Featured Writer #93: Katherine Scott Nelson

 boxing gloves over chafing dish with carrots 

Katherine Scott Nelson’s extraordinary essay, “Dinner and a Fight,” recounts their past experience in the gig economy, working as a waiter and bartender at catering events in the Chicago area. It’s an insecure life of low pay, no insurance (though injuries lurk around every corner), and no future. Compounding these difficulties, Nelson, who is a nonbinary trans person pursuing gender transition, worked in a business where male and female boundaries are carefully marked. Yet throughout this essay Nelson displays a can-do brio, a stubborn slogging bravery, and even humor, which adds poignancy to the march of one grinding day after another. In these sudden, terrifying days of the coronavirus pandemic, the lives of the people you will read about here have become even more precarious, as our country’s shameful economic and healthcare inequality worsens in the crisis.

 —Philip Graham

 


I am a cater waiter. I go when and where I’m called: hotel lobby parties for fertilizer sales conferences in downtown Chicago, million-dollar weddings in suburban backyards festooned with pink tulle, outside in hundred-degree heat on Western Illinois golf courses, holiday parties at Lake Shore Drive condos where the client sarcastically asks if she’s still allowed to wish us a Merry Christmas, pristine penthouse conference rooms where lawyers discuss international weapons contracts over sea salt caramel truffles and fresh coffee.

In my all-black uniform, I can be as invisible and silent as a ninja. I have a pickpocket’s skill at palming dinner rolls, a homing pigeon’s sense of taco trucks, and an alcoholic’s knowledge of how late everything is open. I can swing ten boiling-hot plates of beef tenderloin over one shoulder without burning the curve of my ear, and carry them from a makeshift outdoor kitchen across wet grass and up half a flight of stairs without spilling half a drop of red wine reduction sauce, and maneuver my way back without dropping so much as a greasy butter knife down the back of a guest’s dress (most of the time). I know how to conserve trips, when and how to complain to co-workers, how to swivel between seated guests while maintaining a one-millimeter distance between back of head and butt or crotch. I know a dozen ways to cover up a late arrival. I can tie a tie in a crisp Windsor knot while running full speed.

I know swear words in languages in which I cannot say hello. I know how to show respect, not disgust or horror, when a co-worker whips out a lighter and shows us how the pads of his thumbs have no feeling left after decades of burning them on hot plates. I know how to keep my face expressionless while the head butler yells at me and then storms out for a smoke break, how to hide my shame at doing a shit job at a shit job, and then my shame at the realization that I am a person to whom this matters. I know that a blood stain can be lifted from a white dress shirt by boiling it with baking soda and lemon juice. I know all the ways one’s feet can hurt. I know how good three shots of cheap gin can taste in your kitchen at three in the morning after an especially bullshit night. I know all the pleasures of disappearing.

 

For two years I’ve worked on catering crews in Chicago. At the beginning, I rode the bus to a crumbling building on the west side and filled out a crookedly photocopied application in a tiny office with bare wires and stained carpet. Four or five other people dutifully filled out their applications at a long table next to me. I hesitated over the “Name” section: which name do I give them, Katherine or Scott? What gender will I commit to, the “female” one I understand although it chafes, or the “male” one I don’t know how to navigate? Will I reveal what I’ve really been doing these last few years: crying in community support groups, trying on binders, haunting working-class acupuncture clinics and drugstore lines to pick up an arsenal of antidepressants and anxiety meds?

I decided, I’ve dealt with discrimination against women my whole life, I’m not ready to handle transphobia on top of it. A hard vertical stroke of the pen made me Katherine. As I handed over my forms and my ID, I thought, if this doesn’t work out, there’s always SSI.

The company, a temp staffing company that rented out cater-waiters for $11 an hour, hired everyone in the office on the spot. On my way out I bought a homeless guy a sandwich because I could, because the bluster of small-time prosperity made me feel like part of something very Chicago and very old.

I bought my uniform secondhand from the basement of Ragstock on Belmont: rack after rack of one-ply white tuxedo shirts, ruffle front or no ruffle front, with other people’s names written in sharpie on the shirttails, wrinkly clip-on bowties, cummerbunds in various levels of disintegration. The suits themselves are made of some sort of polyester-linen blend with rough threads, and after a year and a half I was holding the pants together with safety pins. The ill-fitting shape accentuates everyone’s physical differences from an imagined norm, making each person a caricature: the wearer becomes defined by a pot belly, Ichabod Crane proportions, childbearing hips, a pillowy face. I believe I started looking good in the jacket after a couple of months on testosterone, but this could be wishful thinking.

 

I fold the jacket and shirt in my lap. We are crammed sixteen people deep into a decommissioned church van that barely tops 45 miles per hour all the way from the industrial West Loop of Chicago to an estate in the sprawling northern suburbs. Everyone else is enjoying the ride into another world, but I am sweating, and not just from the busted, buzzing air conditioner. The bride and groom at this wedding would likely be around my age, and the backyard reception is located only a few miles from where I grew up. If a guest recognizes me, what will I say? I’m a writer, I live in the city, I’m working on a novel, I do this sometimes for beer money? Will they want to catch up, and if so, will I own up to the fact that I’ve been too mentally ill to work full-time since my last white-collar employer went bankrupt two years ago and I think I might be trans and because of that I’m not exactly talking to my family right now? Or will I pretend they have me confused with someone else? Someone who grew into a future more appropriate for the kind of artheaded college-bound-by-default teenager whom teachers and parents liked to promise, honey, in fifteen years the popular kids will be working dead-end jobs and going nowhere and you’ll be off living a fabulous life?

We park in the backyard, where gardeners are still planting rented, trucked-in trees and shrubs around the tennis court, and decorators are still installing the faux wood floor and hanging flower garlands and swaths of gauzy fabric from the ancient fence. I and a few other servers find the blue crate, heavy as a treasure chest, that holds the bags of rented silverware, and immediately begin laying down forks and knives across all the tables. I’m getting pretty good at setup. I can slap down a salad fork a perfect thumb-length from the edge of the table, and space the place settings around a ten-top or twelve-top, a 96-inch round or a 126-inch round, without even thinking about it. I shouldn’t feel proud of this.

In the kitchen tent, two oyster shuckers are cracking open shells and ripping calcified ceilings away from the tender gray meat. I am the only person among the servers who has eaten raw oysters before. I try to describe how they taste: salty, crisp, cold, sweet, like the ocean. I’m one of three people who has tasted the ocean.

Later, as I stand next to my assigned table, a bottle of red wine in my right hand and a bottle of white in my left, I start to understand that the guests are ancillary. They are a part of our show, people who must be sat at the correct time, part of the equation that begins in the kitchen, where the plates are passed down an assembly line that slaps down chicken, greens, potatoes, gravy, garnish, where ideally nothing gets cold. The plates will be picked up in thirty minutes and returned to the kitchen. It is our production, our time, our stage.

