Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Biker bars and a dream

One thing about me that makes my parents sound terrible is that my first job, which I started when I was 13, was washing dishes in a biker bar.

That is how I usually tell that story. It sounds dramatic. I even tell it that way to my parents. "Remember that time you let me work in a biker bar?" Of course, it is more complicated than a "biker bar," though.

I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and the closest towns were about five miles in each direction. Lots of farmland. The closest town had a gorgeous Lutheran church in the middle, a pizzeria, a post office and the kind of restaurant/bar that litters Pennsylvania small towns. The [Insert Pennsylvania PodunkTown Name] Hotel. See, with Pennsy Quaker liquor laws, a hotel is or was the only place where you could sell alcohol on Sundays. So, if you had a three beds you rented out to people and you served food, you could serve alcohol. So, if you find yourself driving through Pennsylvania, you may enter a small town and find the only restaurant-y type place to be the "Hotel" or "Inn". Go in. It is the quintessential small town experience in Pennsylvania. Those places always serve strip steaks, good soup, some Pennsylvania Dutch food, mixed in with frozen food under a broiler. Mostly, the restaurant side is always patronized by old people while the bar is patronized by locals. The one in my mother's small town now is called the Deutsch Eck House Restaurant. But in some less thriving communities, they have been renovated into houses, or apartments. But you can always tell which one it was.

But I loved working in that restaurant/bar. I made $2.50 an hour under the table. That was without tips. No waitresses tipped out dishwashing staff. But I didn't need much or care. The job was about independence. I was thirteen and people there expected me to act like an adult. They dropped the f-bomb with aplomb. They expected me to perform at the same level as everyone else. I actually worked there until I graduated from high school. At that point, I was working as part of the line one day a week, and diswashing the others. I also grabbed a few more jobs along the way. I was determined to be independent.

Surprisingly, I didn't drink there, even though I worked as a bar back, stocked beers constantly, and had full reign to abuse the power of close proximity to alcohol. I was just a good kid, I guess. I worked with a bunch of other honor students too, which sounds strange. But it makes sense. One of us got the job, then recommended another, and another...the dishwashing room was all punk rock music--Dead Kennedys, Seven Seconds, Agnostic Front, Dag Nasty--we argued politics, quizzed each other on Trigonometry, and drank coffee all night. The kitchen area was dominated by Guns -N- Roses. All of it was good. There was no part of the restaurant I didn't love.

I was a pretty dedicated worker bee in high school. See, I wanted to escape the countryside that I now exalt. I wanted to travel. I imagined making all kinds of money and driving all over the country--beatnik dreams of open skys and Buddhist escapades. I bought my first car at age 14, and fixed it up. It was a 1974 Super Beetle, which was being held together by bumper stickers. My sister and I would sit in the front seat and talk about where we were going. How we would take up smoking cigarettes. We would write the great American novel, and sleep under the stars. And if the car broke down, we would hitch to the next town. We talked of Big Sky Country, and Corn Palace. Of Denver and New Orleans at Mardi Gras. We wanted to drive into Mexico, just because we could. Still, I sold the yellow Beetle two years later for twice what I paid for it. I bought myself my mother's Chevy Citation which I totaled in a month. And searched and saved again for another. The car was a mental health necessity.

During a time of upheaval, the job was a consistency. My parents separated and divorced. My father took up full-time drinking. My mother worked until late in the night most nights. Our house became a place of chaos and loneliness, but there, I could always count on someone complaining about cold soup and overdone steak. The heat of the dishwasher and the background hum of angry music comforted me. Working at the bar gave me purpose, made me feel needed and kept me wholly present in the moment. Everyone came from the same kind of chaos I did. You can't really mope when you have a team of angry, coked up kitchen staff demanding ramekins. I was too busy to be depressed. I worked Friday night, Saturday night, and then early Sunday morning, where, with three other young dudes, we cleaned the entire bar. Scrubbed it. Scraped fat out of the broiler bottom. Cleaned the bathroom urinals. Swept the pool tables. Drained the fryers. We blared music. I reveled in the shittiest of jobs. Bitching about it meant you were weak. We challenged each other to balance mugs on one hand until the owner walked in one day, slapping my friend's hand. The entire twenty-six mug stack came crashing to the ground. "I don't run a fucking circus here. Get to work, Clown, and clean up this mess you made." After our shift, we would place a lunch order of fried foods. We shot pool, played darts, or challenged each other to massive pinball competitions for an hour or so before heading home to nap.

