“The Classroom,” oil on canvas, by James Clark, 1861.

by Tina V. Cabrera

Equipped with an MFA and nearly two decades of teaching experience, why would I take on a job that paid little more than minimum wage?

About a year and a half ago, my husband’s job took us to Austin. I had quit a PhD program and teaching fellowship in the Dallas area, which left me jobless. I started a cursory employment search prior to moving, which consisted mostly of applications for teaching jobs at the community college and university level. My first job in Austin was as a dual credit English teacher. I lasted a semester before deciding I really needed and wanted a full time job, tired of the adjunct life’s inconsistency and unreliability.

So began my long and arduous career hunt. I tried working for LifeTouch as a photographer, which initially sounded exciting, but the work of assembling and disassembling the heavy and large equipment and the low pay—in addition to a daily commute of up to 100 miles a day—dampened my enthusiasm; just before completing the training, I dropped out. Other opportunities arose, such as the role of commission-based recruiter (a type of pyramid scheme), but I didn’t have the patience to work at a job with only a possibility of good pay while judged on the performance of those working under you. I interviewed for teaching positions with no success while working as a substitute, eventually losing my unemployment because I only substituted twice (my heart was not in it).

Perhaps I was guilty of self-sabotage. Or commitment-phobia, calling it quit early in the enterprise. Yet, I was sure something permanent and perfect for me would materialize by the fall and in the meantime I could endure working temporarily at a job even if it meant lowering my standards. And this is how I ended up working as a hotel breakfast host.

I did not set out to work as a breakfast host with the intention of writing about it. Keeping all breakfast bar items replenished for hungry hotel occupants and then cleaning up afterwards is not exactly the stuff of interesting literature. But learning the ins and outs of a kind of job I had never done before, a job that involved more physical than mental exercise prompted self-reflection. How could I not write about a job that placed a different kind of demand on me as worker, exchanging the need to think on my feet for working on them.

Having honed my intellectual muscles, earning first my B.A. in English and then my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, the idea of purely physical work was invigorating. I admired the aura of satisfaction and fulfillment exuded by who worked with their hands, ran farms, or tilled the land.

Besides the novelty of becoming a breakfast host, there was the ease of the interview process. The head chef asked me two questions and hired me on the spot. This, as opposed to the intense interviews I experienced in the teaching job market—anywhere from three to five authority figures grilling me on imagined classroom scenarios, asking me to describe my management and discipline style, and feeling like I had nailed it only to be rejected time and again.

This job freed me from a routine that had enslaved me to tedium of the mind. I performed similarly banal tasks at home all the time, however, at the breakfast bar, the order in which the tasks had to be performed and the time within which they needed to be completed ultimately mattered. Upon arrival at 5:30 in the morning, I would: turn on two ovens (they take 15 minutes to heat to the appropriate temperature); start the coffeemaker; prepare bag of batter for pancake machine (about the only truly exciting appliance spewing out two delicious-smelling pancakes at a time); pour exactly one canister of water in pancake bag; shake vigorously for a minute or two before burping and inserting into roller; and setting out a variety of muffins, yogurts, and juices. If you failed to prep the breakfast items—muffins and bread, cinnamon rolls and fruit—the day before, then you had to re-stock these items on corresponding serving trays that morning.

Since the hotel had only opened a month prior, I was the first trainee. The lead attendant demonstrated each task in random order. I shadowed her and took pictures of the display cases so I wouldn’t have to memorize which items went on which shelf. The newness of breakfast preparation infused me with a strange sort of enthusiasm, an alertness usually absent at 5:30 in the morning, even though I knew the steps would eventually become automatic.

Like most major cities in the U.S., Austin has a convention center and other luxury hotels throughout the downtown corridor. Our hotel sat just a few blocks down the street from a homeless shelter. Another block over from the shelter was a police chief station. Every morning as I drove up, I’d see the homeless people from the shelter loitering on the corner. What I did not see in those dreary, dark hours of the morning was the tension caused by the close proximity of luxury hotels to the police station and homeless shelter and the questions that would arise, forcing me to confront latent biases related to class, status, and community.

