For the past 15 years, I've worked weddings.
I started as a teenager with a summer job at a resort that hosted weddings every weekend. I learned to set tables, serve, bartend, plate food, and check umbrellas. I set up chairs, tables, dessert buffets, and altars, and then I broke them down. A shift for a wedding worker, I quickly discovered, involves long hours, a big check at the end of the night, and probably leftovers, including cake, for tomorrow's lunch.
Wedding work has supported numerous other pursuits of mine, from school to travel to a string of 9-to-5s. But I've never listed my wedding work on any résumé, though it's been my longest-standing job. For a long time, I figured the skills I learned at weddings — appeasing nervous brides, carving roasted meat, and pouring champagne — wouldn't serve me anywhere else.
Looking back, though, I suspect that waiting on wedding guests has taught me more than any other job or class so far.
For the first months and even years, working weddings was inspirational, glamorous, and fun. I liked the bustle of the wedding planner, the jittery bride, her teary mother, and the tipsy bridesmaids. I grew weepy myself at the ceremonies, imagining my own future wedding and the partner I had yet to meet. I'd take leftover flowers home, and I began to notice the engagement rings on other women's hands.
Every wedding seemed distinct, sometimes hilariously so. There were the weddings that made me wish for a life I didn't have: black-tie extravaganzas held in cool, lily-scented ballrooms, where we served sushi, crème brûlée, and Dom Pérignon. At others, the only wine was Three-Buck Chuck from Trader Joe's. At a lunch wedding on a Wednesday afternoon, the very young bride wore a scarlet silk dress for the ceremony. Then she ran into the bathroom and changed into a torn denim skirt and a gray undershirt for the reception. She jostled her baby on her knee and took intermittent sips of Bud Light while her new husband, bald, with a harelip, chain-smoked outside with his buddies. An Australian couple I once served said their vows and then stripped off their clothes and ran across the lawn while the guests cheered.
I liked the staff too, mostly artists or teachers or artist-teacher combos, like me. We biked to work, and after our shifts we rode home together through the city streets, the midnight wind stripping away the smells of the party.
But before too long, the weddings — most of them, at least — became predictable. I quickly learned the basic template, right down to the song selection. I knew to allow 10 minutes for the ceremony, although most didn't even last that long. I knew to have a tray of alcohol at the ready as soon as the ceremony was over, and to pass hors d'oeuvres for exactly one hour, even if people got full and waved me away or, more commonly, if they ignored me entirely. I learned that if the hosts didn't feel like they were getting their money's worth, our tips would suffer. We servers timed our nights around first dances and cake cuttings; two people's pledge to share each other's lives while everyone they loved looked on became just another shift to me.
And the booze. At the risk of stating the obvious, alcohol is a big part of weddings. I was trained to spot empty glasses and to fill them immediately. Rare was the hand placed over a glass to stop me.
Usually nothing bad happened. The guests got cheery and red-faced and stumbled out the door at the end of the night. But there were incidents: the bridesmaid who smacked her head against a stone stair and then threw up on herself, forcing a 911 call; the old man who wandered into the kitchen and nearly fell on the cake only to crash into the coffee urn instead. The rest of the wedding smelled like French roast. The old man was lucky — and so were we — that he didn't get burned.
Once I saw a woman drink three glasses of red wine and then moan for her dead husband. She was the mother of the bride. Her daughter tried to comfort her while the other guests looked on, wide-eyed, unsure of what to do. Even the band stopped playing.
It alarmed me how many guests drove themselves home, but my bosses taught me early on that that wasn't my problem.
I learned to dread cocktail hour, when people's true colors showed. Guests were hungry, thirsty, and usually hot. They grabbed for hors d'oeuvres, snatching two or three at a time, the napkin an afterthought. They usually said something like, "I haven't eaten since breakfast," as if concerned about whether I was judging them.
The waste began getting to me, too — the time and money spent, the things that ended up in the trash. Once, the bridesmaids forgot to set out the favors, a hundred baskets containing bottles of wine with the couple's portrait on the label and engraved wine keys. The bride never noticed, and the groom sent us home that night with a case of wine apiece. I don't know what he ended up doing with the keys.
