Empathy for the Devil

“What few people realized or perhaps dared admit was that the thick walls of the caste system kept everyone in prison. The rules that defined a group’s supremacy were so tightly wound as to put pressure on everyone trying to stay within the narrow confines of acceptability. It meant being a certain kind of Protestant, holding a particular occupation, having a respectable level of wealth or the appearance of it, and drawing the patronizingly appropriate lines between oneself and those of lower rank of either race in that world.”

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration of African-Americans out of the Jim Crow south and to the rest of the country in the 20th century, is an excellent book. It’s taught me a good deal about a span of American history my own education glossed over, and given me tools and concepts that have really helped me to understand the nation I was born to and live in. One of the usefullest is Wilkerson’s conception of life in the South as ruled by a strict caste system, one that not only assigns people to their place within a strict hierarchy, but also sets the protocols for how they can and should treat one another, and the incentives and disincentives that enforce those protocols. More importantly, Wilkerson shows us — often in heartbreaking detail — how the simple fact of the caste system’s existence so incentivizes the commission of cruel and unjust acts, systematically and at the individual level, that it’s probably more accurate to say it demands them.

Status, after all, must be demonstrated. Power unexercised isn’t power.

It’s got me thinking, of all things, about Karens. Karens, in case you’ve been living under a rock (and if you have, is there a spare room I can use? Shit’s crazy out here), are white women of a certain age who weaponize their privilege, particularly with regard to people of color. The lady who calls the police because black people. The woman who wants to speak with your manager because when you said ‘Have a nice day!’ you didn’t mean it sincerely enough. The ferocious protector of the status quo for whom the notion of keeping her opinion to herself is anathema if not outright unconstitutional.

Now, I spent thirty years or so in the hospitality industry, so I’ve known Karen since before she was Karen. She was the one who took the game seriously, the customer service addict who mistook the staff pretending that she was important and that what she wanted mattered for the real thing. Who thought service was not so much a quirk of the transaction but her God-given due, and who reveled in treating you like shit because either you swallowed it, thus reifying her status over you, or you kicked, and then she could call your manager and try and get you fired. Now of course that’s way better than when she calls the police and they come kill you, which is what Karen likes doing to black folks. Gotta acknowledge that. But it’s still shitty and, believe you me, it predates the slang term ‘Karen’ and, well, the internet itself.

So, aside from Karen’s leveraging structural racism, what does Isabel Wilkerson’s book about the Great Migration have to do with the modern-day white lady who knows exactly how the system is rigged in her favor and joyfully exploits it for her own advantage and/or satisfaction?

As you may have guessed, it comes down to the caste system, and the tensions and limits involved in trying to live inside one. Because Karen is also oppressed and unhappy. Why else do you think she acts out? It’s not an excuse — there’s a difference between empathy and sympathy — but I do think it’s helpful to understand the motivations that drive her.

When the post-mortems came out for the 2016 election, one of the heartbreaking-est takeaways was that something over half of white women declined to vote for their fellow white woman, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and instead chose white supremacist and patriarchal poster-child Donald Trump. There was a lot of head-scratching in the media, but it wasn’t that hard to figure out. If there are two aspects of your identity, one of which is privileged and one of which is not, which one do you think most people will identify with?

Karen exists in a curious intersection the American caste system. Her whiteness, and her embrace of the advantage and privilege it confers, put her just one tier shy of the very top. It empowers her over almost everyone, which incentivizes a full-throated acceptance and embrace of the hierarchy the caste system posits as real. But with that embrace comes the acceptance that she can never be more than number two: she herself is always subject to, and subjugated by, the men in her life. Whatever her inclinations or aptitudes, her dreams or desires for herself and her own future, she is trapped just as surely as those she sees as below her, her options constrained by the strictures she otherwise celebrates. It’s a tension that can’t be resolved without rejecting the hierarchy that so values and validates her.

