My son Z started getting crazy from the pandemic around the fall of 2021. He’d made very few friends in Boston before Covid, and the friends he did make from music lessons stopped coming to Boston from the suburbs. And he couldn’t really meet new kids, because Covid.

His therapist suggested to him that he get a job.

I laughed. I told him to go read five years of my education posts where I write about how stupid it is to get a job that doesn’t build on skills you’ll use long term. I told him, “You’re living during the Great Resignation and you are taking a minimum wage job doing repetitive menial labor? No.”

He ignored me.

I told him the interviewer will ask him if he speaks Spanish, because he has a Spanish last name. I told him say he speaks only a little.

He said, “I’ve been doing Spanish for a year.”

I said, “Work-wise, that’s the equivalent of speaking no Spanish.”

He interviewed one time and got the job. The restaurant asked him if he spoke Spanish. He said a little.

He speaks Spanish 30 hours a week. It turns out he interviewed with one of the only English speakers in a staff of 40. I ask him how people can wait tables if they don’t speak English.

He says, “They know the words for waiting tables but nothing else. So if people say something off script they get stuck.”

“Like what?”

“Like yesterday someone said, can I have change for this $100 so I can leave a tip in smaller bills? And it didn’t make sense to the waiter, so he got me. And I said, sir how can I help you, and then I got him change. And it’s weird because the guy could have just asked, can I have change.”

At first I thought it was absurd that I have a kid who is a busboy. (“Mom, why do you say busboy? It’s busser.”) How is this helping anything? What is the point of this? I worried things would just go to hell. But he comes home each night with such fun stories.

Like during the Head of the Charles a French rowing team came to the restaurant and the Spanish-speaking wait staff didn’t understand the rowers speaking English. So Z waited on rowers, but he had never waited tables before, so he translated the French-accented English to Spanish for the regular waiters.

And the French hated the wine and kept asking wine questions and Z had to figure out how to translate and the waiters couldn’t believe what the French were saying about the wine so they thought Z was translating badly. So Z had to tell them, no, the French were just really disgusted with the wine.

Z learns a lot about fake IDs because the restaurant has a bar and it’s surrounded by colleges. The bartender told him that if he thinks the ID is fake, he tells the person he’s confiscating the ID. If it’s a real ID the person will say they’re calling the police. If it’s a fake ID the person will beg to have it back.

The company that owns the restaurant treats the employees so well that Nino and I can’t believe it. For example, each employee got a turkey on Thanksgiving. And they get to eat for free when they’re at work, even if it’s before or after work. Everyone who works there gets insurance and paid vacation. When Nino or I make comments to Z about how impressed we are, he is horrified. He thinks this is the bare minimum. “What else would they do?!?” he says.

I’m glad he takes this for granted.

A waitress with a heavy accent asked someone for his ID and he said, “Let me see your ID. You’re not even from here.” The manager overheard it, and threw everyone at the table out of the restaurant. Just like that. Z saw the whole thing. And of course he said to us, “What else would the manager do??!”

I didn’t want to tell Z that it probably takes a huge shortage of restaurant workers for people to get thrown out that quickly. I want to believe the world is a great place, and everyone sticks up for the good and not evil. But I think we need the Great Resignation to push us in the right direction. That’s what makes me excited for it.

So I was going to tell Z he needs to quit. Or at least cut down his hours. Because his head injury kills him at this job –– he comes home with a pounding headache most nights, and he often forgets all his Spanish and people think he’s playing stupid.

When Omicron came the restaurant shut for a week. The sign said everyone would get paid for the week anyway. And I was not surprised. Watching Z work has taught me to expect more from employers. But I was surprised when Z started crying.

“You’re crying? Why are you crying?”

“I love the job so much.”

“You’ll work again next week. It’s just a week.”

“Are you sure? I thought we’re all getting fired.”

He is relieved. And I am relieved. I don’t want my kid working a stupid restaurant job during the Great Resignation. But some jobs come with belonging and learning –– and caring. Those are the jobs that saved me when I first started working, I’m happy those types of jobs are still out there, and I’m even happier my son found one.

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50 replies
  1. adunate
    adunate says:

    I can’t believe you would ever discourage your teen from taking a minimum wage job, especially one in the food or retail industries. Kids learn SO much from such work, like how to deal with people, how to put up with rudeness and not take it personally, multi-tasking a great variety of duties, tolerating human differences and treating them with kindness, patience, understanding…the list goes on and on and on. These are things that train teens for life. Plus, he’ll learn more Spanish from his job than years of classroom study. I have great admiration for your son for getting out there and getting a job. Not many teens want to work these days. Kudos to Z!