On another night, a bride's mom ordered us to get rid of the leftover cake — they couldn't possibly bring it home with them, she said. We gobbled what we could, wrapped more in foil to take home, and dumped the rest. It filled up almost a whole trash can. When the bride came into the kitchen for something else, she saw the cake and burst into tears. "I spent $3,000 on cake," she wept, as my manager ushered her away.
I learned to accept that people touch the food — a few chicken skewers, bacon-wrapped shrimp, stuffed cherry tomatoes — before finally selecting the piece they want. They double-dip. In their silk dresses and expensive suits, they ate over our trays, dripping into the food. Many never said thank you or made eye contact. As my day jobs improved and I earned a master's degree, it felt stranger and stranger to show up for gigs where I would be treated like a servant.
But I was a servant, and if I began to forget that fact, something would come along and remind me. A while ago, my partner at the time was desperate for a new job after graduating from a master's program. "Oh god!" she wailed dramatically one night, "will I have to become a cater waiter?" And then she started to laugh, and I think I did too. But I never forgot it. She put me in my place, and to this day, every bit of praise I receive on my service is diminished a hair by the memory.
There were still good nights, of course, even when the job began to wear on me. Sometimes I got compliments, and I learned about food and wine, music and culture, flavor and presentation. I tried to take pride in my work. I'll never forget the 500-guest wedding, the bride elegant and tiny in a lace dress and red lipstick. When the dancing began, the sides of the tent sweated with the heat of all those bodies moving to the bluegrass band's rendition of "Sweet Caroline." For once, the song didn't sound cheesy, and we caterers danced in the dark grass beyond the tent's glow. The bride's brother brought us each a glass of champagne, and fireworks bloomed over the lake. At the end of the night, the bride's dad shook our hands and gave us each an envelope, two crisp $100 bills tucked inside.
But being around opulence so often made me yearn for it in my own life. I never had Saturday nights off, and I envied the guests their apparent freedom. I started going out more on the nights I did have free, because I craved — quite consciously, as I recall — the experience of someone waiting on me. I wanted for myself what I provided for others at work: being pampered, being attended to. I wanted expensive food and clothes and wine. It became a cycle for a time: I was overworked, and then when I caught a break, I'd overspend.
A couple of years ago I left Boston and moved out west. I got a job teaching part time at a community college, and I cut back to just a couple weddings a month. I slashed my spending, which helped me slash the hours I needed to work in turn. I began cooking almost every meal at home, and I stopped craving nights out. I focused on nourishing myself. I took pleasure and pride in hosting friends — much more than I did when I was getting paid. I made sure their plates and glasses were full, and I made them sleep over if they'd had too much to drink.
These days, when I find myself a wedding guest instead, I can never quite manage to enjoy the party. I always notice the servers looking bored, rolling their eyes at guests who double-dip or grab for more. I fret that the bride and groom aren't eating. I notice when there's leftover food on the buffet or extra booze behind the bar. I can always tell which servers are hungry by the way they eye the plates before they set them down for the guests.
Recently I got a full-time job at the college where I teach. I think I'll keep catering, though. To begin with, the money is better than what I earn as a college professor, even full time. I work for a tiny, exclusive company now, and after each shift I'm offered food and wine. I leave with cash in my pocket, and the people in this town tip well. But the hardest part of the job remains preserving my dignity as I pass hors d'oeuvres, as guests refuse to make eye contact, as they insist on double-dipping.
At the college, I spend my days feeling respected. In classrooms, in my office, and in meetings, people listen to what I have to say. But my time as a wedding worker has proved valuable. I'm grateful for all the nights I had to rush, or improvise, or hide my emotions, because they taught me how to manage stress more easily. I know how to laugh at myself, how to go with the flow, and how to be a team player — all because I spent 15 years working weddings. As a professor, I am respected for my ability to juggle many tasks while keeping my cool. I didn't learn that in academia.
Kate McCahill is a writer and teacher living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her first book, Flung: A Year By Bus Through Latin America, is forthcoming.