The Toll It Takes To Work Weddings

Let’s get the basics out of the way first. I’m just barely a millennial, depending on which definition you use. I share an old house with several housemates. My rent is less than $400 a month. I have $14,000 in student loan debt, $9,000 in credit card debt, and $7.21 dollars in savings, aside from my monthly retirement contribution.

For several years in my late twenties, I worked as a waitress for a small catering business that specializes in the high-end of the market: fancy weddings. At the time, I was trying to cobble together a living after moving back to the city where I had gone to college. I had been through a gut-wrenching break-up. I was suffering a bout of major depression. I was on food stamps. When one of my friends told me how much money he had made from being a waiter at a wedding over the prior weekend, I wanted in.

Now, before I continue, I want to clarify there are different kinds of caterers and different kinds of weddings. Here, I am not talking about a catering business that offers up rubber chicken and chocolate cake. I am not talking about wedding invitations printed via Minted. I’m talking about farm-to-table menus served beneath hundred year-old trees on historic plantations dripping with Spanish moss. I’m talking about invitations with hand-written calligraphy. I didn’t know the difference initially, but there is a difference and it’s a difference that costs money. A lot of money.

A typical budget for the kinds of weddings where I was a waitress was easily north of $100,000. And I’m just talking about the day of the wedding when I throw out that number. For example, the first wedding that I was ever a waitress for was like a fantasy. I still don’t know the entire budget, though I know a lot of it, but I do know how much just the rehearsal dinner the night before cost: around $80,000. You can extrapolate from there.

That first wedding stands out in my mind more so than the other weddings that followed. Above all, I remember that it was exhausting. I am in reasonably good shape, but nothing really could have prepared me for how it would feel to work like that. I worked set-up the day before. I worked set-up the day of. I served through the entire wedding. I helped break everything down after the guests left. I was even part of the small crew that took the van back to the headquarters and unloaded at 3:00 AM. I got one break for about 20 minutes. I was shaking by the time it was done.

I also remember the contrast between the glamour of the party for the guests and weariness that followed for many people working it. I remembered picking up broken shards of glass and dirty napkins strewn around the dance floor at the end of the night. One of the members of the band flown in specially for the occasion came out and sat on the edge of the stage. He wiped his brow and looked at me and smiled. “Man,” he shook his head. “This is the kind of party I love to hate, you know what I mean?” I was too tired to respond.

Later that night, long after the bride and groom had run through a throng of cheering guests holding sparklers, the catering staff was in the make-shift kitchen getting yelled at. The person yelling was our supervisor, a man I’ll call Jake. Jake was holding a large black garbage bag and he was at the end of his rope. “I don’t care! It’s fish! It’s been sitting out for hours! It’s not safe to eat. It’s 3:00 in the morning. I want to go home. Throw it the fuck away!”

He was yelling because some other wait staff were debating about whether or not they should try to search for some Tupperware containers to take home the left overs from the meal. We were in the middle of nowhere on a plantation and finding Tupperware seemed unlikely. Jake wanted to go home. I did, too. A lot of the wait staff, including Jake and me, practiced dumpster diving. I volunteered weekly in a church’s soup kitchen, serving meals to adults who slept in their cars or in the woods. That night, I scraped plate after plate of expensive seafood into black garbage bags.

Jake became one of my best friends. Often, when I was really struggling to make ends meet, he saved food from catering events for me. I would swing by after one of my other part-time jobs and he would pull a tray of leftover appetizers out of his car and send me home with it. We bonded in the kitchen during weddings. I saw him get yelled at by the father-of-the-bride at one wedding because the food wasn’t coming out fast enough. I watched him cry while cutting vegetables in the kitchen at another wedding. He had a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in a field completely unrelated to catering. He didn’t even really believe in the institution of marriage.

Wait staff like me got paid about $15 an hour plus a share of the tip money for working a wedding. It was never explained to me how the tip money was distributed, but it seemed like my usual pay wound up being close to $20 an hour. We had to pay taxes on this income ourselves.

Once, at the end of a wedding on a private estate where I watched a big crowd of white people dance awkwardly while a cover band sung “Low” by Flo Rida featuring T. Pain, we were offered extra pay to help unload the van at the end of the 12-hour shift. I relayed this information to a new waiter as we stacked dirty dishes. He shook his head and replied, “You could not pay me enough to keep going.”

Those weddings were exhausting, and not just physically. I found them tiring emotionally, too. I wandered around a meticulously manicured lawn with a tray of bacon-wrapped dates or cocktails and wondered where the heck I went wrong. There I was, 28 years old with a degree from a “prestigious” college and plenty of “useful” skills, working a shift as a waitress at yet another fancy wedding. The bride was always my age or even younger. Her parents celebrated her in genuinely sweet speeches while holding glasses of champagne.

I started to compare myself to the brides. What made it possible for a woman my age or younger to tie the knot at a $100,000 party?  That’s a question born out of curiosity more than bitterness, I promise. But I think I already knew the answer.

At one beautiful and very expensive wedding at a crumbling, turn-of-the-century barn that rented out for a mere $8,000, not including any amenities, of course, I remember starting to cry. I had been assigned the task of setting out lanterns on a dirt road to lead drunken guests back to a shuttle bus at the end of the festivities. I might have been crying because I had been on my feet for 10 hours at that point, but I think it really was that I knew I’d never be like the bride dancing away in that barn. It was impossible. She had been born into a family, or had just married into a family, with tremendous wealth and privilege. My estranged father would not recognize me if he saw me on the street. Ask me how I know. My mother was in a long-term care facility and couldn’t remember who I was anymore because of the incurable disease that was destroying her memory. With my patchwork quilt of part-time jobs and student loan debt, I knew there certainly would never be money for a wedding like this one I was working at. And it started to make me feel shitty about myself.

Eventually, I stopped picking up waitressing shifts at weddings. I got a 9-to-5 job and then I got an even better paying one. I got a significant raise. Being a catering waitress faded out of my life along with food stamps and major depression. Nowadays, I have a full-time job with benefits and a reasonable middle class salary. But I still work a second job on the weekends. I still live in a small bedroom with peeling paint on the walls. I still have housemates. In other words, I don’t feel like I’ve “caught up” yet. Not even close. I don’t even know what that would look like, honestly.

The biggest change from when I was a catering waitress at those fancy weddings is that I’m now engaged. The person I am going to marry is the love of my life. Our wedding is this autumn. We almost eloped because it was hard for me to even think about paying for even a small wedding when I am still in debt. My fiance just finished up graduate school, so we’ll be tackling his student loans soon, too.

Finally I decided to have a little faith. In what exactly I’m not sure. But I’m choosing to get married to the person I love now rather than waiting until we have all our financial ducks in a row. We are going to get married now because we’re in love and we want to be married and we want to celebrate with the people who love us, even if our bank account balances are low.

I don’t know if we’re doing this in the right order, but I don’t care anymore. To paraphrase what Meaghan wrote a while back:

it’s hard admit there is no right answer, without wanting to either throw up your hands or pretend that if we just go debt –> emergency fund –> IRA —> index fund everything will be okay. It won’t. Or it will but it will have nothing to do with anything we did.

So, we’re gonna have a small wedding with friends in the town we call home. My good friends who worked with me at all those fancy weddings will be there as guests.

Anonymous lives somewhere in the South and thinks a lot about money.

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