I have recently started working two jobs. My first job I have had for quite a while – cleaning rooms at a hostel, run only by women. But now I have a second one – doing the dishes at a bistro, run only by men. The difference between the two workplaces is almost enough to make me laugh. And cry.
The women I work with at the hostel have only recently started opening up to me. Even though they’re friendly and never shy away from a conversation, I have never had a heart-to-heart with any of them. To be fair, that’s not unreasonable, seeing how they’re also my superiors. When I make a mistake, they will be the ones to tell me I was wrong. And it’s always a bit awkward to tell friends that they have fucked up. I understand why they want to keep the distance.
On my first day at the bistro, however, keeping the distance was not an option.
I came into an almost empty restaurant. It was only five PM, too early for the usual Friday night crowds. I was standing in the middle of the room, looking a bit lost because the staff was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, a guy in his twenties called down to me from the floor up.
“I’m coming!” he shouted.
After I introduced myself, he ushered me to a dressing room and gave me a t-shirt with no further explanation. The t-shirt was white with blue stripes, carrying out the French theme of the bistro. When I started changing, a young man walked in. He quickly started undressing, and although I tried not to look, I couldn’t help but notice his tattoo. While putting on his uniform, he started telling me about himself. Where he lived, what he did, etc. The distance and the order I was so used to at the hostel, was gone. Everything here felt chaotic but familiar.
Just as I started getting used to this new place, my male coworkers left me alone in a small, damp room to do the dishes. However much I love privacy, that was a place I would rather not be in by myself. It felt as if I was missing out on all the fun. I heard the French chansons playing at the bar, my new colleagues poking fun at each other in the kitchen, and the conversation of the customers. And there I was, wiping off hot wine glasses on my own.
Each time I carried the clean dishes to the kitchen, I was greeted by Michael Jackson songs and laughter. “Do you only have one CD?” I asked after hearing Heal the World for the third time.
“Don’t you like it?” the guy with the tattoo asked. He was the chef.
“I do, but a bit of change wouldn’t hurt.”
“What music do you listen to?”
“I like indie. And jazz.”
“Well, we wouldn’t be able to stay awake here listening to jazz. Don’t get me wrong, I like jazz too. But Michael Jackson drowns out that French music perfectly.” To me, Jacques Dutronc playing at the bar sounded wonderful, but they were all sick and tired of hearing the same songs all the time.
“I’ve heard you’re a singer-songwriter,” another guy said that had just come in. “I am too. Maybe we could write some songs together.” He was short and had a black ponytail. I knew his girlfriend.
“Sure. What kind of music do you write?” I asked.
“Mainly blues, that kind of thing,” he answered.
“Oh, I barely know any blues chords.”
“That’s cool, I can teach you,” he said and then announced, addressing the tattoo/Michael Jackson guy: “Did you hear that? We’re both songwriters!”
From now on, every time I came down, the boys would start singing some pop song, just to work on my nerves. It ranged from Let Her Go to A Thousand Miles. Sometimes, they started dancing too. I laughed a lot, though sometimes I just laughed because I didn’t want to seem cold. But then I noticed something.
Whatever I was doing, they would inevitably tell me how to do it. All of them. If I was washing a cup, they’d want to show me how to wash it. If I was squeezing lime juice, they would all tell me how to do it faster. No matter what I was doing, I was doing it wrong. But it was okay because it was my first day and they would help me out.
Until I realized there was nothing to help me out with. I was making mistakes, for sure, but their help was not always needed, let alone wanted. They were just very eager to teach. “Has anyone shown Erika how to clear the tables yet?” “Has anyone told Erika how to switch off the dishwasher?” “Does Erika know where to put the plates?”
In How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti said something that now rang true to me. They were a bunch of men trying to teach me something.
I enjoyed my evening, but at the same time, I left feeling drained.
The next day, I went to work at the hostel. And for the first time, I knew to appreciate the distance between me and the other women working there. Because it was peaceful, and it was calm. And when I came home from work, nobody had tried to teach me. I was still my own teacher.