Don't get me wrong. I love working at the dining hall. My student managers are endlessly entertaining, one of my shift partners may very well be my lost twin, and every screw up I make is always met with an empathetic "don't worry, I've done that a million times." Wheeling around carts filled with freshly cleaned plates also happens to be a surprisingly soothing study break. But there's something that bothers me every time I thread my ponytail through the back of my cap and tie that Princeton-orange apron around my waist — suddenly I become invisible.
I initially thought my awful cart maneuvering skills were to blame for the increased frequency of bumping into people. Soon, I noticed the trend of awkward path-crossing extended beyond when I lugged that giant tomb of plates behind me. People didn't make eye contact as I walked by, and they reached across me to grab cups and plates instead of waiting the fifteen seconds for me to finish up my refills.
"Sorry, I didn't see you there."
That was the line I heard the most when people would run into me, occasionally without the brief apology tacked on to the beginning. I would beam back an "it's alright" with my brightest customer service smile when I realized that one sentence summed up what I was feeling perfectly — I was in a busy game of bumper cars, but I also had to carry a pile of very breakable porcelain on my back and I was invisible.
In service, a funny distinction between strangers and workers is made, which I also found apparent during my summer job at a diner. If a stranger were to prepare your food, serve you dishes, or even offer you an extra set of silverware when you need it, you would most certainly thank them, provided you were raised with even an ounce of manners. I was at the dining hall the other day (not working a shift), when I removed an empty cup crate for the person waiting behind me and I was met with a friendly "thanks."
But when I find myself or my coworkers mounting crates of cups next to the drink machines, sweeping away marinara sauce and dropped salad greens, and trekking up the stairs with tubs of ice cream refills, I am most frequently met with a disgruntled look of "I'm upset that I have to wait a few seconds more to pick up a plate" and the rare expression of gratitude.
The obvious argument is that strangers are not paid to do the things workers are. But is it really that hard to not be an awful person and thank the people who pick up your trash and clean up your dishes?
And I'm just a student worker. The situation is amplified many more times for full-time workers and the service industry as a whole. These workers are the people we would much rather not pay attention to when we dine at restaurants or shop at malls, so we choose to pretend they are invisible. Just like how my Princeton-orange apron is a visual cue for people's line of sight to gloss right past me.
So I really am thankful for my time working in food service. It's taught me a fundamental lesson about kindness: we really can never be too kind to others. You never know when a tired Princeton student might feel inspired to write an article about you and how her apron of invisibility is a getting little worn out.