Learning the mundane, counting no tips
Note: this is a fictional, satirical piece based on real experiences in response to this essay published in The Lifted Brow.
When I walk into the café this is what I see: walls that needed a refurbish 10 years ago. Glaring sun light. Little stools barely wide enough to fit anyone’s behind, unless you were a gym junkie or genetically gifted. Typical Melbourne. There’s an elderly guy in the corner, glancing up at me, momentarily distracted. I turn my head, pretend to look away but my eyes keep to him. He watches the waitress twirl between the narrow tables to serve customers and expertly places his eyes on his newspaper when she nears him.
She’s offered me a lunch menu but I’m here for more than that. I start filling in the application form while under the conspicuous eyes of struggling university students turned baristas and waiters. That old guy rolls his eyes up once again when the waitress accidently drops a spoon. I, too, check out her butt. It’s a nice butt.
I check the application form, there’s an array of skills I could tick. What’s the difference between a counter-hand and a waitress? What does the headwaiter do? It’s even more complicated when it comes to food handling. I check what I can wing and wonder if I should button up my polo t-shirt.
Eventually an older Italian man, Antony, with a suit that should’ve been replaced when the walls should’ve, interviews me and reads from his interview script. I reply with my well-rehearsed ‘I’m the best candidate for the job’ script. My smile, twinkling eyes, and purposeful ‘nervous’ bite at the lips works like a charm. I don’t bother mentioning it’s a trick I learnt from my old job. The old man in the corner pays his bill and leers at the behind of the waitress as she walks back to the counter. Catches me catching him.
In the end I work at the café for 3 months. It was an okay job. It was great not having to lie about what I’m doing with my day. This was more ‘dignified’ according to everyone else. It was just enough time for me to recharge my body and mind and to truly bathe in the mediocrity of the Australian way. At first, all my sex workers peers thought I was I was gone for good. No, I’d be back. I just needed to take that leap to the other side, to the simplicity and regularity of a normal gal. They thought I had transformed into a muggle. They couldn’t have been further from the truth. I vowed to work those three months, while at the same knowing I could just go back to the parlour to make my weekly wage in one shift. I stuck to it, working my days at the outskirts of normality, seeing what made it so acceptable and non-offensive to everyone.
At first I don’t tell anyone about my new job. When one moves on from the sex industry, we don’t usually keep in contact, it’s normally a clean break. Antony tells me waitressing is much more than serving food. Take the distinctions in all the tick boxes on the application form. It’s a formality, really. Everyone is expected to do what they can, regardless of their job titles, to ensure Antony makes the most profit at the end of the night. As I’m taken upstairs to the staff room, I pass an art series hanging on the wall of meat being cured in its various stages. Among them is Antony, celebrating a kill in a hunting trip. I wince.
“This is what you’ll be wearing,” says Antony. “Is that okay?”
The boots are half a size too small but one can’t refuse a free uniform. Antony tells me I need to wear it immediately if he’s to show me the kitchen. Can’t walk into the kitchen without follow OH&S orders. He’ll wait in another part of the staff room. As I’m changing, one of the junior chefs walks into me mid-dress. I squeal, cover my breast. It doesn’t matter if I’ve spent two years using my puppies to make a living. This is not the same context.
“Hurry up with them chucks!” someone calls from behind.
“Sorry,” he pretends to cover his eyes and grabs the closest box of chucks next to him.
I wonder if it’s an honest mistake as Anthony shows me through the kitchen and the staff inspect me, the new girl. I’m introduced to the second in charge, who looks a lot like one of my regulars. A good client. Not one I’d like to see outside of work though. Tells me to call him Jimbo which screws with my head, considering I use to call my client Jimmy. Jimbo directs me, helps me, tells me to come to him for any questions. He says we’re a team. It’s a nice feeling, being a part of a team for once. I’m used to being a subcontractor. A team means you do and share the same work. The ones who have been around longer get to call the shots; the younger ones work away until it’s their turn to yell at the newest recruit.
It’s 6am and I have to walk past the hordes of Friday night clubbers with their day old makeup and tired eyes. Two guys try to strike me up for a conversation. I am drawn faster to the shelter of the restaurant. When I walk in to the restaurant two of the other workers look at me in bewilderment. What did they expect me to be wearing so early in the morning? Of course I’m going to cake on my makeup, I don’t want them to suspect I’m overtired because I worked til midnight then back again at 5am. Jimbo wolf whistles. I roll my eye and make a coffee.
