Choosing a college is one of THE most important decisions in the life of a middle-class American teenager. So, naturally, I spent WEEKS in the library researching the best schools and making pro-con lists before narrowing it down to my top three.
Just kidding, I chose the same way I chose everything back then: I let a cute boy decide for me.
Teal Eyes, my “showmance” of the summer before senior year, announced at the cast party for the Kidstage production of Jack and the Beanstalk that he was applying to The University of Puget Sound, a.k.a. U.P.S.
“That’s so funny,” I marveled in my best gee-whiz cadence, “That’s where I was thinking of going!” In reality, up until Teal Eyes had mentioned it moments earlier, the only U.P.S. I knew was the United Parcel Service. But it sounded so good coming out of his cuteboy mouth that my sudden interest was quite sincere.
“That would be so awesome!” he beamed, smoothing his bangs out of those unnaturally bright aquamarine eyes. And in that moment, my decision was made.
Fortunately, although I had long since broken up with Teal Eyes by the time I got in off the wait list (which is another story altogether), U.P.S. turned out to be a great fit for me. Unfortunately, it also turned out to be crazy fucking expensive.
To defray expenses, I enrolled in a work-study program on campus. I assumed I would be assigned to the bookstore, selling U.P.S. branded Nalgene bottles and hoodies. You can imagine my surprise when I received my actual assignment: University Housing Maintenance Staff.
That was nothing, however, compared to the utter bewilderment of my supervisor: a man in his late 40’s who was built like a Mack Truck and whose solution to pretty much every problem was “elbow grease.”
He took one look at my 5’5″, 110 lb. frame, and threw up his hands in the universal gesture of “I give up.”
“What am I s’posed to do with you?” he asked me, as if I had personally chosen this assignment specifically to fuck with him.
“Um… I’m a pretty decent painter,” I suggested, not wanting to get fired from my very first assignment on my very first day.
He gave me a skeptical look and, pointing to one of my arms, said, “You sure them pipe cleaners can handle a roller? We ain’t paintin’ landscapes here.”
I assured him that my pipe cleaners would do just fine, thankyouverymuch, feigning a confidence I poignantly lacked. Sure enough, after a single coat on one room of the dorm we were turning over, my arms were trembling and I was ready for a break. Mack Truck, who had been filling in tack holes with spackle, rolled his eyes at my request, and suggested that after my break I could take over with the spackling and he would handle the second coat of paint.
Disappointed at having disappointed Mr. Truck, I spent my break crying in the bathroom. Like ya do. I think he must have heard me, too, because when I came back out, his expression had softened and he spent a good five minutes showing me his personal spackling technique.
“Like this?” I asked, picking up the spackling tool and deftly filling in a large hole in two swishes, leaving nothing but a smooth, unblemished surface behind.
Mack’s mouth fell open. “What the what?? How’d you do that?”
Suddenly self-conscious, I tried to think back on what I had just done and realized I had no explanation.
“Beginner’s luck?” I ventured, shrugging.
Mack insisted I repeat the performance, and though it was slightly less effortlessly graceful than the first one, I did manage to impress him a second, and then a third time.
“Well I’ll be,” he whispered behind me. “We got a goddamn spacklemaster on our hands.”
An artist is born
Apparently, most of his assistants were, much like himself, heavy on the brute strength but light on the finesse. Spackling was the part of the job they dreaded most. My hyper-mobile, bird-boned wrists, on the other hand, could flick that putty knife like nobody’s business. From that moment on, I was known as Spacklemaster, and everyone on the university maintenance staff knew who to call when a wall needed a good spackling.
Eventually, Mack figured out that my freakish talent extended to drywalling as well. But Drywallmaster just didn’t have the same ring to it.
Post college-graduation, I had a couple of options available to me. I could use my double B.A. in Theatre Arts and French to get an entry-level box office job at one of the many theatre venues in Seattle (and most likely supplement that income as a French Tutor on the side). Or, I could join the ranks of struggling actors everywhere and start waiting tables.
Fearing that working at a theater would, ironically, prevent me from pursuing an acting career, since those jobs were during the same hours I would need to be rehearsing, performing, and auditioning, I embraced the cliche and started applying for server positions.
I quickly learned, however, that being a server in Seattle is, shall we say, competitive. Having no prior experience on my resume (aside from my unpaid work at the family B&B), I wasn’t exactly in high demand. So I took the first offer that came my way: server at the Palomino, working the lunch shift in the bar (referred to as the “cafe” during daylight hours).
Despite the difference in tips, I found the lunch shift preferable to the evening shift, since I assumed I would be rehearsing and performing in all those plays I planned to get cast in during those hours.
Also, anyone who knows me can tell you that my brain turns into pumpkin pie at precisely 9:30 PM.
But even if I had wanted to work the evening shift in the bar, the manager, Stevie, let me know right away I wasn’t Cocktail Waitress material.
“Working the cocktail shift requires a certain look, and a certain attitude,” Stevie told me in a factual tone.
Apparently, in her estimation, I possessed neither. But the sting of that evaluation was quickly softened when she told me I could start the following day working the lunch shift.
The missing information of which I would soon become poignantly aware was the breakneck pace of said shift. Palomino’s location in the Key Bank building in downtown Seattle made it a popular venue for business meetings or grabbing a quick bite on one’s lunch break. The pressure was high to get folks in and out fast, without sacrificing anything in the way of service quality. Not exactly a friendly introduction into the world of waiting tables for a total novice.
