Dear Stephanie,

My little boy went to Minnesota for the National Scholastic Chess Championships a few weeks ago. I don’t know why the tournament was held in Minnesota in particular. At any rate, I did not attend this tournament, so I was left home alone with the cat.

After I returned from the airport utterly spent from the rush hour traffic, I was reclining on my camel back cream toile sofa playing a relaxing computer game designed for 6 year olds. The cat, having tired herself out from a trip to the basement to visit “the facilities,” was resting on a pile of pillows in the vicinity of my feet like the little princess that she is. Though at her age, Dowager Empress might be a more appropriate moniker.

During a pause in the game, I was regarding the cat thoughtfully, trying to decide whether I should dress her up as Darth Vader or a Jedi Knight when, out of nowhere, I heard this incredibly loud noise—like really alarming, the kind of loud, grating noise that really settles into your consciousness and is totally cringe-inducing.

It was an enormous fly—the most enormous fly I have ever seen in my life. I kid you not. This creature had absolutely no business flying, seeing as it was approximately the size of Volkswagon beetle with wings (not to make you nostalgic or anything), a VW that had been divested of its muffler on purpose.

The cat and I stared at it in disbelief. She just sat there primly following it with her eyes, so I got up off my ass, rolled up a copy of Pottery Barn’s spring catalogue and attempted to swat it, but it somehow managed to elude me. The cat looked at me disdainfully, and I felt a little embarrassed. I mean, the fly was the size of a small European import car, and yet I failed to squash it with a 2-inch thick catalogue rolled up into a billy club.

“Why don’t you catch it then,” I demanded of the cat, attempting to deflect attention away from my ineptitude. She had by now shifted her position on the pillows by 180 degrees so as to avoid looking at me. She’s so discrete. At the sound of my voice, she looked over her shoulder at me, first yawned, then emitted a prolonged meow.

“Meow Mix? Really?” she meant to say. “Why don’t you fill my bowl with some stinky turkey giblets, bitch? Show me the giblets!”

“Because they are smelly!” I replied. “What are you complaining about anyway? The Meow Mix is good for your teeth.”

Then I tried to make amends by rubbing the side of her face just like she likes it, but she proceeded to immediately and vigorously clean the exact spot I touched. Then she moved on to her vagina.

I returned my attention to the import with wings. My attempt to murder it seemed to have aggravated it. It was whipping through the house at an alarming rate of speed getting louder and louder. It was really getting on my nerves. It would settle down for a few minutes then suddenly start up again.

At this time, I began to question the wisdom of murdering it. This is largely owing to its size. I imagined the squishy splat sound it would make and then all the guts oozing all over the place, and this both grossed me out and inspired in me fear of karmic retaliation. It can’t be good to kill something that big, right? It didn’t feel right. Besides, it couldn’t have a very long lifespan even at that size.

I tried to lure it into the kitchen so I could get it out the back door somehow, but it didn’t fall for my ploy, which further supported my theory that I shouldn’t attempt to kill it. The cat did not agree with me. Every time the winged VW passed her vicinity, she would look at me disapprovingly. Then again, she is more ruthless than I.

When I lived in the city, I once came home to find the cat sitting by the door. God knows how long she’d been waiting there. The moment I crossed the threshold, she began meowing persistently and lead me into the living room. Next to my favorite chair lay the empty carcass of a small grey mouse. My cute little fuzzy kitty cat—who had spent her lifetime indoors gazing out apartment windows, shamelessly begging for treats and sleeping curled up into a ball on my back—had placed the mouse’s innards in a tidy little pile next to its carcass. She looked up at me, and her eyes said, “I proffer this humble gift to you as thanks for all you do. You like?”

I was effusive with my praise. “Oh my, what a good little kitty cat you are!” I exclaimed as I scratched behind her ears and under her chin. She, meanwhile, rubbed herself against my leg repeatedly and meowed herself hoarse. “Thank you so much! This is so awesome! I totally couldn’t disembowel a mouse, let alone so neatly. Wow!”

I remember being particularly impressed that my cat could be that neat without thumbs. I have two thumbs and am nowhere near as organized as she is. I never saw another mouse in that apartment again.

Anyway, the cat clearly thought me a sissy for refusing to kill the fly, which buzzed about the house for the entire weekend. Just when I’d think maybe it had died off, it would come out of nowhere, do a few laps around my head, then disappear into the blinds. It drove me insane, and frankly, I felt a little resentful of my cat. Back in the day, she would leap up and catch moths, flies, whatever, in her mouth. Nothing survived for long in our apartments, except for us of course.