Halfway through my brief stint at the hotel, I caught wind of a terrible crime involving a young female student from Portland who had been murdered by a homeless teenager on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. The media emphasized the homeless status of the suspect, and part of the blowback was social media outrage and accusations toward the city for not doing enough to sweep the city clean of the “derelict” population. One enraged citizen claimed that the homeless were not from Austin, but rather unwanted transients drawn to the city’s laxness, so the citizen claimed, which did nothing to eradicate the population from the streets.

I thought of the group of homeless people just across the way from the entrance of the parking garage where I parked. Where apparently the security guards were not doing their job. The lead host told me that a homeless man had recently entered the laundry floors through the elevators located in the parking garage and cornered two female workers. Another morning, I witnessed a disheveled man enter the lobby of the hotel, shouting at the valet who then escorted him out. My instincts were confirmed later when I spoke to the valet: the man was homeless, had just been released from the hospital, and had wanted to use the hotel bathroom to wash himself off. When the valet told him he couldn’t, the man splashed something in his face. I began to feel unsafe and considered purchasing Mace or even carrying a knife. I searched for local self-defense classes.

I ended up not doing any of these things, even after the morning when I scanned my parking card and a female transient started toward me. I wondered whether she might be dangerous, though when I got a glimpse of her face, she looked lost and confused more than anything else. Maybe I didn’t arm myself because I knew my employment was probably a short-term plan, or maybe because I felt guilty for feeling unsafe.

I felt guilty for lumping all homeless people together as derelict and possibly dangerous. If I had thought more carefully or even spoke to these unfortunate people, perhaps I would’ve learned how they felt about barely subsisting in government-run housing within a hotel-junction city where the better-off got to feast on a free breakfast every morning and where breakfast hosts like myself could not offer them leftovers from the buffet because corporate deemed it unhealthy and unsafe and didn’t want to chance being sued. We breakfast attendants were not allowed to help the people across the street even if we’d wanted to.

I liked working with the lead host, who had an overall cheerful disposition even though little things annoyed her, such as the head chef over-ordering items that simply would not fit in the kitchen. She had a degree to work as a paralegal but disliked working in an office, preferring work that required movement; thus, she worked at a gas station as lead attendant, where she enjoyed building relationships with returning customers. She chose hosting despite its low pay because her husband made enough to support their family of three. She worked the job for the medical benefits.

This led me to wonder whether those who worked service jobs like this one in the hotel or in laundry and cleaning were the primary breadwinners for their families. Shouldn’t they be paid living wages with job security? Working at a physically demanding job made me realize how difficult it would be to subsist on such low earnings; those who supported their families through blue-collar jobs might have to work one or two more jobs, depending on cost of living.

Those of us who so closely align our identities with our choice of career path assume that if we invest time and money we will be rewarded with the career of our dreams—even in the stark reality that the number of MFA or PhD graduates far outweighs the number of tenure track jobs.

As for my own personal circumstances, I wanted to like the job and triumph in separating my sense of self from the work itself. Why couldn’t I be satisfied at contributing to my household income, feel good that I didn’t have to take my work home with me as I did when I taught, and devote the post-work hours to my writing? Wasn’t being a writer, my passion, what I most closely identified? Wasn’t the primary thing to have time for my writing?

After so many years of teaching, I had formed an antagonistic, contradictory relationship to the profession. I loved it, but at the same time, the mental and emotional demands often made me question whether or not it was conducive to my great love and passion for writing. I thought perhaps physical work might free up my mind enough to focus on writing after the workday was over. But as the days dragged on, the routine of waking up at 4:15 in the morning, putting on my name tag, setting the food out, heating more coffee every 15 minutes, sweeping and then moving the furniture to mop first one side, and then the other, the more dispirited I became.

