Making Work Visible
City University of New York / Labor Arts
2022 Contest Winners
Melodramatic rants from a teenager to her friend
You slammed your body down onto the floor across from me. I could feel your entire weight rumble mine. Your body had given up carrying itself. The makeshift rug, which was once a quilt we found at the flea market, wrinkles beneath your worn-out thighs. The yellow lights bring out your tired lines, your droopy eyes. I made you stay up regardless of how early you have to get up tomorrow. I was furious. You would be soon too if I did not start telling you what happened. So I pour you a cup of water while prefacing my story that I am a bad waitress.
Today, I made a total of five mistakes, which was less than yesterday. 1) I dropped a lemon. 2) I gave the wrong table in the wrong order. Summer rolls, not spring rolls. 3) I handed Kevin the check when I should have given it to the customer. 4) I forgot to give table 5 vegetables for their phở. 5) A Chinese customer asked for change, but it sounded like “check” and the table had already paid, so I asked Kevin for help again.
You need to know I do not count my mistakes. Kevin does. Kevin jokes that he is paid to watch me, so I should at least give him a scenic view. Kevin yells at me for asking questions. Kevin yells when I’m wrong. Kevin lives under my skin and scratches at my eyeballs until I cry. And you know he’ll pride himself on it when I eventually do. Even his splotchy, back alley horse tattoo mocks my intelligence.
Believe it or not, when I first started here, he was very flirty. He kept talking about our “very first shift together”. How I was so lucky to have most of mine with him. Now he has rules for me: do not talk back, do not ask questions, do not fuck up. How can I not talk back when even asking a question is a mistake? Plus, Kevin makes mistakes all the time. But do I say anything? I just quietly fix things for him.
The cook said I’m too nice. You told me so as well. I know you are the first to recognize when I’m being bullied. Like in high school, when I gained some weight around my love handles. And when gravity helps you stand again, you’ll stand tall enough so that I’ll always look up to a familiar face.
“Why does Kevin suck?”
Is the question of the night. Perhaps I’m still new and need to “earn” respect. But you suggest that I am a pesky nuisance. By that, you mean how I cannot sew my own mouth shut sometimes. I have to let Kevin know I find him unattractive or else I can’t sleep that night. Or might another hurricane reach New York? And you’re right again because I’ll ignore your eyes having shrunk to a quarter of their size to keep jabbering on.
The other day, like most days, Kevin opens his phone to show me pictures of girls he finds ‘hot’. They find him hot and think he’s a gentleman. He’s not, he makes me carry all the heavy stuff. To my disagreement, you know how he responded? He said, “I’m a gentleman where it counts. I’m a gentleman in bed.”
Of course, I had to knock him down a peg. “So you’re never a gentleman?”. I’m very proud of my little comeback. You were too. Your eyes were sleepy but your laugh was real, stretching across your cheeks to reveal your slight dimple out from hiding.
“Ya gotta humble him” are your last words before you lean back to the wooden floor and you rest your head on my mattress. We take turns sleeping on and off the mattress so somebody doesn’t hog the blanket.
“Ya gotta humble him”. Even when he calls me stupid. Says I don’t know how to use my brain.
Your words and Kevin’s battle in my mind during every shift. Kevin wins because he knows how to torment me. With each snarky insult I hurl at him, I find myself cleaning the bathroom every night after even more pedantic scoldings. You lose because you’re nice to me and I’m just too tired to keep my head held high in your image.
So, you don’t know about Rosie, my other manager, yet. She always has too much time to unload her frustrations onto me. She only dates white guys and thinks I should too. She’s self-proclaimed the nicest manager here. She’s why everyone knows I have a boyfriend living in Boston. Though even with the unnecessary advice, prying questions, and penchant for gossip, she’s better than Kevin. She lets me ask all the questions to my heart’s content. She’s not stingy about her wise musings on life in America. Nor on landlords, boys or jobs, but only of the work she’ll do. On a slow day with her, I leave on my knees crawling to the bus station.
The dichotomy between Kevin and Rosie should be studied. Simply, Kevin doesn’t get how I’m the best problem he can possibly have. Apparently, when Rosie tells the other servers to go eat, they don’t. And when she goes to the bathroom, they talk shit about her. We go out with my co-workers all the time. So like me, you’ll also question why those idiots can’t wait til we go drinking to spill their mouths.