But then I remembered. She doesn’t have the stalking skills and abilities she once had. I forget because she looks so damn good for her age (like some other broads I know). She turned 17 this year. Her birthday was last week. What really matters here is that she’s still fabulous at snuggling.

Love,

Stella

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Dear Stella,

Scene I

I am in my Big Blue Bartender uniform at Hotel Bar. I’m washing glass doors, noting how the business men who enter (I hold the door open for them, smile) don’t meet my eyes. I make them uncomfortable.

I don’t make the man sitting by himself in the corner uncomfortable though. “You’re doing a good job there,” he says.

“It’s not neuroscience,” I reply. “I’m sure you could do a good job too.”

He reminds me of the man in Wendy’s, my senior year of high school, who told me I would make someone a fine housewife someday when I cleaned the legs of the table at which he sat.

Do I make these men uncomfortable because they want to imagine that the windows clean themselves, or that they are just naturally, perpetually clean? Perhaps the thought of a real human being’s labor behind their good time is like seeing the poor or the dirty or the sick—visible reminders that outside this room (even worse, in it), all is not perfect. Not even a giant plate of cheesy nachos can guard against such a view.

Or do I make them uncomfortable because something about me just fits—a woman washing windows, or waiting on them, or carrying their food scraps. Maybe on some level they know they aren’t supposed to, but how can they not find a woman serving them to be a turn on, skin or no skin showing?

Scene II

I’m dragging heavy floor mats from the back patio at Cool Bar. They are a strain to lift and even more of a strain to drag. I’ve got a black stretch mini skirt on, and my off-the-shoulder shirt slides further down my arm with my attempts to maneuver the mats. One of the guys working on the back patio— a friend of the owners and my age—comes inside for water. He sits quietly at the end of the bar with his water as I lose myself in the manual labor. It’s the first thing I do when I arrive at the bar, and it transports me from anxious over-thinking head to heaving, sweating, muscular body.

I’m aware that he’s aware of me, though we don’t meet eyes or speak. He seems more respectful than uncomfortable. He asks nicely for his water, and when I hold the door open for him so he can bring water to others on the patio, it feels like we are playing out a satisfying gender role reversal.

This scene, unlike Scene I, feels good. Why? I’m showing more skin; I’m being watched as I work. So what’s different? Why did I feel degraded in the first scene and yet in the second, I embrace the eroticism of the female body working?

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that at Cool Bar, I feel protected by the work the owners and employees do everyday, in small and big ways, to say “No” to customers’ expectations. This bar is not about selling “Niceness” nor about selling the illusion of being able to have just because you can pay for it.

When your ex-manager told you to not show your boundaries so clearly, he was, it seems to me, trying to sell customers the illusion of being able to have you off the menu as well as the drinks, seeing the female bartender as something one can have for the taking, for the right price (or any price). And even though Hotel Bar thought of itself as “upscale” (cue laugh track) and no one explicitly told me to hide my boundaries, their Customer-is-Always-Right approach created an attitude that we bartenders and servers exist solely to please. For the women, this means playing into cultural stereotypes and fetishes, especially when waitressing or washing windows—doing a “woman’s work.”

Customers at Cool Bar are trained immediately that we are not here to serve them. The owners don’t care if you come back or not. It’s simple: if you show respect you’ll get served and if you don’t, you won’t. Want that drink? Then put your finger down and stop tapping the menu maniacally on the bar.

At Cool Bar, we women bartenders don’t do women’s work. The men clean, take away dirty dishes, cut garnishes, and make sure we have everything we need to do our jobs. The men don’t have to worry about someone mistaking them for a French maid, so doing this work is less compromising for them. And neither do I, in this bar, which frees me up to be sexy. Because here, my sex appeal isn’t for sale. It’s something to behold and even desire, but in this space at least, it’s not on the menu.

It is not the refusal or absence of erotics that I’m after. I wouldn’t be working in a bar if I wanted to erase my body. But Cool Bar gives me the freedom and power to define and determine the erotics I participate in. To not the be pawn in someone else’s clichéd erotic drama. To shut down any situation I don’t like. Permission to say “No.”

I can’t think of anything more sexy.

love,
Stephanie

Here we go…

April 22, 2010

Dear Stephanie,

So I got myself another bartending job. Let me begin by saying that if I were looking to tend bar at some cool little neighborhood hotspot, I would really need to live in close proximity to the kind of neighborhood that would actually have a cool hotspot.

My concern is that I don’t really think that I do. I live in an upscale suburban town surrounded by other upscale suburban towns whose differences are determined primarily by whoever is responsible for drawing the lines on maps. Very little distinguishes one town from the next.

