May 22, 2010

Dear Stella,

I’ve got some funny habits. For example, before work, when I’m running around the house frantically gathering my shit (and it’s always a frantic endeavor no matter how many hours I’ve had to get ready), I say to myself, “Get it together, Hopkins, get it together.” And it helps! The shit comes together, I get out of the house, and maybe I’m just a bit less nervous.

My horoscope for the coming months tells me that though I will feel like I am in a prison, my “deprivation” could be the best thing for me if I use it to be productive.

How did my horoscope know that this is the first summer in a long time that I won’t be living in NYC? I’m already feeling it. I picture Manhattan, Brooklyn, and a little bit of Queens (sorry, Bronx and Staten Island, I don’t know you that well) bursting at the seams in their summery jubilation. Never mind that last summer, NYC kicked my butt—I’m a loyal friend, or a masochist.

It’s so quiet outside my window tonight. And this three story house, with its empty third floor, is beyond my spatial comprehension, much like a million dollars is beyond my mathematical comprehension—I don’t know what to do with the thought of it.

So, horoscope, I’ll take your word for it, because you I understand. Get it together, Hopkins, and do this thing. Turn this deprivation into a word-making, book-producing, check-list accomplishing miracle machine!



Dearest Stephanie,

I am really super mad!



This thing happened a while ago, and even though I realize I should let it go, that it’s not a reflection on me (except for maybe it is a little bit), I’m still very angry! See?


And I would like to vent. (Again. Tee hee.)

As I’ve mentioned to you, Asian-Fusion Two was sold, and a new restaurant opened in its place. So Boo and I went to check it out.  Wouldn’t you know it? All the douchebags who so vexed me when I bartended in that same little bar had reconvened.

They recognized and greeted me when I walked in, and you’d think my chilly “oh, hey” would have put them off. You’d think the way I stood as far away from them as possible would communicate to them, I’m not in any way thrilled to see you. Nor do I wish to engage in conversation with you. Apparently, it doesn’t pay to be passive-aggressive.

Because a short while later, I went to the bar to order some food, but because it was so busy, I had to stand there behind thedouchbags while I waited for the bartender (which I totally understand and am sympathetic to, by the way).

Douchebag #1 (turns to Douchbag #2): That woman behind you, she really wants you.

Me (in a loud, authoritative voice that simultaneously expresses shock, offendedness, and disgust): No, I really, emphatically do not.

Douchebag #2: Don’t say that!

Me: I have to say it. I don’t want there to be any confusion.

Douchebag #1 says something, which I can’t remember, and I tell him, “That’s really just so disrespectful.”

The weird thing is that I was kind of consumed with rage. Ha! My disproportionate reaction was almost funny, except that I was really, really mad! How many times do I have to say it, fucktards?

I am not your midlife crisis plaything!

I’m all, Really? You really think you can have this? Because you totally can’t!!! Even though my rational side tells me it has nothing to do with whether or not they actually believe I’m there for the taking. I think what really grosses me out is that they think I am in some way receptive to being co-opted in this kind of banter. Hello out there! I may not be!

I loved when you figured out why corporations love you—it’s your eagerness to please, you theorized. I loved this because it totally provided me insight into my own experience.

Middle-aged men, I think I’ve figured out, love me for the same reason corporations love you. They labor under the delusion that I’m eager to please. Well, for a long time, it wasn’t totally a delusion. I used to be that way, but then I started thinking about it, and I was like, what the fuck?

Clearly, there’s something in my appearance that cries out, “I am pliable and agreeable! I will attempt to meet your every need! I am so sweet, you will need to visit the dentist after spending some time speaking at me! And while we’re on the subject, please tell me your problems! I really, really want to hear them!”

At Starbucks, I’m the first person the middle-aged man looking for a seat will approach. Never mind that empty seats abound. He will inevitably come to my table, where I have engaged a spare chair to prop up my feet, and he will ask me, “Are you using this chair?”

Well, let’s see. My feet are on it, so I think it’s fairly obvious that, yes, I am using it.

But of course I will surrender the chair. I do not point out that there are lots of other empty chairs because I’m not enough of an asshole.


The most I can do is look annoyed and surly at being disturbed (even though I’ve already said it doesn’t pay to be passive-aggressive!), which takes the man by surprise pretty much every time so that he wordlessly removes the chair.

As a bartender, I obsess over the way people seem to single me out to take shit. I mean, it drives me crazy! The class of men who sit at the bar and look at me like the leopards at the zoo look at visitors on the other side of the chain-link fence? Aggravating!

“You look so vulnerable and consumable,” the leopards are thinking, and you know they’re thinking this. It’s all telegraphed in their intense stares, in the way they huddle together as if they’re plotting some sort of break out. “You’d just love to be our next meal. You know you do.”

