Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Service Industry Hell (Part 2): Sinatra's Wake and a Cup of Vomit

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Service Industry Hell (Part 2): Sinatra's Wake and a Cup of Vomit

A lot of the inspiration for my new book, Congratulations On Everything, came from the things I saw while working in bars, restaurants, and hotels, and from the experiences of friends who did the same. Recently, I asked people* on Facebook and Twitter to send me their wildest stories of working in the service industry trenches - in part to show that, however cringey things get in the book, the reality is worse. But also because I find these inherently fun to read.

*to whom I promised anonymity, in order to protect the relatively innocent


These stories come from “S”:

In university, I worked as a busser at Prego Della Piazza and Enoteca in Yorkville. There was a chain-smoking regular who was remarkably vulgar. She would alternate between “flirting” with me and complaining loudly about my service (her biggest pet peeve: if I didn’t empty her ashtray the second—and I mean the second—she stubbed out a cigarette). The day after Frank Sinatra died, she booked a table for 10, ordered multiple bottles of scotch and requested a Sinatra-only playlist. No one came to the wake. Not a single person. She went through the better part of a bottle on her own while singing along, off-key—for five hours.

There are few things more heartrending, awkward, and hilarious than a prolonged and vocal bout of in-bar grief for a dead celebrity. Especially for one who, like Sinatra, was not exactly taken from us in his prime.

One true story – which I got from a friend and which I tried to incorporate into my book multiple times before deciding it seemed too ridiculous in print – concerned a pub owner in Hamilton who, upon hearing of Princess Di’s untimely death, demanded the music be turned off, the lights be turned up, and the entire bar stop talking while he climbed up onto the bar to deliver a drunken, rambling tribute to the people’s princess. I believe he fell, or almost did, upon coming to the end of his monologue.

Some stories are too good to be fiction.

Back to “S”:

This is the same place where one of the “Glitter Girls” asked me to pick through the bathroom garbage to search for a “very expensive ring” her daughter had misplaced while throwing up. And where I was sent to buy cigarettes for a customer who called me “a little bitch who can’t understand simple instructions” when I returned with his correct order (he’d since changed his mind). He demanded that the amount be docked from my pay.

Asshole customers in bars and restaurants are a nightly occupational hazard. Most, I can only assume, are equally asshole-ish in all the other areas of their lives. What has always baffled me, however, is otherwise decent people who only need to get two or three drinks (or fewer) before the concept that their servers are fellow human beings begins to erode in their minds. The poor saps circling the table in matching gold shirts become nothing more than mindless gollems brought to life by the owner to take and deliver drink orders, sweep away broken glass, and deal with sudden bursts of violent rage or lustful obnoxiousness. All is permitted.

Years ago, I was out drinking with a group of youngish, male writers who had taken over a large booth at the back of a pub. At some point, the writer sitting the deepest inside the booth (who will remain nameless, but whose books have been nominated for major awards) evidently decided it would be too much trouble to get everyone to scoot over so he could exit the booth to pee. Instead, he took an empty pint glass, held it below the table, and used it as a makeshift urinal. Worse, after being called out for this by the rest of the table -  who would’ve been only too happy to give him unobstructed passage to the men’s room – the writer smiled, lifted the glass up, and dropped it into the empty space behind him. The glass did not shatter, but the contents covered the floor. I am happy to say the reaction on the part of the rest of the table was disgust, and most of us made clear that the bar we were in was one we liked and would prefer to return to on other nights, and furthermore, that our server had been nothing more than nice to us the entire evening. Leaving behind a giant pool of writerly piss seemed like a poor way to return the favour.


And finally, one of my favourite Pride memories, of which I have SO many, from when I was working at a now-shuttered lesbian bar in Montreal. The place was slammed, so when a woman leaned across the bar and asked me if I could throw something out for her, I said yes and grabbed it. It was a plastic cup full of warm vomit.

That’s much MUCH worse than a pool of pee, but I do like the politeness inherent in the exchange. This was not someone who saw her server as nothing more than a servant, but someone who’d gotten herself into a sticky predicament and saw the cup as the only way out.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Nathan Whitlock

Nathan Whitlock’s award-winning fiction and non-fiction has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Post, Toronto Life, Report on Business, Flare, Fashion, Geist, Maisonneuve, and Best Canadian Essays, and he has appeared on radio and television discussing books and culture. He is a contributing editor for Quill & Quire. He lives in Toronto with his wife and children.

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