By: Arch Jamjun
I have been a server for almost twenty years. When I say that out loud, I feel like a big failure, and when I think about my parents, how they went from being children Sally Struthers might hug to USA professionals, I feel like an even bigger failure. This feeling especially haunted my twenties when, after trying pharmacology, education, nutrition, paralegal studies, nursing, and even accounting, I always found myself inept. Server money has been a big comfort. It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself when you can earn a middle-class income while garbage-mouthing leftover food and guzzling wine you could never afford in half of the above-mentioned careers. But my mom has an interesting perspective: “Oh you are like a food prostitute.” In a sense, that’s true. When you’re a server, you’re constantly thinking, “Am I too old for this?” and I think only sex workers and athletes ponder that as much. Also, when you’re a server, people often ask you, “But what do you really want to do?” And I’m like, “Ummm, be the next Whitney Houston.”
I’ve never minded the actual job; I would even argue that I enjoy it. I chat with tourists about Chicago, the city I love– and best of all– aside from the possibility of killing someone with an allergy, my job has no actual consequences. Maybe I make someone’s day a bit better with my charm or maybe I spill a purple sake martini all over a white jersey dress, either way, in a few days, nobody cares. That is the relief and that is the problem. I love having a job that means nothing after I leave it, but my life also needs meaning, and I’ve heard some people find meaning in their work.
Sometimes when I’m tying the strings to my server apron, I’m reminded of a quote by author Sherman Alexie: “The world is divided by two different tribes. The people who are assholes and the people who are not.” Most people I meet are absolutely lovely, but over my years of serving I, like a top in a sex dungeon, have learned how to navigate a room of hungry assholes. I smile and laugh A LOT, often with the sincerity of blinking. I try to look assertive but also– like a grown-ass man who will cry if you’re mean. In my server book, I keep a picture of an adorable puppy that asks, “Wanna have a threesome?” and I stare at it for comic relief when people go on and on about their imaginary gluten allergies or their amazing recipes for skinny cocktails.
But every job has those moments. Every job requires you to deal with assholes. I am accustomed to coddling the “hangry” and being patient with people who think menus are just a blueprint for their creativity. I understand that some people don’t realize the infuriating irony of going to a restaurant, turning to your server and saying, “I already ate.” But sometimes people still surprise me.
It was lunch. I was working a room called “The Shelf,” where two tops were mashed together like a cringe-inducing grin, and sashayed over to a new table with the joyous flair of a server feasting on summertime tips.
“Hi! How are you today?”
“Oh!” A pile of red hair looked up at me. “You are very tall for a Chinese person!”
She was a woman from a place with few to no Asian people. I looked at her beehive, her heavily mascaraed eyes and frosty blue eye shadow. I wondered if the people in her town thought her look was cosmopolitan or if they thought, like I did, that she was a tragic reincarnation of Kate Pierson from The B-52’s. I looked at the other side of the two top. The woman sitting across from her looked like someone who’d be engaged to an inmate.
“Oh, I’m not even Chinese,” I replied, SMILING.
“Yeah but admit it, you are tall for a Chinese person.”
I love this anecdote because she’s so wrong, but a little right too. At five foot eight, I am actually two inches taller than the average Chinese man (I Googled), and I do tower over my family. However, we’re from Thailand, which is not the same as China, which is not the same as Asia—facts I’m sure– would have blown this woman’s mind. But I knew she didn’t mean any harm. While I wish I could have interrogated her theories about height and second-generation Asian Americans, a smile and a laugh were all the moment called for. I don’t always have the time, especially during a lunch service when people drink Diet Coke like liquid crack, to be the Center for the Understandment of Asian Peoples. Also, I’d rather laugh than get angry.
It isn’t always possible.
“There is cheese on my burger, and I’m lactose intolerant!” He was a silver coyote in a business suit at a round table with five others.
“Oh, I’m sorry about that.” I feigned heartbreak. “I can get you another burger in just a few minutes.” SMILE.
“I don’t care if you’re sorry!” he yelled, and then turned his chair to face me, and I made myself go numb the way all customer service people do. “I don’t care if you crawl across this fucking floor and beg my forgiveness.” He stood up. “You people are always fucking things up. You people ruin everything.” His tie was loose, and I thought about what a good noose it would make.
For the record, privileged people make petty-ass drama queens, and “you people” is a phrase you should check the skin color of those around you before using. I admit I fucked up this man’s order. I admit that I misheard “no cheese” as “Cheddar please,” because when you’re the belligerent businessman who orders a fifteen-dollar burger instead of a sixty-dollar steak like your colleagues, I stop caring about you. I can’t, however, admit to knowing how many brown people fucked up his orders before or what “everything” we’ve ruined. Quite honestly, I don’t even know what he meant by “you people.” Have that many Asian people really tried to feed him cheese? Or was it my fabulous gayosity that he was referring to? If you’re going to be an asshole, you should be specific.