    Reply
    • E2DE2
      E2DE2 says:

      Agreed. The comment about menial labor and not building useful skillsets is absurdly elitist and plain old false. I’m glad your child is getting exposure outside of the home so he won’t grow up to have the same close-mindedness!

      Reply
      • Cindy
        Cindy says:

        I agree with you. This post annoyed the hell out of me for a few reasons. One of them being, her son has a brain injury and gets migraines from certain input. It might be a shocker to realize that some jobs, however menial in someone’s mind, can be very meditative and mentally calming.

        It’s this very, as you said, “elitist”, attitude that prevents people who really need to learn how to work, or simply just get a damn job and start bringing in some money, from actually getting one and sucking the rest of us dry.

        All work is noble, even if it doesn’t impress your friends.

        Reply
  2. Dana
    Dana says:

    Welcome back, you’ve been missed! I agree with you. The Great Resignation appears to be pushing employers in the right direction. It’s long over due. My hope is that customers will learn to do right by the workers, too.

    Reply
  3. Joe E
    Joe E says:

    Working terrible jobs teaches you how hard these jobs really are. That’s priceless in terms of becoming an empathetic, compassionate person who will work for change on behalf of those who will always work in those jobs. And change can be anything from direct action to at least never treating waitstaff rudely. And skills such as problem solving, interpersonal abilities, and so on are absolutely skills needed for the long-term. Your son is doing all the right things.

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I wasn’t sure about putting the name of the restaurant in the post. I didn’t want to get Z in any trouble. The cello teachers pretty much never wanted to be on the blog, so I am assuming the restaurants don’t want to either. The older my kids get the more I have to work on boundaries. Which I hate. Of course.

      Penelope

      Reply
    • Miguel
      Miguel says:

      Yes, patronize the restaurant that discriminates against Amaricans that only speak English since everyone at the Z only speak Spanish. That is what’s wrong with this country. What a joke! I feel sorry for any white, or Asian etc, kid looking for a job there that can’t speak Spanish.

      Reply
  4. Anne
    Anne says:

    Let him work there!! My kids learned soooo much at their high-school and college jobs!!

    How to be part of a team-
    How to learn from a boss and accept instructions
    How to have a rough day and come back any way
    To overcome fear and doubt and learn new skills
    To screw things up-let the boss know and fix it!
    They also liked meeting new people from different backgrounds.,and having work friends

    Reply
  5. Jay
    Jay says:

    My kids worked at restaurants pre COVID while in high school. They learned a ton from those jobs, none of which translates to resume skills but all of which translates to life skills. It gave them a huge appreciation for how well off they were and how much the things they took for granted in their day to day was actually incredibly rare for most folks. Every kid should work service jobs whether they need it or not.

    Reply
  6. Maria
    Maria says:

    All honest work is honourable work.

    He loves the social aspect of the restaurant industry. I would encourage him to look at his manager and the owners as mentors. To eventually take management courses in the restaurant industry and possibly looking at owning his own restaurant or pub or even food truck someday.

    I tell people 2 things. 1. Start your own business. 2. Do what you love and delegate the rest.

    My dad and friends who were retiring or people who can’t find work: Start your own business. To retirees I tell them it doesn’t matter if they make money… (removes the pressure) it makes you interested and interesting and gets you to socialize.

    To those with marriage issues or feeling overwhelmed. I say “Do what you love and delegate everything else.”

    It’s words of wisdom I need to remind myself sometimes.

    Your son loves where he’s at. You want what helps him succeed. Succeeding within the confines of the restaurant industry is possible. He needs positive role models within the confines of the industry he loves. With that said, the industry has a lot of drug use (See Anthony Boudin’s books on his addiction) and he needs to be prepared for those challenges.

    Reply
  7. Brett S
    Brett S says:

    When did you move to Boston? That’s where I’m from/at?
    I always read your blog going back to the beginning, did you stop being a farmer in Minnesota?

    Z must be having a high time in Boston. I used to work a few restaurants back in the day, and you know what, the free food kept me coming back, not the $4-7/hr

    Reply
  8. Kim
    Kim says:

    People need purpose , agency and community. Your son’s beautiful story speaks to this. The evolution of capitalism is broken. We are on hamster wheel of creating too much crap that people don’t need and people feel fragmented and disconnected. In the interim , we need universal income too

    Reply
  9. Dan
    Dan says:

    I dont get it. Where would you have your son work. I am trying to understand your position.
    I live in the montains in utah and businesses connot function properly here as they did b.c.
    Im not sure how the whole thing stacks up as being good personally or for the country as a whole. Unless we want to open the border to those who will fill those jobs. I at times wonder if those in transition are realistic about their qualifacations toward something more exciting.

