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Final Shift

A profile of serving others

I WAS EIGHTEEN the year I moved from Kampala, Uganda, to New York City and got my first waitressing job. I had no idea then that I’d be doing it for twelve years.

Sometimes, when consoling a guest whose fries weren’t crispy enough, or cleaning a drunk person’s vomit from a wine bucket, I’d reflect that this was not what my father had in mind when he told me that the purpose of life was to serve others.

My father’s service had been to direct emergency food aid to people living through disasters—hurricanes, floods, droughts, wars, forced displacement. For this, he’d been paid a middle-class salary in U.S. dollars, plus benefits, including private school tuition for my siblings and me. But he died before I graduated from high school, and since my mother left when I was little, from then on, financially, I was mostly on my own.

Waitressing supported me through college, graduate school, art making, and underpaid nonprofit jobs. I worked my way up from a pizza chain to fine dining.

On the night of my final shift, I was thirty. I’d accepted a position at a well-funded nonprofit, where I’d work on social and environmental justice issues. I had plans to use my free nights and weekends writing a book. No more multiple jobs or sixteen-hour shifts.

I couldn’t wait to clock out and celebrate. But my last table was a couple on a magical first date. They lingered over three courses and two bottles of wine, their faces flushed and beautiful in the candlelight.

I had tricks to hurry them along, but they seemed kind, and I was happy for them, so I folded napkins in the back hallway. I’d always liked side work—the escape from the bustle of the floor, the precious minutes off my feet, the repetitive, rote actions that quieted my mind and made room for contemplation. Now, I reflected that I’d been wrong to discount my work in the service industry, to deem it less than purposeful.

Restaurants are where I made friends who became family, who gave me a sense of home in what was then a strange and lonely city. Waiting tables, I’d learned to see people’s unexpressed desires, and to create space for new romance and countless other forms of love.

“Come again,” I said as the couple stepped hand in hand into the autumn night, and although I no longer worked there, I meant it.

This piece is from Orion’s Winter 2023 issue, Romance in the Climate Crisis. Special thanks to the NRDC for their generous funding of this issue.

NADIA OWUSU is a Brooklyn-based writer and urbanist. She is the Whiting Award–winning author of the memoir, Aftershocks, which was selected as a best book of 2021 by over a dozen publications, including Time, Vogue, Esquire, and the BBC, and has been translated into five languages. She has received fellowships from Yaddo and Art Omi. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Orion, Granta, The Paris Review Daily, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, and others. She teaches creative writing at Columbia University and at the Mountainview MFA program and is the Director of Storytelling at Frontline Solutions, a consulting firm supporting social-change organizations.