Which is to say: I’m not bartending in my town anymore—I will have to take Interstate 95 to get there, and I’ll have to travel north during rush hour. But that might be one of the few significant differences. Other differences include: the restaurant serves American cuisine not Asian, and I’m working lunch through happy hour not dinner to close. Like my previous establishments, though, it’s a family-owned restaurant, and it doesn’t seem that they are terribly organized.

I did a couple of interviews at corporate outfits, and I don’t think it’s my thing. First of all, if the uniform requires specialty clothing not available at, say, Old Navy (i.e. all black or jeans and a black shirt), I’m out. My sense of personal autonomy is simply too fragile at this time to endure my body’s being attired in, for example, an American flag tie. Further, when management starts talking about putting exactly 3 rings of an onion, two cherry tomatoes, and three cumber slices at exactly 9, 3, and 6 o’clock respectively, my eyes glaze over, and I begin to fret that these people should do something meaningful with their lives—read a book, take a trip, volunteer somewhere rather than hover by the kitchen exit, pen poised over notepad to write me up for giving away an extra cherry tomato that costs .005 cents. Not to be judgmental or anything. I’m just concerned about the state of their emotional health.

The day before yesterday, I sent my resume to a restaurant that advertised on craigslist. The day before the day before yesterday, I wrote this resume and ran it past my friend Joe, who is a highly experienced and successful bartender.

“Stick to the basics,” he said when he read the line “So calm under pressure, the Buddah weeps with envy.”

I was disappointed, feeling that it reflected a lack of humor in the larger world. Plus I really liked how that sentences sounded, and I came up with it while walking on the treadmill.

“Why does everyone take themselves so seriously?” I asked him. “Doesn’t anyone appreciate a sense of fun in a prospective bartender?!”

“Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great line,” he said. “Really funny. (pause) Stick to the basics.”

So I did, and I got a call, and now I have concerns.

When the phone rang, I recognized the exchange as being from the town to which I’d sent the resume.

“I’m calling about the bartending job?” The Man on the other end asked. He sounded heavily sedated as he explained that he and his wife own the restaurant. He is the chef, and his wife manages the floor.

He asked me if I’d also be willing to be a server, and I said no, and he said, “oh well, that should work out.” Then he invited me to come in this morning, which I did.

The Wife, who looks to be a natural redhead, was outside cleaning the patio tables (white plastic) when I arrived, and she brought me to the bar. The décor is not what I would call beautiful—medium tone wood with some sort of formica inlay. Ahem. What I mean to communicate is that the décor does not cry out, “Fine dining!” A quick perusal of the menu, however, revealed that the prices do.

As we began conversing, I became confused about who was interviewing whom.

“Have you ever bartended before?” The Wife asked me. Just then The Man came out of the kitchen in his chef attire and stood quietly against the wall.

“Yes,” I said wondering if she had looked at my resume or what. I told her where I’d worked and for how long.

She didn’t ask about my food, wine, or beer knowledge, which was a good thing because God knows they didn’t train me very well at the last place. God forbid I should be asked the difference between a Pilsner and a Lager or which is drier—Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio. My cocktails have consistently received exemplary reviews from customers, though they didn’t ask about that either.

I asked her what kind of clientele they have, and she said, “mostly men.” Of course this was a red alert for me, as was her response to what kind of attire they require of bartenders.

“Casual. Jeans are fine with a buttoned down shirt,” she said before adding, “Nothing low cut. With the clientele, you won’t want to anyway.” Then she turned to the server, who was setting up the dining room while this conversation was taking place, for confirmation and the server rolled her eyes and nodded in agreement.

What the hell does that mean?

The Woman seemed primarily to be attempting to convince me that it would be a good gig, saying that I just had to take care of the bar area, the menu isn’t a big deal to memorize (and most of the regulars have their usual dishes or one of the specials anyway)—“When can you start?” the Man interrupted, but she ignored him, so I followed suit—the computer system is easy to use. She doubted I’d need more than a day of training and could just jump right in on Monday.

After she finished her spiel, she and her husband looked at me expectantly, even hopefully in a waiting-on-pins-and-needles kind of way. I was taken aback. It always concerns me if someone is too eager with me—to befriend me, to hire me, whatev.

“Well,” I said hesitantly. “I’d like to give it a try.” I said that because it seemed to be what they wanted to hear, which can’t be a good start for me since…pleaser alert!

So anyway, I go in for training tomorrow. I guess you could describe my mood as “Cautiously Pessimistic.”

