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Pondering fragile masculinity in the workplace

I am an all-star dishwasher. My elbows can scrub a pan of baked-on cheese into oblivion, my hands can stack plates like they are building the pyramids and my fingers can withstand the heat of a faucet turned all the way to the left. I do not enjoy doing dishes; my valuable skillset is only put to action after my housemate or mom yells at me enough. I acquired my talent from a summer of backbreaking labor as a dishwasher at a sandwich and bar spot the summer after my freshman year of college, two years ago.

The restaurant was located across the street from the Catholic middle school in my hometown in northern Rhode Island. The front door led to a lower-level bar that was made up of an almost perfectly rectangular countertop with two bartenders struggling to squeeze by each other in the middle. To the left of the bar was the kitchen, filled with the smell of butter and steak, and behind the bar, connected through a white doorway, was the dishwashing station where I scrubbed, burned myself and idly scrolled on my phone all summer.

The waitstaff and bartenders were all female except Curt, a macho bartender. The kitchen and dishwashing staff was all male. I thought an all-male environment would be good for farting and being covered in food scraps, but I did not know what an all-male environment really entailed. The only all-male environment I had been in was my high school tennis team, and we were not exactly the manliest bunch. I always had an easier time getting along with girls than boys, maybe because most of my family friends and cousins were girls.

My job at the restaurant was to wash the dishes, vacuum the basement, get food out of the fridge, change kegs, take out the trash and answer the phone. The place only served sandwiches and salad, so the work was never too hard, but my dad was happy I was doing manual labor in a kitchen that always smelled like red meat. My skinny body had spent the entirety of the previous summer binging “Game of Thrones,” so having to do any work made me fall into bed at the end of a shift harder than the trash bags I had to take out fell into the dumpster.

Curt, the bartender, only worked certain nights, but I would answer phone calls from women all week asking if he was there. Even if he was working, he told me to say he was not. He was some kind of local god to these women. The first time I met him, he told me he was gay. After not getting a rise out of me, he then asked, “You really think I could be gay?” and I told him I did not know. I did not know what to say. I really did not know if he was gay; he was well-kept, wore tight clothes and reminded me of my gay hairdresser. All night he kept saying things to me like, “I could be gay,” or would just whisper homophobic slurs in my ear.

He and the dishwasher who trained me, Erik, would have whole conversations like this. They would just call each other homophobic slurs back and forth and talk about who could lift more. My small physique and I stayed out of it and talked with the chefs who told me stories about being a baby daddy, or how they loved getting chocolate ice cream from a pizza place delivered to them after work. As much as I tried to stay in the kitchen with the chefs, I still had to do the dishes at my station, and that is when Erik would talk to me.

From our conversations, it seemed Erik was a very sensitive kid, but kept all his feelings pent up. When I arrived as an outsider, he saw an opportunity to let someone know his story. He showed me scars given to him by his abusive father who abandoned him and his many brothers and sisters when he was younger, forcing them all to live under the eldest sister’s watch. After his sister joined the military, he and his twin brother started looking out for the rest of the family: Erik, only just out of high school, and his brother, a high school dropout.

He told me how much he loved his little siblings, and that he wanted to join the National Guard just like his older sister. He talked about constantly going to the gym because he wanted to be able to fight back if anyone ever tried to hurt him or his siblings again. He said he bumped into his dad a few months before we spoke and beat the shit out of him in a grocery store parking lot.

While he was telling the story, he was pulling up his shirt and showing me his biceps and abs like it would impress me. He would do the same thing with his muscles whenever Curt would randomly call him a homophobic slur, like he had to prove he was not quite as sensitive as he may actually be.

Erik showed me pictures of his girlfriend and videos of them singing together. She had a much better voice than he did, but he kept texting her in front of me telling her that she was a bad singer, claiming that he had to be hard on her so she would get better. It made me uncomfortable, but I did not feel like I was in a position to speak out. I just wanted to get through the training with Erik and speak to him as little as possible afterward.

This macho showmanship was a common theme over my couple of weeks training with Erik. We had to break down boxes and bring them to the dumpster, and he would race to break more than me. When we had to take out the barrel from the bottle chute– the chute the bartender dropped empty beer bottles down – we carried it together, but after Curt called us a “bunch of pussies,” Erik was determined to bring the barrel to the dumpster himself. I was fine with his behavior because it got me out of doing extra manual labor, but I could tell that this work environment was toxic for Erik. It was forcing him to think that being “manly” was the only suitable way for a male to act.

Erik’s relationship with his father was tragic, and this older bartender, with his tough-guy act and homophobia, seemed to be a heavy influence on Erik’s personality. He had worked at the restaurant since he was 14, and now at 18, Erik was a gym-loving, homophobic boy with seemingly no one he could talk to about his feelings. This was a common trope among the staff. Whenever they got me, the less-than-manly outsider, alone, they would spill all their emotional problems. One chef would always ask me about college and tell me about how getting a girl pregnant stopped him from going. Even Curt would open up and tell me about his oceanfront dinner dates with his girlfriend and that he really cared for the girl. When my coworkers talked to each other, it was about sex, cars or drinking.

I left that job with a sense of relief, but I missed the absurdity of my daily interactions. I could never look past the misogynistic and homophobic things they said all the time during that summer, but I still got enjoyment out of how ridiculous they acted, always trying to be the toughest guy in the room. Every time I scrub a dish or burn my hand, I think of those strange men I shared a narrow hallway and bar with, and I’m thankful to not be stuck working in that restaurant like all of them still are – except for Erik. He did finally join the National Guard, following in his older sister’s footsteps.

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