Most of the kitchen staff lived upstairs in the rooms above the restaurant. They were people down on their luck, or with significant drug and alcohol problems. Not that I really realized that at the time. They seemed like cool dudes. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary for me that a thirty-five year old man rented a room for 100 bucks a month in a bar. For a few months of the year, the owner, who used to be a track cyclist, opened the rooms to traveling professional cyclists who came through the circuit to train at the Velodrome. So, in between meeting thugs at work, I also met Olympians. Professional cyclists would return from their morning training ride around the rolling hills of Eastern Pennsylvania and sit where I was cleaning, coffee in hand, and tell me about the world. They were never Americans. Australians. British. French.

The motorcycle bikers came in simply by default, because there was a trailer park up the road with motorcycles a plenty. When I went to my first college frat party, it clicked. OH, that is what that smell was. Pot. I like to call it a motorcycle bar, but it was a local bar with lots of motorcycles parked outside. It sounds tough, but from the bicyclists to the motorcycle guys to the local drunks to the owners were so incredibly kind and protective of me and all the kids that worked there. I was never threatened or approached. I was just a kid. That is how they saw it. And we laughed a lot. I learned a lot about alcoholics. It made me comfortable talking to just about anyone.

I have amassed many a great story from my time there. When honor students, bikers, drug addicts and cyclists collide, there are great stories. One Friday night, I was stocking the coolers in the front of the bar, which always made me slightly uneasy. And a group of out of place college kids were really drinking a lot. One guy started lurking around me. He told me it was his 21st birthday. I mostly tried to ignore him. I was fifteen. He was drunk. He was really starting to invade my personal space. Leaning in close, asking me to kiss him for his birthday, and putting his drunken arm around me. I turned to the bartender, who caught my eye suddenly aware of my predicament. He sent two huge bikers over and they grabbed him. "Do you know how old she is, asshole?" The guys were intimidating, but harmless. They escorted the college kid outside as his friends stood around mouths agape, but knowing he was too drunk to drive home, asked for his license. And they drove him home. When they got there, they knocked on the door and his mother came to the door. They made the poor kid apologize to his mother for hitting on a fifteen year old. On his 21st birthday.


I feel like I had to tell you all of that to tell you about a dream I had last night. In the dream, I was in premature labor, and called my midwife. When I was pregnant with Beatrice and Lucy, even, I was sure I would do natural childbirth, so I read Ina May's books, but was particularly moved by Spiritual Midwifery. I can only say that now I cannot even look at that book on the shelf. No stillbirths. No losses. I mean, most of these women won't even call contractions painful, or call contractions contractions. It definitely set me up during my birthing of Beatrice to feel like a failure, because you know, that shit really really hurt.

Still, I read it, and it is lodged in my brain somewhere, because in my dream, I channeled one birth story I read in there. This birth story was one of a woman at 26 weeks who goes into premature labor. She calls Ina May who tells her to drink an ounce of vodka. So, every night, FOR TWO MONTHS or something, she drinks an ounce or so of vodka to keep the contractions at bay until finally the baby can't be held off any longer.

In my dream, I call with contractions. The midwife on call says, "It'll be okay. Just go get yourself a huge glass of vodka and relax." So, I head to the bar. That one. The one I worked at. And I walk in during the light hours, and people are scattered about the bar. People I knew then. People I don't know. And I tell them I need vodka because I am in premature labor. And they stare at me like I am insane. I explain. And they start patting me on the back and say, "We should get you champagne if we knew what that was," which is just the kind of self-deprecating joke, everyone tells around those parts. And I fit back in. Easily. Even though, clearly, I was just so different. I was pregnant. In a bar. And yet, there were people who remembered me. People who protected me.

