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.”
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. And 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.
Keep in mind that this was 1998, and I was barely making my rent at $450 a month. So $250 was, for me, a serious chunk o’ change. The store owner saw me fretting and asked me why I was buying the costume. I told him the story.
“Kismet!” he sang out, clapping his hands. “It is your destiny to dance. I’m looking you, I’m knowing this town, I’m telling you: one night, you make back. No problem.”
I gave him a skeptical look. He doubled down.
“I tell you what, you buy this today, if you don’t make back every penny after first week dancing, you come back here, you punch me in the face.”
I laughed out loud at the idea of punching him in the face, since that would most likely break my hand. But his confidence inspired me. I bought the costume on credit, along with a veil, a pair of zils (finger cymbals), and a couple of belly dance CDs. Then I went straight home to work up my routine, apologizing to each roommate as they returned from work since the walls didn’t actually go all the way to the ceiling, meaning that anyone who listened to music without headphones was dooming the entire group to listen to the same.
The debut performance of “Aziza,” my belly dancer persona, at the Capitol Club was, by every possible measure, an unmitigated success. Capitol Hill being the gay neighborhood of Seattle, the bar was packed with queer couples who were more than happy to dance with me, playfully flirt with me, and slip $20s and even $50s under the straps of my costume.
As foretold, I made just over $250 my first night, and another $200 the next night. Nobody got punched in the face, and I had a new career on my hands.
I was damn good at it, too. Plus, I started using my tip money to pay a private instructor to help me choreograph and learn new moves so I could get even better. But all good things must come to an end, and I soon learned that one can lose one’s job not only for being crappy at it, but for being a little too good at it.
It all started one Thursday evening in late November when a group of middle-aged Persian couples came in for a romantic evening out. I was admittedly nervous, wondering if my moves would measure up to their standards. But as soon as I reached my arm out through the curtain, such an overwhelming ululation arose that I decided to really go for it.
It was a tour-de-force performance that left the crowd cheering for an encore. However, having interacted with just about everyone in the restaurant by the end, I could tell that I hadn’t won all of them over. Specifically, a couple of the wives at the Iranian table flatly refused my invitation to get up and dance alongside me. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when the manager called me in the following Wednesday for a “chat.” But my capacity for blissful ignorance is legend.
“We’ve had some… concerns,” she began, carefully avoiding the word “complaints.”
“Well, about your… um…”
“No, no. You’re a wonderful dancer. I think it’s more to do with your… demeanor.”
“I see.” (I didn’t.)
“You’re so young and vibrant and…”
“I was going to say attractive.”
Hmm, I thought, Not attractive enough to be a cocktail waitress, but too attractive to be a belly dancer, apparently. Is there a chart somewhere I can consult to find an appropriate career path for my level of attractiveness?
“Well… thank you? But I’m not sure how to address these… concerns, exactly. Do you want me to be less attractive?”
“No, no. Of course not. It’s just that. Well. Some of our most loyal patrons expressed to me that they are unhappy that now, when they come here, their husbands seem to be more focused on you than on them.”
“That does sound frustrating,” I empathized. “I tried to get them up to dance with me, but they didn’t seem into it. Maybe they can avoid coming on the nights when I’m dancing, in future?”
She frowned. “They always come on Thursdays. That’s their date night. And frankly, now that their husbands know when you’ll be here, I don’t think there’s any stopping them.”
There was an awkward pause. She seemed to be waiting for me to solve this problem for her.
“Maybe we could switch my second dance night from Thursdays to Fridays?”
“No no no. The whole point of having a belly dancer was to bring in the crowds on the slower nights.” I noted her use of the past tense, was. Seeing that I had nothing left to lose, I decided to defend myself.
“And it worked! The place has been packed every Wednesday and Thursday since I started.”
She sighed. “That’s what I told them, too. But they made some good points. Usually belly dancers at restaurants are closer to their age, and they have, you know, a belly, and, like, thunder thighs. You come swishing in looking like belly dance Barbie and making bedroom eyes at everyone in the place, and all of a sudden there’s this weird strip-joint vibe up in here.”
“Strip joint vibe?” I repeated, totally at a loss at this point.
“Oh I realize it’s totally unintentional on your part. And maybe strip joint is too strong. More like… burlesque?”
“Okay. So I bring in a ‘burlesque’ vibe. And that’s a problem for your most loyal clientele.”
“Exactly. I’m sorry, Sweetie. I just don’t think this is working out the way we’d hoped.”
She gave me my two-weeks notice, but requested I come back to perform on New Years’ Eve, since all their advertisements included “Aziza the belly dancer.” Never one to turn down a grand exit, I not only agreed, I spent the entire month of December preparing to make them sorry they had let me go.
I would love to claim that after my epic performance on NYE, they begged to have me back. But that didn’t happen. What did happen, though, was better. So, so much better.
About half an hour before midnight, things got predictably wild. Someone broke a glass, and to protect my bare feet from getting sliced open, the revelers pushed a bunch of tables together and lifted me up onto the “stage” they had created. I was doing a backbend with my head toward the stairs when who should walk up but one of the persnickety Persian ladies. Without missing a beat, I blew her a big, loud, two-handed kiss, then flipped back up, flicking my skirt as I did to create a “mooning” effect.
The crowd roared. She went pale, then turned bright red, and promptly ran for the restroom. Her husband, doubled over with laughter, gave me two hearty thumbs up.
At midnight, the bartender popped open a bottle of champagne and handed it to me so that patrons could simply hold up their glasses and get them filled by Aziza the Avenger. And everybody did, including her.
And that’s how I learned that revenge is a dish best served with champagne.