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Jim McCleary Headshot

Slop Bucket Full of Promise

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I'm a 51-year-old college graduate working a $20-an-hour job clearing dirty dishes off tables at black-tie events. Back when I had money and good income, I used to attend these functions, clad in tux and tails. Now I'm little more than background noise in these expansive ballrooms.

I never could have taken this job where I used to live, my hometown for more than 40 years. I was a professional real estate investor and agent and ran with a pretty sophisticated crowd. When the economy tanked and everything hit the fan, I abandoned the ruins of my hometown and what remained of my real estate career.

Turns out, things weren't so inviting in the workforce for somebody with my skills. I never dreamed times would get so tough that my best option was going to be essentially blue-collar work. In this case, catering. It's a job I never would have taken in my hometown. I knew too many people and I couldn't bear the thought of a friend or former colleague asking me for a doggie bag.

I don't know that many people in my new hometown of Los Angeles, so I was OK with the potential embarrassment factor of being a cater waiter. Granted, it's not the most demeaning job imaginable. But it seemed to fly in the face of everything I'd been doing the last 30 years of my life. A college degree and two long-term professions lead only to this: "May I take your plate, sir?"

But as my financial situation deteriorated in the wake of the Great Recession I found it more and more difficult to earn money. The list of jobs I wouldn't take started shrinking. Cater waiter wasn't on the list. So when the opportunity came along, and I had no better options, I took it.

What's it like? Well, there's definitely a servant feel to it at times. I can't tell you the number of times I have asked a question of a guest only to be waved off like a pesky gnat. Catering to prima donnas can sometimes be as challenging as sounds.

I've been called "you" by the head honcho as he poked his finger at me, barking orders, sans "please" or "thank you." It's quite an adjustment, going from a work environment where people treated each other with respect and courtesy to a job where you're sometimes treated as nothing more than hired help.

Which I am. But still.

Unfortunately the work is sporadic and unpredictable. Some weeks I get assigned to three or four events. Some months, yes months, I get no catering work at all.

Then there's the ugly underbelly: slop buckets for scraping food off plates and slush buckets of drink remnants. Those enticing collections of discards need to be disposed of at the end of the night. That's now part of my job description.

Then there's the physical toll. There's a lot of walking, a lot of lifting, and a lot of simply looking busy. Standing motionless for any given time will draw the ire of the boss. In other words a seven-hour shift means seven hours of perpetual motion.

It takes a toll on a 50-something-year-old body. On one particularly grueling afternoon, at an outside event in the blazing sun, one waiter moaned, as he scraped food into the slop bucket: "Suicide party at my house afterwards."

On the upside, there's plenty of time to think. I've had some marvelously creative ideas while bouncing around the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, once home to the Oscar Awards, or working events underneath the Space Shuttle Endeavour which dangles from the rafters of a hangar sometimes used for fundraisers and corporate functions.

I also get to rub shoulders with famous folks. I served dinner to Tom Hanks and a gin and tonic to Sean Penn. I met one of my favorite actors, Aaron Paul, at the Emmy Awards gala. I accidentally collided with Amy Poehler in a crowded room and I was the only other person in the hall when Randy Newman did a sound check (and one of the few people on staff old enough to know who he is).

But there's been something much more rewarding about the job: I see the sacrifice creative people will make, because they believe in themselves and what they're doing.

Many of my catering cohorts are in L.A. because they're chasing a dream in film or television and trying to cover expenses while they wait to be discovered. They're educated, some even with MBAs and master's degrees. They work several jobs in between auditions. They come to catering gigs tired and hungry. They sometimes eat off dirty plates. One of them lived in his van for a year. You'd never know by looking at them but I bet a huge majority of them lives under the poverty level.

But it's the price they're willing to pay, and a price they knew they'd have to pay from the start. Catering isn't the endgame for them, nor does it have to be for me. It's simply the bridge to something bigger.

In my case, I wasn't sure what that bigger something was when I first started catering. I left the real estate business with no strategy for what to do next. I cobbled together a meager living but had no larger aspirations or goals. That is until I started working side-by-side with young, wide-eyed dreamers. It was infectious.

Being around them reminded me of the dreams I'd shelved years earlier, of writing a book, of being a nationally respected journalist. I put that aside in the '90s because I thought the newspaper business was doomed. I was drawn to the big paydays in real estate. Fourteen years of that left me burned out, frustrated and nearly broke. But going back to writing seemed crazy. For one thing I felt I was beyond my prime. Plus it seemed like a waste of time for very little money.

I'm not sure when my opinion changed, but I know partially why it changed. In an odd sort of way my catering comrades gave me permission to jump back in and take a chance. And they showed me that I'd be OK if I restructured my life in order to afford to give it a shot.

So that's the take away from my $20-an-hour, blue-collar job. Not bad work, if you can get it.