I attended the Edmund Burke School, one of Northwest Washington's small private prep schools, where college acceptance rates were close to 100 percent, students called our teachers by their first names, and - despite our de facto liberalism and the lip service we paid to the ideal of diversity - we were mostly white and well-off. Most of our parents were left-leaning architects or journalists, federal employees or lawyers, who thought their children would thrive best in small classes and had the means to make it happen. I was sheltered, and I knew it.
So I inclined away from the kind of internships or resume-building white-collar gigs that my peers were pursuing the summer after graduation. I wanted something physical, something working class. This wasn't based on an intellectual desire to gain a deeper understanding of class theory or race relations - just a 17-year-old's urge to broaden my experience beyond my $30,000-a-year high school days.
I'd never had a job, but I knew where I wanted to find one. I'd spent the first few years of my life in Adams Morgan, a funky, diverse neighborhood and, in my eyes, the antithesis of Friendship Heights, the leafy, gleaming enclave my family had moved to. A few weeks before graduation, I spent a Saturday morning pacing 18th Street, stopping at every establishment with a "help wanted" sign, gravitating toward the places that fulfilled my vision of the city's seedy underbelly: the late-night spots, the greasy pizza joints, the hookah bars.
I'm hardly the first privileged young man to go looking for grit. Others, from George Orwell to Chris McCandless, also have chafed against the neatness of their upbringings and tried to step outside their comfort zones. They found this to be the only tonic for their increasing unease with and burgeoning cynicism toward their backgrounds.
Nor, I'm sure, was I the first to learn that my mission was doomed to fail. No matter how blue-collar my surroundings, I'll always carry the marked advantages of my educated, middle-class upbringing. Despite my total lack of relevant work experience, I leapfrogged straight toward management.
I walked into Amsterdam Falafelshop, a place I loved for the same reasons as everyone else: It had tasty, cheap food and a neighborhood vibe. I told the guy behind the counter that I had seen the "help wanted" sign and was interested. He looked me up and down and told me they needed somebody for the night shift. The night shift was crazy, he said. That was precisely what I was looking for, so I told him that I thought I could handle it - I had experience with crazy from running high school bake sales.
I got the job and soon found myself at the restaurant at 2 o'clock most mornings. By this time, fries were usually scattered across the hardwood floors. Hummus and baba ganoush were splattered on the tables and the counter. A ragged line of mostly young, mostly white and entirely wasted souls stood before me and extended out the door. I was behind the counter, hot, sweating, crying "Small wheat!" as I punched the buttons on the register. "Two white combos! One small wheat, one small white, large fries!" And so on, for hours.
Behind the scenes, my co-workers and I created our own drama.
There was Catalino, a short, middle-aged, mustached Honduran who had been working there maybe four years, the longest of all of us. He was the falafel master, and he stood for hours hunched over his tools as he scooped, shaped and fried the falafel balls.
There was Francis, close to my age and born and raised in Ecuador. He was tall and had very straight black hair. He used to take classes at the University of the District of Columbia.
There was Alex, also Honduran, and so gangly we called him Flaco. He was a ladies man and often leaned jauntily over the counter to flirt with pretty customers, a hand-rolled cigarette tucked behind his ear.
And there was David - that's the Spanish "dah-veed" - a muscly man with a crucifix dangling around his neck and an affected, scornful laugh. His English was the best, after mine, and he sometimes filled in for me at the register.
My albeit limited Spanish had helped me get the job, but it wasn't hard to get by in English, either. I had been hired to replace the night-shift manager, whose departure left a power vacuum. My co-workers vied for dominance in their different kitchen-duty niches, but I had an easy advantage when it came to the desirable position of cashier: I spoke English. With no work experience and without actually depending on the job as a source of income, I had inadvertently jumped the managerial line in front of my much more experienced, Spanish-speaking immigrant co-workers.
And it was me, the white kid with the prep-school background, who was trusted with the sensitive tasks of closing the register, taking the cash and receipts to the basement, and filling out paperwork. (Contacted by an editor at The Washington Post, Amsterdam Falafelshop co-owner Arianne Bennett said the author was selected to run the register not because he speaks English but because of his entertaining personality. Bennett says all employees are trained to work the register; the most talkative and witty are tasked with running it.)
I never felt any bitterness from the other guys, but a distance did develop after the initial awkwardness of being the new kid in the kitchen. My cultural affinity with our customers had the flip side of alienating me from my co-workers, who laughed at my awkward attempts to speak Spanish. Along with the fun and camaraderie of work in a kitchen, I was also exposed to views that challenged the safe, touchy-feely beliefs I'd absorbed in my high school. I remember one argument I had with David as we were mopping and sweeping up at around 4 a.m., pop salsa on the sound system. We were talking about gay sex.
"I just don't get how they could do that," David said. His crucifix dangled from his neck as he mopped.
For one of the first times in my life, I was confronted with someone whose cultural perspective had led him to completely different conclusions.
"You don't have to," I remember replying. "They wouldn't want to do it with you, anyway." I'd often use this kind of banter to stand by my beliefs without defending them outright. I had to become flexible in how I reacted to views among my new friends that clashed with those I shared with my old friends.
My co-workers did include me in their behind-the-counter pastimes, like throwing knives into cutting boards and sneakily sticking pieces of tape to each other butts, and for my 18th birthday, I got a surprise. Despite his limited English, Catalino took the register for a few minutes while Alex and Francis led me into the basement, to the long, narrow freezers where we kept the French fries in 20-pound brown paper bags. On one of these freezers, already arranged, were salt, limes, three empty ketchup to-go containers and a bottle of tequila. I'm proud to say I held my own.
As far as I know, we were all paid the same wage, and by no means was the register a cushy position. But I served as the cultural bridge between my Hispanic co-workers and our downtown customers, as well as the restaurant's owners. My bosses exploited the background I had sought to rebel against by making me the perfect link; thus my effort to see how the other half lived resulted in further entrenching the differences between us. This was especially evident when my friends or students from my high school, who treated the job as more of a novelty than an actual occupation. When I told them where I was working, the response was invariably something along the lines of, "Wow, that's so cool!" When they came to visit me, though, they sometimes grew irritated that I couldn't chat with them longer than the time it took to wipe down their table.
This was five years ago. I graduated from college in December with a major in geography. At age 23, I'm a freelance writer and illustrator in my college town. I've done other low-wage work in the past five years, but my trajectory has brought me toward the more skilled and specialized labor expected within my class. When I visit my mom in D.C., I usually stop at the falafel shop, where the smells and the music remain unchanged from the summer of 2010. None of the people I worked with are there anymore, although I know from Facebook that Francis recently earned a degree in kinetic science and is looking for a job as a sports trainer. I don't know where Catalino, Alex and David are now.
The last time I visited, I did a double take when I entered the store. Behind the register stood another kid from my small private high school. He had been a few years behind me, and we had both been on the wrestling team, though my defining memory of him was his performance as Lucky in the school production of "Waiting for Godot." As I spoke to him, learning that he, too, was taking a gap year before what I don't doubt will be a college degree and a successful future, an African American man fried my fries and served up my sandwich.
Phillips is a freelance writer and illustrator living in Madison, Wis.