It’s 2012. I hope I don’t need to remind anyone (other than Conservatives and misogynists, if you’ll pardon the redundancy) that women are so much more than their looks. We are capable of anything we set our minds to even if our minds sometimes seem to work at cross purposes. Of course we want to be noticed, but we’d prefer it to be for things that matter, like how well we parallel park, or explain the plot of Memento, or do the NYT crossword in pen. Sure we want to be thought attractive but only in certain circumstances so varied and specific to each woman that it’s likely easier trying to find her G-spot through jeans and Spanx on a drunken third date. Here’s just one typical, convoluted example; if a woman thinks the man hitting on her is attractive, it’s on, if she finds him unattractive, it’s harassment. We understand this can be confusing, but we like to think that’s what makes us so irresistible. Or maybe just irritating. But there’s one place where it’s prevailingly acceptable to notice a woman – hell, it’s almost required – and that’s at a bar. Trust me, I spent most of my life in bars where being noticed is a blessing and a curse.
I’m going to go ahead and make the (pretty much universally accepted) assumption that when women aren’t solely dressing for their own pleasure that they dress for other women. Until they go ‘out’. Going ‘out’ requires a certain type of outfit, the kind you can’t wear anywhere else but the club unless your name is JWow. For many women, a night out involves hours of primping, texts to girlfriends and last minute wardrobe adjustments before stepping out the door to the waiting cab (you think they’re walking more than two blocks in these heels? Puhleez.). If a woman goes to a club and doesn’t get noticed, even if she had an otherwise amazing time – danced her ass off, took a gazillion awesome Instagrams, found out a gory secret about her ex’s new GF, came home with her purse and without vomit on her shoes – she will consider the night a disaster. Why? Because the only guy that noticed her was the troll with halitosis and a penchant for racist jokes and that doesn’t count. I’ve seen it happen thousands of times, because when that troll struck out he’d inevitably hit on me – the bartender – because the weakest of the species stalk their prey at the watering hole. This is why bartenders look so bitchy. When a bartender is wearing skintight clothes she’s been sweating in all night, her hair has become a stringy clump, mascara has collected in the corners of her eyes, her feet are killing her and she has to make twenty blow job shots for the screeching bridal party in the corner, knowing full well she won’t get tipped because she still looks better than all of them and that is obviously her fault, the last thing she wants to be is ‘noticed’. Make no mistake, most bar jobs I got were because of how I looked, but I kept all my jobs because I worked my ass off, something that wasn’t appreciated in the service industry as much as a shirt so low-cut it made by boobs look like a two-year-old’s bum.
One of the worst parts about working in the service industry for me – besides customers, long hours and loss of faith in humanity – was the uniforms. Depending on the type of place, there are two schools of wisdom about proper work attire. The first: the sexier, cleavage-exposing, skin-tight the better. The second: the more androgynous, unappealing and mundane the better. If you looked at my closet in 1998 you’d see snakeskin jeans and corsets hanging beside pleated Dockers and the ever-dreaded golf shirt. For the wearer, both options are de-humanizing in their own way. I’m not sure what bothered me more; being seen as a pair of boobs serving beer, or not being seen at all. Nary a shift in the golf shirt would go by without the wrong table mistaking me for their server. “Do we all look the same to you?”, I’d say only half-jokingly. But Di, you’re thinking, weren’t you a stripper once? Didn’t you get noticed for a living? Yes, that’s true, but if there’s one place I actively encouraged being noticed it was at the strip club where it involved consenting adults and a small fee. There is no pretense at a strip club and that’s precisely why it exists – to offer men a place to stare at women without fear of reprisal. A few months after becoming a ‘burlesque engineer’ I got my first shift (ever) tending bar at a typical pick-up style nightclub. At the end of the night one of the skeevy brothers that owned the joint took a fifty out of my till, handed it to me and said, “Maybe wear a lower cut top next time.” Yes, that really happened, and call it what you want, but for him it was as much a question of economics as chauvinism. Most people go out to clubs to hopefully get laid, and failing that, they can at least ogle the barstaff. Hot bartenders make the bar money. That’s when I realized that to most people, nightclub bartenders are just strippers with their clothes on.
Flash forward a few years and I was working at an upscale pub – uniform consisting of oxford button-down, plain GAP skirt, knee-high socks and penny loafers – where I was generally appreciated more for my actual bartending skills than for the girth of my prow. People looked at my eyes, listened to my opinions on politics, movies and hockey, and when I got big tips I hoped it was because I genuinely deserved them. This was a refreshing and welcome change. On one particular day I shuffled home from what would have been an otherwise unremarkable shift at the pub but for the Black & Tan spilled down my back by a clumsy server. I could already imagine the scalding shower that would wash the sticky Guinness from my aching legs when things got considerably more gross. A guy in a truck leaned out the window and whistled and shouted at me. What pissed me off wasn’t the fact that I was tired from a long day and annoyed by his juvenile behavior, which, believe me, I was. It was the fact that this guy was driving an Ottawa Hydro truck. Yes, this guy was representing a major company whose services I employ when he said, “Hey, wanna ride home on my lap?” Now, I wasn’t versed in the labyrinthine regulations required of Ottawa Hydro staff, but if they’re as convoluted as trying to talk to an actual human being to figure out why a bill is all of a sudden six times it’s normal rate, I couldn’t fault the troglodytic driver for skipping a page or two in the employee manual. That said, I certainly could fault him for skipping the last several decades of humanity when he should have known that his kind of behavior went out with poodle skirts and segregated diners. As I flipped him the bird I memorized his truck number and thought to myself, “You wanted my attention buddy? Be careful what you wish for.”
I called Hydro and spoke to a sympathetic receptionist who passed my complaint up the food chain rather swiftly. In Hydro’s defense, they took this matter very seriously. A manager asked if I wanted the offending employee to be suspended. I thought fast. If he got suspended it would only make his behavior justified – I’d be a bitch and he’d be a martyr to his co-workers – and nothing would change. What I really wanted was to talk to this guy, to let him know that I was a human being, and not just an object. I was told to expect a call the next day. All night I thought about what I was going to say, and the following morning when a Hydro human resources employee patched me through to a sheepish voice on the line, I was ready. He began by apologizing for his behavior and admitting that what he did was wrong. I asked if he knew why it was wrong. After a pause, I asked if he had a mother, sister, wife or daughters. He replied, “Yes, I have all of them.” Feeling like a kindergarten teacher I then asked how he would feel if one of them were treated the way he treated me. I guess he took this as a rhetorical question because he didn’t respond, or maybe he just never considered that every woman is someone’s sister or daughter or wife or mother. I went on to explain that his actions were especially egregious considering he was representing Ottawa Hydro when he committed this act of harassment, and I wondered if he thought it was fair that they were paying him to solicit women on the street. He said, “No. It’s not appropriate. I can promise you I’ll never do it again.” I asked, “Does that mean you’re not going to do it when you’re working or you’re not going to do it at all, because I really want to know what you thought was going to happen. Did you think I’d jump in the truck with you because you’re such a gentleman?” Very softly he responded, “I guess I just didn’t think.”
I look back on my years in the service industry fondly…now. I took my job very seriously and considered myself a professional in every sense of the word, so much so that if I go out to bars now I can be either overly sympathetic or overly judgmental depending on the level of service I receive. No one understands better than me how physically and emotionally challenging the job can be. But at it’s best it can be a lot of fun. Most bartenders and servers I know are witty, street smart, socially savvy, and hard working individuals who appreciate and deserve our respect as much as a good tip. I was bartending the night I met my husband and when he told me he was an electrical engineer I said, “Well, you must be pretty smart to have gone to school for the better part of a decade.” He brushed the compliment off and said, “That’s just book learnin’. I could never in a million years do your job. I wouldn’t last an hour.” I think that’s the moment when I decided this guy was going to be the first customer to ever get my phone number. Let’s be clear, he wasn’t one of those desperate trolls hitting on the bartender. On the contrary, I hit on him first. Why? I knew he didn’t notice me because of the low-cut top, sexy hair, make-up and attitude. He noticed me in spite of it.