeling of fullness that we’re taught to sublimate into capitalist labor. To her, all labor should be done for love. To her, the right labor is love. It blew my mind when I read it in college because I didn’t have a job yet. It presented something I wanted to believe in — a resolution to this conflict, to this need to earn love, that I can love and work and both will produce the same feeling. Labor as love. Simple.

The problem is that I got it backwards. I want to be held to something, which is why I always confuse work and love. I want responsibility. I want someone else to tell me what to do, so that I know I’m making myself useful, so that I stop feeling like a fleshy tube of consumption and excrement (i.e. a worm). I don’t turn labor into love — I turn love into labor. I want to be needed, which isn’t the same as being loved, but it’s close.

Art by Li-Ya Wen

That’s why I work at a restaurant. Serving is kind of like being loved for money, if being loved is giving care and receiving nothing in return but lukewarm gratitude and the satisfaction of a job well done. Serving is providing nourishment to people. My first semester of college, I took a class called “Women, Food, and Culture,” and one of the lectures was about how domesticity is considered “less important” and “less valuable” than other forms of labor, like being a lawyer or a banker or a marketing executive or a writer but only if you get published. The professor explained how American professionals tend to outsource caretaking to other people so that they can “focus” on what’s “really important,” which is their jobs at the bank. That’s why the service industry is the fastest growing industry in the United States. This is true but it’s also true that rich old people outsource their food prep even though they have nothing but time on their hands. Rich young people do it because they’re tired. Old people probably do it because they’re tired, too. Everyone is tired. And the most tired people are the people serving the food, because we’re holding all the extra tired that the rich people can afford to outsource.

Our customers do need us; many of the people I feed don’t know how to cook, or don’t want to cook, and so come to us for nourishment. We have customers who come for the same meal, at the same time, every day. They subsist on our labor. Ours is the kind of place that attracts wealthy customers on their worst behavior — it’s an upscale diner, a franchise cosplaying as a neighborhood joint, where the regulars harass us by name. Many of our customers treat the restaurant like their personal kitchen, ordering dishes that aren’t on the menu, or fifteen substitutions, or sending meals back three times because the toast isn’t quite the right consistency or the steak is too fatty. They want their meal how they want it, and it is a karmic injustice that they would ever receive anything else. 

And the labor of the server is an essential part of the experience, the go-between that carries the wealthy guests’ whims to the kitchen of overworked, Spanish-speaking immigrants and back in the form of a meal. They need us, to create the experience they want to have, to get the food they want to eat, to fulfill a fundamental need, one that they take absolutely for granted. The kitchen staff are, to them, personal chefs, invisible to the eye — they rarely leave the kitchen, separated by half-saloon doors from which servers and runners come laden with more or less carefully arranged dishes. This is where the “magic” happens, and it is magic, to the customer, insofar as they are carefully positioned to be able to pretend that there’s no person producing their meal, that their meal just appears, that no Brown hands are touching their food, coked up and overwhelmed and blasting Latin metal. The kitchen staff speaks varying degrees of English — many don’t speak English at all, and the servers and kitchen communicate through broken phrases in both languages. Every note sent from a server, every substitution or alteration to the dish, requires translation. They make, on average, about 1200 dishes a day.

So, inevitably, a dish will come out wrong, or right, but not right enough, or right and they ate the whole meal but would like a refund. “How hard is it to make a sandwich?” Our customers will ask, and we will tell them nothing about how very hard it is to make a sandwich, because they’re not really asking, because then they would feel guilty and probably eat at home. Instead, we solve the problem. We apologize, and make sure to sound like we mean it — once a customer said, “well you don’t sound very sorry,” after one of my coworkers apologized for an error — then we send out a new dish. Worst case, their meal is free.

Some customers will refuse a refund or a new dish—those are the most frustrating, because they require the most attention, but they also reveal the mechanism behind all of it, what we do for every customer, which is to give them care. These customers will say, “I just want to make sure that you know how disappointing this meal was.” But they don’t want the problem to be solved. They just want to release their frustration onto someone else, and have that frustration be received and metabolized into visible guilt or shame. This is what the worst customers do. In these cases, it is our duty as servers not to rectify the problem but to be the conduit for their disappointment, validating their anger, their shock, the injustice of a world where an egg might come out cold. These people aren’t asking us for food, really — they’re asking to feel seen, to be validated in the pain of living in an entropic world, the pain of their ultimate powerlessness. The reality is that they don’t have the power to prevent a cold egg from being served, that no one does, that the chaos of the universe truly does allow for such things. But for a night, they are paying for control. They will get what they want.

And we will perform in kind. We’re to be the placid, unburdened receptacles of angst, the auditors of displeasure, the midwives of desire. We are the line between what they want and what they have, the all-giving mother, feeding and allowing to be fed. And much like a mother’s child, the customer’s rage is matched only by their desire for love, which means that they’ll play-act decency until displeasure hits. I have customers ask me my name, smiling, only to use it to scold me when their coffee is too cold or their steak comes out wrong. Our customers want to be loved just as much as they want to be fed, which is what serving is really all about. 

