Tuesday, May 29, 2012 | 9:44 p.m. CDT; updated 10:47 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 9, 2012

Jordan Maze, 22, works as a waitress at Main Squeeze and Uprise Bakery in Columbia. A college graduate who came back home for lack of a better plan, Jordan reflects on her work and her future. This is the story she tells.

I started working at Main Squeeze when I was in high school, in 2006. Then I left for college, and over the next four years I worked here during winter and summer sometimes when I was home. But I started to work here again full time early December. And then I started working at the Uprise Bakery in early January.

I work five days a week at Main Squeeze and three days a week at the Bakery. I don’t have a lot of control over my schedule, but I do have a lot of hours, which is nice in some ways and really bad in other ways. This morning I worked 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Bakery. Sometimes I work here (at Main Squeeze) from 4 to 9 p.m.

I’m behind the counter — I take customers’ orders, take their money, make them juices, do cleaning, and I bring food to people. And then it’s my responsibility to sweep the floors at the end of the night and make sure that the place looks nice. I like it for the most part because people who work here are all friendly to one another. And everyone’s worked here for a long time, so there are some friendships that have lasted a long time.

I’m from Columbia. I went to Colorado College, a little tiny school in Colorado Springs. I studied Russian. I graduated in May, last year. I had already lined up a few things after graduation. I did a State Department program in Russia. They paid for me to learn Russian for two months, and then after that, I had an internship with a non-violence organization in Belgrade, in Serbia, for three months. And then I came back because I missed my family and my home, and I didn’t have any money, so I decided to come back and work a little bit and figure out what I’m doing next.

When I was in high school, work was really important to me; my job was the cool part of my life. I would go to school and then I’d be like oh, wow, this is great, I get to go and hang out with older cool people and make money; this is amazing. It definitely was part of my identity then, even though it isn’t so much now. As an almost 23 year-old working in two cafés, it’s not prestigious. And people ask me, “What are you doing next?” like this isn’t an actual thing. Having a degree from college, most people don’t think that you want to work in a café.

Some days, I’m really happy to be working a lot because there’s a lot of social interaction. It’s very active, you’re always doing something, you’re always on your feet, thinking, and you get to know the community really well. But some days I’m just really tired, and I wish that I had a job in which I could sit in front of a computer all day and do research or go on Facebook or whatever.

When you’re busy it’s better because you don’t have to think, “What is there I can clean?” You can just do your job. It’s not that you’re physically tired so much, but you’re mentally tired. So like you’re thinking, I need to take four different dishes out to a bunch of different people, I need to clean these tables, clean a bunch of cups, take someone’s order, and I need to make this smoothie. So you’ll try to make the smoothie and get the banana out of the pan. It’s a frozen banana, and sometimes the bananas won’t come out of the pans and it hurts your knuckles, and you just keep going, and they won’t come out. And it’s those moments that everything just explodes in your brain, and you don’t remember anything, and you’re just standing there like “I can’t do this anymore.”

I think that it is a natural instinct to improve at what you do and not necessarily to go higher on the ladder, but just to get better at things. And if you’re working in a restaurant, and there’s nowhere you can go, it’s like how many times can I clean this one (pan)? You can’t really get much better at it — it’s clean or it’s not.

I worked at Main Squeeze for a long time, and then I started at Uprise, and there they serve coffee, and so I’ve been learning how to make coffee drinks for people. You wouldn’t think it’s very complicated, but it actually is really complicated. And if you do it right it’s such a good feeling; it’s like I made this drink like it’s supposed to be made.

It’s important to feel that I’m doing a good job in that I’m in a better mood when I do that, and I’m nicer to people. If I keep messing up or if I didn’t get enough sleep, then I’m just not as nice to people, and I can feel that, and it just makes me feel bad. I don’t want to make anyone’s day worse, basically.

There was a really interesting instance of this today at Uprise. Someone came up, and they had a very specific order, and it took me a long time to type in, and so by the time I was done with one thing, I’d have to ask them to repeat the rest of it because I didn’t remember it. And she was acting really frustrated. So once I had finished, I went to do something and then I came back and she was still at the counter. So I said, “Can I get you anything else?” She said, “You know, I’m just really confused. I broke my arm, it’s shattered in three places, and I’m trying to heal it myself, it’s just really overwhelming.” And I was like, oh, that’s what this is about, it’s not just me. And so just showing people that you’re listening to them and trying to have empathy toward them, it can make it so much better.

I started working in high school because I wanted to have something else going on in my life besides school. I also needed money if I wanted to do my own thing. My parents would give me a little bit of money, but I wanted my own cellphone, I wanted to be able to go to eat by myself and to pay for gas. And that’s not something they could have given me. My mother worked since she was 14. Maybe I just kind of expected that of myself because she always talked about having jobs and working 40 hours a week since she was 15. Now, she manages a database for the university. But she used to work at fast food restaurants, Walmart, grocery stores; she worked at Lakota for a little while. My dad also works at the university; he’s a programmer for the library.

My parents were never together. I always lived with them separately, and they had very different ideas about everything. And so my mother, on the one hand, has worked her whole life and thinks it’s very important for just being an independent person, but on the other hand she thinks that people in the Midwest – she grew up in the South – are too work-centered. And my dad is from New York, and his family always had more money, so he didn’t ever need to work as much. He worked as a bus boy in high school, but it was never because he needed it, it was kind of like me, because he wants the extra money. And so he kind of didn’t understand why I wanted a job, but he never made an issue of it.

My mom had me when she was 22. Basically, my mom worked all through high school so that she could leave the South and come to Missouri and get a college education and a job. She was always trying to save up money to leave, and then when she got here, she was saving up money to pay for college, and then once she had almost finished college, she had a baby, and she had to pay for me. So it was never aimless. But for me right now, I don’t know what I’m doing next, I don’t really have any expenses; I’m living with my parents. I like to get a beer every once in a while — that’s about it. And I have to pay taxes. But I don’t have a child; I don’t have my own house. So I think that’s a difference.

I do have longer term goals, but they change all the time. Some days I want to go to grad school for Slavic studies or get a master’s in translation and become a Russian translator. Other days I just want to travel throughout my 20s and not worry about it. I want to be a social worker for Russian speaking immigrants, so maybe I can get a master’s in social work and explore that option in Seattle or Chicago or New York. I know that if I make a decision right now I might regret it because I’m so split about what I can do, so I’m trying not to make any decisions until I have a better idea of what I do want to do.

I can see myself doing almost anything, really, related to that field. Preferably it would be related to social justice and community development, two fields in which I have very little experience but I’m very interested in. The way that I see those interests intersecting is working with Russian speaking immigrants, trying to find housing for them, health care, help the immigrants get oriented in the United States.

I think (immigrants) are coming less and less nowadays because of the recession and because of the American Dream, which doesn’t really exist anymore in my opinion. I think the American Dream was mostly a product of the World War II boom times, like worldwide imperialism, showing off power in the time when everything was going so quickly and everyone had the ability to get whatever they wanted. Now I think that there are so many different experiences in the U.S., be they positive or negative. Not everyone wants two kids, a white picket fence and the same house. People are searching for a difference in their lives.

If I were to think about the American Dream now, I guess I would say freedom of ideas – and not that the U.S. doesn’t have its flaws in censorship, not that you can say anything you want here and it’s OK, but I think it’s a lot easier here than in a lot of places. And you are surrounded by so many creative people, so many creative forces, and so many industries that can afford to make creative ideas come true.

I don’t think that the concept of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps ever worked.  Nobody achieves a higher class level without the sacrifice of someone else. So the ability to pull yourself up by the bootstraps for me is not a positive one. You can work really hard and not achieve anything, or not get what you’re going for; you can work really hard and not have money, you can work really hard and save up and then something happens to you, something happens to a family member. It’s mostly luck.

I think in reality I’m probably upper-middle class because I am working and saving money, and I don’t have expenses, and I’m college educated, and my parents have their own houses and that sort of thing. I’m definitely comfortable, so I think comfort and a college education would equate upper-middle class in a lot of senses. I didn’t take out student loans, which was great. That’s a big difference in my life. My college was super rich and so when I applied, this was in 2007, the year before the recession, they said 'You’re in, and we’ll pay for you to go completely.' The year after, they stopped doing that. It’s just a combination of very lucky factors that I happen to be a member of the upper-middle class. I didn’t pull myself up by any bootstraps. I just happened to get lucky a lot of times.

The fact that I have a degree means I can apply for probably 80 percent more jobs than I could have if I didn’t have that degree. But I don’t think it makes a difference in my skill level, I don’t think that going to college made me a better person or made me really smarter. Now that I have a bachelor’s, and I’m kind of going in this Russian direction, in order for me to get a professional job I really need a master’s degree.

I don’t see myself staying and working in Columbia for more than a year or so, because I grew up here. and I don’t want to stay here, even though I like it. I just had so much more exciting time in other countries and other cities. I want to go back to Belgrade. I know that when I’m older, I’m going to have to move back here because both of my parents are not married, and they don’t have any other children. So right now, I’d rather spend my youth doing really active things while my body can still handle it, doing crazy things. Taking all the opportunities I can before I am tied to one place. Right now, I’m here basically for the money, and I like being here too, but I would leave if I had a big pile of money and some sort of goal.

This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.

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