The Golden Ticket: A Reality Check

“I quit.”

Those were the last two words I heard from Natasha. It was the start of another muggy August evening in rural New Hampshire, and the grind and uncertainty of waiting tables in the restaurant industry had claimed its latest victim.
I met Natasha two months prior when I began work at the local restaurant. On one night of my mandatory week training — shadowing “certified” servers; watching their every move and interaction with guests; taking notes so as to prepare for the written exam required of those aspiring to work in front-of-house operations — she had actually been my trainer.

It was then that I learned of her situation: a single mother of two young girls — ages two and three — who moved from her hometown in rural Maine the previous summer to a town across the border in north-central New Hampshire to be closer to the father. Their relationship as boyfriend and girlfriend deteriorated after high school — neither went to college, though Natasha had become a Licensed Practical Nurse and was waiting for her certification to transfer to New Hampshire — and they separated permanently after the birth of the second child. Waiting tables three nights a week while cleaning houses during the day Monday through Friday brought in enough money to scrape by. That is, assuming her nights at the restaurant ensured reasonable take-home — $100 or more was considered “decent” for a 4:30 to 10:30 shift — from gratuities. With the state’s hourly “tipped wage” of $3.27, anything less than a few hundred dollars would not suffice. Gas, groceries, clothing for herself and her children, electricity and other bills — it added up quickly.

From my limited perspective, I could but surmise one thing when Natasha left: the wages did not justify the work. She needed more.

On the one hand, I understood Natasha’s complaint: I experienced plenty of nights this summer where I walked home counting just thirty or so dollars in tips, or roughly five dollars an hour for a full shift. On the other hand, something separated me from Natasha: choice.

For her, waiting tables served to make ends meet — a necessity. Yet I took the job as a proverbial “break” from working paid internships in Boston the previous two summers.

Initially, I had prepared to work a third summer in an internship, this one unpaid, at the United Nations Association of Greater Boston. But when the landlord decided to put the building of my soon-to-be apartment on the market just days before I anticipated arriving, my plans changed. Unable to find an affordable place elsewhere in or near the Boston area, I returned home, three hours north, and applied for a job at the restaurant around the corner. (In our town, it is the only year-round business, in fact.)
Considering that I had the financial support from my parents to take an unpaid internship in Boston, landing a position as a server — while no long having to pay room and board in the city — represented a favorable second choice.

It is not until now, just several days before the fall semester arrives, that I realize how lucky I am to attend a four-year college; to have the option of taking unpaid summer internships; have a roof over my head and food before me each night; to be the one advocating from a position of relative financial security for a nationwide increase in the minimum wage — not the one hoping for an extra twenty dollars in tips, or an hourly rate in the double-digits, just so I can provide the basics for myself and my children.

Once, my father told me that Amherst was a “golden ticket.” His label has loomed large over my head and, at times, burdened me with feelings of wastefulness or immaturity if, say, I earned a B instead of an A; didn’t attend every guest speaker’s lecture; didn’t make time to go to every session of a professor’s office hours. If I don’t wring every last ounce of opportunity offered me by Amherst, am I putting a crease in my “golden ticket” or, worse, tearing it up?

But I think now, after working a full-time job alongside servers like Natasha, whose “golden ticket” is simply a good night’s earnings in tips (never guaranteed, mind you), I understand perhaps a little better the immense value of my remaining three semesters at Amherst. To a literalist, it represents a sum in the mid-five figures. To me, it means a luxury of learning and thinking which has become a rarity — and, in that, the truest privilege, from my perspective — in our world.

On any night this year when I grumble to myself for even a second about so-and-so reading or an upcoming essay, I’ll remind myself that at that very moment, there are hundreds of thousands of Natashas running furiously around a restaurant wondering if their next party of guests will leave a tip large enough to buy gas for the drive home. That, I hope, will bring me to remember — and embrace — just how fortunate I am to be a student at Amherst College.