So Karen acts out. She externalizes her misery at the gilded cage her life must be lived in. Misery, after all, loves company, and so begets cruelty even when status doesn’t demand it. Shit always rolls downhill.

***

Learning to deal with the Karens of the world was one of the hardest things about making a career in hospitality. Thanks to my own immersion in the America in which Karen’s caste system holds sway — we don’t all buy it, of course, but we all know it’s there — swallowing shit didn’t come easy. But you learn ways around it, or you find a new line of work. For my own part, the trick turned out to be the simple realization — and constant repetition til it stuck — that while this person would make my life miserable for the next five minutes, they had to live in that misery all the time.

Not to say that I sympathized. Because Karens do real harm, and often as not they do it intentionally. That’s not a thing lightly forgiven, even if you understand where it comes from. But understanding where it comes from can help, at least a little.

If nothing else, you can take solace in the fact that, as miserable as she wants to make you, Karen is miserable, too. And she’ll never break free of that misery, because it stems from the caste system she takes her identity and validation from. And while that may not provoke much in the way of sympathy, schadenfreude’s a pretty good substitute when Karen’s just tried to offload some of that misery on you.

The Customer Is Always Right

Give me liberty or give me death. That’s what the sign says. She stands in front of the Baskin Robbins, not a manager in sight, her roots growing out, her mouth open mid-rant when the shutter clicks. She has her weight canted forward, on the balls of her feet, and a small American flag in one hand.

A vintage troop transport pulls up to a corner downtown, filled with cosplay paramilitaries in masks and sunglasses and ball caps and body armor. Each carries his customized Armalite one handed, to keep the other free for high-fiving. This is even better than the titty bar.

A quad-cab faces off with a nurse in mask and scrubs, tired of this shit. Not pictured: the hospital, maxed out and running out of PPE. A woman hangs out the passenger side window, hollering. Her hair is bleached. Her shirt says USA. The truck gleams, freshly-washed, in the sun.

***

For most of my adult life, I worked in bars and restaurants. And while food and drink were what we charged the money for, that wasn’t all we were selling. Core to the transaction, if unspoken, was customer service: treating people like they’re important and like what they want matters. In due measure, it can be rewarding both ways. But one of our exceptionally American cultural pathologies is that we take it waaaaaaay too far. Here the customer is king, and always right, and we’ll be happy to comp the meal you didn’t like and bag up the leftovers so you can take it home with you for later. Have a nice day and like us on Yelp!

You see that same sense of entitlement on display at these astroturf ‘protests’ that keep popping up like cold sores on state capitol steps. Like cold sores, they look like a lot more than they are, especially with the camera zoomed in so the people fill the frame, and all the empty space around them disappears from the context. They carry signs that say things like ‘I need a haircut’ and ‘Give me liberty or give me Covid-19.’ Maybe one in ten has a sign that says ‘I need to work.’ The one in ten has a valid point, but what the other nine want is only going to make things worse. More people will get sick. More people will die. The economy will, in the long run, take a bigger hit.

Doesn’t much matter when you’re broke and hungry and the rent is due now.

Do you know what else has that kind of urgency? When an addict needs a fix. Because let me tell you something: for every alcoholic, functional or not, that I served a drink to, I served three people addicted to being served.

The nine in ten? Didn’t know they were customer service addicts. Didn’t realize how much they depended on that presumed (purchased) deference. They thought that was just how the world worked, how it ought to work. How God wanted it to work, with his hierarchied omnibenevolence and preference for white Christian Americans. Take that away — take away any addict’s fix — and all they have left is the hole they’re trying to fill, the damage they never healed, the emptiness, uncertainty, and dread. For half a month or a month, they’ve been drying out in quarantine, no one to treat them like they’re important, like what they want matters.

And they are freaking the fuck out right now. Their roots are showing in more ways than one.

But it makes for good TV. And the operation was successful. The record shows: people protested. Those governors looking for a reason to kick poor people off unemployment rolls and deny small businesses support have their cover story. Someone else will come along and open new gyms and nail salons and restaurants after all this is over. The economy will go on.

