Essay by Brittany Ackerman
In the Weeds
I. Japanee, Bloomington IN (2010-2011)
Bloomington was a college town with one sushi restaurant. I never asked where they got the fish since we were landlocked, but luckily none of the customers ever asked either. I didn’t even like sushi before I started working there, but Rocco fed me a UFO role and I had a change of heart: the smoked salmon and cream cheese and warm rice and scallions and cucumber—all deep fried in a wonderful melody of flavor.
Rocco was the server who trained me. He was from Puerto Rico and even though he graduated so long ago, he stuck around. He showed me how to type in everything manually on the cash register because we didn’t have a digital system for putting in orders. We used sheets of paper ripped in half and hung them up with clothespins. We took them to the sushi bar or to the kitchen, read them aloud and waited for the cook to yell back “Heard!” Rocco was dating Natasha. They always arranged to take their breaks together and shared cigarettes in the back alley. Natasha was ice blonde and blue eyed from Sweden. She wore little black shorts year-round, even in the dead of winter.
Carol was the head server. She wore white Reeboks so I went out and bought white Reeboks. She was Korean like the owner, Jin. The way that they spoke to each other was either in anger or with love. There was no in between.
Shifts started at four and the restaurant opened at five. I remember racing to the door so Jin could let all the opening servers in, racing to be there so you’d get the first table right as dinner service started. Rocco lived around the corner so he usually got there first, but once or twice I made it there before him and he was so pissed, like genuinely pissed. I almost felt bad.
Parties were held in the upstairs room that could fit twenty, but twenty was just an idea. Sometimes we had forty people up there, and as long as they gave us one card for payment we really didn’t care. These parties went well past close. I once caught a couple having sex in the upstairs room after I thought everyone had emptied out. People would stumble out of the restaurant and Rocco or Jin would guide them to the sidewalk so they wouldn’t puke on our property. We couldn’t be liable, they would say. If it didn’t happen inside, it didn’t happen at all.
I once opened sixteen Kirin Lights before realizing that the table wanted Sapporo Lights. Orders came out wrong all the time, or they took too long and people got mad. Everything was chaos until it was over and then I was so relieved to go home and take a shower. My socks were wet with soy sauce, my shirt stained, my legs sore from going up and down the stairs a million times.
Carol was the one who told me to cry in the bathroom when I needed it. I only needed to once and when I came out she said I was officially a server. She was the only one who knew about the guy I was in love with, the one who lived across the country. She knew when I would come into work sad and told me to leave it at the door. “He’s the red sock turning your whole world pink,” she’d say.
The guy I was in love with lived in California. He was named after a famous guitar player. I still can’t listen to “Fire and Rain” without feeling part of my soul leave my body. The love started in summer and had been drawn out through winter. I walked to the restaurant for my night shifts wearing UGGs and a down coat that I shoved into a cubby when I arrived. I changed into my white Reeboks and threw on my apron. In every brief moment I had between speaking to customers and listening, in every step I took between taking orders and retrieving them, I thought of this love. I had never been good at math, but the love felt like a point on a graph that kept going up and up and up, arching away from some other point. I couldn’t plot its axis. I felt the love was endless.
When we weren’t talking I didn’t eat. I would get home from work and my friends would be getting ready to go out. I could have showered, changed clothes, gone with them. But I often didn’t. When I did, I drank Bud Light, like my brother used to, and watched as my friends paired off with other guys. Greg from Sammy. Adam from Zeta Beta Tau. Wesley from Beta. I’d leave early and call my love’s phone over and over until he answered and told me he was just about to go out. I was three hours ahead. He was three hours behind. His night was starting when mine was already over.
He was supposed to visit on Valentine’s Day but cancelled his flight the day before. I thought it would turn out to be one of those things where he showed up anyway. I even waited on the porch in the snow.
I never hooked up with anyone at the restaurant, but one time I went over to Cody’s house and let him feel me up. I usually only worked dinner, but I’d picked up an open lunch shift and spent the afternoon with Cody. We were the only two servers on the schedule. He taught me that it tasted better to eat rice with soy sauce and teriyaki mixed together with a squirt of ginger dressing on top. We filled the fridge with pyramids of salad bowls ready to go for dinner. He was six feet tall and blonde and in another life we might have dated or been best friends. When he texted me to come over I went because that’s what I do. I go. He didn’t try to kiss me, but he ran his big hands up and down my body over my clothes. He’d given me so much coke; I felt it was only fair.
I always volunteered to set up the party room because it was a one-man job and I got to be alone before the commotion of dinner service began. There were windows that faced the alley and in winter the alley filled with snow. When spring came, everything melted and I could see the concrete again. I sometimes imagined going up to the roof and jumping. There was something wrong with my brain. I couldn’t name it, but I knew it lived there.