Even when they’re gorging on the raw meat their trainers throw at them (or, in bar terms, sitting at the bar with their wives or girlfriends), they look over at you, blood dripping down their hairy chins. “We would like to devour you. Yum. Yum. You would be so much tastier than this, but alas, the chain-link fence…”

Sometimes, it’s hard for me to come up with the perfectly witty yet slightly cutting response because I’m so distracted by being skeeved out. For emergencies of this kind, I’ve collected a handful of essential, all-purpose phrases, which I will now share with you:


“I don’t know about that”

“Oh, now” or “Oh, you”

“Oh really?”

“Huh” (not to be confused with “Huh?”)

You’re wondering how I put it all together, aren’t you? You’re thinking, Stella, I don’t see how these will all work together. Will you show me?

Of course, love!

Scene: Your bar right around closing time.

Customer: I’m going to Other Bar.

You (having turned your back to do important things with your computer): Oh, really?

Customer (while looking directly at you): Who wants to go to Other Bar?

You (glancing at him over your shoulder): Haha

Customer: What time do you get off?

You (still attending to your oh-so-important computer): Oh, now.

Customer: Come to Other Bar with me.

You (punching away on your beloved computer): I don’t know about that!

Customer: You wanna come to Other Bar with me?

You (leaving the bar area to do important things somewhere else in the restaurant): Haha. No. Thanks though!

Customer slinks off.

I feel like I really accomplished something here. I feel like I’ve been really potentially useful to you, and that feels really satisfying, you know? Being helpful makes me smile! See?


I feel so much better now!



My dearest Stephanie,

My morning routine begins with dropping off my little boy at school. Well, I guess technically, it begins with me getting out of bed, partaking in a series of complex grooming activities, getting my little boy’s clothes, breakfast, etc. But no one’s really interested in the minutiae, like whether I put in my contact lenses before or after I wash my face, right? (But if you are, I put them in after, obviously, since my hands are freshly washed. Duh.)

Anyway, after I drop him off, I head directly to Dunkin’ Donuts. I always order the same thing: a large coconut iced coffee and a chocolate frosted donut with sprinkles. I take out whatever book I’m reading for inspiration and read for approximately an hour before heading off to Starbucks (located about 1/2 a mile down the road). There, I order an iced venti green tea (unsweetened) and write for an indeterminate period of time (also known as: however long my muse sticks with me). But again, I’m getting off topic.

When my gorgeously fabulous little boy was a toddler, I’d take him to places like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts for a treat. It was super fun hanging out with him and watching his pudgy little fingers rip through a bagel or scone or whatever. He always made a huge mess, and I would carefully wipe up all the crumbs before leaving the establishment so that the next person who sat at the table we’d been sitting at would have a CLEAN spot to sit and enjoy some quiet time.

Because you know what? We’re not animals. I do not assume the good people employed at Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks are obligated to clean up after us. Yes, it’s their job to maintain the store, but if we make an inordinately large mess, why should they have to clean it up? I have hands, fingers, thumbs, access to napkins.I’m trying to teach the boy to treat himself and others and his environment (and The Environment) respectfully. What kind of lesson am I teaching him if upon making a huge mess, we saunter out leaving the minions to clean it up? I mean, what’s next? We expect them to follow us into the bathroom to wipe our asses?

When I said we’re not animals, I was thinking of my cat. She has a vomiting problem. What happens is that she scarfs down her food not realizing when she has reached capacity. She’ll take a few steps away from her bowl, throw up the meal (usually right into the grate through which the forced heat emanates), lick her lips, then casually stroll away with a look over her shoulder at me. It’s clear what I’m supposed to do. That’s cool. I get that she can’t clean up after herself, what with her not having thumbs and all, and I don’t mind doing it.

You know what I do mind? When I walk into Dunkin’ Donuts, and every table  looks like a muffin exploded on it. I don’t blame the employees, who are doing their best to keep the long lines moving quickly and can’t rush out to wipe down the tables every time some entitled jackass leaves a trail of crumbs (approximately every five minutes), Hansel and Gretel style. I blame the assholes who, like me, think it’s cute when their kids make a mess but who, unlike me, do not feel it necessary to clean up after themselves. I’m already annoyed with them because they drive enormous SUVs (I speak of the Tahoes, the Explorers, the Dennalis) that raise my gas prices and almost crash into me on a routine basis (because they can’t see my little station wagon, what with me being in a different stratosphere and all. Also, why does the government require special licenses for boats but not for cars large enough to sail across the ocean if only you could make them seaworthy? I ask you, why?!). Also? Those same assholes think it’s cute when their children run endless laps through the store while squealing at a glass-shattering pitch. Guess what, people? It’s not cute. It’s annoying. Think about it.

As a final note, when you’re in a public place, and you want to use the restroom, and it’s a one person restroom, here’s what you SHOULD NOT DO (forgive my shouting but really!): Do not employ a team of wild horses to attempt to pull open the bathroom door. First of all it’s jarring to the person inside, even if they have remembered to lock the door, and this could–let’s say just for the sake of argument–cause them to spray urine all over the bathroom in their fright, which again gives so much unnecessary work to employees charged with maintaining the restrooms. If the person inside the restroom has forgotten to lock the door, you may be treated to quite the unpleasant sight. I’ll skip the details.