I clear a warm, sticky fingerprinted glass, top off everyone’s wine, and return to the kitchen tent. I’m not worried anymore about being recognized; I know I won’t be. The guests’ world is of no more relation to me than an airplane passing by overhead. There was once a time where my future included sitting at these tables, but not anymore. I belong in the kitchen tent, with my crew. I have accomplished at least one of my ardent childhood wishes, if nothing else – I have gotten the fuck out of here.

We line up against the wall of flame, where the cooks peel back a block of aluminum foil to reveal 200 plates stacked around a setup of flaming Sterno cans. The hot plates give the guests the illusion of a meal right out of the oven, although ninety percent of this stuff was cooked up at the shop at 5 AM this morning and carted out in six-foot-tall steel caves and is being served from metal cafeteria trays. The plates are searing, so much that my skin stings and every nerve in my hands screams at me to drop them, and heavy as barbells. By the time I reach the tables on the far side of the tennis court, I feel like my wrists are about to snap off.

“Goddamn,” my co-worker huffs as we return to the line. “I got arthritis. I’m fifty-five. I can’t be doing this anymore.” She shows me her hands, stiff and quaking, the skin around her fingernails callused and cracked.

A few moments later, she asks me “Is my mascara running?”

“No, it looks fine,” I say.

“You sure?” she sniffs. Something inside her cracks. “I’ve been crying all day,” she admits. “My boyfriend left me.”

“That sucks, I’m sorry to hear that,” I say, automatically.

“He took off with all the rent money,” she whispers. “Emptied our bank account.”

It’s the twenty-ninth.

“I haven’t eaten anything in two days,” she admits. She runs her hand through her hair, smoothing back the flyaways from her ponytail. “I’m fifty-five. I have arthritis. I can’t do this anymore. I have nothing.”

I don’t know what to do. And then searing plates are shoved into my hands and I’m sent back out again.

I want to offer her money, I think as I cross the tennis court. But I only have a twenty in my wallet and I don’t know the rules around doing things like that. I think of how my best friend from San Francisco, although facing homelessness, backed away in shame when I offered to buy her groceries. I am so out of place here. I know what all the wedding food tastes like and I’ve never learned how to offer someone money without making them feel pitied.

Back in the tent. She is sitting on the steps, her back to me. She is crying. People are walking around her and (respectfully?) letting her be. And then I’m called to go out onto the floor and help with coffee service. I’m going to offer her money, I decide, as I pour decaf into the demitasse cups, and of course it’ll be gone right away because that’s what money does, it goes, every year there’s less and less of it, but she can at least get something to eat and a bus pass or something. I don’t care about the etiquette. But when I get back, she is gone. I don’t see her again. Behind me, the party music is thumping, people are dancing. The night is moonless and the weather is starting to turn, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

 

The job is a black box, I never know what’s waiting for me beyond the call time and location. Some nights it’s like dancing in a club, the lights are up, the shatter of voices, the pump of commercial pop music made suddenly meaningful: we found love in a hopeless place, we found love in a hopeless place, but also with money raining down on me from every angle, and some nights it’s like digging for pennies in the couch, like stealing the grocery store insert from a neighbor’s newspaper for coupons, like riding the bus across town to try to sell a pair of designer pumps you bought three years ago when you last had a middle-class job, before the long slide began.

On my days off it’s like everything is a little grayer, a little slower, a little colder. Sometimes the pride of a good night fades, when I’m waiting for the train to take me home, everyone around me either going to or coming back from a party, and me by myself in my stiff, fatigued uniform.

What kind of person feels proud of being a good cater-waiter? I imagine someone dull-witted, servile, always looking for a pat on the head, willing to sacrifice any shred of dignity to satisfy the client’s whims. I once had a job that brought out this same personality in me, a customer-service position I was fired from after exactly ninety days, and even a decade later I’m still disgusted by who I became every time I picked up the phone. Yes ma’am. I’ll do anything to make you happy.

On my days off, I go to my partner’s apartment and we drink and watch Netflix, and sometimes we have long boozy conversations about what it means to feel proud of excelling at a position of servitude. Like the butler in The Remains of the Day, right?

One day, on Downton Abbey, we watch the butler empty a bottle of red wine past a lit candle and into a decanter.

“What’s he doing?” my partner wonders aloud.

“He’s aerating the wine,” I explain. “The bottle has probably sat in a vault for a while, and sometimes sediment forms in the bottom. He’s straining the little bits and particles out and letting it oxygenate – that opens up the flavors more.”

“How do you know that?” ze asks.

“From work,” I say.

I start to see it: a tradition of knowledge and technique, unrespected, unseen, and unvalued, but passed on and on. The skill of adding tasks together, the coordination and balance required to move most efficiently through a room. The way guys at work show up with ancient dusty bar kits prized from grandmothers’ and aunties’ attics, tools no one uses anymore lined in crushed velvet. The million little moving parts that make up every event, and the artistry of weaving them together into a seamless experience.

So I learn to dress the garbage cans in starched service linens, double-bag the garbage, rip a hole in the side of the bag so it doesn’t balloon out of the can. How to ensure the linens are flush with the floor. How to count up the linens at the end of the night, write it on a Xeroxed linen check-in sheet and have your captain sign it so the company that rents linens and has a monopoly on the game can’t charge you for a missing linen. How not to internalize management’s panic, how not to take their disorganization personally, when to grumble and to whom, how to make it funny. How to clear eighteen pieces of butter-smeared dishware and lipsticked glasses from a table in one quick sweep. I learn that orthotic inserts, cut and stuffed into my shoes, will keep me full of energy at the end of the night while everyone else is wiped out and complaining about their feet and their backs. I learn that if I can get a glass of wine under everyone’s belt by the time the salad course hits the table, they’ll leave me alone and let us do our thing. I learn to speak back to the way I was raised, the messages that this work doesn’t matter, is nothing to be proud of, is done by people who’ve failed.

After six months I successfully persuade management to move me up to bartending, where you make more money (earlier call time, plus cash tips from guests) and are generally treated better: the management is more hands-off, you are trusted to know how to set everything up, the guests are nicer, and you don’t have to scrape plates. I build a bar kit: an ice scoop, a martini shaker, a dozen jet-pourers that count a shot in 3 rather than 6 beats (which adds up over the course of making 200 drinks, believe me), a solid aluminum bottle opener, a wine opener, and half a dozen emergency supplies: pads, lip balm, band-aids, breath mints, hairspray, roll-on perfume. I carry it in a black travel bag with a red Swiss Army cross on the front.     bartender's strainer

We work outside on days when it’s ninety-five degrees by ten in the morning, when even the trees seem to be melting in the languid heat, when the sun is a white haze, and our undershirts are soaked by noon, our socks sweated stiff when we take them off at night. The ice melts inside the barrels where it’s stacked six bags deep, and forms a solid brick that you have to break by throwing the bag against the pavement five or six times. Sometimes I sweat so much that all my makeup is gone by start time.