Fight or flight. These are the kinds of moments where you want to prove that nothing is more important than your dignity. I wanted to say, “Go fuck yourself,” and smash that burger into his face. But because steady paychecks are cute, I chose flight. I walked away while he was still having a tantrum, went to the kitchen to expedite a new burger, and had a manager talk to him so I didn’t have to. It wasn’t nearly as satisfying as slamming ground beef into his face, but every job makes you swallow…your pride…every once in a while…right?
As I retold the scenario to my fellow coworkers, its importance faded and, as we always do with horrible people, we took turns walking by the table sneering and crop dusting. But you know what could have been better? If the other people at the table, the people who whispered I’m sorry and left me a fat tip later, didn’t just sit there while it happened. Maybe one of them could have said, “Hey! Stop being an asshole over a mother-fucking burger!” or even something less flashy like tapping his knee, looking him in the eyes and saying, “Bad white person, bad, bad white person.” On the rare occasions people have screamed, “You people!” at me, I feel like I’m suddenly in a Lifetime movie about the Civil Rights era starring Brandy. When it happens and no one else seems to notice, it feels like I’m in the Twilight Zone.
My college pot dealer was a hippy-dippy white girl who once told me, “You can gleam wisdom from anything. You can get glitter from garbage.” On acid and surrounded by clouds of Nag Champa, those words felt as profound as Octavia Spencer cradling my face and saying, “You is smart. You is important. And you is valuable.” And just like the mothers in The Help, my mother can also be filled with well-intentioned, but socially constructed, hot steaming garbage.
“Archy, what are you doing with your life?” She has a beautiful scream. “I am so disappointed. All you want to do is have fun! You are embarrassing! I want to stop worrying about your future.”
It’d been seven years since I graduated, and my parents were unimpressed by the accomplishments I’d made as a drugged-out twink slut. I was in my Edgewater studio apartment, sitting on the brown chaise I’d bought on clearance from Wick’s Furniture. I listened to my mother’s fears while staring out the window at Sheridan Road. In the top right corner of the window were the beach and Lake Michigan. I let her yell, and I nodded. When she hung up, I ugly sobbed with shaky shoulders and snot. I didn’t have any answers for her. I had recently put an end to the worst of my demons and thought if I could be a functioning, normal person…I could just start there…but that wasn’t something I could share with her.
My boyfriend at the time, Michael Ray, was a Pittsburg transplant with a heart the size of the world. When we watched Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother, he let me rewind and replay it several times so I could write down Agrado’s speech: “You are more authentic the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being.” He’d watched the phone conversation from my bed and, of course, started to hold me as I cried.
“She’s right. She’s fucking right.” My voice muffled into the border of his armpit and shoulder.
“You’re not embarrassing, Arch.” Michael Ray had mutton chops, and I found such a thing comforting.
“But I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself. I’m not smart enough to do the things they want me to do.”
“Then just do you.” I cringed slightly because he sounded like Oprah. “Write something,” he continued, and I relaxed because there’s actually nothing wrong with being a billionaire goddess.
Months later, after we broke up ’cause I can be an asshole, I started writing a story about my dead cat JJ. Seven years and many drafts later, I was at the Moth Grandslam at the Park West in 2015, waiting for my turn to tell it in front of one thousand people. I had drawn position three out of the ten storytellers. Conventional Moth wisdom says that it is nearly impossible to win unless you go in the second half because momentum builds and the judges and audience get drunker and more generous. That was the buzz as the tellers compared their draws. Fuck that noise, I thought and watched Michelle Kwan videos on YouTube in the green room because she is the best competitor who ever lived. Storytelling is a lot like figure skating. It’s all about crafting the perfect piece or program and then executing it under the weight of butterflies, adrenaline, and doubt. It’s about how well you can perform while you are a terrified blob of Jell-O.
I didn’t get the privilege of growing up with an everyday grandmother. I had to invent my own. I chose Maya Angelou when I was eight and saw her on The Cosby Show. Her voice sounded like she knew everything. Grandma Maya once told me, OK not me directly, that whenever she goes onstage she summons a couple of the people she has admired and loved. So, I did what my grandma taught me. Before stepping on the stage at the Park West, I looked up and summoned my army: Grandma Maya, Whitney Houston, my aunt Na Thoy, and JJ, because I knew that at the very least, two of the four would ride for me.
As I walked across the stage toward the mic, I could hear a roar of applause but could see only darkness. It was strange to be surrounded by so many people, yet, in one sense, be completely alone. Then I thought about my army and slam-dunked that shit. The scores came.