Likewise, she’s already looking for another job (fingers crossed) because of this recent incident. Only four waiters are girls: Linh, Rosie, me, and Hong. We’re all very decent with each other. Linh normally works with the guys where they let her stand in front. She doesn’t like working in the back during her shifts with Rosie and has been completely ignoring her instructions. Linh doesn’t even reply to her questions. In short, you’ll find that my entire morning was spent indulging in something completely trivial.
Rosie thinks Linh’s the type of spoiled princess that likes to act better than her job because she’s actually rich. And she is! Our friend went to middle school with her and confirms she lives in a mansion. Maybe she’s just working to make friends, you know.
The boss said he’ll tell Linh to either listen to Rosie or to leave. All of us are now subjected to a 20-minute lecture on the hierarchies at work. His teachings of Confucius go as follows, “Someone should always be at the top and others at the bottom. And everyone should work hard in their place.” I wonder if Confucious thought of managers in feudal China. Pretentious reprimand on outdated philosophy does not change how Chinese peasants likely did not pay for mistakes. Nor did they eat a “staff meal” during their 30-minute break of unpaid time.
Today was one of those offhanded days where Rosie needed to remind me of her sovereignty under a feigned kindness of making up lies about my wage. “When they hired you, they weren’t desperate for help so you got 13 dollars. It’s our secret”. Rosie normally doesn’t need to power drip like Kevin, she gets paid the most. She does the least work. Her word is gospel and we are her followers.
Kevin and I are equals in this way. Though I am far better off otherwise. He lives in a rented room the size of two tables for 300 dollars a month, something I only knew because Rosie told me so. I pay 600 for a home filled with your encouragement.
The New Year’s Eve morning shift is painfully slow. The fight between my coworkers is the only subject filling my time. It pollutes the air I breathe. My hands are still dirty from cleaning up the soiled diaper left open on top of spilled fish sauce. I take it in and contain it in my stomach to bring home to you. You’re my landfill. You’re the toilet seat I hug after a night out. I need to embrace you. I owe you my life . And in my next reincarnation, I’ll be your Roomba, a wet mop to clean up your messes.
Your judgment was correct again. You knew he was not worth the effort the moment I spoke his name in your presence. We broke up for a myriad of reasons, partly with your encouragement.
Phillip goes to Harvard and wants to save the world. He had seen parts of the world I could only see on the internet. And when he looked at me, I could tell he had found someone he was proud to rescue from the lowly slums of Flushing. I was grateful to have been chosen, willingly agreed to be a problem. For months, you watched me give away my dignity for half-assed explanations of Marxism.
I went home to you so excited about our first date. We stayed up all night talking about Virginia Woolf. He was very sweet then: doing our laundry and washing our dishes. When he left for Boston, it was the end of it. The allure of a working-class girlfriend had fallen off amidst the preppy college kids who did not need his explanations. Suddenly, he needed me to aspire for a college education.
Slowly, as the replies took more time to be sent, I faded into history as another one of his worldly conquests. Amongst his equals, his stories of me gave him a humble edge as the guy who would date outside of Manhattan. Phillip is larger than life. His time was wasted indulging my stories.
You kept pestering me to break up with him. I kept bothering you endlessly with my insecurities. Because men are not worth the tears and pain that would need comforting, you never once hugged me. I still took solace in your company, knowing that while he would soon control the waves of our lives, we would always rock the boat together.
Tonight, after our break up, I walked around alone because I did not want to see you. I did not want to scream, yell, or talk your ear off. I was not mad. I wanted to walk in my own shoes, in my own skin, and around my neighborhood. Each step walked me further away from someone who was good enough for Phillip. Tonight, I burdened myself with the responsibility of remembering that I am just a bad waitress. And sometimes an idiot. I could be someone who did not need you.
But still, I come home to you. You are more than the dumping ground. You’re also a recycling center. I come back anew, inspired to love the world as you do for my knack of jabbering on. I make sense of my world from how you internalize it. You are why I bear the low wages, the yelling, the sore legs.