In this context I’m a girl, but everything in this context is a stand-in for something else, like the green barrel on top of a plastic milk crate draped with stiff white linen to look like a column of ice. The assembly-line food an imitation of banquet opulence. The artificially heated plates meant to suggest fresh cooking. “Girl” comes off at night with the imitation suit. It washes off with the eye shadow and mascara that I’ve learned nets me more tips.

Notice, too, how everyone here is color-coded: that Obama-looking dude, the dark-skinned brother, those two white girls. The obvious machinations at work when the lightest people are assigned to the better roles, and the way I get moved up the chain when I come off as a nice young lady from a good family, but my queer ass is relegated to the background at suburban weddings and not invited to gospel brunches. Notice that, at the same time, this is the only job I’ve ever had in which I depend on working-class people of color, in which I must prove myself trustworthy and reliable to them.

I enter a city I thought I knew through the side door. When I was a kid, my friends and I used to come into the city on weekends to visit the Field Museum. Now I sign up for corporate events there, where I often get stuck on the slow bar, the one with the view straight up the T. rex’s ass. We work on the skydeck of the Sears Tower, where my family would take our Iowa and Missouri cousins every time they came to visit, where we’d stand on the reinforced panels of glass and watch the city move a thousand feet below, where now I back my bar up against the corner and don’t look behind me all night as I reach for Heinekens and Amstel Lights.

But probably the biggest mindfuck is the corporate office parties. Once, I wanted to be on the books and on the health insurance plan at companies like these. Now I and three co-workers lay plastic sheeting over gray carpet and attempt to tap a keg of dyed-green Miller Lite, which spews across all of us like blood spray. Or I pour milk and serve cookies (and, for $5 tips, to-go cups of “coffee” with two shots of bourbon) to a group of accountants locked in a conference room with a pain-in-the-ass year-end audit. By the time they finish, at around three in the morning, enormous piles of paper cover every surface of the conference room. I go to sign out and the office manager tells me I need to stay late and clean the office and enunciates every syllable Ver Y Clear Ly O Kay?

So here I am making a third of my old pay to get on my hands and knees and swipe up papers — P and L sheets and cash positions. The woman who set me on this job doesn’t know that I know how to read these papers I am stuffing in the big black garbage bag; she doesn’t know that I could string them together and find cash that’s getting skimmed off and siphoned elsewhere, and I could do all these things but I do. Not. Care. Anymore. It is bullshit o’clock and I no longer care about proving myself a good white-collar employee and I don’t care about winning this stranger’s approval just because she might be able to put in a good word for me at HR, and all I want is to get home and take off my shoes and wash my face and drink two shots of bourbon. Walking to the El in the middle of the night, away from a boardroom I will never stand in again, I start to feel confident and self-assured. I start to feel free.

Sometimes when I’m off work, my partner and I go to a support group for genderqueer and non-binary transgender people, which is where we met each other. At the beginning of each session, we all share highs and lows from the past week. But whenever I complain about work, I start to feel like a bad-ass. I think, some of you private-college graduates are going to workplaces populated entirely by white and upper-middle-class people, or trying to educate your nonprofit co-workers or your grad school cohort about the importance of building accountability processes and why it’s not cool to make assumptions about non-binary genders --- I’m out here on a crew. I injured myself at work. I got yelled at. Last night we were packing trucks until four in the morning. I start feeling proud. Like I’m doing something tangible. Like I’m doing something real.

I worked on the temp crew for about eight months before the owners of the company locked the doors and left a handwritten sign in the window that said BANK SHUT US DOWN. NO MONEY.

 

As it turned out, I was quickly scooped up as a bartender for a black-tie caterer whose reputation for being a lousy employer was matched only by their reputation for corruption. I once added up all the rumors about the owner: he was a millionaire pedophile who shouldn’t have been running a business in the United States at all because he’d done time in federal prison for money laundering after he was arrested in the Bahamas while trying to board a plane with a suitcase full of drug money which he’d picked up during a visit to his illegal private casino. Given that this is Chicago, all of that could be true.

At my first shift, we are working at an outdoor classical music venue where the crowd is so notoriously cheap, grabby, demanding, and mean that several coworkers specifically refuse to work there. In the chaos of setting up, my bag goes missing, with my cell phone and house keys inside.

Before the guests arrive, the other bartender at my station, Marcus, bows his head, folds his hands, and asks the Lord for $25.

“Does that work?” I ask.

“Every time,” he says. He prays that I will find my missing bag with my cell phone and keys inside, and I bow my head, fold my hands, and humor him.

I know he’s not going to get the $25, just like I know I’ll be calling a 24-hour locksmith from the bar on my corner at the end of the night, but his faith is unwavering. He makes $5 in singles throughout the shift, and then ten minutes before he’s cut, a guest hands him a twenty.

“Why aren’t we praying for a just economy?” I ask him. $25 seems like such a trifling thing to bother God for, why not ask for something big?

He chuckles at me and shakes his head, like I’ve just asked him the dumbest question in the world, like “Why don’t you scoop ice with a glass?” or “Do people drink a lot at these things?”

“Sometimes, with the Lord, you’ve got to be a little more specific,” he instructs.

He waves goodbye, and I stay on until 3 AM. At the end of the night, I find my bag propped against a tree behind the tent, my phone and keys inside.

 

I prayed at work only one more time. I was about to be late for a long shift and I was trying to find a parking space in Wrigleyville at 3 PM on a day with a Cubs game. Driving along the walls of cars lining every block, I grew more and more frantic and finally blurted out “God, please, I need a parking space so I won’t be late for work. Help me not get cut tonight.” No one’s giving up their street parking spot on a day like today, it’s not happening. But as I passed the venue one last time, up ahead—brake lights.

The instant I parked the car I felt like an idiot—I opened up a line of communication with God and I asked for a fucking parking space?

 

Shortly after this, a friend from the support group offers me a mostly-full vial of testosterone. He had an allergic reaction to the linseed oil medium, so he hands the vial off to me, along with a paper bag of syringes and needles and detailed instructions on how to use them. “If this works for you,” he says, “go to the informed-consent clinic and tell them you’ve been DIYing. They won’t be able to argue with lived experience.”