I learn the ways of the kitchen swiftly. I can hold a drink tray. I can carry up to four plates. I can stack glasses in my hand up to my shoulder. I tap an order into the touch screen register and gaze with disappointment as the customers fail to tip anything beyond a gold coin. I allow myself three of the common back and leg stretches once an hour. I drown myself in leftover coffee. My fingers titter with the consumption. During the hustle and bustle, I stand longer than I should in the freezer seeking a much needed break until it’s too cold to stand there anymore.
Soon after I start working, my girlfriend asks me about whether I’m ok with this new environment. The long hours. The last minute expectations to come in if I’m to keep my job. The ignorance I’m supposed to play when the Antony sneakily makes me work overtime but doesn’t pay me accordingly.
“Are you sure you’re okay with it?”
It’s hard to explain to her how it can be okay. She’s used to the parlour life too. But this is what it’s like everywhere, this is mediocracy. I’m the new girl, these things are expected, of course everyone’s going to harass me or get angry at me because I haven’t learnt to work at the same pace as everyone. It’s hard to explain how much this new job means to me. I get to put something ‘substantial’ on my resume. I get to make friends with people just like me, rather than having to converse with people from diverse backgrounds like at the parlour. It takes me a while to realise why people love normality: it’s predictable, safe. There’s the sweet knowledge of knowing that there will hardly ever be a threat in your bubble. Sheltered.
PATRON: Thanks a lot, darl. You’re a real hard worker, aren’t you?
EL: Thank you?
40 cent tip
The hierarchy here is clear. Dishwashers are always at the bottom. Then there’s the waitresses and waiters. The headwaiters are on top of them. Then there’s the junior chefs, then the chefs (mostly men). Then the managers (mostly men). Then Antony. Then his family who owns a chain of Italian cafes and restaurants in Melbourne. There’s no movement between the layers except between the waiters, it’s almost like each job demands a different skill set. Like industrial America.
Antony likes me—the customers love to talk to me—so he includes me in the one sided conversation slagging off the mostly Indian dishwashers. They’re stupid, they’re ugly, they stink, they’re creeps. I don’t mind the Indians.
The bartenders let me know that John is the best of blokes. Sure, he seems like the most charismatic and funniest, but I think he’s a bit immature and a bit racist. Maybe that’s why people like him. I like Jamie and Ashley. Jamie is a skilled bartender, often doing tricks and showing off his cool moves behind the bar. Ashley is the sweetest thing ever and she goes out of her way to help anyone with anything. I think she’s the nicest person in the world. I’m sure she’d be good in the sack.
But John is, for all intents and purposes, a fun guy to be around. He seems to know everyone, always pulls in the coolest crowd. The A Current Affair team even came here for their after party once. John is your dream man: good looking guy, came from a good family, knows good people, and generally spreads his goodness freely. What a legend.
PATRON: You know, a smile would really suit you.
EL: (Silence and glare).
The workers have a manner to express themselves through their uniforms, whether they notice it or not. You have John who comes in looking immaculate but as the night pumps up, he has a tendency to roll up his sleeves and flicks up his collar like Dracula. Jaime wears funny belts. Ashley buttons down her polo shirt to the last button. She likes to wear sexy lingerie, I notice the Agent Provocateur when she bends. I suspect she’d make an amazing sex worker but I keep that to myself. When a waiter is waitering, they take the time to converse with a customer beyond the common niceties. A table without any back and forth hassle will grant you smooth, yet synthetic, conversation. Har-har laughs. Genuine common interest and a good rapport will ensure that the waiter always makes certain your glass is full. Then it’s the band’s job to introduce the patrons to the dance floor.
“Up next, we have an Italian classic with a modern twist!” the lead singer croons into the microphone. I watch from afar as the untrained muggles of society attempt to dance in heels. Guys stand stiffly near the women as if they have a pole in their butt. Every now and then I notice a female patron dance as though her heels are a natural extension to her feet. During those times I miss the class and sass of my old work peers.
There’s a cocktail mixing course offered at the restaurant before the bar opens on Mondays and Wednesdays. I’m invited to join but I decline. Much later, though, after we’ve closed and I’m feel relaxed and brave, I’ll have a bash and twirl those liquor bottles. It feels more like spinning dumbbells at a gym. There’s a myriad of bottles with differing alcohols and shapes, and a changing weight according to the alcohol that’s left. Jaimie likes to show off his skills when I try to spin the bottle and wrap it around my elbow. He’s always there to catch the bottles before they hit the floor. Jaimie is more a performing entertainer than a bartender, I realise, and wonder how many other performers make as little as he does for his act.
A month in and I’m living off my savings. I’ve learned to sleep in intervals. I get home at strange hours and wake up at even stranger hours. I feel worn and crunched, like the pocket cover of a new novel being clumsily scrunched up with every reading. When I’m awake in the sunlight my eyes water; especially because I’m staring directly at the sun.
But my confidence blossoms with every shift. If you want to feel like you’re moving up in the world when really you’re stagnant, work at a restaurant.
“I was basically getting paid just enough to slide through my master, and I was sleeping in the staff room at times,” Roger says. He’s been a chef for more than 10 years, he’s accumulated a number of culinary skills, even travelled overseas to Bali twice. He’s short, chatty and covered in really bad Bali tattoos. “I’m a natural chef, anyway,” he says. “I even cook when I go home.”
For a while, I struggle to understand why people would willingly choose to remain in a profession where it wasn’t uncommon to be undermined or pushed around. Some of these people are clearly smarter than Antony and definitely have more skills than the owners. The only difference is the family own the business and the workers own their skills. I’m praised for my attention to detail with patrons. “You’re like the bird who gets the first worm,” my peers slur about my ability to top up drinks. I squirm in discomfort. Are they angry for doing my job well? Is this supposed to be encouraging me? Eventually I stop squirming. I learn not to worry about compliments.
But the job does not instil in me a love for the human race. I doubt they realise how unsophisticated and desperate they are in a place like this. I watch them fall in love with their drinks or pizza overnight. It’s not like they can hide it, you have three people ordering three pizza’s with three bottles of wine. Who are they trying to fool? I watch them try to be polite with me, a slight attempt to have me forgive them for their blatantly unkempt habits. The only humans I like are those who are honest and unafraid of who they really are. Sometimes I’ll even share a drink with them.
For one whole weekend, we host the Virgin Australia annual anniversary party. We had everyone over from the staff to the supporting partners. But you should see these people when there is an open bar. That weekend I had to help at least 15 drunk patrons to their car.
“I love this place,” one of the pilots tell me. “I get to come here, have good conversation,” he fails to notice he’s the only one talking and continues to leer at a woman. I’m the only one listening because I’m paid to. “Yeah, this place is good. I’m gonna get lucky,” he stares afar to one of the women. I’m guessing an airhostess. I hope he leaves. He marches to the woman but he also falls flat on his face for all his bravado. Antony gets angry at me for the possibility of being sued. He hadn’t displayed the same concern for me when I tripped over the exact same loose tile only a week earlier.
The breakfast rush people tend to understand how this place works. You come in between certain hours, have your breakfast and coffee, just enough fuel to get you started for the day. 12PM, that’s when breakfast finishes and people understand these rules. Occasionally you’ll have someone come in on a Sunday at 3PM clearly hungover, with no regard for the rules. When I tell them the breakfast menu is not an all-day menu, the slouch in their seat, groaning rudely.
“Who the hell doesn’t have an all-day breakfast menu!” he complains to his embarrassed friend. “Sorry,” his friend mouths and like a pair of crabs they scuttle away.
Sometimes my friends ask what I prefer: the sex industry or hospitality. There’s no easy answer for this as I feel there’s a time for everything. Hospitality is great for a team environment, it makes you feel like you’re everyone else and it feels good to be accepted. It’s typical human nature. Being in the sex industry is rewarding as well, everyone in the industry is supportive, the participants of the industry adore you but everyone else hates you and trivialises your experiences. And half of those people are usually participating with the sex industry. Find one person who doesn’t consume porn.
I almost never go out anymore. After works drinks seems to be a thing and I don’t want to let the team down. All the boys have had their turn with flirting with me. Even though I have a girlfriend that fact only slices the flirtations in intensity not frequency. It seems as though guys are the same wherever you are.
Later, Ashley asks me what I was doing before I came to the restaurant.
“Uh… events?” I mutter.
I bite my tongue. It’s not even worth explaining.
EL: Here’s your soy latte, two brown sugars, two free range organic eggs-
PATRON 1: (Staring at Ashley) She’s the reason feminism is failing. Doesn’t your workplace have some sort of code?
EL: What’s wrong with her uniform?
PATRON 1: Why isn’t she dressed like you? Look at how low her shirt is.
PATRON 2: Just leave it be Mel.
On quiet weekends, I talk to Alice and Stacey to entertain myself. They are two of the same kind, though they’re from two different worlds. Alice doesn’t actually need to work, her parents pay for most things, so long as it appears as if she’s working hard herself. The only other 23-year-olds I’ve seen driving BMWs are usually sex workers. She’s flunking university and always complains about how she never has time. Stacey is exactly like Alice except that she actually needs to work. She too is understandably flunking university. In one conversation we turn to the topic of strippers.
“Those girls must be like, so done with guys.” I’m impressed with Alice’s observation. “I’m done with guys and I don’t even have to take off my clothes.” I laugh with her. Stacey chores in. “But really, let’s be honest. Those girls must be so off their face they don’t even know.” And there it is. I offer the perspective that perhaps strippers are not so unlike us, and we resolve to the thought that there is at least two types of strippers. There’s the classy ones who only do it for the noblest, and humblest of reasons (getting through university, paying your parents hospital bills, whatever) and the rest who do it because they’ve got nothing else to do or can’t gain any skills in any other trade. Their reasoning is more ignorance than idiocracy, and when the line of sensible observation is crossed, things just are too far to save.
The stigma finds me, too. It doesn’t matter if I’m no longer taking off my clothes or being a raging lesbian like I was when I was 18. Just being a woman in the public means your free range bait. The intention of most men is still the same, they’ll do anything to get in your pants. I lose count of the number of guys asking me out on dates, who immediately turn either confused or cold when I inform them of my girlfriend. Or challenged. Sometimes it just attracts them to me even more. Imagine what would happen if I told them I don’t mind having sex for money. That sex isn’t a big deal for me. Their muggle minds would explode. They like to make jokes about me. One day it got too far and I found myself toe to toe with a dude.
“That’s not fair and I’ve had enough,” I say. “Stop being a dick.”
“Would you rather I be a pussy?” he retorts.
When I tell my girlfriend about the conservative, narrow minded bubble I’m stuck in she understands and emphasises because she’s a lesbian as well. But she doesn’t pretend she completely understands because she knows that her life experiences is different to mine. I’m starting to learn why the marginalised are sometimes reluctant to re-assimilate with the mainstream.
FEMALE PATRON: (vomiting in the toilet)
JAIMIE: I only gave her one drink, make sure she gets in an ambulance, someone might’ve slipped her something.
Adrianna is a bitch of a manager. I don’t even know why she hasn’t been fired yet, none of us can even have a 5 minute breather with her breathing down her necks.
“This is your job,” she repeats when I fail to execute her orders on time, even though I’m clearly working as fast as I can. I haven’t sat down in four hours. This can’t be legal, I think. Not in this heat, at this pace, for this long. Not like this. There must be some OH&S standard. But then I think of how she would react if I were to ever pull the OH&S card.
ANTONY: Go tell the guards to not let those guys in.
ANTONY: Look at this place, you think anyone wants to be at a sausage sizzle?
Women usually come to the restaurant as a pre-emptive strike before hitting the strip clubs. I am quietly baffled at the thought of a group of straight girls getting pre-drunk for a strip club. Women, as a rule, are much like men when they’re drink. Hens’ night usually starts in the early evening with a large meal, and once the night progresses, I wonder on the walk home if that pile of vomit was from our restaurant earlier on. I really don’t see the difference between a pack of men and a pack of women – all in all, its pack mentality. I don’t even know why I’m writing about it, to be honest. Who am I to analyse these women? Maybe I’ll not be so judgey and unconcerned with other people.
JAIMIE: Remember that hot girl with the blonde bangs? She passed me her number, eyo, look who’s getting laid!
ASHLEY: Oh my god Jaimie, you’re such a slut.
Evert interaction in any situation has rules.
“Hey guys,” I chirp. “I just wanted to see if there’s anything else you’d like to order? Refreshments?” Eye contact. Smile. My pen and pad out. I hope they get the hint.
The booth next to the group of youngsters vacates after finishing their meal in a considerate hour. This group has been sitting in the booth for a solid 2 hours with only a round of lattes to show.
“You know, there’s other customers,” I say. Eye contact. No smile. A million miles away.
“But we’ve ordered a drink,” they detest.
“That was two hours ago.”
I walk away. Everyone behind the counter is sure to give them evil eyes until they get the hint. I can hear them grumbling behind me. After months of practice I can meander my way swiftly between the tables.
Later on that night, I walk into Adrianna crying upstairs. Ashley is comforting her and they both notice me before I can slip away. I feign concern although I feel Adrianna deserves whatever she gets.
Her brother, Ashley mouths to me. I have no idea what this has to do with her brother, and this must be apparent in my expression. Cancer, Ashley eyes widen and incline to the other side of Adrianna.
“I’m sorry, you shouldn’t see me like this,” Adrianna says in between her sobs, and I sit next to her, rubbing her back. That explains her temperament.
PATRON: (very drunk) You’re a butterfly.
EL: (cleaning the bar) That’s nice of you to say.
PATRON: You, you know what? You should come back to my place after your shift. Yeah, yeah, we’ll have a good time.
EL: That’s sweet but I have a girlfriend.
PATRON: That’s okay, your girlfriend can come too. We can all have a good time.
EL: My girlfriend and I have a fine enough time without you.
String of slurs.
If I’m on the closing shift, I’m out between 12AM-3AM depending on the night. Naturally on the weekend I have to slink past the groups of young men and women out on the town. And like any girl at these hours I take precautions as I walk to one of my girlfriend’s mate’s home in the city. She lets me stay over if I’m not out by the time trains have finished. I wonder how people can afford to take a taxi working these hours if they don’t have a car or live close by. But I guess these are the rules of normality.
About three weeks before I left, there was a brawl inside the restaurant with a crowd of patrons. I was pushed over and I hit my head on the bar. I wasn’t hurt badly, but I did have to sit with an icepack for the next half hour. A foul mood crept into the restaurant after that. And as I was sitting there, nursing my throbbing head, I thought to myself that this world was not much unlike the sex industry. Violence is inherently within anyone, add booze to the mix and you might have yourself a fight. It’d be unfair to draw a comparison, even if you had lived on either side of the fence for three months. There are rules everything, but regardless, people break them. This is the reality everywhere.
I try to follow the rules. So long as I find them reasonable and achievable. One of the rules, one of those ‘I can’t believe this nonsense is a rule’, is to never have your girlfriend with you when everyone is drunk. Especially when she’s drunk herself and feeling rowdy. One night my girlfriend is starving, and drunk from a day party. I entertain her while everyone in the restaurant and behind the counter watch with their jaws agape. Imagine if we told them we were sex workers. Of course during this time I don’t even notice Antony’s family coming from the back of the restaurant. They’re as much curious as they are horrified. Antony gets an earful in Italian and I’m left standing there bright red. I hope he doesn’t get into that much trouble. There’s special rules for special people like me. This is what happens when you don’t follow the rules.
In less than an hour, Antony is relaying his earful to me but he doesn’t need to tell me the rules. I know what the rules are, I’m the one who suffers every time one is broken. That night I get a written warning even though the hypocrite said that my girlfriend can visit at any time. I wonder why sexuality and shame always seem to go hand in hand. And then sexuality, shame and insecurities, I correct myself as I wipe the counter. Always the insecurities.
Towards the end of my time at the restaurant, I announce what I really enjoy doing for money at closing drinks. Everyone thought I was joking at first but then they realised I was serious. I explained how I enjoyed my time at the restaurant and would be happy to have ongoing friendship with some of the staff after my time there was done. No, I don’t give freebies or mates rates. I was ready for the onslaught of thoughtless questions.
“Do you actually have to sleep with them?”
“Don’t you respect yourself to not do that?”
“How can you sleep with men if you’re a lesbian?”
“Aren’t all hookers, like, on drugs?”
“I respect you I just don’t think any mother would want to see her daughter like that.”
“Did something happen to you when you were a kid?”