At my parents’ house in San Francisco, I’m just literally two blocks from the businesses that provided me my first high school jobs: the bagel shop, which has changed hands and name by now, and the smoothie shop, which is long out of business (in fact, that was the first job I was ever laid off from). If I go further afield, to downtown San Francisco, I can visit the themed diner that gave me my first gig waiting tables on summers home from college. Unlike at Manhattan Bagel and Juice It!, however, I’d likely encounter plenty of familiar faces at Mel’s if I were to swing by. Restaurant work has a way of sinking its claws into you. In my case, it very nearly did, at the expense of a more interesting career.
If I have any regrets about waiting tables over the summers during college it certainly has nothing to do with the shoeboxes full of cash I would periodically walk down to my local Bank of America branch. In fact, I may have no regrets at all. What I didn’t know as I did it, however, is that this easy money, combined with a recession, would put me in career limbo for years out of college. Whether I can directly correlate my college choices with my career trajectory is beside the point: this is ultimately the decision college students must consider toward the end of the schoolyear. Do I take an internship and advance my career or make money so that my life is less miserable during the schoolyear?
My incredibly helpful answer: it depends. And in fact, it might not matter.
As a college student, I had a clear sense of what I did and did not like, but I didn’t have a good sense of what I thought I would be doing with myself. I knew that I hated being broke during the schoolyear, and so my decision was clear: make as much money as I can, live at my parents’ house, and enjoy life a little more. I met some great people, and I met some scumbags. I had coworkers from all corners of the globe — Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, some unpronounceable autonomous Muslim region in Southwestern Russia that is not Chechnya, the list goes on — and I waited on people from all parts of the country and the world, all coming to Mel’s for the faux-Americana and overpiced garbage it had on offer.
I worked the overnight shift, and got a good look at what all of us look like when we get food after the bars — absolutely digusting and despicable — and took the bus home as the streetlights turned off for the day, my pockets full of cash. The restaurant seemed cursed at times. One of our waiters got murdered in Oakland, I’m told; another, who got arrested at work by a small squadron of SFPD officers and detectives under mysterious circumstances, eventually died in a motorcycle accident — but not before getting one of the waitresses pregnant. It was, to say the least, an interesting job. Getting paid mostly in singles had the effect of making dollars feel like Monopoly money, but that, too, was worth it. I was too young to go out to bars anyway. And this is how I funded my lifestyle in college, along with a part-time job on campus.
Deja vu all over again
Then I graduated, and ended up moving across the country and earning the vast majority of my income for the next few years…waiting tables. Is this because I didn’t pursue more high-minded work during the summertime? Perhaps. I graduated with just two short-term internships under my belt — one at a real-estate firm and one at a non-profit advocacy group — and I don’t need to tell you how much white space that left on my resume. Had I known what I wanted to do with myself immediately after college, this very well may have prevented me from being able to do that. But I didn’t.
In fact, had I not waited tables in college, I wouldn’t have lasted one full year here in New York in 2008 — arguably the worst time in modern memory to move here without a job or really any skills besides a college degree. And in the absence of other opportunities that I knew how to find, what I did during summers in college became my sole source of income. I made more money than my girlfriend did at her real career-oriented job, and I only had to work a few nights a week. Waiting tables is lucrative work in New York, but it’s stupid. I hated it, and hated myself for inadvertently benefitting more from my college summers than from college itself.
I would read New York Times stories about college grads living at home with their parents, and how tragic it was for both the economy and these youngsters’ lives, and I would wonder: what do the editors at the New York Times think of people like me? Graduating from college doesn’t necessarily mean either a.) a job at an insurance company or b.) living in your parents’ basement. If you learn how to earn money for yourself without a college degree while you go to college, graduating from school doesn’t introduce this false binary to your life.
But this hatred for my line of work inspired me to seek out opportunities to write more, and then an internship at a magazine, which turned into a part-time job at a magazine, and after a while I seem to have found something like the beginnings of a career writing — something I had no idea I could or would do while I was in college. It required weekly trips to Philadelphia on early morning Chinatown buses for months, and long stretches of time with no time off at all between my paying work and my free work. It wasn’t that hard, but it was certainly harder than college. I had finally found something I would really exert myself for, and it helped me throw off the inertia that easy money can provide.
If there’s anything to be gleaned from my story — it’s entirely possible that there is not — it’s this: summer internships are great for people who know at 20 years of age what sort of career they would like to have. I wasn’t one of these people, but I also value my independence — perhaps too much. In any event, a career does not necessarily equate to independence. In a down economy, being too focused on landing a career-oriented job can land you right back in your parents’ basement. It’s worthwhile to be able to do things other than think critically, which is all a liberal arts degree is good for. It’s a gamble, sure, but your college degree isn’t worthless without summer internships, and you can still do them during the schoolyear or after you graduate. It will require swallowing your pride — and flouting federal labor laws! — but it’s probably better than living with mom and dad, hitting them up for gas money.