Working in the Asheville downtown service industry sucks. Hell, working in the service industry anywhere sucks. You work uncompromisingly long hours in ugly shoes to serve uppity white tourists little appetizers, fully knowing that they will still tip you less than fifteen percent. Behind the scenes, it’s a new emergency every day. Whether that emergency is major (the host forgot to write down the party of fifty, again) or minor (we’re out of silverware rolls, again) is almost irrelevant; these things are just going to happen. And, like managers around the world like to say, these things are going to happen again and again (and again), so you might as well just get used to it.
Saturday was one of those days for me. I was already exhausted from a long week at school when I clocked in. I forgot my uniform at home and wrote down the wrong drink specials. Everyone was up in arms because the Fresh Quarter inexplicably jacked up the price for fresh lemons for the bar. And To make matters worse, in the midst of all this insanity, our bartender, Aaron, didn’t show up for work.
Which was funny. Because Aaron loves bartending. He’s a seven foot tall goofball of a Jewish guy who has been in the military, gone to jail, and done everything in between, and he told me once that he likes bartending more seducing women. Because you know, as a bartender, you can seduce women and get paid at the same time, and what kind of scrub isn’t interested in that kind of efficiency?
These jokes are typical of Aaron. In our time working together, I can’t count the number of times he’s complimented my red lipstick and low-backed shirts, made sly insinuations about blow jobs, or invited me back to his bedroom for a glass of wine, “on the house.”
We made jokes about how he had probably picked up twenty college girls downtown and gone home with all of them, or woken up in a Buncombe County jail cell with no recollection of what happened past the Yacht Club.
Still, there was a definite feeling of unease that hung in the air. In his eight months of working there, Aaron had never once been late. In fact, he was usually at least thirty minutes early. In response to numerous calls, texts, and Facebook messages, there was radio silence. It was weird. But, you know, there’s a first time for everything, and after all, it’s the service industry. These things happen.
After my shift was over, I walked to Downtown Books and News to start this column. Curled up in a corner with my laptop sipping coffee, I got immediately distracted by an experimental jazz trio playing a few feet away in the bookstore’s venue space, and abandoned my work. Sure, sexism in the workplace is real, and deserves more journalistic investigation. But in that moment, it seemed infinitely more important to listen to this music and, to quote a yoga bumper sticker, “be here now,” than to write 800 words of funny bullshit about how my college job is oh-so-difficult. But columns, like the service industry, must go on.
So after the music was over, I opened up my laptop to write, and found out that Aaron was actually dead. It was all over Facebook. He didn’t show up for work in the morning because he was laying on his kitchen floor dead, from what everyone assumes to be a heart attack. He was thirty-seven.
What is there to write about death that has not been written before? I could say that he was so full of life and vitality, because he was. I could write about how death is an inevitable part of life, and tie this back into how we never know when we’re going to throw in the towel, so we better love each other well and listen to the metaphorical experimental jazz music every chance we get. I could write a million little jokes about Aaron that would make your heart swell, how we hung out and talked about love and sex and relationships all winter long when the restaurant was dead and it was eleven degrees outside. I could.
But the thing is, when I was planning out my column this week, I was actually going to write about how much I hate men in the service industry. And I was going to write about Aaron. I wanted to use humor to reclaim uncomfortable exchanges that make me feel incredibly disrespected not only as a woman, but as a human being. And now he’s gone.
These things happen.
And it’s unsettling. It always will be. Part of me is tempted to pretend that it’s not: to gloss over that fact by finding the bright side in the situation, or strike out Aaron’s negative traits because it makes a good memorial in a newspaper. But ultimately, I think there are few ways I could disrespect him more than using this space to pretend that he is someone I know he’s not. That’s not a memorial, that’s just dumb. So instead, I’m using this weekend to go to a dive bar, order a bourbon with ginger ale, and get drunk on his favorite drink while I play pool with my friends. Even if I get hungover. That’s what Aaron would have wanted, and I’m cool with that.