When people ask me what I did with my gap year, I usually allude to “a bunch of little things, no single big trip or anything.” If they ask me where I worked, I’ll say, “odd jobs, the last one was at a café near my house.” Rarely, if ever, do I mention the time from April to June of 2010.
It was past the halfway point in my first year after high school and, though I’d been struggling to find work since January, I still didn’t want to turn in the Starbucks applications I had filled out. Which was, conveniently, an easy conversation starter with my casual acquaintances—most people understand when a college-aged person talks about looking for work, and understand all the more when he’s having trouble finding it. My neighbor is not most people, however, and when I told him of my employment woes, he immediately invited me to work for him. “Of course, man,” he told me, "It’ll be fun."
I was thrilled. My mom, less so. You see, work would not be waiting tables, or washing dishes, or even filing papers. Work would be leaving for the office at 10:00 p.m. and coming home around 5:00 or 6:00 a.m., depending on the crowd. Work would be preventing drunk patrons from manhandling the performers (unless the performers specifically wanted them to). Work would be fetching drinks for whichever celebrity had stopped by for the evening and, in the process, picking up a little something for myself.
My neighbor owns a burlesque nightclub, one known for its expensive taste and exclusive crowd. Within the week, I started work as a stagehand in the East Village of New York at the ripe, innocent age of 18.
The burlesque scene is not one that I would have sought out on my own. I didn’t even truly know what burlesque meant when I was first hired on, though Wikipedia told me that “Burlesque is a literary, dramatic or musical work intended to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner or spirit of serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects,” which didn’t sound all that bad. I imagined masks and physical comedy, perhaps a little sexuality, but nothing my sophisticated New Yorker persona couldn’t handle.
My first night, I went to meet my neighbor at the entrance so he could show me around. I arrived 10 minutes early, trying to make a good impression in my crisp collared shirt, dark pants, and leather shoes.
From there, all my prior plans went to shit.
My neighbor was in London, for starters, and my new guide into New York’s underground nightlife was the bald man in purple-tinted glasses in his late forties who found me at the door. We went in through the main entrance, a single black door on an otherwise inconspicuous brick building, and he pointed out the essentials: “To your right are the stairs that lead up to the dressing rooms. Here’s the downstairs bar, right where people come in. Left stairs lead to the VIP section and upstairs bar. Don’t go there unless we tell you to. And here’s the stage, where you’ll spend most of your time.”
He left me with the stage manager, who explained that my job for the night was to sit on the bench next to him and just enjoy the show: “You know, get a feel for the place so you’ll know what to do in the future. But first, one question,” he paused, a little mischievous twinkle in his blue eyes, “do you like weed?” He pulled out a vaporizer hose from beneath his desk. “I had this built in last month, best addition to the station ever.”
If you’re thinking of heading to Wall Street after graduation, I won’t ruin the show for you. Suffice it to say, four years of quietly doing schoolwork were finally repaid karmically and, between the pasty-clad waitresses and nothing-clad performers, and the expensive drinks the guests paid for and the free ones I got as staff, I was hooked.
It didn’t take long for me to pick up the habits of my coworkers. I slept through the day and got used to my nocturnal schedule. I kept my headset on through the entire night, to set myself apart as an important person on the floor, separate from the visitors who had to wait in line and pay to get in. I grew used to hanging out backstage with the performers, chatting with them about their next trip to Paris or Los Angeles, and traded small talk with Jude Law and Matthew Perry (“I hear you’re a pretty good cook”—Mr. Jude Law, 2010).
I took a perverse joy in making my friends’ parents uncomfortable, explaining in more detail than they wanted how my job had me cleaning up fake body fluids and fetching dildos from the storeroom whenever they asked about my “interesting” work. A happy sense of elitism set in, and I allowed myself to think I might fit in with my new crowd every once and awhile.
Of course, I never truly did. My roots were as anchored in manners and honest work as my coworkers’ roots were in drugs and parties. More than once I had a complete stranger come up to me while I was guarding the stairs to the dressing rooms to ask me what a nice boy like me was doing in a not-so-nice place like this.
And I wondered myself. Was I learning some valuable life lesson by pretending to be a grown up in an adult world? Was there some artistic meaning behind the pre-op transsexual on stage pulling the beer bottle out of her ass? Did I gain some strength of character by figuring out that you couldn’t reason with the drunk Frenchman trying to visit the girls backstage, but instead you must use your height to your advantage and to simply yell louder than him?
Surely the answer is yes. At least I hope it is. Regardless, when budget cuts meant they no longer had room for me on staff, I thanked them for the time we’d shared and we all gladly parted ways. I found a job waiting tables and sorting papers, like any normal 18 year old would.
And gradually, I left it all behind. Or, at least, I left most of it behind—my Converse still have stains where that transsexual’s fake vomit got on them once. That shit never comes out.
— Andrew A. White ’14, a Crimson Magazine editor, is a Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology concentrator in Kirkland House. He is still very ripe but only a litle bit innocent.