So I reverted to my original plan, which was to work at the hotel temporarily, in hopes of securing a full-time teaching job. I ended up getting an offer to tutor for a phonics company the following summer. I notified the chef I would only be able to work another couple of months. But before the summer could arrive, I received and readily accepted a high school teaching job. It had been, after all, what I had worked towards for months. In another conversation with the chef, I told him of my even earlier departure.

I might sound as if I’m bitching and complaining about hard work. I might sound whiny and entitled, but that is precisely my point. Why do jobs that require physical labor send so many academics and writers spiraling into a self-pitying, self-questioning state of limbo? Why do we feel entitled to what we would call a “real” job? Confronting the contributions of our jobs to our sense of self and our income to our households, I wonder why our choice of vocation plays such a significant role in identity.

Having a master’s or PhD does not guarantee a well-paying profession with status (if that is also what you’re looking for in a career). The reality of this conundrum strikes a resounding chord for those of us who have chosen an academic path. But what does a job where you do not get the opportunity to apply your learning or specialty do to your psyche? This train of thought plagued me during my brief stint as a breakfast host with an MFA and still does. Some had decided that I was not qualified enough for jobs in my field, whereas others judged me overqualified or likely to quit after a short tenure which is what I did at the hotel.

When my boss handed me my last two paychecks, he said he completely understood; he encouraged employees to follow their path and knew the high turnover job was, for most, a temporary position. It was a relief to not feel guilty about leaving a job that wasn’t right for me.

There is a certain amount of intimacy between one’s profession, sense of self, and an ensuing feeling of entitlement: I spent years earning a degree, so I deserve a job within this field. I have joked (in the voice of Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary), “I have an MFA. I don’t do dishes or serve food. I’m of a class above that of breakfast host.” My likeness to Lady Mary ends there. I earned a distinction by going through school and obtaining an advanced degree, whereas Mary Grantham inherited her money and status. Lady Mary looked down her nose at those she’d been raised to consider beneath her. Still, like Mary, I did feel, in some ways, that the job of breakfast host was beneath me. In the personal, private space of home, I do dishes, mop, and serve, but doing so in a public space for pay didn’t settle right, particularly after I’d worked so hard to be something else. Those of us who so closely align our identities with our choice of career path assume that if we invest time and money we will be rewarded with the career of our dreams—even in the stark reality that the number of MFA or PhD graduates far outweighs the number of tenure track jobs. We tell ourselves, I’ll be the exception. I will outshine everyone else with my degree, my publications, and my perseverance. The university system and programs perpetuate the pipe dream with promises that their degree program will make you all the more competitive, but ultimately we are the ones who take the bait.

Searching for a job is humbling and eye opening, especially in a city like Austin that grows by 200+ people a day. I tell people that the job market is competitive, when in reality the competitiveness depends on the type of job you pursue (add in the value placed on each specific type of labor and certain types of jobs are pursued more than others).

But I’ve come to realize that my degree does not make the world owe me anything. My degree does allow me an opportunity to pursue what I desire in the way of career with a chance (albeit slim) at achieving it. Whatever the circumstance, some of us identify more with our jobs than others, whether we work to survive, get by, get rich, or to simply subdue the boredom of a non-working life.

My resume is not set in stone. I have since quit the supposedly permanent high school teaching job. I’m still looking for that job that will fit my needs, my desires, my (perhaps narrow) vision. I chose to make “breakfast host” one small bullet point on the course of my two-page CV with “MFA” as the headliner. There is still room for possibility, to hold on to a personal dream.

carriage.2

Tina V. Cabrera holds an MFA in Fiction from San Diego State University. She currently resides with her husband and two kitties in Austin, Texas. Her passions include writing, reading, and geeking out on movies, TV shows, and comic books. She is currently working on an illustrated speculative fiction piece. You can visit her writer’s blog at cannyuncanny.wordpress.com.