(Someone else’s) death is a fair price to pay for liberty. Anything else would be tyranny in the land of the free.

And the addicts? They get their fix. Everybody wins.

Except the people who die.

***

I tried to quit smoking the first time when I was nineteen. Don’t think I made it a day. It wasn’t til I was in my thirties that I managed to quit for more than a couple weeks here and there. Every time I tried it was like every negative emotion, every hurt and disappointment and anxiety and guilt I’d ever felt and repressed welled up in me all at once all the time no matter what was happening around me. It was like that because that’s what was happening. My addiction tamped all that shit down, so I could get through my day without screaming or hurting myself or, as too often happened anyway, someone else. Because what is anger but weaponized pain, and what does a weapon want but to be wielded?

It took a lot of years and a lot of tries before before this last time I quit. It took also a lot of hard looks in mirrors and calling spades spades and a lot of coming to terms with things and a lot of humility and work. I also lucked out in having a first date with my partner the day after I last quit. That probably has more to do with my success in staying quit for this long than anything else.

***

It’s hard to feel sympathy for the entitlement of the customer service addict, especially as someone who made a career of abetting them for three decades. Negotiating with someone who’s just waiting for a reason to ask for your manager — or being the manager who has to step in and grease the squeaky wheel — will erode your faith in humanity and leave a dirty taste in your mouth. Doing it for not enough money to live on sucks even worse.

Early in my career, I found a way to console myself when I encountered such a person. True, they might make my life hell for five minutes or an hour. But it was always like that inside their head. You’d be surprised how much that realization helped.

Anger is weaponized pain, and now, without service industry people to point their anger at, these pampered beasts are finding their pain again. How can they know they’re always right if they aren’t anyone’s customer? Who will treat them like they’re important, like what they want matters?

***

Once upon a time, some scientists addicted some rats to cocaine. They put it in the water, put regular water next to it, and watched the rats choose the cocaine water again and again. Who wouldn’t, living in a scientist’s cage?

Someone had the idea to put the rats in different circumstance. They put the rats in rat paradise: room to run, things to do, other rats to be friends with. They offered them cocaine again. They wanted it less.

***

The guns the boys are playing with are real. So is the virus that shut down the service industry. The one they’re protesting from their self-defaced cars so they don’t catch it. So are the people they’re willing — implicitly or ex- — to sacrifice the lives of so they can have their fix again. So they can feel like the always-right kings they’ve always known themselves to be.

No addict quits without wanting to. Because when you quit you have to deal with all the things the addiction tamped down for you. It hurts, and it takes a long time. To be honest, it’s more ongoing process than final result, journey and not destination. But like anything, you get out of it what you put into it.

But what the one-in-ten need (the ones whose signs say ‘I need to work’) is more like what the people the customer service addicts want to go back to work need. It is, funny enough, the same thing our economy in its present form needs: free money to keep the charade going until we can build our own robust paradise, free health care in case we get sick, a rent and mortgage and debt payment freeze, and a reason to believe we might come out of this in a better place.

This doesn’t serve the customer service addict, nor the governor who has interests and oligarchs to placate.

But I can’t help but wonder: if we build the paradise that the rest of us want, where everyone gets what they need and no one has to worry about problems we have the means to solve, maybe the rats in their self-imposed cages will stop wanting the cocaine water so much.

Probably not. But I think we should do it anyway.

More Than Just a Pickle Back

If you’re wondering, a pickle back is a shot of pickle juice you take after a shot of whiskey (usually Jameson, for whatever reason). Yeah, it sounds weird. But it’s more delicious than you’d expect. As is what I’m about to tell you.

So, you might or might not know this, but I’m a pretty good cook. I mean, not only have I been feeding myself for decades. But I also spent like three of those decades working in bars and restaurants, watching and learning and getting tips (it’s true what they say: for every hungry bartender there’s three thirsty cooks).

One of those tips, learned a long, long time ago, is that if you’re cooking in a pan on the stovetop, you can speed things up by pouring a little liquid in there and covering the pan. Gives it a quick little steam-aroo, if you know what I’m saying. It’s especially nice if you’re wilting some greens into your sautee.

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Somewhere in the last couple years, I started using the leftover brine from pickle and olive (and jalapeño) jars. The results are delicious. The brine adds flavor, but it’s deep flavor, the kind you sense is there but doesn’t stand out, it’s just a little extra umami for your mouth. For me, it’s double-plus good, since it means I’m using up *everything* in the jar, which is low-key a compulsion of mine, left over from when I was younger and broker.

Anyway, all this is a long way of saying give it a try. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Restaurant Algebra, or The Funny Stuff People Do When Splitting a Tab

Some days in the bar are easy. Some days it’s like every high maintenance person in a ten-block radius decided they needed your help and attention all at once. Yesterday was one of those days.

I had a pretty busy happy hour in the bar, which was fine, though a clogged printer in the kitchen meant that a lot of my food came up late, and it all came out at once, which always makes things exciting. And then there were the two ladies at the bar, one of whom wanted to know all about our absinthe selection, and which ones had wormwood, and then what I could make with it, while the other needed to know which menu items were both gluten-free and did not contain sesame (avoiding sesame oil in a Vietnamese restaurant is not as easy as you might think).

But the real cake-takers were the six-top of ladies in the middle of the room.

Now, as a general rule we do not split tabs at the restaurant, but we do run multiple cards. Most of the time when people split tabs that way, the math is relatively simple. Even splits, or this much on this card, this much on that card. Basic arithmetic. These ladies turned it into algebra.

The six of them gave me five cards, and instructions so convoluted I had to go and get pen and paper to keep it all straight. One menu item went on the first card. The second card was for two menu items and a pot of tea. The rest of the bill was to be split into four parts, two parts of which would go on the third card and one part each on the fourth and fifth.

Is your head spinning yet? Mine did, a little. Just glad I was only moderately busy.

Anyway, in the end it was fine, and by an hour later I was loling and telling the story to my co-workers. And hey, being accomodating is part of the job. It’s just funny sometimes, the things people do, and that even after more years in the Industry than I care to recount I can still be surprised by the twists and turns. One of the ladies even wrote me a nice note on her credit card slip, thanking me for the trouble I went to.

Of course, one of the others failed to leave her signed copy, so if she intended to tip me I didn’t get it. But really, what else could I expect?

No, You May Not Use My Image for Commercial Purposes Without Compensating Me

So an interesting thing happened to me when I went into work yesterday at my new job tending bar at Monsoon.

I came in, put away my bag, chatted a bit with the manager, and started doing the things you do to open a bar. I decided a cup of coffee sounded like a good idea, as it often does at the beginning of a shift, so I went over to the dining room, where the coffee is. I saw one of the daytime servers behind the counter, with a weirded-out look on her face, folding napkins and taking direction from a photographer set up in the middle of the dining room. I thought “Hm. Must be some new promo thing for the restaurant,” and I waited respectfully while the photog snapped away (the coffee was at the far end of the counter). When a free moment popped up, I crossed behind the girl folding napkins to get coffee.

“What’s this all about?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied.

“It’s for Discover,” said the man directing the photo shoot, a fifty-something fellow with unruly hair and glasses and, for lack of a better term, kind of a seedy air about him (I hate to judge people on instinct, but it’s a skill I’ve had to develop to survive almost twenty years behind the bar).

“So, are you paying her?” I asked as I passed him by on my way back out to the bar with my coffee.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “You can’t even count the zeroes. There’s a bag full of money outside.” Then he went back to telling the day server, who looked decidedly uncomfortable, what to do, how to hold her head and whatever, and I went back over to the bar. Continue reading “No, You May Not Use My Image for Commercial Purposes Without Compensating Me”