Wildlife 101

June 7, 2010

Dear Stella,

You don’t know what it’s like to be stared at until you are stared at by one of these:

And one of these:

And one of these:

The first is a great horned owl, the second a barred owl, and the third, the amazingly seemingly pre-historic raptor.

I was stared at by each of these birds Saturday, at my Orientation at the Pennsylvania Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. In a lock-down stare with an owl or a raptor, even though it is in the cage and I am not, somehow it seems to win. That is one intense stare, man, made even more intense by the fact that the stare is incomprehensible. There is no projecting when it comes to a raptor; I can’t say, Oh look, he likes me, or He wants my attention, like we are apt to do with our dogs and cats, myself included. It just doesn’t fit. There is nothing about the stare of one of these wild creatures that lends itself to familiar meanings.

And that’s a good thing. When the animal becomes predictable, when it depends too much on humans for food or company, we have essentially taken away its ability to survive. If it’s released back into the wild, it won’t have a clue what to do. I heard stories, like the hawk that broke into the food supply because it didn’t know how to hunt, then broke its neck on the way out. And the crow I had the strange pleasure of meeting who had a penchant for “s” words—“swell” and “shit”—did you know that crows are super smart? We just never hear them speaking our language because they aren’t around us, aren’t supposed to be around us, so we don’t know what they can or cannot say, or do. We are used to domesticated parrots talking, but take my word for it, a speaking crow is a strange sight to behold, like a speaking alligator or lion.

I feel giddy with excitement and nervousness about my newest adventure. I’ve been here before, haven’t I? At the edge of a new knowledge, unsure if I can pull it off. But this time, instead of making mojitos and margaritas and negotiating the needs of a drunken crowd, I’ll be learning how to rehabilitate wild animals like the owls and the crow and the raptor. Which means I’ll be feeding them and treating them and sometimes, if necessary, ending their lives if their suffering is too great and they can’t be treated.

Will I have the stomach for working so closely with wounded animals? For seeing them hurt and hearing their cries?

Will I be able to have a steady hand in order to give an injection of medicine or clean an animal’s wound?

The orientation leader said, “You’ll see some things and it will be hard and you’ll wonder why it has to be so.”

Apparently, 90% of the injuries the wildlife sustains are from humans. Either they get hit by cars or they fly into cars or they are accidentally shot or they are tortured. One tiny creature was saved from a band of boys stoning it to death. Who are these people? Why does it have to be so? I am often overwhelmed by such knowledge—that there are people who stone baby animals, that as I write this oil is killing more animals than I can even imagine—and rendered paralyzed. I don’t want to be paralyzed. I want to do one small thing, at least.

As it was with bartending, I don’t have any idea what I can do and what I can take and where this might lead. But this is, for me, an era of trying and of doing. And of overcoming despair in favor of hope.

love,
stephanie

To Do List

June 5, 2010

Dear Stella,

I’ve got too many projects on my plate. My brain is crowded. My projects are stuck in a traffic jam. And other “too much, too little space” metaphors.

Here’s just a sampling of what’s on my to-do list:

1. Send first book out to agents

2. Finish preparing second book to send out

3. Finish unfinished around-the-house projects (ie. paint ceiling, put down the quarter-round in guest room, set up home office, build rear deck, etc.)

4. Tend to my relationship

5. Defy aging process

6. Mentally prepare for 2012

See? I’ve got lots to do! Better get on it!

love,
Stephanie

Summer

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!

love,
Stephanie

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.

Love,
Stephanie

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

Dearest Stella,

I love, strangely, that the first thing I do is the most disgusting thing: the mats. I pull in giant, heavy, black mats from outside to cover the floor behind the bar. They are so heavy I need both hands to carry them and I almost can’t do it. They are disgusting, wet from rain or the hose, with food pieces and clumps of mint and basil stuck in the grooves, looking like vomit. My hands get gross and black from handling the mats, but the mats’ heaviness forces me out of my mind and into my body immediately. I can’t think when I’m carrying. I’m immediately in my hands and my arms and my legs, carrying one in, laying it down, pulling it into its proper place, then walking outside for the next one.

Setting up the bar puts me again in my hands. I find my way around the bar like a blind person—I can’t remember what I need to do next until I find it with my hands. I don’t have an order yet, a ritual, so I fumble around, do what I remember. It feels good, this budding relationship with the specific objects of this bar. These candles are real candles, tea candles floating in a splash of water, and, unlike the fake candles of Hotel Bar, these candles require care and attention. I must pick them up gingerly when they’re hot; when they go out, I need to toss the old candles and relight new ones. Lighting them is a challenge—I have to hold the long lighter with two hands and keep it steady. The glow cast is a real glow, not the fake, cold glow of electric blue.

I open the giant ziplock baggie of basil, then mint, and pull leaves out, stuff into large jam jars, add water to keep them fresh. The smell hits as soon as the bag is open—freshness and springtime. I line up smaller jam jars of red bell pepper chunks and chili peppers; I pour black pepper into a shot glass, salt onto the round black lid. I open the olives, the lime wedges, the jalapeno peppers, celery, and cherries and line them up near the draft beer. Candles and menus on the tables. Spill mats, garnishes, mixing tins all in place.

Light spills in from the front window. The bar feels warm and inviting. We are slowly becoming intimate, this bar and I, and I am slowly letting myself believe the warm wood hue, the golden glow, when they tell me, It’s going to be okay.

love,
Stephanie

Why New York? Part One

March 11, 2010

Now and then, I meet someone who has never been to New York City. We look at each other in mutual fascination, or horror, in an attempt to understand the other’s internal landscape. I admit, it may be unfair of me to imagine a sweeping nothingness inside them, a deep well of absence where New York might have been. But I can’t help myself. And they are no better than me. One such stranger in particular, upon reading a blog post about my struggles to find an NYC bartending job over the summer, remarked to a friend, “I don’t get it. Why doesn’t she just leave New York?”

This question, as you know dear Stella, has haunted me. Not because it has made me question my attachment to New York–as in, why don’t I just let go of New York once and for all—but because it has made my attachment to New York even clearer. Of course I want to be in New York! Even if it is difficult, impossible at times. Sometimes, I find myself in a passionate imagined discussion with this person, whom I’ve never met, trying to explain why New York is obviously the place to be. But it’s not an easy discussion, as the spirit of New York is often quite beyond words. Everyone who has experienced it knows it, but when we attempt to articulate it we often fall into clichés, talking about it’s “energy” or feeling like we are in the “center of the things.”

So this, dear Stella, is the first of what I imagine will be a recurring (and inedequate) attempt to answer the question: Why New York?

Nothing is ever as striking as that first night after I’ve been away. Friday: I’m standing in the basketball-court-sized room in Williamsburg, waiting to read from my YA novel. There are 60-70 drinking, smoking, talking bodies here. When it’s my turn to read, it’s quiet. They are listening bodies now. A poet, me, a video artist, two filmmakers. People doing things, making things happen.

Saturday: Dawn and I meet a friend in Fort Greene for dinner. A warmly-lit wine bar. Bustling. We talk about ideas and possibilities. Our friend works for a foundation, gives money to good causes. She says she wants Dawn to come in for a meeting of smart people to talk about how gender is no longer on the radar and how people think sexism is “solved.” People are talking and doing and solving and making things here everyday—it’s the everyday here, and so they don’t even know how magical conversations like this are.

Sunday: I am walking to Kristin’s with my breakfast of tea and pie. This is a recurring moment–walking to a place, a job, a meeting, a class in New York with tea. The gathering of myself that walking allows. This walking as a professional in the company of other professionals walking. Not a driving to the place in a car, an isolated bubble. Being a part of the thinking walking drinking tea/coffee machine. It is a gorgeous day. I’m walking toward the first meeting of the Writers Collaborative that a group of us are founding. This moment of walking toward has been a long time coming, the moment of having a dream and doing the long, difficult work of clearing the space to make room for the dream, and then committing to the dream. The walk allows me to feel the pleasure and confidence and significance of this moment and all the choices I made leading up to this moment. The walk provides a slow transition, processing in the muscles, the body, the decisions one has made.

The meeting lasts five hours and something amazing happens in it. This idea is going to happen. A powerful new beginning. Walking, thinking, doing, making.

Then later: lying on the air mattress in my brother’s living room (true, the air mattress takes up the entire living room, like we are floating on an air boat). Afternoon sun streaming in the window. Dawn and the dogs napping beside me. My brother napping on the couch at the end of the air boat. The window open, sounds of the street. I am in the middle of things, close, surrounded, nestled. Safe and yet not the kind of safety that breeds complacency. Things are happening outside the window and I am near them, but paused, letting the ideas of the day settle.

“The air hums here,” I say to Dawn. “It’s like the air itself is filled with nutrients and just being in it nourishes us.”

“Um,” Dawn mumbles into her pillow, “I think the air here is polluted.”

“Can’t you feel it?” I say, “It’s…it’s got this energy, and when I’m here I just feel like I’m in the center of things.”

“Yes,” Dawn says, “It’s humming.”