    Reply
  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I love this story on a number of different levels. It brought back memories during my teenage years when I was a busboy for a fancy German restaurant. The atmosphere was different, of course, as it was a different time. Jobs were harder to come by and the benefits were much less. That’s especially true when I read of the benefits of your son’s job and his reaction to them. As if job conditions and benefits have always been the same over the years. It’s easy for me to understand why your son would see his current job conditions as normal as that’s his experience.
    It was very touching to read of his response to the possibility that everyone was getting fired. That he cared that much for his job that he cried. And a job that – “he comes home with a pounding headache most nights, and he often forgets all his Spanish and people think he’s playing stupid.” Also, “The manager overheard it, and threw everyone at the table out of the restaurant.” That’s the manager I think I would like to work for during the Great Resignation or not. I think you homeschooled your sons well. “I told him to go read five years of my education posts where I write about how stupid it is to get a job that doesn’t build on skills you’ll use long term.” He ignored you. Did he? I think he used his own independent thinking that he learned while being homeschooled and made a decision that’s best for him at this time. I wish your family the best.

    Reply
  11. Wenda McMahan
    Wenda McMahan says:

    I’m just so impressed with you. You’re a great mom and you are always learning. And I love your kids vicariously from Tucson. This story made me feel good. Thanks.

    P.S. Tell Z: “Tienes cajones del acero.”

    Reply
  12. Mike Creek
    Mike Creek says:

    Don’t be a snob and elitist. Being a bus boy is noble work. Serving others, helping them have a clean table to eat from. Doing a lawful job that other people are willing to pay money to him to do. Don’t look down on anyone who works in a lawful, ethical job. Someone has to buss the tables, pick up the trash, and do other unpleasant tasks. Thank God you have a son with a work ethic. He has learned how to work on a team how to deal with the public how to help others. Not everyone has to be the CEO on their first day. Our worth is measured by our immortal soul as a unique created human being. Not the type of work we do.

    Reply
  13. Girl Contractor
    Girl Contractor says:

    P,

    It’s always the small things that build company morale. As I get older I realize good employees are hard to find and easy to be poached by competitors. People are not loyal to the company, but to the manager.

    A local company I know (but don’t work for…) give all their 200+ employees $25 Safeway gift cards for Thanksgiving. A 5 year tenure is rewarded with an LV wallet, 10 year tenure with a large LV bag. Airline gift cards every Xmas raffle. One employee made 15 years and got a Rolex. Team bonding trips (and their plus 1’s) to Vegas…

    Reply
  14. harris497
    harris497 says:

    Penny,
    This is one of your most revealing posts. Your preconceptions almost lost Z a valuable developmental experience, and you as well. Your perspective seems to have changed quite a bit.
    I worked for 14 years at The Olive Garden, while I got my undergraduate and two graduate degrees. In my opinion, I learned as much about life in America, and myself from this job, as I did at either of the colleges I attended.
    Life in all its forms passes through a restaurant, both on the service side, and on the customer side. Z is learning lessons he can’t and/or won’t want to learn from you. Your guidance in interpreting the information and putting it in perspective for him, as requested, is your most valuable task here. Please continue to support him as is your custom.
    I love the way you craft a story! i can actually see the situations in my mind.
    Please keep posting as you are able.

    D

    Reply
  15. Ru
    Ru says:

    The freebies sound great. I loved the free food when i worked at tim’s. I stopped worrying about being hungry after my abandonment, lol.
    Then my next employer gave me taxi tokens so i can work as late as i want. I think my loyalty was too easily bought with freebies.

    Reply
  16. Anon
    Anon says:

    Every job we have, or have had, becomes useful at some point in our future.

    Wasn’t it Baron de Rothschild who said he owed all he was and all the money he made, because he spoke Yiddish? (Not a job, but something that could have been banned to him, or anyone, potentially.)

    I know a woman who, variously, worked in catering, for a professional photographer, as a baker, as an editor-librarian for a large professional organization, as a microelectronics technician at a high-level gov’t entity. Then got a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. And had a few more unrelated jobs along the way.

    She has said every one of them gave her valuable skills and background information. She has felt well-prepared for life.

    Your son made a really good choice. It will serve him well. (Pun intended.)

    Reply
  17. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I loved this. I’ve been applying to jobs and my husband almost quit his. What a time to be alive. I needed a good cheering up. Thank you.

