Come on, y’all, get your hands in the air. I’m calling on all my brothers and sisters to celebrate with me, to celebrate the greatest gift of all: freedom! It’s been six years and still to this day I celebrate it like was a second birthday. You see, I wasn’t exactly a slave, but sometimes I sure felt like one.
Yes, I know that when I signed my job application I understood that in terms of our state’s laws, I was an “at-will employee”, meaning that my presence at these wretched places was, embarrassingly, completely voluntary, and that either myself or my employer could call it quits on the fragile arrangement at any time.
The thing is, that clause is real, and it reared its ugly head when I least expected it. That’s right, y’all: six years ago today I was fired.
Your Honor, I was a cocktail waitress. You know, one of those cute skinny young things with too much energy and who smiles too often and too late into the night to be genuine, who tries to keep your husband out with his buddies way too late.
No, jealous housewives of the jury, I was not a homewrecker; I was trying to support my family, and selling your husband and his posse one more round of drinks means I might be able to come up with my college tuition on time or get the brand-name ice cream this week instead of the generic. Or maybe I can finally get my truck brakes fixed so I can at least make it in to work this week.
Sure, it was fun for a while. When you live in a college town where your highest employment prospects are retail jobs at the mall with store discount fringe benefits, waitressing for actual tips is pretty dang cool. Bonus points if the job is at a bar and you are 19.
Problem is, it only lasted about 6 and a half years. The burnout came long before then, but it was so gradual that I can’t pinpoint when it started. I think it all eventually got to me. First it was the smell of smoke and stale beer. Or the cracked dry skin from handling ashtrays and citrus garnishes, despite my best efforts to avoid direct contact. Maybe it was the cheesy pickup lines from guys above my age range, below my salary range, below basic cleanliness standards, or above a certain Blood-Alcohol concentration. Perhaps it was “Freebird” or “Wonderful Tonight” for the 3498th time on the jukebox. Or the brain-dead supervisors I had over the years, who, no matter how available I made myself to work, would schedule me on the only days of the week I ever requested off. Don’t forget about the sexual advances, either by customers or old disgusting married barowners who got downright pissed off if you politely refused.
Eventually I realized that the perpetual smile I walked around with was making my face ache. Somewhere along the line it stopped being worth it, and I found myself resenting the people and I realized that my body ached so bad when I crawled into bed that it would keep me awake for a half hour. I realized that having to sleep till noon just to get enough sleep to make it through work that night wasn’t healthy, and despite sleeping late I found myself getting increasingly tired earlier and earlier. I had to admit to myself I wasn’t a night owl anymore. I was also taking steps to overhaul my lifestyle and embrace a much healthier one. I realized I felt better almost immediately. And I realized that the healthier I got, the less I fit in. A curious internal discord had begun and had quickly intensified.
As with all internal discord, something eventually has to give. When it does, the built-up pressure releases and everything resolves. One day, my situation ceased to be an exception. I walked into work like any other Saturday, and checked the schedule in the back room of the bar I was currently employed at. I found that my name had been written on the schedule, in pencil, as always, but then had been erased, along with all the shifts I had been assigned. I questioned my manager, who was finishing up a daytime bartending shift and she pulled me aside to tell me they were firing me.
There is no form of embarrassment that rivals that which ensues when you’ve just been told you’re being fired. I wasn’t being simply laid off. I was actually being FIRED. As in, THEY didn’t want ME anymore. This was a completely new concept to me, as I had always been a mature, reliable, and trustworthy employee with a good work ethic, and who did not attract or perpetuate drama. I had also always been the one to decide to exercise the “at-will” clause and end the working relationship. I had never had that decision made for me before. I admit, it felt really awkward. I had always been a good girl who refused to get caught up in the usual shit-stirring. And here I was getting fired. By a goll-dang SPORTS BAR, no less.
I spent the next 20 minutes in a small fury of negative emotion. I was told I could finish out that night’s shift, which only meant that they would’ve barred me from doing so had they not wanted to skirt having to find a replacement on such short notice. They couldn’t exactly afford to do so, either, with so many new employees and so few experienced ones, gearing up for playoffs to boot. The waitress sections were currently empty and one more employee had arrived, so I went to the back to digest the news and skull my options over. I could stay, make some money, my last income for a while, and be miserable the whole time. I’m the world’s worst liar, so how I conned so many people into believing I was happy with my energizer-bunny smile I’ll never know, but as seasoned as my grin muscles were, I didn’t even think I could smile through this.
So I did the only thing I could think to do: call my partner. He was at work, and his job had a hit-or-miss nature. Whether or not it would be a convenient time for him to talk, flip a coin. I had over 6 hours and nothing to lose. Despite the downplayed fear of losing just under half our income without warning of any kind, he cheered me up! He was nothing but comforting and encouraging. He told me not to worry about the money; it would take care of itself. He made me look at the bright side: now I could put all my energy into getting into, and getting ready for, massage therapy school. I made the decision that day.
Newly empowered, I decided I had better things to do. I told my manager, who tried to conceal her disappointment and the following panic that only the manager of an understaffed rocking-busy joint knows, that I was going home after all. It was odd making that long-but-easy-haul home with the sun to my back; typically it’s pitch black out and I’m trying to avoid deer and drunks in the wee hours of the night. Not that night. As the sun set behind me, I felt a sort of nervous elation. I was free at last. It did not come without strings, fine print, hardship, or consequences. We would pay dearly a couple years later.
However, we did manage to pull out of the situation stronger and smarter.
Here’s the deal about getting fired: I’ve known several people who have gotten fired (not laid off, in this case, but honest-to-God fired) and the truth is, it’s not so bad. In fact, it usually ends up being the best possible outcome of a mediocre-to-bad situation. Sure, it sucks at the time, but it doesn’t stay that way. Eventually something new comes along that was even better than the abruptly halted routine. People go on to better jobs, with elevated status and salaries to match in a matter of weeks. Or they use their newfound idle time and culminated frustration to branch out on their own and start a business. Maybe they cut back on their expenses so that they can live on their spouse’s income while they use this unexpected opportunity to go back to school, maybe even obtain licensure or certification. Who knows? The sky’s the limit.
Six years later and I’m rounding my final lap in chiropractic med school, inches away from holding a doctor title. I also have a massage therapy license and a further certification in an advanced technique. I’ve had my own business, a private practice, for over 5 years. I’ve made more than I would have had I stuck with the bar. And what are they doing, all my scummy alcoholic co-workers with gambling problems and those dirty old barowners who cheat on their trophy wives? They’re still there, at the same places, doing the same things. And what are they in the grand scheme of the cosmos? They’re a bar. One of thousands in Dallas, Texas alone. Dallas is a big metro, and Texas is a big state. They’re hardly going to etch themselves a place on a map or anything. Putting it all in perspective like that was a therapeutic thing to do. I had to remind myself that they weren’t the end-all-be-all. Bars never are, and neither are retail stores or fast-food joints, for that matter. So the most important thing I realized is, it’s not the end of the world. As fun as it once was to “sling beer”, getting people drunk for a living, it’s not like it’s a lifelong mission. Getting fired was more of an ego bodyslam than anything else. But it was time to move on. And I still had the rest of my life. It was time to seize it and live it true to myself. I do indeed feel emancipated.