Instead, why not try knocking? It’s simple, yet effective. If it’s too noisy to hear what’s going on, why not gently push the door handle down? If the bolt stays put, then you’ll know someone is inside. Again, simple, yet effective.

Forgive the rant, but really, I feel so strongly about these matters!



Dear Stella,

During my last trip to NYC, I had lunch with a friend who lost her job at a prominent magazine. Not surprisingly, given the recession, she’s had trouble finding another job. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she told me, “I’m a journalist. What if I can’t get work as one?”

Her anxiety about her predicament got me thinking about why I’m drawn to the service industry, where nothing is stable. We can be fired at any time, for any reason; we can also quit at any time (there are no contracts), even make a powerful statement if we need to by walking out during a shift.

Sunday night: work feels familiar. I take pleasure in the fact that I am developing a routine that is my own, that I feel comfortable behind this bar. Tommy, the barback, and I have a rapport—I’ve learned how he works; I’ve learned how to communicate my needs to him, and he’s learned how I work and when to stay out of my way behind the bar.

On Monday night, however, I arrive to find that he’s quit. Just like that, I’ll never see Tommy again. Tonight, I’ve got to be my own barback, and I was so dependent on Tommy that I never had to learn where the fruit and ice and fresh herbs are myself. So I’ve got to wing it under pressure, figure out how to solve new problems in a hurry. And let go of the fact that I also miss him. On Wednesday, there are two new barbacks, each with their own system and personality, so the next challenge is learning—quickly—how to work with each of them.

My schedule is also never set. Some of it is the service industry in general; you can try to guess when the crowds will come—if it’s sunny, if it’s a weekend, if there isn’t a competing event in the city that night. But you can never predict. Sometimes two bartenders will be scheduled and one will be sent home because it’s dead. Sometimes one will be scheduled and one will be called in because it’s crazy busy. So I have to be okay with not knowing when I will be working in any given week. Then there’s the actual work of serving, which is totally unpredictable. You never know who is going to walk in that door, what baggage they might bring, what situations you might have to handle, and how much money you may or may not make.

As teachers in fancy universities, we worked in a system that creates the illusion of stability. University professors strive for tenure, the highest form of “stability,” as once you’ve got it, you can stay in it forever and your job won’t be threatened by your radical ideas or, in some cases, your own resistance to change.

This illusion is nice and also dangerous because nothing is actually stable and finite, and we are ill-equipped to handle this truth.

I am drawn to the service industry for its radical instability and what being in the thick of such turbulence can teach me. Perhaps I am throwing myself into the fire for self-preservation.

I think about my friend’s statement, “I’m a journalist,” and how we tend to identify ourselves and others with occupations. There is satisfaction in it, and the label allows us to bring out certain aspects of ourselves. When I was a teacher, for example, I felt responsible and together; I was identified (and identified myself) as a do-gooder, a smarty-pants, but there were also limitations. I had to model being the Good Citizen all the time; I had to show self-restraint and make Good and Right choices. Once, I ran into a student at a karaoke bar in the East Village; I was drunk and horrified. I had a quick conversation with her as if I was a drunk teen pretending to be sober in front of my parents. Being a teacher also made me feel like The Establishment, and this label became constricting, not just in terms of being able to let loose a little, but also in terms of my creative ideas.

As a bartender, I’m the opposite of The Establishment, and I love that. My authority doesn’t come from the Good Citizen brigade that wants to mold young minds into other Good Citizens; it comes from playing the role of the badass. The bartender label gives me the courage and freedom to make choices in other areas of my life that go against the grain. It’s like that shot of whisky that gives you courage to talk to the guy/girl at the end of the bar; except I’m not drinking it, I’m making it, and I’m not walking toward the guy/girl, I’m walking toward my unpredictable future.

My point is not, however, that I’ve exchanged one ill-fitting label for another better-fitting one. My point is that both labels are and are not me. It’s the moving between labels that is significant and powerful, I think, and educational.

Who am I outside the labels? If I am neither just a teacher nor a bartender, who am I? Without nouns, I’m left with adjectives: I’m adventurous, I’m curious, and I care about making a positive impact in the world. These descriptions may be true, but they are also neither totalizing nor constant.

What feels most true is that I am slowly becoming a more flexible muscle, capable of change myself. And I am learning how to be okay in the midst of a constantly changing world.


My dearest Stephanie,

I’m not judging. I love Dunkin’ Donuts as much as the next cop. A fresh chocolate frosted with sprinkles? Donuts don’t get any btter than that (unless we’re talking a fresh-out-of-the-oven glazed from Krispy Kreme).

But anyway. Here is a picture of a cop car parked in front of a Dunkin’ Donuts.

You’re welcome.