Secret Lives of the Service Industry
By Erin Wolf
Double lives— Superman was the prime example of this once astonishing phenomenon. By day he was the affably geeky Clark Kent; by chance he was the wünder-boy with a red cape and a mission to serve the people, whether stopping trains or scooping up ladies in peril.
With a secret life stashed neatly under his yellow belt, Mr. Kent may have been an anomaly back in the 1930s when he first crash-landed on the scene. Rocketing into the 21st century, however, into the mish-mosh of backgrounds that make up the labor force in the United States, untold legions of people line up to assume a Kent-like double life. By day, these contenders trot off to their white collar, blue collar, pink collar, ring-around-the-collar, or what-have-you jobs. By night, they are musicians, artists, writers, crafters, coordinators, small-business owners and cause-supporters.
In the thriving arts community of Milwaukee, many of the jobs held by local double-lifers are in the service industry. The National Restaurant Association reports over 15,000 restaurants employing more than 262,000 people in Wisconsin, and much of the local arts community depends on these jobs to pay the bills and support their respective creative outlets. It’s not just about the Benjamins, though. They also enjoy the social outlet to balance the more solitary ‘artist’ experience, the connections made with customers and the incentive of ‘insta-cash’ for gear and supplies.
Superman, eat your heart out.“It’s not always something to do to get through school. What if I were “just” a waitress? You gotta be cut out for it. People don’t realize how tough it is. You have to able to handle people, be easygoing, fast. It’s not for everyone,” says Colleen Drew of her part-time job as a server at County Clare Irish Inn and Pub.
Freelance artist by trade, working on her paintings and illustrations in her personal time, Drew also works as a muralist for Artistic Finishes. She, with her partner and the founder of the operation, Laura Ashley, paints murals for private residences. “We just did a nursery that was a jungle theme with monkeys. We also did a whole room painted with old French posters.”
Drew started in the service industry bussing tables at Mama Mia’s when she was fourteen years old and wanted some spending cash. “It was cool back then because I was so young and everyone else I worked with was seventeen and so cool– it didn’t seem like work,” she says.
When it came time to decide on a career, Drew knew she wanted to be an artist. “When I was little, I was like, ‘Hey, I’m good at this!’ When we had to make Thanksgiving turkeys in school, I would put eyelashes and lipstick on mine, and everyone would say, ‘Oh, there’s Colleen’s.’”
Her construction paper turkeys eventually became illustrations and paintings in the art noveau style as a student at MIAD. “I knew it would be hard and I’d have to do the freelance thing,” Drew says of her last moments before graduation.
Now she is happily freelancing and working part-time as a server. “I don’t want to be the angry artist – I like my jobs. It’s nice to have both the social and the solitude aspects. It’s interesting.”
Craft-work.Kim Kisiolek, co-owner of The Paper Boat Boutique in Bay View, Stone Creek Coffee employee and WMSE Events Coordinator, has a similar background. “I grew up doing art,” she says. “Faythe (Levine, co-owner of the Paper Boat) founded Art Vs. Craft and I was a volunteer. We decided to open a store like Dream in Vancouver and Lipstick Traces in Seattle.”
Paper Boat sells 100�and-made items like wallets, jewelry, stationery, stuffed animal creatures, silk-screened tees, knit goods and hand-sewn clothing, and offers an opportunity for Kisiolek and Levine to connect with like-minded crafters from across and out of the country.
Outside of The Paper Boat, Kisiolek also devotes time to Stone Creek Coffee as a barista, an employee in their factory and at the farmer’s market. “I’ve worked at Alterra and managed Anodyne for five years. I’m really comfortable working in the coffee industry,” she says. “Once you learn that trade, you just want to continue with that. There’s something very fulfilling because you get to add your own artistry to the drinks.”
Kisiolek’s focus on customer service has paid off. It’s through the coffee trade that she made connections to her newest job as Events Coordinator at 91.7 FM, WMSE. “Brent, Holly and Tom were my customers at Anodyne, and I would trade music banter with them. They originally wanted me to be a DJ. I was the volunteer events coordinator last year and I’ve been involved so much in fundraising that they created a position.”
Jack of All Trades.AJ Dixon, kitchen manager at Lulu Café and Bar in Bay View, is close behind Kisiolek in the crafting arena. Calling herself a “jack of all trades,” Dixon is a DIY queen driven by her love of anything related to the world of Home Economics: sewing, cooking, woodworking, crafting—you name it. “I’d love to teach Home Ec.,” Dixon says. “It’s like learning survival skills. People need to know how to fend for themselves.”
Dixon has decided on a career in the culinary arts for the time being, inspired by her mother. Dixon recalls how her mom made a “four-tiered, pink-frosted cake for Valentine’s Day” for her class in school. “Ever since I was little, my mom was cooking – I grew up eating everything from sushi to chitlins.”
When Dixon’s mother passed away, she decided to keep her mom’s dream alive by enrolling in culinary arts classes at MATC. “I originally wanted to be a lawyer,” she says. “I’ve thought of being a botanist, a hairstylist or a lawyer. I just have to find something I’m dead-set on. Need a pair of pants? I can make them. Curtains? I can do that, too! I made my own prom dress. I love to make things and show them off. It’s the whole fact that ‘I did this,’ ‘I made this’. I garden and grow my own tomatoes to make my own salsa. The only problem is finding the time. When you’re in the service industry, time is sparse.”
Shaken or scratched?Time doesn’t seem to get in the way of Malcolm Michiles’ interests outside his job as a bartender at Redroom. “I always have a notebook behind the bar,” says Michiles. “I like to catch slang and phrases. The people you encounter are really inspiring.”
Michiles, also known as Old Man Malcolm, is a musician in his off-time. One of Milwaukee’s premiere DJs, he is also widely known for his work with Citizen King in the late 90s and the earlier part of this decade. Most recently, Michiles has produced and recorded an album with Minus After while working with the Frank Wobbly and Sons label.Michiles states another positive aspect of being a barman and a musician. “Sometimes at work I play my own stuff and will listen to it to get ideas. If I see someone grooving on it, I’ll know it’s something that resonates with people.”
What was That?Michiles isn’t the only one who listens to new music on the job. Mark Waldoch of Atomic Records is constantly surrounded by it, but insists that his musicianship and his day job really don’t go hand in hand. “Working at Atomic has nothing to do with being a musician. It helps, it’s made it easier to make connections, but it also made it more daunting.”
Connections are a big bonus in any service industry job. Michiles explains that it’s not just about getting a break, but also about fostering a sense of community. “The people in Milwaukee are really supportive of each other. I’ll be at their show, too. The community of artists is really helpful to each other.”
Waldoch became a musician after he had been a long-time customer and employee at Atomic. He had been playing guitar for a while, but had never ventured out into the world with it. “In 1994 I broke my ankle and got a real, professional guitar, and I was like, ‘Now I have this thing and I have to use it,’” Waldoch says. “I still don’t feel like a musician sometimes. I played open mic at Linneman’s and the Eighth Note and got enough of a positive response that I started taking it seriously.”
Waldoch eventually decided to forego continuing his Mass Communications major at UWM and concentrate on music. He started working full-time at Atomic and part-time on his own songs. “Every music teacher I had in high school seemed like a failed musician to me,” he says. “Now I’m a failed musician, but at least I’m not wasting my time with thirty kids who don’t care and who throw chairs at me.”
Recently, Waldoch has also added ‘bartender’ to his roster of vocations. Tending bar at Yield, a new addition to North Avenue with a music theme (the name was snagged from a Pearl Jam album), was a matter of financing a passion. “Every cent I’ve earned as a bartender started out for a band I was in at the time,” Waldoch explains.
You’re the Boss.If you’re a working-class artist, most likely the restaurant where you work doesn’t just cater food; they probably will cater to your schedule as well. Many Milwaukee establishments play host to employees who often need to take off for a show, tour, or rally. Michiles thinks the Milwaukee artist/music community is extremely lucky with so many employers that are sympathetic to the crazy scheduling woes that are part and parcel of hiring someone who has a passion for something other than French fries.
Greg Steffke, general manager of County Clare Irish Inn and Pub and a musician himself, agrees with being flexible with employees. “I’m more apt to hire musicians for certain jobs due to the commitment of the job itself. I’m open to letting them tour within reason. 80-percent of our staff is artists and musicians.”
Steffke feels that the service industry is tailor-made to the artist/musician lifestyle. “The service industry is totally a bohemian work life. The hours are so across the board, it leaves flexibility for other interests.
Will That be All for Now?Despite the seemingly tailored-to-fit job for these double-lifers, there are still moments when each wants to throw in the towel.
Some customers can be downright patronizing, according to Steffke. “I had an experience where I was serving a woman, and she approached me and said she felt so badly that I had made this life choice of being a ‘servant’ to customers. I said thanks for her kindness, but our industry has changed over the last twenty years. We are servers, not servants. I take great pride in my profession.”
For Drew, however, it’s all a matter of perspective. “Whatever makes you happy, right? I guess it doesn’t matter if you work in a restaurant if you dig it. Maybe if I worked in a restaurant 40 hours a week and did nothing else, I’d feel differently.”
And therein lays the heart of the matter. These five people all hold part-time jobs with no benefits and no long-term security, pointedly by choice. Their service industry jobs are the key to allowing each person to work on their title as a double-lifer, mirroring the heroic efforts of Superman/Clark Kent, who first spawned the movement. And they are heroic in their own way. Their parents may or may not understand, their customers may think they’re there because they have no choice. But at the end of the day, it’s all about priorities. Structuring one’s life to practice one’s craft is no small feat. VS