We both know I won’t pass any other doctor’s requirements to start HRT as a trans person, just by looking at me. I wear make-up. I have sex with cis men. I haven’t got a back story where I insisted to everyone who would listen that I was a part-boy, part-girl, all-something-else from eighteen months on. To say nothing of the socially and legally impossible requirement to live full-time in my identified gender, which is something I still can’t quite identify.[1] But I can’t let go of the possibility of having a choice, the chance to close the gap between how I feel my body should respond and how it actually does, that one day I won’t be thrown into a deep depression by a particularly heavy door or a too-tight lid on a pickle jar. So I take the bag home and put it in my freezer for a week and think about it.

I work on a catering crew. I’ve already had an interview for a job as an editor drop from two hours to five minutes after I arrived at the office in my suit (my nice suit, that is, the one that’s been waiting in my closet for a day when I might feel stable enough to return to full-time office work). All of my friends who take hormones have been fired at least once, some have been kicked out into the street, some of them get messed with on the sidewalk. What will happen when my voice starts to drop, my body starts to change?

stainless steel ice scoop

Marcus and I are walking underneath the freeway overpass after a shift at the Field Museum. After a couple of near-misses returning his ice scoop, I’ve mailed it to him, which makes us work friends now. Ice scoops are hard to find, especially the drop-forged aluminum kind that won’t slice your palm open on a busy night—and if you bleed into the ice bucket, the night is over. I’ve decided I won’t be like our lousy guests, I won’t be like this one other bartender who steals bottles of ginger ale and shit from other bars so the other bartenders run out and the guests (and their tips) start going over to him. If someone makes extra barback runs for me, or helps me out when they don’t have to, I tip them out. I no longer grab each dollar and stuff it in my pocket like I’m never gonna see another. I’ve decided I’m going to not be afraid. I’m carrying an extra spike of testosterone under my skin, and I have an appointment at the clinic next week to get a legitimate prescription.

A mouse skitters across the sidewalk, hiding from the rising wind. “What train do you take?” Marcus asks me.

“Red Line,” I say, referring to the long vertical slash that should link the two Chicagos, but doesn’t. I live half a block from one of the stations.

“I hate the Red Line,” he growls. “I hate it so much I’ll walk the four extra blocks and take the Dearborn Street Subway just so I don’t have to transfer.” We bond over the late-night nonsense, the drunk and violent Cubs fans who punch each other out and puke all over the floor and threaten strangers for looking at their girlfriends and who never get so much as a “knock it off, fellas” from cops or security. “You have to be prepared to get ignorant with somebody on the Red Line,” he says. And then he says, “I don’t tell many people this, but I was homeless for about eleven months, in 2010 and 2011.”

I never know what to say when people reveal things like this. I stand and nod, the silent witness. I take it in. His practice of praying for tips now makes sense—after all, it’s give us this day our daily bread, right?

“I was working full-time while this was going on,” he said. “Pulling double shifts at the Congress Plaza Hotel. Nobody at work knew. I kept all my stuff in my locker. I’d wash up in the men’s room and then go to work.”

I begin to wonder, is this something I should be filing away for my own future reference?

“I stole a knife from the kitchen,” he admits, “and all night, I’d ride the Red Line from one end of the line to the other, with one eye open, one eye closed, and one hand on my knife.” He shivers and pulls his tux jacket close. “I hate the damn Red Line.”

Keep your clothes in your locker at work. Wash up in whatever bathroom is letting you through the door at the time. Get a knife from the kitchen. Ride the Red Line from one end to the other. Be prepared to get ignorant.

“It’s got to be scary, being out of doors like that,” I try to offer. “Someone gets mean, and you’d be the first person they find.”

I shouldn’t have said that. He nods and whispers “Yeah,” and something in his eyes changes. The light in them narrows, shrinks, and runs to hide.

Then he blinks and shakes his head, and he’s back.

I consider telling him about the vial of linseed oil in my freezer, about my other name. If he’s given me a secret, I should give him one in return. I sense he would understand. But I don’t say anything. This was supposed to be a hand-to-mouth shit job while I got back on my feet, a way to test whether I was stable enough to be out in the world interacting with people at all. I wasn’t expecting to care so much, for any of this to matter. We wave goodbye and part ways at the transfer point.

 

In the morning, I walk over to the LGBTQ health care clinic and sweat in a beat-up easy chair while a psychiatrist interviews me to ensure I know what will happen and make sure I waive my right to sue.

Questions I was asked and answers I didn’t give:

How are you going to handle coming out and transitioning at work?

I am picturing a workplace in which the employees are considered more than invisible pairs of hands. A place with gender-differentiated clothing, where the gender I present is consequential. An office environment that is monocultural and monolingual, and where everyone speaks the nonprofit-industrial-complex language around accountable and affirming and how I identify, where the company at least pretends to value diversity. Where shit doesn’t come out of people’s mouths like “Hell no, I’m going out the front door like a white boy!” or “Fucking Jews! Whaddaya expect?” or “Damn, Rosa Parks, get in line!” or “You ladies washing dishes are doing what a woman was meant to do!” A place with a human resources department. A place with bathrooms we are allowed to use. I am imagining a transition model that sweeps me from one place to another as fast as possible. A section of time that must be crossed. A culturally intelligible end point.

I picture the person this question imagines: certain. Someone who does not have two first names. A man who breaks out in hives when makeup comes near him, and always has. Not someone who wears their gender variance on their body everywhere they go, who’s planning to get a collarbone tattoo that says CUSTOM MADE in swoopy script in order to look brave. Definitely not someone who’s sick of giving up and trying to decide which of the official genders hurts less to live in. Because sometimes I wake up and I feel beautiful, because sometimes I have to pause in front of a mirror or a reflective surface because, holy shit, it’s my face and I’m fucking stunning. Because my voice is opening and expanding, and I find myself dominating rooms and conversations and groups—I’m sorry, I don’t mean to—because I just love the way I sound and it feels fucking miraculous and I have so many lifetimes of words that I’ve held back. Because what is “me” has begun extending into my hips and thighs, like ten new lighted rooms in the house of my body. Because all my life I’ve been ruled by fear and I don’t want to live that way anymore.

 waiter uniform, black tie and vest, white shirt

Three months in, I’ve started growing to fit the suit jacket. Catfish whiskers are sprouting from my jawline.

And, remarkably, no one at work says anything about it. At this job where women are required to wear makeup and men are required to take out their earrings and cut their hair, I somehow become even more invisible—filling out the uniform, no longer staggering when I hoist two cases of wine and run up the service stairs, no longer drawing offers of “help” from random men. “You’re a beast, Katherine!” cries a fellow bartender in admiration when I pass him a seventy-pound barrel of ice over a chest-high railing. A server who hasn’t seen me in six months says “You look different, have you lost weight?” I smile and tell her “I’ve been working out.”

I have not become the upstanding trans person who patiently educates their workplace. In fact, I’m turning into a little wiseguy, one of the smash-and-grab criminals lining any kitchen staff. I bet I could get away with all sorts of shit! I start leaving singles on the bar to signal the guests to tip, a fire-able offense. The first empty can of Sprite gets refilled with white wine under the table. A spoonful of $60 an ounce caviar goes missing at a Christmas party. When the bar captain points to me and says “I ask for men and they send me girls!” I say “They sent you me, and that’s about halfway.”

 

At work, I’m invited to become one of the preferred bartenders at the Rookery, a red fortress looming over the aging office complexes and Occupy Wall Street protest sites of LaSalle Street. Built in 1888 by Daniel Burnham and renovated in 1905 by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Rookery is one of the first metal-frame skyscrapers and the last building with load-bearing exterior walls to be constructed in the United States. Whoever owns it now clearly doesn’t want it used—we cook beneath outdoor tents set up in the loading zone in the alley, for example, in -20 and 110-degree weather alike—but grudgingly pay the cost of human breath, human feet, and human wear and tear in exchange for the rent money needed to maintain such a monument. The concept of a specially trained Rookery crew is a plea from our employer, or so I hear from kitchen gossip, a last-ditch attempt to not lose the contract with the venue, which sends them thirty or so weddings a year. I and a few other bartenders attend a three-hour training and take notes on all the ways we can be fired: scratching the walls, setting a sweating glass or bottle on the marble floor, hanging a shirt and jacket from the underside of the wrought-iron stairway, taking a cart across the glass tiles of the upper level, walking up the ballroom stairs. I’ve already dropped and broken a full rocks tumbler of cherries and juice in the upstairs hallway and tried to blot it up with cocktail napkins, then gave up and split before anyone caught me. I wonder what ever became of that.

The weddings there are performed in rigid lockstep: one-hour reception on the second floor at 6 p.m., main bar setup beneath the stairs, toasts at 7:30, 90 minute dinner service, everybody out at midnight. Every night it’s a race to rip the carts down the three-foot-wide hallway snaking from the loading dock to the atrium, two hundred and fifty pounds each of beer, wine, locked liquor crates, glassware, and way too much soda, before the kitchen gets their end of the operation set up and you have to hand-carry everything back, excusing yourself behind chefs sweating over two hundred salad plates. The guests show up at quarter to five for pictures and they all want cocktails that you’re not yet set up to make. After cocktail hour, one bartender stays upstairs to tear down the cocktail bar and hand-carry everything back to the service elevator, while the other keeps the guests lubricated through dinner. Every time the service elevator moves between floors, the security guard on duty must scan their badge. Both of the regular security guards are decent people, but after twenty trips upstairs you can see the resignation in their eyes, the familiar sigh of God damn it I don’t get paid enough for this shit.

The Rookery, however, is m-o-n-e-y: when I began working there I’d walk out with at least $130 cash lining my suit. For a while it’s me and Miguel, a great bartender and the only guy on the bar crew who actually leaves his ego at the door—every night we do our jobs, have some laughs with the guests, get our money, go home, see you next time. Then he successfully begs his way off the Rookery crew, saying that he doesn’t want to put up with the venue’s bullshit anymore. I wonder if management ever figured out that he was the one who got everyone calling it The Crookery. Then it’s me and Cal, an older guy who looks good in a suit and knows a few good drinks, but who is so notoriously fussy about the way things have to look that I’m one of the few bartenders who’ll put up with him. I think Cal sees me as a daughter. One night he asks me for advice about how to reconcile with his daughter from his first marriage, who he’s pretty sure is gay and afraid of her parents’ judgment.

A good night only goes one way. You and your partners show up at three in the afternoon and unpack the trucks, ferrying racks of glassware, cases of liquor, and plastic igloos and clear tubs for ice into the building. By the time you’re filling a plastic pitcher with sliced limes and lemons, or mixing the fruit juice concentrate with warm water from a spigot in a dusty janitorial closet, you aren’t racing to finish before the guests arrive. They drink at a rate commensurate with your stock, so you don’t have to beg someone to run and fetch more white wine or Miller Lite, but the ice in the tubs doesn’t melt away and leave a tower of warm beer bottles on top of a frigid sea either. There are always enough limes. A good night is one where the guests play along with the fantasy, where you’re their butler and not some schmo earning $13.50 an hour to sling basic drinks at a wedding, where they respect that you discovered how to make a real mojito with your shaker in less than 15 seconds, where they laugh at your jokes and repeat your stories. On a good night, you and your coworkers take turns eating leftovers in the kitchen, sitting on overturned crates while the chefs rinse their knives and snuff the cans of Sterno. Some nights it’s like being on stage, how I can raise and hold the crowd’s energy and draw it to a point right above my head, and I can pump it up or slow it down, I can direct it and guide it, but I can never ever hold it or contain it. On a good night, you aren’t reminded that you aren’t a real bartender—that you aren’t a real anything as long as you’re here.

At the end of a good night you are exhausted in a satisfying way. You bang one of the loaded trucks with your fist on your way out. Your bones ache with accomplishment as you plod back to the El and wait for the train and then wait for your stop and then wait for your legs to climb the stairs so you can strip off your uniform and scrub off the salt and dust and sweat of a good night. A good night is one where you leave with money stuffed in every pocket and crevice of your piece-of-shit tuxedo, like a Chippendales dancer. When you get home, you count the bills out on the table while your grilled cheese cooks up on the stove, making separate piles for the twenties, tens, fives and ones. You smooth them out and pile all four sections into one, put a heavy book on top of it, and fix a dirty gin martini to go with your grilled cheese sandwich. The flavors meld spectacularly: the pungent olives and the creamy cheese, the juniper bite of the gin, and as you eat you reflect on this taste combination: one you discovered yourself, a source of knowledge only you know, and it comes from staggering home on a bad night, hungry and sore and humiliated. You don’t think to yourself, Sure, it’s good, but it’s good for now, how much longer can I do this before I can’t do anything else?

 

During this time, the baby novel I’d been fooling with for ten years was picked up by a basement publisher and released to a handful of small readings in the Chicago area. The editor and I mail four copies to the Lambda Literary Awards, using a borrowed printer to finish the job, and against all odds, I get a call letting me know I’d been short-listed. Is this really the moment I’d been waiting for since I was a kid making up stories on butcher paper with magic markers?

I fly to New York to attend the awards ceremony, carrying an arsenal of the anxiety meds I increasingly can’t calm down without. I should be excited, but all I can think about is the novel’s flaws and the things I wish I’d done better. Throughout the awards ceremony I put my head between my knees. I’m going to throw up. I’m going to pass out. I’m going to throw up and then pass out. If they call my name I won’t be able to stand up. Why didn’t I prepare a speech?

I’m not called.

I collapse in the seat with disappointment and relief.

The rest of the evening passes in a blur.

I fly home with a suitcase of free books.

I’m back at work on Thursday, unrolling the same black plastic floor mat, mixing the same vile orange juice concentrate, saying the same platitudes to the guests.

In the height of the summer I often do three back-to-back weddings, get home at two or three in the morning after a 15-hour wedding shift, and if I don’t have a clean shirt for tomorrow I throw them in the basement washing machine and wait for them to finish, iron them into tight creases while they’re still wet, hang them up to dry in my studio apartment. I fall asleep in sweaty sheets, in a room so small and hot that my floorboards seem to steam and warp, with the sound of the El from half a block away bleeding through the open windows and still air, and then in five hours I get up again.

By the end of wedding season, my hands are so thoroughly destroyed that I have trouble brushing my teeth or turning a doorknob: my nails are soft and ragged and prone to ripping across the quick, my fingers covered in tiny paper cuts and hangnails where the lime juice bites in, skin dry and tight across bones. I learn to coat my hands in Vaseline, put on latex gloves, and leave them on overnight—a burn victim’s harm reduction.

One of the free books I brought home is a collection of LGBTQ authors writing letters to their younger selves. I read most of it in the laundry room at 3 AM while waiting for the spin cycle to finish. It seems like every third writer assures their younger selves that they won’t be a waitress or barista or bartender forever, that their career will eventually take off and then they’ll be out of whatever food-slinging job they’re stuck in. I’m disappointed. Where’s the pep talk that says if you’re a writer, you’re a real writer anywhere and the world is full of rich experience waiting for you to have it, and sometimes that includes scraping up vomit in the women’s restroom at an office holiday party in your hometown?

But at the same time, I’m picturing a future as one of the lifers that every catering crew has—people who show up rumpled and out of sorts after twenty years with the company, who weird out the guests by mumbling to themselves as they clear tables, who eat still-good dinner rolls out of the food garbage can. Tasks are invented to keep the lifers from getting in the way—fold these linens, polish this silverware, hold this bowl—and middle-aged crew members point to the lifers when their backs are turned, saying things like “If I’m like that when I’m old, shoot me.” But even as I cringe at the possibility of becoming one, I recognize this is unfair and cruel. The lifers aren’t doing anything wrong. They’re feeding themselves and showing up at a place where they have a role to fulfill, where they matter, if only for a few hours, and isn’t that what we’re all doing at work?

It is okay if you become a crusty old bartending lifer, I chant to myself as I peel my white work shirts off the walls of the washing machine. The world is full of rich experience waiting for you to have it, and sometimes that includes sneezing yourself to death in a ragweed field at a stranger’s wedding. The experiences you have, the people you meet, the shitty job you’ve learned how to do well, all these are holy. If you’re a writer, you’re a real writer anywhere. Maybe if I say it enough times, I can make myself believe it.

 lit Sterno fuel with blue flam

One night, at the Rookery, Cal asks me “Do you think a person can be basically unlucky?”

“How so?” I ask.

“I think this is a pattern for me,” he says. “If I choose a bar, it’ll be the slowest one. If there are three events on a Saturday and I choose one, it’ll be the smallest, cheapest one. I could have bought into a factory in Lebanon when I was younger, and I’d be a very rich man right now, but I didn’t. I always think it’s going to work out for me, and then it doesn’t.”

I say, “No, I don’t think people can be basically unlucky. I think it’s more likely you remember the times when you lost out.”

But then I remember that the first time I met Cal, in the breakdown room at the Field Museum, he was getting yelled at by the head butler for eating a green apple behind a tower of unpacked glassware. “I always get caught,” he’d muttered to everyone, chucking the apple core in the garbage. “Ever since I was a kid. I never got away with anything.”

I think about how some people seem to get away with everything, others get yelled at for the smallest infraction, for things they couldn’t possibly have prevented, things they didn’t do. The four out of five people who write books that become finalists but don’t win. The co-worker who lost her grip on a metal buffet tray, dropped a lit can of Sterno gel down her leg, and went to the hospital with third-degree burns and the polyester in her uniform pants melted into her skin. Every time some guy without a day of bartending experience shows up without any equipment and gets put on a busier bar than me. The other bartender who was searched by the police when a diamond tennis bracelet went missing at a private party, which was later found in a potted plant—an insurance job, with him as the intended fall guy. When I hear of a model search campaign to identify the masculine-of-center queer who looks best in a ruffle shirt and bow tie, two things that get me compared to Pee Wee Herman when I have to wear them for work.

Maybe it’s the random nature of this job—the arbitrary shift assignments, the roulette wheel of whether the night will be good or bad, the unpredictable nature of when and where you will work—that makes you start relying on good luck charms, pink eyeshadow, or prayers to a God who apparently wants to keep you running each day until He can’t. Or maybe it’s true that luck, like money, also goes. Like the way every wedding season brings in floods of cash faster than it can be spent, and then the stress-fueled blast of the holiday season, a burst of silvery excess at New Year’s, and then in two months you’re eating spaghetti with the lights off.

Do you think a person can be basically unlucky?

 

I swore I’d never work another shift at the casino, not after the miserable shitshow that was New Years’ Eve, but February does funny things to people. That’s why I’m driving 25 miles and crossing the Indiana state line to accept a six-hour shift as a server. I need the hours, folks say, or, I’m grateful for the hours, like our time is something granted to us.

Legally speaking, this is a boat casino, although it’s a minimally-designed concrete structure that squats in six gray inches of Lake Michigan, lacking engines, a rudder, or any other ability to go somewhere. Pull up to the service entrance in a carpool, and you’ll usually see someone leaving with their eyes dilated from hours of staring into a cycling computer screen and their face pulled tight, clutching their bag or their car keys. You never see anybody smiling here. Even the VIP guests who throw down $300,000 a year mill around the seafood buffet, piling crab cakes onto their plates with a grim determination to outlast another year. The management clearly despises the guests, stopping just short of referring to them as “suckers” or “marks.”

I cross the boardwalk and sign in at the entrance, where I run into a co-worker I recognize from past shifts—Mariah, a big, brassy woman with fading red hair. Behind her, the big double doors are open to the casino auditorium’s main floor, where a field of spotlights hang above a boxing ring. Bare tables and chairs are stacked on the stage, with another seating section on the floor itself, lines of metal folding chairs facing the ring like in a high school gymnasium.

I perk up immediately. “We’re catering a boxing match?”

“Yup,” she says.

“Think we’ll get to watch the fight?” I say as we trudge back to the kitchen.

“We did last year,” she shrugs.

We set up tables and chairs on the stage, which tonight will be the VIP section, with a nearly ringside view of the fight. Usually the casino rents us garish gold and silver neckties and has us drape cloths that look like 80s prom dresses, but tonight the VIP setup is basic black tablecloths with black satin napkins and a ring of tea light candles in the center.

A few of the waitresses from the regular casino waitstaff help out, folding napkins and polishing water-spotted silverware. They are Hoosier white girls, with square hips and apple cheeks and perpetually wet-looking hair that sticks to their foreheads in thin strands. They despise us, Mariah has told me, for some reason that predates both of our terms of employment and which neither of us has ever uncovered.

“The Mafia was here last year,” one of them tells us. “They were really nice.”

If the Mafia is coming this year, everyone wants their table. They’re great guests—polite and respectful yet affable and outgoing, and they tip with hundred-dollar bills. As per casino policy, we’re not allowed to accept tips, but fuck that. Everyone does it.

The casino waitresses warn us that we’ll be carrying trays of food through the same narrow backstage hallway where boxers are sparring to warm up, that their fists and elbows will be flashing dangerously near our heads. We should expect that the floors will be covered with sweat droplets, blood splatters, and stained towels by the end of the night.

One of the waitresses asks another, “Have you seen Frankie?”

“Oh, Frankie isn’t doing the announcements this year,” she says. “He found a dead body in his hotel room.” From her tone of voice, she might have said that Frankie wasn’t doing the announcements this year because he had the flu.

Later, from the same kind of backstage chatter, I will learn that Mariah has been in an open relationship with her common-law husband for twenty-nine years and was once the momma to an entire biker gang. She wants to die of a heart attack while having sex with an eighteen-year-old blonde girl. I hope she hears the genuine admiration in my voice when I say, that’s fucking awesome.

With ten minutes before guests arrive, I make a trip to the single-stall bathroom concealed far down the hallway, as I’m now getting hostile glares and “Do you know which bathroom this is?” from strangers regardless of which one I use. And Indiana is one of those states where workers and queers have no rights. Here where we often go eight hours without being allowed to eat, it’s amazing we’re allowed to use any bathroom.

As I wash my hands, I realize I’m actually excited for tonight. Mafia. Dead bodies. Bisexual biker mommas. Hundred-dollar tips. Not another suburban wedding where I stand around backstage by the wall of flame, wincing from Sterno fumes. Dinner and a fight.

Back on the stage, the head butler has split the entire team into two, like at a junior high dance: men on one side of the room, women on the other. For a moment, everyone looks at me. Oh fuck. Which side do I join? Am I about to be sent home for being too weird to serve food in front of two guys beating the shit out of each other?

Mariah waves me over. I line up on the women’s side, but at the edge nearest to the men, and at a slightly different angle than everyone else.

The head butler breaks us up into groups of three; every group must have at least one man. My group also includes a tiny wisp of a girl and an older man I’ve worked with before but whose name I don’t know, short with light gray eyes and whitening hair.

It turns out that tonight we will be carrying shouldered trays of silver platters, and that “man” is code for “able to carry the big rounds.” I can do that, and I bristle at being told to stand in the back and look pretty rather than do any heavy lifting. I try to re-frame it: if they want to pay me to look pretty, fine.

The girls are each assigned to a table, and the guests start to trickle in. My table is a group of men who look very much like my dad’s high school drinking buddies, all chinos and square haircuts, followed by a collection of wives and girlfriends who clearly don’t care about bloodsport—they will sit with their backs to the ring and pick at the Caesar salad all night – but have blow-dried their hair into heavy rolls and pressed on false eyelashes for the sake of somewhere to go.

We’re not supposed to run cocktails—there’s an open bar at one end of the stage—but I’m still under the spell of the mob and those rumored rolls of hundred-dollar bills. I introduce myself to my table and ask if I can get anyone a drink.

At the bar, one of the casino waitresses points out the Mafia. They’re the guests in suits and ties or dresses and pearls. They’re all sitting at a table a few feet away from the stage curtain. That table should have been hers, she tells me, but she swapped it at the last minute with another girl, assuming the Mafia would be sitting at a table closer to the ring. Now the rumored hundred-dollar tip is going to her rival (“that bitch”), who is glowing with hospitality as she sets down vodka tonics.

I’m standing with the rest of my group when the head butler signals all the men to line up in the kitchen and pick up. The man in our group swallows hard and admits to us girls, “I had a heart attack and a stroke last year. I’m not supposed to lift anything above my chest.”

“I’ll do it,” I say.

“You sure?” he asks. He seems both embarrassed for himself and concerned for my safety.

“Yeah,” I say.

Oh fuck yeah, time to show everyone what I can do. I report to the kitchen line for duty, where the expos are plating up family-style casserole dishes and capping them with faux-silver aluminum covers, each cover featuring a bowling-ball hole in the center for steam-burning your thumb. Tonight’s fare is roast beef on the bone slathered in horseradish cream, penne ala vodka swimming in soupy sauce, crunchy Caesar salad drenched in dressing and cheese, dinner rolls that breathe steam when cracked open. And even though I’ve never managed to carry more than six platters at a time on a big round before, I tell the expo to give me eight; the line is long, our tables are the furthest from the kitchen, and I’m doing it in solidarity.

I kneel down and pull the round onto one shoulder, accepting its unwieldy weight. As soon as I stand up I know I’ve claimed too much, but no way in hell am I backing down. My lungs squeeze and my calves wobble as I make my way out the kitchen doors, praying I don’t drop the tray as it lists forward and back.

Outside in the hallway, two fighters are each sparring with their coaches, circling around each other and throwing punches. I try to flatten myself against the wall and slink past them, but a fist flies toward the edge of my tray and I flinch, and the tray tilts crazily to one side and the gravy boat pours out a gray slop and I steel myself against the wall and somehow right the tray in time. As I run off down the hall, I hear someone behind me yell “Be careful!” but it isn’t clear whether this is meant for the boxers or for me.

By the time I make it to the VIP section, sweat is running down my forehead and even the soles of my feet are quivering. I dump the tray onto the tray-jack and hustle back across the stage, leaving my group members to uncover the plates and serve them to people who will neither notice nor understand the drama going on all around them. Some co-workers are impressed to see me carrying the big rounds with the men—after all, women can do anything men can do! Others ask me why I’m having to do this, where the hell is our group’s man?

Two more trips and I nearly spill on the last one, so I switch the tray to my chest like it’s hors d’oeuvres, and deadlift it the rest of the way to our tables. In the hallway, dodging the warming-up boxers, I now know how to watch for a break in the sparring, or a movement together in the opposite direction, an opening to dash by. Something in my chest is squeezing like it wants to get out.

Back on the stage, we’re all smiles and manners for the guests, you’d never know we’re coming fresh from a fight. It’s a little surreal, slapping down banquet platters while two guys are pounding the crap out of each other fifteen feet away, with blood and sweat droplets flying everywhere. I picture a molar with a thick, bloody root landing with a wet splat in a bowl of horseradish cream.

