I worked the Atlantic City casinos all through college and into my 20s. I had all the jobs a cute college girl could get in the resort town: bottle girl, cocktail waitress, entertainment server — anything where the job description was “put on this little outfit, hold a tray, and smile.”
The combined flexibility and security helped me get through college and beyond. And I wasn’t ashamed of the work. I found I was great at forcing a smile and putting on an ever-so bubbly persona. (Plus, the outfits were cute and made me feel proud of my body.) And while I knew I’d have to put up with some unwanted attention, I quickly learned grabby men weren’t the only thing I had to be worried about.
Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of inappropriate men. I had my ass slapped more times than I could count. While dancing with some Spanish soccer players (one of my many duties as a bottle girl), I was bitten on the neck. One time when walking through the crowded club, someone pulled aside the bottom of my bodysuit to see if I was wearing underwear.
But more often than not, white women were the ones inappropriately touching me. While doing bottle presentations (where I’d sit on the shoulders of a male coworker holding a bottle of Dom Perignon) they would reach up and grab at me. They were always commenting on my boobs or my ass, reaching to touch my braids or afro. The ease at which they performed these violations toward me, a Black woman, wasn’t lost on me.
Working at a nightclub means you’re selling an experience — an aesthetic. Everyone knows a bottle of Tito’s vodka costs around $25 at a store. Why pay $300 to $400 (plus tip AND a service fee) to drink it at a nightclub?
For a slice of luxury. To be the star of the goddamn show. And with that high price comes a sense of entitlement. The more money someone spent, the more leeway they often received.
The messaging from management was far from subtle. Everyone knew why we were there.
“You’re here to make sure the customer has a good time.”
“Customer retention is paramount.”
The servers and bartenders they hired needed to be beautiful, yes, but more importantly poised and upscale. Our contracts clearly outlined the required beauty standards — which hairstyles, piercings, nail length and colors were appropriate, the way our uniforms were to be worn, etc. But most notably, it laid out rules for our weight.
We were hired “as is” and had to maintain the appearance we were hired at. Depending on our hire weight, we could only gain (or lose) a certain number of pounds. My allowance was 8.5 pounds. Once a year we received random weigh-ins, meant to keep us on our toes and in the gym. If you didn’t make weight, you entered a 90-day probation period, where, at the end of it, you could be let go. (It’s been 2 years since that job and I still cringe if the scale says over 130.)
After a while, it felt normal. It felt like a fact of life. But other times, when girls were tipped off that their weigh-in was coming and started taking laxatives in order to make weight… it was clear that something was very wrong.
On a roster of 30-something servers, there were only 2 or 3 Black girls. When you looked at all of the nightclubs across town, the same trend followed. None of the clubs wanted to be seen as a “Black” club, so there was an unspoken limit. When I asked why we didn’t play more hip-hop, which everyone likes, I was told “it attracts the wrong crowd.”
As someone mixed raced, light-skinned, soft-voiced, who purposely went to her job interview with straightened hair, I knew the game I was playing at. Sometimes, you have to take white supremacy into perspective and cater to it. I had bills to pay, after all. I knew I received deference because my proximity to whiteness made me more palatable for visiting gamblers.
But once I got started, reality set in. “What are you?” was a question I grew to hate. Men were obsessed with finding out where I was “from.” They didn’t like it when I told them I was born in Queens. They didn’t like my sigh, or my eyeroll, or my refusal to answer the question. And they probably didn’t like it when I smacked their hands away from my afro.
Girls I worked with would suddenly skip their spot in rotation if a Black couple sat down. When it came to serving nonwhite people, there was always a huff and an aversion. If they didn’t fit the mold, nobody wanted them.
The racism wasn’t a surprise, but it was exhausting. I wasn’t quiet about my displeasure with these systems, and I often pointed out the microaggressions of customers and coworkers alike. When I slicked back my hair and put on a ponytail with kinky-straight braiding hair, a manager told me, an Afro-Latina, that I looked surprisingly “Spanish.” When I told him that I was, he sputtered. When a white coworker told me I could take her turn in rotation when a Black couple sat down, I asked, deadpan, “why, are you afraid of them?” More sputtering.
When it came to the girls, there was a well-known ranking system among the staff. The young-and-hot were always put at the top. You got bonus points if you were considered smart, or were going to college. Then, there were the older bottle servers. Many of them were mothers who only had to work a few nights a week to pay the bills. They got better shifts because of the amount of time they had worked for the company, yet were often judged for “letting themselves go,” and pitied for getting stuck in nightlife.
The pity and the judgement left a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe because my mom had worked in nightlife her whole life. When I got the job, she was still a bartender. She was happy. She’d done all of this before — she was the reason I knew how to get the jobs I earned. To me, it wasn’t pitiful. It was simply reality. Not everyone can go to college. Sometimes you get pregnant. Sometimes you get caught up in the lifestyle. At least this gig had retirement benefits.
We all knew our jobs were a little scandalous but many of the girls were caught in a puritanical shame-cycle. Sure, they were bottle servers, but they weren’t sluts. This was just their job. Some girls often talked about how they “wouldn’t open their legs” for just anyone. They judged me for my open relationship, telling me my relationship advice was moot because of it.
They used this sense of superiority to make it feel like they weren’t doing anything wrong. Instead of seeing the escorts we served late-night as coconspirators of the hustle, the other servers would sit in the corner and roll their eyes at the audacity of their existence.
I knew everyone else was miserable. Even if people were making good money, it was a dark place. But I didn’t realize it was affecting me. I was self-conscious about my body, even though I always made weight. I was comparing myself to the other girls, wondering who was the prettiest, or who made the most money. Even though I only worked 25 to 30 hours a week, my weekends never felt long enough. I was always tired.
When I told one of my regulars that I was moving back to New York, he said, “good for you. You don’t belong here.” While it was a nice sentiment, I know it was a perpetuation of my value as a “smart” girl.
I’m grateful for certain aspects of it: because I know how to bartend, because I have good experience in the industry, I’ll always have a backup plan. I’ll always be able to feed myself. Coming from a low-income background, in the ever uncertain industry of journalism, that’s a valuable skill.
But, what nightlife really taught me was to see the world as it is. You learn to read people and to cater to them. You learn how to say no, nicely. You learn that all the flashy lights and magnums of champagne are really just a mess someone’s going to have to clean up later. Seeing all of that either breeds compassion or entitlement. I’m lucky to have cultivated the former option.
Gabrielle Smith is a Brooklyn-based poet and writer. She writes about love/sex, mental illness, and intersectionality. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram.