3 Days as an Indoor Server at a Private Social Club in NYC

Pushy guests, itchy masks, and acting dreams collide for one man waiting tables in Manhattan.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
Photo via Getty Images
Reservation tag on dining table at fancy restaurant
The inside line on life on the job.

Balancing a budding creative career with a job that pays the bills is practically standard for young people looking to “break in” to the entertainment industry. Robert, 25*, knows his struggle is one that other working actors have dealt with in the past—but the addition of a global pandemic has made an already intense hustle even more difficult. Robert lives alone in New York City, and works as a server in a members-only social club for artists (he’s compared it to SoHo House).


Though he spent the spring with his parents in Texas, he returned to Manhattan when the social club reopened, curtailing his unemployment benefits whether he felt safe at work or not. “I have a lot of friends that will still work in service, but have opted out of returning to the job,” Robert told VICE. “I'm kind of like, ‘OK, cool. How do you pay for your life?’”

Now, he’s pushing through the return to indoor dining, struggling to keep up his energy, and battling germaphobia while smiling at the people whose tables he’s waiting. Here’s what a weekend in his life looks like right now:


I’m lucky to work at a member's club because it's a bunch of rich and boozy artists, people that just have exorbitant amounts of wealth. At the beginning of the pandemic, our members provided us with money via a relief fund when the club was still closed. But now when I'm at work, even though it's nice to see these people again, it doesn't feel the same. It's not as fun as it was, before.

I’m surprised at how many of our members came back, because a lot of them are older: late 40s, 50s, some are in their 60s or 70s. I'm just like, you have a lot of faith in me as a person, and in all of the staffers. You're really trusting us to practice safety measures. We do temperature checks; we have a hand-washing station where you push on this little pedal to wash your hands; we have hand sanitizer at every table; and since we’re not open to the public, and even guests have to sign in, if there was an outbreak we could do contact tracing.


But, even if they get sick, even if they have to miss work or something bad happens, our members are wealthy enough to have access to healthcare, facilities, and resources in order to help themselves. A lot of us staff members don't have that.

Because of COVID-19, we don't really act like a member's club anymore. We act more like a restaurant. I still talk to members, but at the same time, I'm keeping my distance and wearing a mask. Today, I worked the morning shift, and then I worked until the evening, from 11 a.m. until I got off, around 9 p.m. The morning was somewhat slow, but in the evening, it was very, very busy. We had constant reservations, and people were waiting in line for their tables. The past few weeks, we haven't had a ton of indoor dining. We've started to allow it and have the 25 percent occupancy. This evening, we had three tables inside, while our outside area and roof were packed.

Generally, there's only one or two servers on an evening shift, and only one in the morning. Even though it can be busy, I like working alone because I feel like everything's in my control. But in the evening, it's me, a bartender, a barback, and another server, which adds a little more uncertainty. I'm a bit of a germaphobe, and I've been concerned about this for a bit, so I try go above and beyond, switching out trays as much as possible, not using the same bathroom that customers do, washing my hands even when it adds to the time it takes to serve a table—my own proper practices.


I generally bring my own masks. I bring multiple ones that I switch throughout my shifts, probably three or four times every time I work. The club actually made these custom masks, which are beige and made out of tote bag material, with our emblem on them. But they gave us one and they were like, “Oh, and if you lose it, you have to pay $20 for a new one.” And it's like, OK, cool. I work multiple shifts a week and I have one mask—No!

When I’m serving now, I feel like I'm having to use my body much more to make up for the fact that small, simple cues like a smile are off the table. I have to physically engage, nod my head, change my posture, in order to tell people that yes, I understand what you're saying. Even during normal times, being a worker in the service industry can feel dehumanizing. When you wear a mask that covers most of your face, I think it honestly makes it even easier for people to disregard you as a human being. Instead, you're just seen as this blank face and body, walking through the space in order to help people.

Something else that’s been hard is that big, loaded question when I approach a table with a member who knows me by name and says, “Hey, how are you doing? It's been a while!” It takes every part of me to not be like, “Honestly, I'm crying every night. I'm very sad. I'm very stressed. And I don't want to be here.”



Today was incredibly stressful. It was really bad weather, so no one was outdoors and it was packed inside the club. It was like a precursor to what I think a lot of the winter will be because it was just downpouring all day, so everyone wanted to stack up inside. It wasn't 25 percent occupancy. I think people have stopped caring, and not just customers—also my managers. During the day, we had people on our first floor lounge area hanging out, we had people on the second floor, in our club room eating. At night, it was so crowded that we even had one couple on a date that asked in the middle of dinner, “Ah, sorry, we just don't feel safe here. Is it possible for the two of us to go upstairs to the third floor and eat in the salon room instead?”

Inside, I was like, eye roll—well, if you don't feel safe, don't come in. But they’d already started their meal, and I want money, so I said, “Yes, sure, but I’m only one server. I'm not gonna check up on you guys every five or 10 minutes, it may be a moment. If you need something, run down.” Basically, I told them I'm running from the kitchen in the basement, to the first floor, to the second floor, to them up the third floor—between four fucking floors. But then, throughout the evening, they're like, “Aw, where were you? We haven't seen you in like 15 minutes!” Again, it’s multiple floors, and I’m literally running up and down.


While it was a great, busy day and I made a good amount of money, I definitely had thoughts like, Mmm, it’s starting. This is going to be a spreader day. I can't imagine that it wouldn't be.  I hope people that are coming in, are practicing safe things elsewhere in their life, but if they’re comfortable enough to dine indoors, I can’t imagine them being cautious in other parts of life.

Even as I was walking home tonight, I saw other places had people inside hanging out too, and to me, it looked like more than 25 percent occupancy. It’s hard to fault some establishments, especially when it's like a mom-and-pop kind of business, that haven’t been able to get proper loans or grants in order to stay open safely. They're gonna do what they need to do in order to survive.

I think there's a world in which indoor dining could work, if only you took your mask off for a moment to sip a drink, or put a slice of food in your mouth. In China, people are indoor dining, but you see pictures and everyone in the restaurant is wearing a mask. In America, people get drunk and they forget. When people sit at their table here, it seems like they immediately think, Oh, well, I'm safe now. It's like, no, this thing is it's spreading through the air, and it can linger in the air for a bit, especially when we're indoors.

I'm pretty certain I'm not gonna be in New York in the winter. I'm just gonna stay with my parents and use all the money I've saved up to cover rent here, and be on unemployment again.



I’m an actor, and during the pandemic it has been extremely difficult to pursue work in the entertainment industry. I went to school for acting, I met agents and I have a manager who sends me out for gigs and reps me, and I’m incredibly grateful to be in that position. But I've just been very stressed and tired from working my day job in the service industry. I’m burnt out.

Yesterday, when I was working, I got an email around 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. in the afternoon to do a voiceover gig for a Spotify thing, where I played a Taylor Swift fan. I didn’t get home until 11 p.m., but I needed to send my recording in by 9 a.m. I immediately got home, and I was like Oh my God, I have to do this now. I was tired, my head just wasn’t right, but I had to do it anyway. I really believe that acting is a craft, you have to work on it constantly. Sure, some actors can wing it, but I do think, to do a great work, you have to really put in the time and effort. Right now, I’m so overwhelmed that it’s almost impossible to get into the headspace I need to be in to put out good work.

This year, even though I haven’t booked a single Screen Actors Guild gig, I still had to join the union. At the end of last December, I booked this insurance commercial for New York Life, and I was really excited because it was going to be really cool, but I was a must-join at that point because I’ve done so many side projects. I had to pay $3,000 in order to join the union, and while I think unions are great, now I'm only able to apply for SAG jobs.


There have also been issues within our union when it comes to payment, like for our healthcare plan: It used to be $200 or $300 a quarter. Now it’s going up to $700 a quarter, and you have to have done more projects in order to qualify to pay that fee. We as actors aren't working as much right now, and yet you're gonna make it harder for us to get healthcare?

Today is my day off from working at the social club, but even on my off day, I’m on another deadline for voice acting. What I have to send in by tomorrow morning at 9a.m. is a commercial for a Maryland Lottery thing. All day today I'm gonna have to memorize the script and get ready to record, even though I'm tired and just want to sleep in more.

How acting works during the pandemic is so different. We're not going into different casting offices around New York, it’s a lot more self-tapes, clips we record ourselves and send in to casting directors. If you make it past the first round with a self-tape, then there are Zoom callbacks, where the clients and casting directors and a director all tune in to watch the performance, and they can give you notes from there.

Now, I feel like not only am I the actor, where I have to be present, show up, and have my lines memorized and be ready to work. I also have to focus on my lighting, I have to focus on my sound quality, I have to focus on the picture I’m creating. I feel like we are now being given a lot more responsibilities in order to prepare. I've had to invest in a ring light and a tripod and a foldable backdrop just to shoot this stuff.

I've heard some other actors say, “Oh, well, I love Zoom callbacks, because it feels like a lot more in my control. I feel like I'm able to take all day to set up my set”—quote, unquote “set”—it's in your bedroom. But for me, time is limited because I'm still working. I’m jealous of friends that can choose not to work, who are financially secure enough to just ride out this pandemic for a year or two and focus on acting.

I'm supporting myself, and there's other things I have to do throughout my day. So taking an hour or two to set up and make sure the lighting is good isn’t always an option for me. If I get home late at work and I see that I have an audition, well, it's nighttime, so there's no sunlight for me to work off of. Even on an off day like this, I have to do my laundry, I have to do my dishes, I have to go to the grocery store.

For people that rely on their bodies in order to make money, there’s that extra layer to the fear of COVID-19. You hear it all the time in and out of school—you have to make sure your instrument is always warmed up and safe. If you're someone that works on Broadway, and you need to be able to sing, and be in shows eight times a week. Even if you just have a little bit of damage to your lungs, or you have slightly less air capacity, that's a big deal! But I can't just take a lot of time off and be OK. I can’t just stay at home, relax, and do whatever I need to in order to stay healthy.

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