Prestige Matters

"You get paid, right?" She asks. I have to confess that I do but I don't know how to explain to her that that isn't really the point. Sure, one doesn't wait tables pro-bono, but if I was doing it just for the paycheck, then I'd be better off doing something else.

This was some time ago, of course. I haven't waited a table in years but the revelation of that conversation has stuck with me. I understand that, for many people, the compensation is all that matters but for me it's not that way, going all the way back to my years in restaurants, it wasn't ever just about the money.

This whole realization happened when I discovered that a friend, who worked third shift at a Waffle House, took home nearly as much as I did despite the fact that I worked at a three-star bistro full of high-dollar clientèle and classically trained chefs. To be clear, my tips were better but she didn't have to tip out a half-dozen other staff and she made her tips in cash while I made mine on credit cards so she could dodge some tax obligation. Finally, I had to outlay a portion of my money to stay up to par with the establishment, getting my uniforms and aprons professionally laundered and starched, haircuts twice as often as I would have had otherwise, my subscriptions to two industry publications that I read religiously lest one of my diners ask how they're doing it at Les Halles this season. This is not even counting the uncompensated time I spent outside of work studying culinary concepts and brushing up my Japanese and my French.

She suggested that I say "Fuck it," and go to work with her. The standards I kept to appalled her. While she strolled in approximately when her shift began, cut lemons and made tea as it pleased her, dried her apron in the microwave, and was never expected to know whether the vegetables were organic. I, by comparison, was constantly faced with white-glove inspections, expected to know every answer, to pronounce every foreign term correctly, to anticipate my guests' every need, to stay as late as my diners cared to stay and to always be no more than one point shy of flawless. Despite the money, comparative ease and shorter hours, I would still never have traded places.

Why, because prestige matters, perhaps not to everyone, but it matters to me.

I kept the fine dining job because, even though I was part of an oft-denigrated profession, I wanted to be high in the waiters' pecking order. Now, making movies, I work very hard to stay attached to large-budget studio shows even when local indies have the same pay scale because it matters to me that my projects are recognizable. When I'm off, I skydive because bowling doesn't quite capture others' imaginations.

Perhaps I'm shallow, but I want to know that the things I do are considered important when compared against similar endeavors. Despite everything my elementary guidance counselor told me, it is not enough to simply know my own worth. Now, I don't define my entire self based on this. I'm not going to collapse into tears and cease to function because I have to take a gig that widens no eyes, but, given the choice I'll take the harder, less lucrative work that carries a modicum of eminence.

Is that wrong? I don't know, but it's what's informed the arc of my career and it's worked out pretty well for me so far. If I'm overworked or less wealthy than I would have been otherwise, I'm comfortable with that.

1 comment:

Michael Taylor said...

You're honest enough to admit it -- that prestige matters in Hollywood and beyond. I think most industry people would rather work on something (TV, movies, whatever) recognized for its quality than most of the dreck that shows up on screens large and small. Deep down, yeah, I'd love to be able tell people I worked on "Alien," "Bladerunner" -- or more currently, "Breaking Bad" -- rather than the endless series of flops and cinematic abortions that have stained my career, but at a certain point it doesn't really matter anymore. I'm not willing to move to New Mexico just to haul cable and set lights on a cable episodic for Vince Gilligan, no matter how brilliant his show -- and it is brilliant.

Preening for the mirror doesn't help much below-the-line, but it might be essential to a successful career above-the-line. If you settle for working on crap right from the start and never aim higher, then that's probably all you'll ever do. Besides, there's a word for those who do it only for the money and never for love: whore. And if sooner or later we're all whores in this town -- one way or another -- there's no need to wallow in it.

Interesting blog -- glad I stumbled across it...