Greener pastures

I was playing disc golf awhile back when I happened to run into a few guys I used to work with at a local restaurant. One of them had moved on to a Mexican restaurant, which he’d said he liked very much the last time we met.

“How’s the Mexican place?” I asked him as we walked to the first tee.

“Oh,” he said. “I don’t work there anymore.”

“I thought you liked it,” I said.

“It was OK,” he said. “Now I’m at the country club — it’s a lot better up there. You know, you oughta put in an application: We’re hiring.

Now the Asheville job market being what it is, I have worked there — on two separate occasions. That was several years ago, and not surprisingly, given the nature of the Asheville job market, there’s an entirely new staff. Not one of the people I worked with — from the manager on down to the dishwasher — is still there.

“The new management is great,” said my friend when I mentioned that I hadn’t left on the best of terms. “So much cooler than the old management.” That’s hard to imagine, really, since the old management is no longer there at least partly because they let the staff drink expensive wine left over from weddings.

After discussing getting me a third term of employment at this country club, my friend began to wax philosophical about the restaurant where we’d worked together. “I can’t believe you still work there,” he said. “When I think of all the time I spent at that place, it’s just like I was wasting my life.”

It’s funny — I’ve said the exact same thing about that country club he likes so much.

Everybody knows that Asheville is a cool city. There are great restaurants, a hip downtown, the mountains. I don’t need to tell you about that — you’ve seen the Chamber of Commerce Web site.

And sure, Asheville is a great place to eat out, to visit, to hang out with friends, to see music. But how about making a living?

I can’t walk down the street without seeing someone I used to work with. And when we make small talk, my former co-workers invariably sing the praises of this new place where they’re working — because chances are, they’ve switched jobs recently. They tell me about how much money they’re making, how cool the management is, how much the last place they worked sucked.

“Hey,” they’ll say, as regular as clockwork. “You oughta drop off an application: We’re hiring.

Those two little words are about as loaded as a phrase can be, evoking a whole host of promises: better money, nicer managers, a more convenient schedule … .

But unless you’re one of the minority of people who are culinary or management professionals, working in the hospitality industry is not your dream job. Unfortunately, though, that seems to be the only place in town where the words “we’re hiring” are heard much.

City Council members are quick to remind us that Asheville has the lowest unemployment rate in the state. McDonald’s, for example, is always hiring, as is the Super Wal-Mart. And Tunnel Road is a veritable hotbed of employment opportunities.

I’m sure there are good jobs here, though, because from time to time I do see people walking around downtown in business attire. But how you go about getting one of those positions is anybody’s guess.

So a lot of folks are left to jump from job to job, looking for a better way to pay for the privilege of living here — which becomes a kind of hobby in itself.

I was railing about this recently with a friend of mine who works as an insurance agent. He makes a decent living here, though he knows he could make 10 times as much in Raleigh or Charlotte.

“Line 10 people up from any city in the country,” he said after I’d finished my rant, “and I bet nine of them will say they don’t like their jobs. Now do that with 10 people from Asheville, and ask them if the work they do is worth living in a great place like this. Nine of them will say yes, they like their jobs — because they get to live here.”

He advised me to keep that in mind when I wrote my article.

I knew what he meant. About two years ago, I decided to put an end to the eternal, fruitless search for a marginally better position and took a job as a bartender. I liked my co-workers, and I got along very well with my boss. So I made myself a promise — that the next job I took would be as a writer, and until that day I would just stay put, instead of perpetually seeking greener pastures. For nearly two years, I stuck with it: Life was sweet, and there wasn’t any conflict over whether I ought to be looking for a different gig.

But then I got a phone call from one of the best restaurants in town; a former co-worker had referred me.

I took the bait, and all sarcasm aside, it really is a big improvement. I’m home at a reasonable hour — and I already know half the staff, since I’ve worked with them at other restaurants.

And while we’re on the subject, why don’t you drop off an application? We’re hiring.

[Freelance writer Sam Wardle lives in Asheville.]

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