I carry one more big tray of strawberry cheesecakes, which feel light and airy by comparison, and on the way back, a messy pile of dinner plates and too-big silverware that lands in the dump tray with a clatter. The band of my sports bra is damp against my skin and something wet from the plates leaves a damp track across the belly of my shirt. I run back to the VIP section, and as I clear dessert plates and coffee cups, my table begins packing up to leave early. One of the men reaches for my hand and slurs “Here’s a li’l action for you, shweetheart!” As his hand makes contact with mine, I feel the unmistakable, damp, folded pressure of a hundred-dollar bill.

Oh, fuck YES! If only everyone who called me honey or sweetheart or lady or she promptly handed me a hundred bucks. I sidle up to the bartender who’s been making me vodka tonics all night and cry “Yo, I just got tipped out!” as I slam a handful of bills home in her jar. She smiles at me, but her eyes say, you bitch. I don’t care. There’s a benjamin in the pocket of my apron. Everything is good tonight.

The casino feeds us when they feel like it. Tonight, though, after dessert and coffee get cleared, we eat in shifts. I’ve been eating spaghetti and grilled cheeses for three weeks and I’m excited to leave with a belly full of meat. We load up our plates and eat with our heads bowed, silent and reverent. You can tell I’m not from this world, because I leave scraps on my plate. I still haven’t learned how to fill my stomach past capacity. Everyone else has been calorically trained to store up whatever they can, always measuring the feast against the famine.

Later, on break, as I’m trying not to notice the knot of muscle that’s locking up my right shoulder, our older male co-worker tells us girls about being a banquet server at the Four Seasons in the 1960s. He used to be able to carry two of those trays at once, one on each shoulder, gliding through the ballroom in a real tuxedo. Making a thousand dollars a week, in the 60s (when many of us don’t make a thousand dollars a month doing the same job today). We nod in wonder at this time that’s so thoroughly gone.

Back on the stage, guests keep drifting out, and we collect their fingerprinted water glasses and whisk them back to the breakdown station. By the time the main event starts, the tables in the VIP section are completely cleared, save for the Mafia table, where everyone is leaning forward on their elbows, rapt, waiting, concentrating.

And since there’s nothing else for us to do, we get to watch the main event. We gather near the wings of the stage. On the main floor, men grasp thick cigars and eddies of smoke curl upwards into the lights. The lights go down. The crowd cheers. One of the boxers steps onstage and throws a few shadow-punches. He is tall, lanky, pale, with a jarhead haircut and cherry-red cheeks, and when the announcer mentions that he’s from Whiting, Indiana, the crowd cheers again.

“Like a Roman circus,” my co-worker says, shaking his head, but he’s going to watch it anyway.

The challenger arrives, to loud boos. He’s Latino, six inches shorter than the other boxer, and has tightly coiled gray hair against his scalp and a slight ring of softness at his waist that has the crowd shouting “Too old to box!” and “Get on a Stair Master!”

The catering crew is made up of people whose hands shake with arthritis as they carry the plates, folks with PhDs from universities in Mexico or Argentina or the Philippines who scrape plates in the U.S., aging bad-asses begging their teenage kids not to drop out of high school, actors who arrived at middle age having never made it, and young writers staring down the barrel of that future. He’s our guy.

The fighters square up, and the bell rings. They circle each other, testing each other, and then a fist flashes out, and then they land in a huddle the refs break up. They circle back around, sweat glistening and sinew twisting under the stage lights. I don’t know how to fight but I’ve got this capacity growing in me, like the muscles I tore and will re-build tonight, like the drip of testosterone I’m tapping into me. Our guy hits the redhead in the stomach, doubling him over, and even though he misses the connecting punch we all cheer for him.

But before long, our guy is huffing, sweating, bringing his fists up to block, trying to hang on. Every time he lands a punch, or gets ahead, the ringside crowd boos and yells. I’m reminded that boxing isn’t about how many punches you can throw, but about how many punches you can take. Everybody here is taking some kind of beating to earn money.

After three rounds of beatings, we start to accept that our guy’s not going to win. His movements have become heavy, sloppy, and he’s retreated into himself, blocking and countering more often than he strikes. I turn aside to flick crumbs off the table.

Suddenly the crowd roars, and I look up just in time to see the redhead land back against the ropes, and our guy advancing forwards, throwing punches at his face. We all cheer.

The guy next to me says “If that punch had been two inches higher, this fight would be over.” I nod. This is what we’ll remember: if that punch had been two inches higher, if I’d picked the other bar, if I’d bought into the factory when I was younger, if I’d won that award …

But the redhead recovers, bouncing off the ropes, punching his way out of it, forcing our guy across the stage.

Somebody in the crowd yells, “Send him home in a body bag!”

Our guy puts up his fists to block, and the redhead gets him right in the kidney, knocking him down on one knee, and then to the floor. The ref starts counting.

And then it’s over. The Mafia get up and leave. We knock the tables down and stuff the linens into industrial blue laundry bags, and we’re out of here an hour earlier than scheduled. I can absorb the loss of an hour. There’s a hundred bucks in my apron and I can’t wait to put it in my wallet. I’m thinking a full tank of gas in the car, steaks at the grocery store, getting absolutely blackout drunk this weekend.

In the hallway, I pass our favored boxer, who’s pressing a bloodstained rag into his mouth and trudging back to the dressing rooms in the company of his managers. I yell over my shoulder, “Hey man, you did GREAT,” and he gives me a genuine, bloody smile, like I just made all the difference. I add, “If that punch had been two inches higher, that fight would have been over!” but I’m not sure he hears me.

I burst out the doors into the parking garage. It’s cold as shit out here. Off comes the tie. The sweaty, stiffened collar pulls away from my neck, letting in the cold wind. I must smell terrible --- body odor, Caesar salad dressing, who knows what else. The hundred in my apron is aching to be spent, I’m invincible tonight. In the car, glowing with victory, I turn the heater all the way up and rub my hands frantically until warmth starts to come, and my fingers stop shaking.

I reach into my apron and uncrumple the wet wad. It isn’t a hundred. It’s a ten and a five.

 

 

[1] The author would like to stress, for the benefit of anyone considering HRT, that all these requirements have since been dropped. Visit https://transequality.org/know-your-rights/health-care for more information.

 


author photo, Katherine Scott Nelson

Katherine Scott Nelson is the author of Have You Seen Me (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography) and a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Their short stories and essays have appeared in the Rumpus, Ninth Letter, Whiskey Island, Confrontation magazine, make/shift, and elsewhere, and have been anthologized in The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard. Born and raised in the Chicago area, Scott lives in Los Angeles. Check them out at www.katherinescottnelson.com.

 

 


 

This project is partially supported by the Illinois Arts Council

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  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.