    I’m surprised to see so many people congratulating themselves and restaurant owners for providing people, which to me are terrible and humiliating service jobs. I know, I worked those jobs for years. The only thing I have to show for it is the debt I incurred while those same jobs couldn’t pay for both food and rent. The only people who disrespected me more than the customers were my employers. I think any normal person would be concerned about someone they liked taking a job like that. I’m relieved that this particular job isn’t preditory. But I don’t think the lesson here is that we should all go work for people who take advantage of us, and we should ensure our children do to.

    Reply
  18. Root
    Root says:

    Stupid restaurant job? This is classist, and ignorant.

    As others have pointed out, working food service or similar jobs can teach skills that are relevant and valuable. Skills that one can definitely use in the long term.

    Just to list a few: dealing with difficult customers, exposure to logistical systems, managing interpersonal relationships with colleagues, knowing one’s role within an organization. Exposure to hard working business owners and others who display dedication and leadership. Exposure to people who have had different upbringings and come from all walks of life. Dealing with lazy and negative team members and how to navigate that. Knowledge of basic kitchen and food safety protocols, the importance of being reliable, the satisfaction in completing a task.

    For you son, who has had much musical achievement, this sounds like a breath of fresh air. As gifted as he is musically, here he is succeeding in another venue, on his own. And, as you must concede, he is doing more than “repetitive manual labor”.

    If your son has medical issues that make it untenable, that is one thing. But who the heck do you think works in that industry—losers? As your life experience has shown, making a ton of money doesn’t yield satisfaction, security, or peace of mind.

    I’m really disappointed you have this view; it shows a superficial and arrogant world view. (I say this as someone who has always found your posts interesting and have appreciated your willingness to share your life.)

    Yes, some jobs are dead end jobs, but people have to make a living somehow and you are dismissing and disrespecting anyone who, horrors, has a job cleaning, landscaping, or chopping onions. What about the health care aids? By your version of things, are they are all lame underachievers because they are not starting businesses and working bullshit office jobs? Your upper-class childhood was a nightmare; your finances and personal relationships tend to be chaotic. Why do you think you are so much better than a full-time office cleaner or a line cook? Some people are happy to be able to provide for themselves and their families. Life can be fulfilling and satisfying without a place at Julliard. Which, I get, is a hard adjustment for you and your family.

    I’m glad you are learning from your son’s experience, and kudos to him for succeeding at the job.

    Note: this comment does not address the issues with living wages, housing costs, etc..of the service economy. My point is don’t be such a snob, take some ownership of your position of privilege. For example, many kids don’t get a job for the social benefits (nothing wrong with that), they get a job because they need to make money, they don’t have parents who can fully subsidize their life, or even have to help support their family…..

    Lastly, some of the most wonderful memories of my teen years was working to closing time at the local McDonald’s–the dismantling and cleaning of various equipment, the big wash sinks, the wiping down all the stainless steel, the mopped floors. It was satisfying and provided 16-year-old me with a feeling of accomplishment, and a nascent self confidence that helped me in the future.

    Reply
  19. Christina
    Christina says:

    How stupid it is to get a job you won’t build skills in.
    I’m never reading you again. You shit on people doing regular jobs

    Reply
  20. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    On my blog “about me” page I wrote that I hesitate to list all my jobs because I was born in the 1950’s when the ideal was to have just one job, mail room to CEO, and job hopping was frowned on. Yes, but that is merely my own hangup, because since the 21st century there has been yuppies without job loyalty, and the younger generation doing what they call “the gig economy.” The way to get your second job in that economy is to already have job experience.

    It can be tough to get a first job. (Like on that cartoon show King of The Hill, where a recent college grad tells Hand that his college educated peers will take a trucking job just to have a job experience) Happily, Z is past that first big obstacle, so hurray!

    Reply
  21. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I really admire Z for pushing hard to do the things he wants despite the headaches that follow due to his brain injury. It speaks to him being a man of strong character.

    Reply
  22. Judy
    Judy says:

    I took away from this that Penelope was classist and ignorant about the importance of regular teenager jobs but learned how important these jobs could be. I am sorry to hear about the son’s ongoing problems with the head injury. Terrible.