II. Duffy’s, Delray Beach, FL (2012-2013)
I came home from Los Angeles with no money. I moved back in with my parents in Delray Beach and would take the car out to drive around and smoke weed. I shipped my marijuana supply back with my car. I’d rolled up the plastic bags in socks and stuffed some pills in shampoo bottles the way the Internet had instructed me to. I kept cheap red wine in my closet and drank when I couldn’t sleep. After a month, I drove around to hand out my resume to restaurants. I didn’t want to do anything, but I needed money.
The manager hired me on the spot and told me to stay away from the boys. I had to take a drug test but they must have never filed my paperwork because I still got the job.
Nick trained me on my first day. I was allowed to order a free meal of choice, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to stomach a basket of fried chicken wings or a double bacon cheeseburger, so I told Nick he could have it and I watched him eat instead. Nick was fucking Molly, a waitress who wore a high ponytail and knee socks with her uniform, and he was dating a girl named Trinity who didn’t work at the restaurant but came in every Thursday for two-for-one drinks.
We had to wear baseball shirts that buttoned down and had DUFFY’S written in cursive. The shirts were forest green and the text was mustard yellow. We wore black nonslip shoes and weren’t allowed to wear our hair down. But we got better tips the hotter we looked, and only Molly could really pull off her high ponytail. I wore my hair in a banana clip and let two pieces fall out in front. I wore concealer so I wouldn’t look tired, but any other makeup I wore would melt off my face in the Florida summer heat.
I got put outside a lot because I was new, meaning I’d have the entire outside section to myself and had to run in and out to my tables and the kitchen and the bar and back. I had to remember to bring an empty basket lined with checkered parchment paper so that guests could dump the bones of their wings. I had to bring wet wipes and sides of sauce and be on top of refills and be able to offer just the right thing that they wanted even if they didn’t know they wanted it. I had to suggest the Top Shelf Long Island Iced Tea, the 8oz sirloin, the brownie sundae for dessert. I scooped the ice cream on top of a warm brownie. I stuck a candle in and lit it with my purple lighter and sang Happy Birthday with as many other servers as I could wrangle. But sometimes it was just me out there, singing.
The shift manager always assigned me to sweep the floor because it was the worst, while girls like Molly and Debbie got to roll silverware together at a table and gossip. They lifted their feet off the ground so I could sweep underneath them. They didn’t speak to me. I wanted them to like me but in real life outside of the restaurant I knew I didn’t really care. When I walked to my car after a long night of work, I instantly forgot about everything as I drove down A1A to my parent’s apartment. Once I stepped back inside the guest room, the restaurant disappeared into the bottom of a drawer, a place I didn’t have to think about until it was time to go back.
There was a rumor that one of the shift managers was hooking up with a hostess.
The shift manager was always a man, always a man who was overweight and whose belly spilled over his pants. They were nameless to me, even faceless. They wore glasses and had beards and smelled heavily of cologne. I couldn’t imagine fucking, let alone kissing, one of these men, but it happened. It happened all the time.
Molly finally invited me to a party. The party was at Nick’s house. I drove myself there and parked on the street. One of the bartenders, Dustin, was there, and he taught me how to play Beer Pong even though I already knew how to play. He smoked cigarettes and blew the smoke away from me, which I appreciated. He tried to kiss me and I backed away. He got mad and when he started to walk away I ran to him and kissed him. He took me into Nick’s room and I wondered how many times Nick and Molly had fucked on the bed. Dustin took me there and pulled me on top of him. I wasn’t drunk, but I hadn’t been fucked in a while and wanted it to happen. Dustin was hot with short blonde hair and green eyes and a nice body. He smelled like what wood smells like after rain. He was a men’s body soap commercial. He fingered me on the couch and when I asked if he had a condom he told me he had a girlfriend. But I didn’t stop his hand as he moved it until I came.
At the restaurant, everyone always wanted work to be over, but then when work was over, it was all they could talk about. I’d ask Molly how her nursing school applications were going but she only wanted to gossip about Nick and Trinity. I didn’t tell anyone about what happened with Dustin and he never really talked to me again. I had to pick up my drinks from the bar but he seemed busy, like his head was far off somewhere outside the restaurant. Maybe that was a good thing.
I felt myself getting dragged into it, all of it, and it was hard to remember what life was like before I started the job. It felt like I’d work there forever, the same shirt, socks, sneakers. Men slipped 20-dollar bills in my apron and I’d forget about them, washing them in the laundry and only remembering when I took everything out of the dryer. The money came out like papier-mâché.
I once had a customer who wanted to sit outside because he drove a motorcycle. He parked it right on the other side of the outdoor railing and showed it to me after I took his order. He wore a tank top that scooped low on the sides down to the waistband of his jeans and had a mustache that somehow worked. I don’t remember his name, but after he ate and asked for the check, I worked up the nerve to write my number on receipt paper and slipped it into the checkbook. When I went to bring it outside, he was gone. The bike was gone too, and there was no money on the table. “Dine ‘n’ dash,” the manager said. He made me take the cost out of my earnings for the day.