9.3 9.5 9.3
I imagine after Michelle Kwan’s numerous great performances, she waited around watching the rest of the field skate and thought, “Fall bitch, fucking fall,” or maybe she’s not quite the asshole I can be. I’m not saying I hoped people blanked and embarrassed themselves, but I wanted this victory. I wanted my Grandslam title because- don’t most people want a moment when they feel like Whitney accepting a Grammy, Michelle putting a world title around her neck, or Maya speaking at a presidential inauguration? I did, and I wasn’t sure this opportunity would ever come again. Well, my scores held up…by a lot. I smashed that Moth myth but most importantly, now there is a moment in my life I can fall back on when I feel like I’m a piece of shit—cold, dehydrated, and white—and I can say, “Archy, that is not completely true,” nothing and no one on this sometimes incomprehensible planet can take that away from me…ever. You can actually take something to the grave, or at least right up to it. I turned my dreams into action. So, if you see me walking around with my head high and feeling fabulous, it’s because I’m feeling my oats and willing myself to dream even bigger.
Winning the Moth Grandslam did a lot for me in terms of belief. The Moth even flew me out to New York City to perform at a gala honoring David fucking Bowie and put me in a hotel I would never pay for. But some things didn’t change. No one offered me millions of dollars to be funny and witty or a book deal or to cast me on Saturday Night Live. I went back to work the next morning. My boss handed me a bottle of Champagne, and then I had to memorize the soup du jour. Success is ephemeral. It can provide momentum for more, but life—and this breaks my heart—isn’t about achieving something and then basking in its glory for the rest of your life. Life, for me at least, is all, “Now what? From here to where?” There are days when I curl up on the couch and think about all the years I fucked up and how I probably have irreparable brain damage. But on others, I can find myself standing on stages like the one at Steppenwolf Theater, performing with Samantha Irby. I write that like it’s random, but I’m driving this car. I hold the wheel; Jesus-Buddha-Allah-Shiva…they are just helpful backseat drivers. “Change is certain. Progress is not,” HRC via E. H. Carr.
I have figured out how serving tables fits happily in my life. It finances my thirst for art, both making and devouring it. Balancing writing, performing, and serving tables feels difficult until I realize other people do things like parenting. I do get jealous because other artists have their nights free to commit to shows, but I’m terrified when they tell me they have to move into a bathroom, drink PBR, or live off extra-value meals. There are ten years left on the mortgage for the better-than-we-deserve townhouse that my partner, Mannie, and I are paying off, and as God as my witness, we will be gay property owners. Maybe in a couple of years his IT career will bring in enough so I can just work one brunch, two dinners, and teach an adjunct class. That’s my big, pragmatic dream! But what am I missing out on for the sake of economic security? Am I a coward for not barreling through my savings and ditching my health insurance to see if my unencumbered talents could take over the world? I was just about to do that until Trump took over and America turned into The Hunger Games. So maybe I should drive for Uber. But sometimes a ladyboy like me needs alone time with the clearance racks at Marshalls and TJ Maxx, and I want to eat food that looks like art, and I only clock thirty hours a week, so why can’t I get EVERYTHING done?
Although Mannie would completely disagree, I like to think there isn’t much that can shake me, because Xanax is my American Express card (I never leave home without it), but mostly because experience and wit have taught me to laugh most things off. I’ll admit the “you people” comment shook me, mostly because it was unexpected, but also because of the anger behind it. How do you get angry enough to conflate burgers with race relations? When did we forget the difference between the purpose of thought (the inside voice that sorts out our ideas) and the purpose of speech (that thing we do to communicate with one another AFTER we’ve thought things through)? If that situation is indicative of that man’s whole life, does he go postal when his candy gets stuck in a vending machine? What happens when he’s dropped a deuce and realizes there’s no more toilet paper? Who are the “you people” then?
There are a lot of attitudes about race and how to be a person right now that I struggle to understand, and I think that man and his anger, anger that isn’t fuel but a way of living, represent a lot of what baffles me. He represents the assholes, but the world isn’t divided into asshole and others. I whole-heartedly concede that there are people who never seem to stop being assholes, but aside from those who are truly ill, we divide our lives between times of being an asshole and times of being something better. This year, 2017, has felt like living in a paper bag of vomit, and the next couple of years feels like a Russian roulette of nuclear bombs, authoritarianism, environmental disasters, and mass killings. How easy it is to be cruel and how much harder it is to be kind couldn’t be clearer.
It can feel impossible to understand the assholery of others. When I can’t sort it out, I try to remember that even Malala doesn’t understand everyone, and I shelve those thoughts because they lead me to immense sadness, and I’m sure my buttheadology can seem just as elusive to others, or, even worse, to myself. When the wall between myself and people I just can’t comprehend stands blindingly before me or when I find myself being an asshole, I try to remember why God made assholes, because when all else fails, it’s best to focus on function, or, as my girl Criselda would say, “Keep it moving, boo.” Assholes are tight, or formerly tight, holes full of poo-poo. They may be curmudgeonly and mad; they may be puffy, red, and full of rage. But all assholes, though they are capable of much more, need only do two things: relax and let shit go.