    Reply
  23. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    Between this post and the one about bad school districts having people with bad taste in clothing, your formative years in Wilmette and at New Trier are showing their influence. I went to OPRFHS during the exact same time and we both know what the mentality of these schools was like. Let it go. If you want to be truly progressive, let go of everything you believed and let your son become a man in the big wide world in his own way. Whether you intended to or not, your message about appearances and jobs is truly insulting to millions of good people. I’m sure you don’t want that, but it is. Restaurant work isn’t your heritage and it’s scary but trust me, it puts a kid on solid ground. How do you think a lot of people who came to this country with nothing started out? How do millions of American born people with nothing get their start? Forget Wilmette. A great new slogan. And recall that self proclaimed mecca of progressivism OPRFHS was the subject of an epic documentary on racism on the Starz network .. “America to Me”. Let the delusions go. Life is real. We have to deal with what is in front of us. Fear is not a good starting place. Faith, hope and love are far superior. Just some well intentioned food for thought

    Reply
  24. Maureen
    Maureen says:

    My Dad once told me that every single job is a learning experience. I learned a lot from the simple jobs I had in my youth. I made some of my closest friends. Oddly enough, some of my best memories were made working. Learned some soft skills that I still use to this day. I’m happy your son found a happy refuge in this pandemic. He will have memories to last a lifetime.

    Reply
  25. Celestial
    Celestial says:

    There is no such thing as a menial job. There may be jobs that are not respected by others, jobs that don’t pay well, jobs that don’t need mathematical skills, but there is no such thing as a menial job. I learned as much from my “menial” jobs as I did from my advanced research molecular biology position. There will always be jobs that are not respected but those are usually the jobs that must be done, no matter what. Why would you not respect the people that do those types of jobs? They work hard to be independent, don’t ask for handouts, and perform needed work.

    My son started his own yard work job at age 14, had all the work he could handle with his excellent reputation, and purchased all his own equipment, including a truck. He is now age 30 and starting another business; noting that he will never work as hard as he did mowing lawns and trimming hedges but he learned an infinite amount about people he would not have met otherwise. My daughter delivered pizzas for years, earned a tremendous amount, and can drive fearlessly in any city or weather condition existing. She is now a software developer for the US government. My children learned how to work hard, deal with different supervisors and difficult customers, and learned how hard one needs to work to earn a dollar. Those types of skills are needed by all.

    Reply
  26. RPT
    RPT says:

    As a business owner, my feelings are mixed. My newest Gen Z entry-level employee also had high expectations of his working environment, so high in fact that he was making them up.

    I recently had to, after many many gentle requests (and complaints from his coworkers), sit down with this employee and go through the contract they had signed, line by line (something I’ve never had to do) to remind them that they had indeed committed to doing an actual job as they were not even meeting the basic requirements for showing up and were blaming other team members when things went wrong. Their presumption about what their workplace should be was so unrealistic that they did not even apologize when shown in black and white what they signed up for (which is not horrible, I run a media company not a coal mine). They claim to love the job, but cannot manage to even meet its basic contractual requirements.

    It’s also concerning to think that those able to offer ridiculously costly special benefits and unlimited paid vacation won’t be the scrappy start-ups, they’ll be mostly huge corporations who can absorb more than a few workers not pulling their weight. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that issue from more perspectives.

    Reply
  27. Abby
    Abby says:

    I’ve thought a lot about this post and have been turning it over and over in my mind for quite some time – there’s an underbelly to being in the food service that nags at me and I haven’t worked in a kitchen in over 5 years… I worry about the mindset that working in restaurants sets in your brain- one of service: helping, supporting, anticipating needs and generally putting others first that I’m afraid has set me up mentally in a place where I’m never leading, but always behind the scenes in a supporting role. Basically, you’re rewarded for co-dependent behavior. And in the workplace I’ve made a career of it and it’s been helpful… but not without some cost. I wonder if that’s what you are really worried about with Z?

    Overall, my experience in restaurants was rewarding- having a sense of community and belonging (I’m still friends with almost all my restaurant people) and hiring (if people have restaurant experience, they generally know how to work hard, be a part of team, have a good sense of urgency, can prioritize) and exposure to food and wine that I would never had the opportunity to given my upbringing. I hope Z is able to take all the good things from his time at the restaurant and drop the things that aren’t helpful. Looks like he found a great crew!

    Reply
  28. RoseAG
    RoseAG says:

    The thing with teenagers is that at some point they do what they want to do and as their parent you’ve got to be happy for them.
    Bussing tables sounds much more interesting than sitting around at home all the time, maybe playing video games, plus it comes with money every two weeks!
    I spent my teenaged years running a cash register -I can make change as well as the machine- and putting salad dressing on salads. I still remember some of the people I worked with. I also developed a taste for french fried steak fries dipped in thousand island dressing — which, if they’re hot out of the fryer, tastes much better than it sounds.

    Reply
  29. Angela
    Angela says:

    I always love checking in with your thoughts on the current goings on. When I saw this blog title I hoped you would share some of your thoughts on The Great Reset, WEF, etc. Are you purposely avoiding this topic?

    Reply

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