When I started dating a guy who worked for a rehab center, he made me quit the job and look for another. When I drove by the restaurant any time after that, it looked so silly from the street. The big sign glowed green all night long, like some kind of carnival ride, like some kind of ridiculous joke.
III. Rusty Mullet, Hollywood, CA (2016-2017)
They say that everyone comes to California to chase a dream. But I came back because I had no dreams left to chase. I moved in with an old high school friend and clicked through Facebook until I found a group for young women looking for jobs. I got an interview at a sports bar in Hollywood and used my roommate’s car to get there. I was early and stood in front of the Egyptian Theatre until it was time to go in. I couldn’t see myself working in a place like this, all the crazy people on the street, people dressed like Elmo and Spiderman panhandling for petty cash or the homeless yelling and spitting, trash fires and everything looking like a dangerous cartoon version of itself. But for some reason, it also felt comfortable, like nothing bad could really touch me. Here, I would be spared.
The sports bar only had girl servers, but there was a guy behind the bar. The manager kept pausing the interview because something was going wrong in the kitchen and I sat on the plush leather stool and looked around. There were no windows, only blown out rectangles where windows belonged, and the walls were covered in hand painted murals of Los Angeles and Hollywood Boulevard. There were random license plates nailed to the back of the bar. The floor was sticky in a permanent way and the place smelled of beer and fried food and something tart like cherry juice.
I got the job on the condition of a trial shift the next day. It was a Tuesday, and the cook told me it was an unusually busy morning, as if Jesus himself had multiplied the burgers and called forth everyone on the boulevard. I made over $300 in five hours and got to take the cash home right away. I drove to the bank and deposited all of it. The work felt good; the heat on my body again, the soreness in my legs, the familiar fifth that stuck to me, a grime that only foodservice brings. I had been personable all day. I had up-selled and created friendly rapport. I had given tourists suggestions of places to go even though I’d only been in town a few days. I listed places that I myself wanted to go: The Griffith Observatory, Universal Studios, the Santa Monica Pier.
I did well enough to earn weekend shifts, night shifts specifically. Two girls always worked night shifts from eight to two. The bar closed at one, sometimes one-thirty if we couldn’t get people out fast enough, and then we had to clean before we could leave. Customers wanted to buy me shots and I asked Gina, the girl who had been there the longest, what to do.
“When they offer you a shot, you take it,” she said.
We had a hundred different shots in a big laminated book that customers could choose from. Shots like: “Lemon Squeeze,” “Lime Tsunami,” “The Bomb Pop Shot.” They were mostly juice, but after a few you started to feel it. I tried to drink water every chance I could, but I often lost count of the shots and made it a rule to always stop drinking at midnight.
When football season came around, Sunday mornings were the coveted shifts. A new female manager started working and we got along well so she let me work every game. She always brought McDonald’s breakfast and black coffee and when she got pregnant we closed the bar early and had the baby shower there.
There was something about Hollywood that made anything feel possible. There was a romance that I had with the city, one that most people who come there have. It feels cinematic, like every streetlight and every building is there for you.
Every so often we’d get a dead night where pretty much no one showed up. The bouncer and the bartender would go out back and smoke a joint and sometimes Gina would go too but it was understood that I had to keep watch. The bouncer, Jeremy, was in love with me. He was married and wore a ring but he said he dreamed of leaving his wife and taking me with him. Where we would go I never asked. It was nice to have a dream, to know someone had a plan for me when I myself had no plan for any kind of future. There was no way to grow if I kept living like this. I worked and worked and used all the money I made for rent and the rest on partying. I wasn’t saving anything. Even if I were to save, I wasn’t sure what I’d be saving for.
When I’d been at the bar for a year, it became clear that life could stay this way forever and I could either accept it or move on. How many more drives home over the limit? How many more drugs? How many more restaurants?
On one of my last night shifts, I was putting in an order on the computer and I heard Jeremy yelling at the front door. Someone had him at knifepoint and the bartender had to jump over and help. The two of them tackled the guy with the knife and the police came and took him away in a car. Jeremy was sweating and all beat up and I gave him a hug.
“I'm gonna take you away from all this someday,” he said under his breath and only to me. We both knew that day would never come. But it felt good to be taken care of, even if it wasn’t real.
Brittany Ackerman is a writer from Riverdale, New York. She earned her BA in English from Indiana University and graduated from Florida Atlantic University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. She currently teaches Personal Essay I & II at UCLA’s Extension program and will be joining Vanderbilt University's English Department in the Fall. She is a 2x Pushcart Prize Nominee and her work has been featured in Electric Literature, Jewish Book Council, Lit Hub, Entropy, The Los Angeles Review, No Tokens, Hobart, and more. Her first collection of essays entitled The Perpetual Motion Machine was published with Red Hen Press in 2018, and her debut novel The Brittanys is out now with Vintage. She currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee.