Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Service Industry Hell (Part 4): T-Shirts Wet and Dry

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Service Industry Hell (Part 4): T-Shirts Wet and Dry

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

None of the stories in this series have been particularly heartwarming or wholesome, but this one from "JS" gets particularly greasy – so be forewarned:

“The summer before I went to university, I got a job as a hostess as at a small town bar. My duties included cleaning the washrooms, seating groups of men my dad curled with on Thursday nights, and announcing the nightly drink special. My first day on the job, the buxom bar owner handed me a tight white t-shirt and advised me to buy a few black bras. She then told me the nightly drink special ‘gin and orange juice, sort of a gin screwdriver, but here it’s special: we use sloe gin…’ Then she told me the name of the drink – ‘the Sloe Sensual Screw’ – and instructed in the proper breathy pronunciation. I turned red, but I did it.  The fellas from the curling club bypassed beer that night. That summer I offered up the ‘Bend Over Shirley,’ the  ‘Hot Red Bush,’ and countless ‘Salty Slippery Nipples.’  The night I walked in and was given a 20-minute lesson on how to serve an ‘Upside Down Margarita,’ I knew it was time to hang up my white t-shirt.”

And how, you ask, does one serve an ‘Upside Down Margarita’?

“Stand behind the seated customer, tip his head back, and pour the booze straight into his mouth. Then shake a bit of salt in his mouth, squeeze in a lime, crush his head between your boobs with your hands, and give it a nice, vigorous shake - his mouth is the shaker! You are supposed to gaze down into his eyes while doing this. Make sense?”

No it doesn’t. Not one little bit.

Sexism and the service industry go together like… sexism and almost all industries. But it takes on an especially raw form in bars and restaurants. Countless owners and managers perform an ongoing Nigel Tufnel routine.

I’ve been lucky, by virtue of being born male, to have avoided the kinds of things that female servers, bartenders, hosts, and cooks, have to put with nightly. The worst I’ve ever had to endure was the time I became a kind of walking billboard for sexism. The owner of a Montreal bar where I was a busboy told me one night that I was wearing an inappropriate shirt for work. (I can’t remember what I was wearing at the time, but I’m certain it was pretty bland and inoffensive.) I was unnerved enough to spend the next afternoon at the Bay looking for a suitably professional-looking dress shirt. The one I settled on was grey with stripes.

That night, the owner informed me again that my shirt wasn’t right. He told me to follow him out to his car, where he had a proper shirt for me. From his trunk he produced a white, XXL T-shirt. On the front and back were advertisements for his two other bars, which happened to be strip clubs. The ads were neon pink and green pictures of women – one bending over, the other wrapping herself around a pole.

I objected to the shirt, but the owner made clear, standing there next to the open trunk of his car, holding the shirt out to me, that wearing it was a condition of my continued employment.

I am not proud of the fact that I worked another half-dozen shifts. wearing the shirt, before finally quitting. During that time I endured a steady stream of well-deserved mockery from the First Nations teens who used to take over the back room of the bar and play Metallica and Linda Perry’s “What’s Going On” on the juke box. A young woman actually took me aside and asked why I was wearing it. This might be my shame-stained memory adding colour, but I am pretty sure she said something like “I didn’t think you were the type.” 

At some point before I quit, I got sent to one of the bars advertised on the shirt to retrieve ice. (Our machine was on the fritz.) It was about five in the afternoon, the sun was still out. As I passed through the bar, a woman was dancing onstage to Madonna’s “Cherish,” wearing only a G-string and a wet T-shirt. I tried to make the apologetic shrug I gave her seem as compassionate and empathetic as I could. It was a shrug of solidarity. If I was not carrying a full bucket of ice, I would raised one fist to show we were struggling under a common oppressor.

The bar where I worked was right next to the old Forum, so when I finally did quit, I made sure to pick the night of a particularly important playoff game for the Canadiens. I also made sure to wait to call until after my shift had already theoretically begun, when it would be too late to call anyone else in. It was a cowardly, passive aggressive move that likely only served to rain down chaos on my former coworkers.

But even now, when I think back to that moment and that call, it makes me feel like this.

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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