Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Edge of Seventeen

I was in the last months of that glorious age called 17 when I landed my first and last job as a waitress. It wasn't so much a restaurant as a bar, and not so much a bar as a seedy little hole in the wall of a trailer park.

You can probably guess where I'm going with this.

The clientele was what you'd expect - lots of cheap bastards, oily drunks, and old folk. The proprietress was a crazy old woman never seen without a snifter of brandy in her hand. She sped around her trailer park in a pimped-out golf cart, and it was whispered about her that she'd run over her share of small dogs, and once, a not-so-small child. The nicest thing I can say about her was that she was the very definition of an Old Bat, with never a single nice word to say about anyone, though she flattered herself constantly, or at least she did in her more lucid moments.

The bar was open only seasonally, this being Canada, during the summer months when people could actually live in trailers without freezing to death. Sarah, a college student, supervised the bar during her summer break. She was an alumna of my high school, just old enough so that we'd never crossed paths there. The bar had one of the highest turnover rates possible: the Old Bat reduced employees to tears on a daily basis. Each day's schedule was cushioned in case of firing or quitting, both of which happened constantly. Those of who stayed, stayed for Sarah.

The work was awful. Old men would leer. Some would attempt to touch, and then as more beers were consumed, grope. Many of them considered themselves masters of sexual innuendo, each believing that he was the only one to dazzle me with such "wit". I did this work for $5.35 an hour; waitresses receive less than minimum wage because their income is supposedly supplemented by tips. The tips I received at the trailer park were often nickels and dimes, and more often than that, nothing at all. Trailer park drunks are not the most generous of souls, as it turns out.

Wednesday night was Wing Nite, wings at 10 cents apiece. The bar would be filled to the gills and chaotic as hell on Wednesdays, and all the very best that a trailer park had to offer would come worming out of the woodwork on those days. Customers would order 50 wings, and an empty glass. We would find people shamelessly filling their glasses at the bathroom sink.

Friday was Fajita Nite, and fajitas being much more expensive, the night was much less successful. As we carried the sizzling platters from the kitchen to the dining room, we were made to yell "Hot Fajitas!" for reasons unknown to the staff. To this day, my forearms still bear tiny pin-prick scars from the splattering of hot grease.

The wait staff was all-female. We wore little blue shorts and a golf shirt that we were forced to pay $45 for out our own pockets. After our first shifts, every one of us had permanent grease stains in the boob area of our shirts, providing convenient targets for the stellar and upstanding clients. The bar was unairconditioned. The kitchen was so airless that they often cooked with the door wide open, allowing all kinds of interesting insects to come right on in and make themselves at home. The Old Bat was so stingy that we waitresses had to take turns scrubbing toilets and prepping salads. This is illegal of course, since we were paid below minimum wage, but illegal was not a word in this woman's vocabulary. She thought Canada had too many "crazy" labour laws to begin with. "Back home..." she'd say, and we'd tune her out. This is how I first became acquainted with urine cakes.

Each waitress had a paper cup in which we collected our tips. We plunked in our nickels and dimes, sometimes even pennies, and at the end of the night, someone would cash them in for us, and we'd go home three whole dollars in our pockets, on a good night. The first time I actually made enough to go home with paper money in my pocket was the night my mom and her friend came for dinner, generously leaving a tip on my table, which embarrassed me and delighted me at the same time.

It sounds like the job from hell, and it was, but I did not have a bad summer. I was 17, and the world is made for 17 year old girls. I remember going to Edgefest or the Warped Tour, one of those big outdoor concerts, and getting lost in the moshpits and feeling the hands of strangers move me along as I crowd surfed to Finger Eleven for the first time. I remember being at work the next day, the golf shirt slicing into my sunburned back, the blisters oozing, but eager to finish my shift and start over again.

Somebody tried to set my mother up that summer, with a man 10 years her junior. He and a friend showed up at a bonfire we were having, and while they didn't hit it off with my mom, they did with me. Having friends a decade older meant that I didn't even need a fake ID to get into trouble. Trouble was ready-made. They had cars and boats, and the makings of all the summer fun a girl could want. The first time they came to see me at the bar, I had gone home early. The next day, a fellow waitress told me that my father and a friend had been looking for me. No, that's not my dad.

But they did keep me company on a lot of quiet shifts. They would sit at the bar, drinking beers and leaving me disproportionately large tips. Sometimes Sarah would suggest staff "constitutionals" after work, which meant crossing the border into Quebec and drinking lots of cheap beer. We would go to Riviere Beaudette, or else to Ste Eustache, which she pronounced La Moustache. I was underage no matter where we went, but surrounded by older friends, it never seemed to matter. I didn't lose touch with my school friends that summer, but it did mark the beginning of a distancing that seems inevitable at that age. When we all left for university, we all went down our separate paths. Nothing gold can stay.

That summer opened up a lot of possibility. I did things that I was not supposed to experience for a number of years yet. I was also propositioned by more dirty old men than I could shake a stick at, and believe me, I needed more than a stick to shake some of them off. In fact, on several occasions we had to call in the OPP when fights would break out, supposedly over the affections of an indifferent waitress, although when you're a lonely old drunk, you only need a superficial reason at best to swing your fists.

One hot July evening, I stayed in the family pool until just minutes before my shift. My mother drove me to work in the van, and I, still dripping and smelling slightly of chlorine, changed into my uniform in the backseat, and smudged on some eyeliner in a bumpy, moving vehicle. I knew it would be a long night at the bar, sweaty and gross in the stale air, and particularly so since that night was Elvis Nite. Oh yes, Elvis Nite.

Now, I wouldn't say that this particular impersonator looked much like Elvis. He was 50 if he was a day, short and squat, but he did have the rhinestone jumpsuit, and I guess that's what matters. The bar was packed. Standing room only, in fact. The Old Bat was in fine form, stumbling around in her gypsy dress, finally spilling brandy all over our interac machine, short-circuiting the thing on our busiest night of the summer. The bartender quit on the spot. Sarah sent me in as a replacement.

Yes, it was illegal to have an underage person preparing or even serving alcoholic drinks, but like I said, this wasn't exactly a lawful establishment. The crowd was hot and thirsty, and Sarah had no choice. That was the first time I ever shook up a martini. I made caesars and white russians (ew!), singapore slings, and many drinks that I essentially had to improvise, not having the faintest clue as to what went in them. But Elvis was there, so my paltry skills were hardly noticed. Elvis threw scarves at screaming blue-haired ladies. He sweated so much I feared he might have a heart attack. I sliced so many limes that night that the sight of them made me sick for several months afterward, but it was the sight of Sarah grinding with Elvis that got me through the night.

When last call was announced, we realized suddenly that we had actually survived, and the staff treated themselves to many celebratory drinks. We danced ourselves silly, long into the night, and at one point, sitting sloppily in my lap, Sarah said to me "You can never forget this night. This is it. 17. You won't ever be 17 again."

And she was right. I turned 18, went back to school for my last year there, and felt surely that I had changed. Sarah went back to college, got drunk one night, and fell into a deep sleep on the second floor of a loft. Sometime during the night, she fell to her death.

In the front yard of my high school, a tree is planted in her honour. A nice gesture I guess, but a tree seems like not enough to really represent a bubbly, happy light that burned out much too early. I remember being at the tree-planting ceremony. I remember it being October already, the air cooling around us, summer gone as surely as Sarah was. I don't remember the somber words that must have been spoken, but I remember feeling that it was my own mortality being planted there in the grass.

Sarah was right. You can never be 17 again.

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