Love,

Stella

The best of the bar

April 8, 2010

My dearest Stephanie,

Four seemingly unrelated tidbits…in short order (patience, my pet!), you will know how they are all connected.

Part I

Before Ruben left for Columbia, he worked as a server at a Spanish tapas restaurant, and I’d head over to Spanish Tapas to see him after I finished my shift. Usually, I’d be finished by 10, and he’d be finished by around 11. Just enough time for me to lounge at the bar with an after-work cocktail while he closed out. After, we’d go to a diner for chocolate chip pancakes (me) and an omelet with potatoes (him).  Then around 2am, I’d get a text from him: “omg…I just shit my brains out!!! Fucking potatoes are haunting me!”

TMI, Ruben, TMI.

But anyway. It was as I wiled away my time waiting for Ruben that I got to know Joe, Spanish Tapas’ bartender. He’s funny because he will be a total asshole to whomever but then he can be profoundly sweet, and I so deeply admire that ability to do both well. I aspire to it! Plus, he’s a really good bartender—he knows how to flatter without being scummy, and he’s so chatty. The cherry on the sundae is that he makes this awesome martini with amaretto in it.

For all of these reasons, I still go by to visit him—alone or with friends—even though Ruben is far, far away now.

Part II

I ate a fuckload at my parents’ Easter gathering. Plus, I had a Tangueray and tonic, and I think Tangueray does not do me right. So on Monday, I had the worst stomachache ever, so to make myself feel better, I decided to get a pedicure on Monday. Right when I walked through the salon’s doors, I ran into a mom I know for whom I’m doing website copy (she’s an interior designer). We chatted briefly about her business, how committed she is to eco-friendly design, how committed she is to living her values through her work. I felt all over again how satisfying it is to give a language to a client whose work I value.

Part III

I was re-reading But Enough About Me for inspiration because Jancee Dunn, the author, has intersecting chapters that I thought might be relevant to our project.

I love Enough About Me because it’s laugh-out-loud funny and because she’s sort of a shy person who somehow manages to make her most outrageous dream come true: she becomes a reporter at Rolling Stone and gets to interview lots of famous people.

Synthesis

It was as I was driving home from my pedicure that I began to ponder this whole “making your dreams come true” business, courtesy of Jancee Dunn and my mom client. Who are these people who can make things happen? Also, what happens if your dreams change over time, and all the time you spend making the previous dream come true now is relegated to memory, and you’ve got to figure out how to make the next set of dreams come true?

If I hadn’t eaten so much at Easter, I probably wouldn’t have gone to get that pedicure as a way of making myself feel better, and then I wouldn’t have run into my mom client. Then, I wouldn’t be thinking about what I’m thinking about now, which is how I had told my manager at Asian-Fusion (when he told me I needed to flirt more to bring in more customers) that I know a lot of moms, and I could get the mom crowd in here.

“That’s not what we want here,” the manager had said in his typical cryptic fashion. I cannot tell you how often, after a conversation with him, I’d sympathize with those ancient Greek’s who had to decipher the Delphic Oracle.

As I turned left onto my street (pedicure complete), it hit me. I realized what he had meant: moms weren’t the desirable clientele because moms have meaningful things to do with their lives—namely raise their children. Moms are not going to come in night after night in search of bottomless Bombay Sapphire martinis then order one course after another so they look as if they’re hungry. They’re eating! They’re not out to drink their stress and problems away night after night.

What my manager had meant to say is that a bar wants lonely people, people who are searching for something but don’t know how to find it, people who want to be distracted. In his view, moms won’t be fooled like that. And even if they are lonely (which, let’s face it, they certainly can be), they are busy people with time issues and commitments.

What we can learn from this

On Saturday evening, when I had no plans other than to work on my chapter outline and summaries, I was going to sit at Starbucks (also known as “my office”), but then I thought how I’d get better food at Spanish Tapas, plus Joe bartends Saturday nights, so I could also get some conversation. And wouldn’t a tasty martini loosen me up a bit? What better place to write about bartending than while sitting in a bar?

I was sitting with my elbows on the bar, fingers interlaced forming a cozing little bed for my chin, and I was staring at the gin selection wishing I could make a bottle of Hendrick’s magically appear. Of course I couldn’t. I’ve learned my lesson: I cannot control the material world with my thoughts.

“You’re brain’s just always going, isn’t it?” Joe asked me (rhetorically) as he uncorked a bottle of wine.

“Mmmm, pretty much,” I replied regarding him thoughtfully. “That’s what I loved about bartending. It demanded so much physical exertion and concentration. It was like taking a vacation from my brain.”

He nodded vigorously as he twisted away on the cork.

I sometimes feel lonely, but I have a lot of meaningful activities and people in my life. I stopped at one course, one drink, and I enjoyed breaking up my work with fun chit-chat with a good conversationalist.

This is the best of bar life—providing an outlet but not a substitute for meaning. That was a scene I enjoyed presiding over, and it’s what I do very much miss about bartending.

Love,

Stella

I’m not in Oz anymore

April 3, 2010

My dear Stephanie,

When you are a fresh-out-of-college graduate student who looks young for her age, and you are teaching college students who are (in any event) barely younger than you are, you can have fun with this. You can do things like walk into class on the first day and take a seat, as if you are a student yourself. This affords you the opportunity to determine the true skinny on your students’ feeling about the class you will be teaching them. You can then enjoy their looks of shock and dismay when you jump out of your seat and introduce yourself as the instructor.

Ha! Good times.

Additional pleasures attend being a fresh-out-of college graduate student with rosy pink cheeks—a color, by the way, that you will later attempt to reproduce using Laura Mercier’s crème blush in “Oleandor” and by forgoing technological upgrades like the iPhone to instead spend your money on things like La Prairie’s Caviar foundation (that shit makes your skin positively glow!) or La Mer’s loose powder, whose “light refracting particles optically erase skin imperfections.” Awesome!

But anyhoo.

When you are one of these aforementioned graduate students, it’s not creepy (in a cougar-ish way) to secretly imagine a future in which the adorable, soulful redheaded student from Wisconsin has graduated, and you run into him in some improbably chance encounter engineered by Fate, and the two of you fall in love and get married. In fact, it’s a pleasant diversion from the tedium of academic work!

Not that I’ve done this, of course. Obviously, I’m speaking hypothetically.

In actuality, you will indeed run into him years later after he has graduated, when you pop into the Astor Place Starbucks on a whim, even though you don’t drink coffee (the incongruity is what makes it a great story later!). You will feel complicit in the fact that he has a BA from a brand-name university but is working as a barista at Starbucks even though it’s really his own fault. He was drama major (and judging from his antics in class, this was most appropriate)! And you will always remember that one of your first students served you your first Gingerbread Latte, a drink that will forever more be your very favorite and that spawns a love affair with coffee that spans a decade. Perhaps you are drinking one right now as you sit in a suburban Starbucks writing about this encounter.

The point I am trying to make, here, is that working closely with people can breed a potentially inappropriate sense of intimacy, even when the person with whom you develop that intimacy may him or herself be incredibly unsuitable and any number of obstacles may stand in your way, real or imagined.

What I’m really trying to say is that I am deeply and not at all superficially in love with the head sushi chef at Asian Fusion One.

I kid. But still!

We worked together side-by-side for nine months, me on the “alcoholic beverages” side of the bar and he on the “sushi” side. For months, I would be compelled to squeeze past him to get to the kitchen. Let me tell you, the space I had to squeeze through is so tight that at times, I fear I sexually harassed him. Please be assured this was entirely unintentional! I would never knowingly sexually harass such a gentleman!

To wit:

  • He always remembered that I don’t eat wasabi or ginger, just lots of spicy mayo.
  • One night, I ordered the lobster roll for dinner, and he said, “Expensive!” When he prepared it, he put it on the back bar and said, pointing at the roll, “Extra!” He’d made it extra large, with 12 pieces instead of 10, just for me! I was so touched! And unlike the tall sushi chef, he never rolled his eyes when I ordered sushi for dinner. Though I hardly ever did. I felt badly making him do extra work!
  • At the end of one particularly busy Saturday night, he asked me, “Hungry?”

“Yes,” I nodded emphatically. “I’m starving!”

“I make you shrimp and avocado roll!”

It was delish!

  • One night when I’d ordered one shrimp and avocado roll, he made me two!
  • What really touched my heart, though, was that when I was carrying a heavy tray of dirty dishes to the kitchen, he would either scurry out of my way as quickly as possible or (even more touching!) take the tray from my hands and into the kitchen himself.

Besides all of this, he was an artist with raw fish and assorted sauces. Not only are the rolls and sushi he prepares delicious—perfectly spiced, perfectly proportioned—but his presentation is magnificent. He does this one thing where he used spicy mayo and soy sauce to create a tress that runs alongside the food. Beautiful! And when he makes a lobster roll, he uses the lobster shell to make it look like an actual lobster!

At Asian-Fusion One, he’s the Tin Man to my Dorothy.

I miss him most of all!

Love,

Stella