Every time I put on socks, wash my feet or touch my toes, my eyes are drawn to the little scar on the big toe on my left foot. They say that every scar has a story behind it and I believe them. My tomboy childhood has left me with enough scars to fill a book. But this little scar is different. This one was the catalyst to my launch into full time freelancedom.
When I first started transitioning into full time freelance writing, I quit my cushy job with an insurance agency to waitress at a popular pizzeria in my area. My reasoning was that the flexible hours would be better for taking my years of part time freelancing to a full time career, working my way into it. But it didn’t work out that way. While I did see my freelance career pick up steam while working at the pizzeria, I also ended up taking the bar lead position in the restaurant, thinking it would be just a little bit more work and a lot more money.
And I almost instantly regretted it. You know all of those middle management jokes they make about having none of the power to change anything but taking all of the blame for everything? I was the punch line that kept coming back for more. Suddenly I was working crazy long hours. I attended constant repetitive meetings about absolutely nothing. I dealt with employees who didn’t respect me and got texts at home from a senior manager about the color of a bartender’s socks. At least once a week, I’d get an email from my boss’s boss demanding to know why I wasn’t pulling extra sales out of my ass and meeting numbers that could only be reached if I juked the stats. It was like I was living the movie Office Space but all of the funny lines were going to the other characters.
Let me be clear about this job: I made very, very good money. Sometimes I left with enough cash to make me nervous walking through a dark parking lot. And I really did love my crew and most of my customers. But being a bartender is not like you see in the movies. Drunk people are annoying. They’re even extra annoying when you’re stone sober, on your third 18 hour shift in a row and your tip jar is empty. I did have some good times, but they were overshadowed by the “other” times.
Like that time a black man accused me of being racist because I mixed up him and his black friend’s check. When I pointed out that I’m black too so I can tell black people apart, he told me that I obviously wasn’t black enough. In fact, he wouldn’t be surprised if I was just tan.
Or the time a woman in her mid 40s cursed me out because I carded her and refused to serve her because she had no ID on her. The state of Virginia says I can’t serve you without an ID. In fact, it’s illegal for you to leave your home without one. But it didn’t stop her from throwing a glass of water at me.
Or how about the time a guy came in, had two beers and then urinated on himself while sitting at a bar stool. All of the customers in the bar went crazy and he just sat there eating peanuts like it was all good. He seemed shocked when I told him to leave. I spent the twenty minutes I waited for his cab trying to explain to him why peeing in the middle of a restaurant is bad.
You See Where This is Going.
The final straw was at 2 a.m. on a Sunday night. We had closed four hours earlier and were prepping for the health inspectors the next day. As the very last rung of middle management, I was required to be there until the job was done—off the clock, too. At one point, I was cleaning the dish machine and suddenly felt a sharp pain in my left foot. For those of you who have never worked in a restaurant, an industrial dishwasher uses chemicals that can burn through food debris, clothing and skin. And that’s what it did, right through my shoe, my sock and my toe. But because I’ve always been a trooper and I wanted to go home more than I wanted to get a band-aid, I kept working.
Later that night as I was taking off my clothes to shower, sleep and go back to work in five hours, I saw the burn blister on my toe and suddenly realized that it hurt like hell. Yet, I’d worked through it. Just like I’d worked through a grown man urinating in my work area. Just like I’d worked through the ridiculous hours. Just like I’d worked through every time I’d been blamed for some corporate numbers game or lull in bar business. But what was I hoping would be the payoff? The ability to get to work like this forever?
The next day as I sat through yet another unnecessary management meeting looking around the table at my coworkers and my bosses, I saw a lot of bags under the eyes, a ton of sick looking skin from eating at restaurant constantly and not much happy. I didn’t see one person whose life I wanted. And then my actual boss said something to me that basically implied that I didn’t do nearly enough work and that if I wanted to be a part of the team I need to sacrifice more. There was a moment of silence. Suddenly, my toe throbbed painfully in my shoe. And I quit.
Suddenly Full Time
The next thing I did was go home and throw up because I was unemployed.
Then I washed my face, brushed my teeth and started freelancing full time.
My freelance business hadn’t grown like I’d planned in the previous years because I had spent most of my time growing somebody else’s business. I set out to fix that immediately. I up-sold the clients I already had. I cold called 20 to 30 businesses a day. I responded to every Craigslist ad that didn’t involve nudity. I took projects I should have passed on and I learned my lessons the hard way. I threw myself into my freelance career like my life depended on it . . . because it did.
I’m not going to lie to you and say that I work less as a freelancer than I did as a middle management slave for a corporate pizzeria. There have been times that I worked twice as hard and had three times more pressure on my output. But whatever I did, it was for my own business. And if I had to face crazy customers, urine and chemical burns, I would do it on my own terms.
Within just a few months, I was surpassing the money I made as a slave and even if I wasn’t, the peace of mind was worth it. Today every time I paint my toenails, I pause on my left foot and remember how easy it is to work yourself to death for somebody else’s dreams. And then I throw on another coat of polish because I don’t have to worry about that stuff anymore.
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