My second day on the job, I was already a bit behind the curb in terms of timing, when a large group of businessmen in expensive-looking suits sat down in my section of the bar. Swallowing hard, I scooted on over and, smiling wide, asked for their drink order.
The apparent leader of the group, who I’ll call Armani Suit, said he’d love a Bloody Mary. And all eleven of his colleagues decided they would like one as well. “No problem,” I chirped, “I’ll have those right out for you!”
What I didn’t know at the time was that the Bloody Marys at the Palomino came in the most ridiculously tall, top-heavy glasses imaginable. Carrying one of them alone on a tray was a challenge.
So when I walked up to the bar and saw a dozen of them lined up and looming, I panicked. Armani Suit and his Armani army were eyeing me from their table, waiting anxiously for their drinks to arrive. Acutely aware that I was already behind schedule, I decided to take a risk. Instead of taking over just a few at a time, I piled all 12 glasses onto my tray and headed on over to deliver them.
What happened next will forever be embossed in my memory in full technicolor traumavision. I arrived at the table, manic grin plastered on my face, sang out, “Who wants a Bloody–?” and watched, horrified, as the entire tray full of oversized glasses toppled over, directly into the lap of Armani Suit.
There was a collective gasp, and then a deafening silence as I reflexively fell to my knees and started pawing at Armani Suit’s tomato-stained lap with a cocktail napkin. That’s when my manager, Stevie, stepped in and physically removed me from the situation. “Go to the break room. NOW,” she instructed, directly into my ear. She didn’t have to tell me twice.
I was already packing up my things when Stevie appeared.
“What are you doing?” her exasperation was palpable.
“Look, shit happens. I offered to pay for his dry cleaning, and he’s fine now. I also offered to put a more experienced waitress on his table, but he specifically asked to have you back. So: you’re on. Dry your tears and get your newbie ass back out there.”
A bit dazed, more than a bit fazed, I shoved my things back into my locker, wiped my eyes, blew my nose, and headed back out to the bar. Doing my best to ignore the side-stares from other tables, I walked straight up to the Armani Army. After apologizing profusely, I launched into my carefully-memorized spiel on the day’s specials, still shaking with adrenaline and anxiety.
When I was done, Armani Suit looked at me for a moment. “Is this your first day?” he asked quietly.
“Second,” I admitted.
“Well, we’ve all been new at something. And I just want you to know that, other than that little mishap earlier, which could have happened to anyone, I think you’re doing a great job.”
Now, I’m quite sure that the actual intended audience for this pep talk was the group of underlings hanging on his every word.
But you know what? It didn’t matter.
It was exactly what I needed to convince me that, despite all outward appearances, I would eventually get the hang of it.
And, eventually, I did.
Aziza the Avenger
At the tail end of the lunch shift on a crisp October day, the bartender on duty at the Palomino, Andrea, poked her head through the curtain that separated the bar from the break room, and announced that it was her birthday. “Let’s hit the Capitol Club!”
Never having been to the Capitol Club before, I had no idea what to expect. So I was delighted to find myself in a cushion-covered lounge of apparent Middle Eastern inspiration, with delightfully spicy aromas wafting from the kitchen and belly dance music playing softly in the background.
Having taken a beginner belly dance class at the Boulder Community Center in high school, and then joined the Middle Eastern Dance Ensemble at U.P.S., my body started to undulate involuntarily to the music.
After my second drink, I failed to stop myself from standing up and doing an impromptu belly dance in honor of Andrea’s birthday.
This, naturally, inspired a lot of hooting and hollering from our group, which in turn inspired the manager to come and investigate. She stood there, watching me, to the end of the song, but didn’t say anything or try to intervene. Then she disappeared. I took this as permission to continue.
A few moments later, though, she returned, and gestured for me to come talk to her. I assumed I was about to get kicked out, so I grabbed my purse and jacket.
“Sorry,” I shrugged, “I get a little carried away sometimes.”
“Oh no no,” the manager laughed, “no reason to apologize at all. It’s just that the folks out in the dining room and up in the bar are very curious as to what all the fuss is about, and I wondered if you might like to show them?”
This, I was genuinely unprepared for. Seeing my hesitation, she continued, “You’re obviously very talented, and we’ve been thinking of hiring a belly dancer a couple of nights a week. If you think you might be up for that, consider this your audition.”
I looked down at my outfit: a shiny, silver-blue long sleeved top, short black skirt, and knock-off Doc Marten platform boots. Not exactly belly dance appropriate. But I figured, what the hell. Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.
I went upstairs to look at their music collection and picked a song by Turbo Tabla. Then I headed back downstairs and shimmied, undulated, flirted and twirled my way around the dining room, putting smiles onto the faces of the gathered diners and soliciting enthusiastic applause. I repeated the performance upstairs in the bar, where I even got a few dollar bills stuffed into my waistband.
“Can you start next Wednesday?” the manager asked.
“Absolutely!” I beamed, amazed at my good fortune.
But then, when I got home to the industrial-zoned loft in Belltown where I was illegally living with five other struggling artists, I realized how insane this endeavor actually was. I had no costumes, no veils, no zils, no nothing. I had always borrowed those things from the University for performances. I had no music to practice to. I had no choreography experience. All I had was a big empty space at the front of the loft with a nice, hardwood floor, and a CD player.
And now, I had a job. As a professional belly dancer. *gulp*
The next day, I headed over to the middle eastern imports store in the Pike Place Market to look at belly dance costumes. Just as I had feared, they started at $250 a pop and went up from there. All those sequins have to be sewn on by hand, you know.