 All of this is why I’m a server. For someone who confuses work and love, the service industry is a natural fit, a haunted fairground of delight and punishment, around every corner something to fulfill or torture you. One of my coworkers says that every day at work is like a psychological drama — unpacking the warped desires of the wealthy, navigating the chaotic traumas of fellow servers, trying to get through the night unscathed.

The customers love me because I smile slowly. I read once that you’re supposed to smile slowly at people because it makes them feel like you’re really smiling at them, like you took the time to register who they were and the recognition made you smile, not like you work at a restaurant and you smile in exchange for money. I’ve learned that customers don’t like some kinds of honesty. The art is in presenting myself as the brand of person they want me to be, soft and serene or brash and spunky, different genres of the same girl, neither more honest than the other. We all contain multitudes, after all, and what is care if not an exercise in moderating your personality for the desires of another? One of my other coworkers says that when he’s at work, he’s not himself. “That guy has nothing to do with me.” It’s our job to be manipulative, to separate ourselves from the work but get close enough to create the illusion that we’re present, that we’re not fully dissociating from our bodies, from our identities.

bell hooks wrote that true love is a “mix of various ingredients — care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment and trust, as well as open and honest communication.” Good customers are grateful to their servers, but the truth of a service industry gig is one of self-effacement, and therefore incompatible with recognition and respect. When I serve, everything I share about myself becomes a product of the exchange. I may be a grad student, but in serving, I am waitress-as-grad-student-as-waitress. My self becomes my performance, in exchange for the pleasure of the audience, in exchange for the audience’s money. It’s exceedingly difficult to meaningfully cross the rubicon of servitude into a relationship of mutually recognized personhood. This is always more obvious to the server and less obvious to the customer, who thinks for the night that I am their friend, and that the tip they leave at the end is incidental to my treatment of them, which I suppose is part of the job’s magic. To make the customer believe that the care is authentic.

Because of course, the one truth they don’t like me to acknowledge is the tip. Sometimes I forget myself, and make a joke about my tip, since we’re all friends here, and then the table falls silent and awkward. It’s in those moments that the gulf feels biggest, even with tables I’ve enjoyed serving — I only find myself making those kinds of jokes to tables I’ve enjoyed serving, the same way I’d joke with my coworkers or my friends about my job, about the truth of why I serve. They say, “You’re such fun!” and I say, “That’s what they pay me for!” and they fall silent, just like the boys and the worms. Once I say it out loud, the illusion crumbles. I’m not really working for free, loving for free — I’m working in exchange for something else. I know this, and they know this too. But to them, it must feel crass, to acknowledge that the exchange of energy was all contingent upon them paying, that they’re paying for our love, that my attention was bought, that my job is to manipulate them. They don’t like to acknowledge that mechanism. They don’t want to be held to anything, even as they benefit from their end of the bargain.

Art by Li-Ya Wen

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20% of restaurant workers live below the poverty line; 45% live below twice the poverty line, which means they make less than $49,000 a year. At our restaurant, the average kitchen pay is $20/hour, and servers make minimum wage plus tips. The average sale price for houses on the Upper West Side, the neighborhood where our restaurant is, was $1.5 million this year. Barbara Ehrenreich has this quote: “when someone works for less pay than she can live on, then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The ‘working poor,’ as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society.”

The people we serve at my restaurant don’t realize what we’re giving to them, more often than not, or don’t care. They certainly don’t want to talk about it. They think they’re the benefactors, for leaving a substantial tip or for being kind to the staff. They don’t seem to understand that their kindness is our labor; their tip is our wage. What they really don’t know is how backbreaking the work is, because to them it’s just one meal, how tiring could it be to serve one meal, even though it’s a meal that they’ve chosen to outsource because they don’t want to make it themselves, even though we’ve served a hundred meals just like theirs that night and have a hundred more to go. They pay so little, in the scheme of things, for what they get in return, a non-renewable resource, human energy, human care, in a world of cold indifference. Then they resent being told the work is valuable.

“Would you still love me if I was a worm?”

Sometimes I feel bad for my customers, like I’m pulling a con on them. Then I remember that they’re the ones paying me $15 in exchange for my body and spirit while they make six figures, and I wonder who’s really being conned. They know that what I do isn’t actually loving. It’s an approximation, a performance in exchange for livelihood, that only a fool would mistake for actual love. But maybe I’m a fool — I’ve never been able to distinguish between love and work, after all. And in this system, where care can be bought and sold, it’s become increasingly hard for anyone to tell the difference. What I really want, at the end of the day, is love beyond labor, is something realer than this exchange, even if I’m good at it, even if it’s intuitive. The performance of love for money may be an inevitable outcome of late-stage capitalism where every inch of our identity is transmuted into some form of wealth, but that doesn’t mean it feels right to participate in it. I want to be loved even if I was a worm.