I woke up with this feeling of ease and comfort, and the great feeling of sanctioned debauchery, which would be so friggin' sweet. I don't know what it means, or what I need, but that feels right right about now.


  1. There is a sweetness about your story. : ) It reminded me of my sister recently telling me about how, in high school (late 70s/early 80s), she & her best friend were dying to try pot. And everyone they approached turned them down, lol. They were considered "good girls" (my sister's best friend was the Baptist minister's daughter...!) & nobody would sell it to them. "Imagine," she said to me, "drug dealers with consciences. You think they exist anymore??" (I doubt it.)

  2. It's nice that you worked somewhere where people protected you. I think that is why I like our corner of the internet so much.

  3. I remember this well. I worked there for 2 Sundays as a fill-in and the first time I had to clean up puke, I was like, "Done. I'll walk home, thanks. You can give my sister my paycheck." But I do remember that you told me I was pathetic. And I had to agree. I also remember burning myself on the freakin' dishwasher. Dishwasher! I still can't believe the dishwashing staff was all kids.

  4. Grew up back there, too, Angie. Yeah, we all have the same stories of chaos. And yet dreams spin in like this one you had. Just sending you hugs. Keeping the good supportive vibes flowing to you...

  5. Regarding your biker bar story, yes. I can totally see how that would have anchored you in some sense of normalcy and consistence in an otherwise...eek...chaotic (traumtic!) sounding whirlstorm of a home life. Plus it's a bitchin'cool story. I worked at Gymboree, and that was nowhere near as cool.

  6. Thanks for sharing that story with us... Makes me feel like traveling to Podunktown and have a look at the "German Corner" myself.

    My first job was with 13, too, but compared to yours totally boring... in a greenhouse... for 4,50 Deutschmark per hour - in 35° heat... But man, did I feel rich as shit after the summer.

  7. Angie, I'm convinced you should write a certainly have ample material for it! Your dream has an Alice in Wonderland quality to it...just drink this potion and you'll become big or small...or get this baby here safely or not? If only life were that simple.

  8. You are a wonderful story teller Ang. Even if it will eventually be lost on your kids (beacuse who listens to their parents stories without feeling a slight sense of gagging?), your grandkids are sure to love that about you. my grandma was a wonderful story teller...I miss that. I like that I've found some of that here with you.

  9. At the risk of repeating myself, I think you are an outstanding storyteller.

    Write a book. Please.

  10. Book. Yes. Please.

    One of my high school jobs was working for a bookbinder who believed he had been abducted by aliens (google it if you're bored- the New Yorker did a Talk of the Town piece on him a few years ago.) I very diligently catalogued all his antique bookbinding tools while everyone else on the floor was smoking pot and drinking Jack Daniels. My high-school art teacher got me that job. Go figure.

    Having heard about my coworkers, one of my friends got me a bottle of Jack as a Christmas gift that year. Which I did not drink, but poured down the toilet so I could keep the bottle, which I thought was cool. I suspect I could have given you a run for your money on the good girl thing.

    But much more to the point, I'm glad there are people in your dream life to tell you it's all going to be OK. As we all believe for you in the waking world, too.

  11. I wonder if that ounce of vodka thing truly works?

    I love the sound of your bar and I'm glad that they all looked out for you so well. I like the idea of sanctioned debauchery!

  12. yep, my small PA hometown had a 'hotel' too - I don't think any actually ever 'stayed' there.

    luv this "When honor students, bikers, drug addicts and cyclists collide..." ain't that America.

    and I am not sure that a shot of vodka every day is great for baby, maybe good for thwarting labor, but not good for baby...

    and I just wonder why the natural birthing books don't have any dead babies in them - babies die, that's natural. It used to be much much more common...

    I am going cold turkey into labor this time - i'll just wing it from what I remember from last time.

    glad your old biker bar comforts you... don't know what that says about you ;)


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