This is the thirteenth of many excerpts from Heather Lowe’s novella titled Catharine. It explores her love affair with downtown St. Catharines through a series of shamelessly exaggerated vignettes.
The dream is always the same. I wake up 55 minutes late for work, my heartbeat quickens and my chest becomes heavy with panic. My alarm clock is an old black-box clock with glowing red digits like the one I had before everyone started carrying around smartphones and had a migratory alarm clock on their person at all times. I don’t even own this particular alarm clock anymore but, for some reason or another, in my dream it is always the bearer of bad news. I scramble around my apartment as I search for my work uniform but, of course, I never find it. My apartment is a strange blend of every single apartment I’ve inhabited in the downtown core, everything is completely recognizable but, at the same time, utterly unfamiliar. I race around this strangely comforting apartment in a brutal attempt to get ready for work. My unnecessary hysteria begins to overwhelm me. Somehow, in the back of my sleeping mind, I know that I must be grinding my teeth or possibly flailing my limbs, the stress of it all eventually becomes too much and I wake up in gasping panic. As my dreamlike state recedes and I become aware of my surroundings and the ridiculousness of the dream, I begin to calm down. And then it hits me: I became that stressed out over the possibility of being late for work? Then I have the thought that I always have: “Good God, I really need to quit my job.”
As a performer and writer living in the downtown core of the Garden City, I always believed (and realistically knew) that I needed a part time job to subsidize my income (my drinking). An old boyfriend of mine called this job my “joe job” and as we sipped endless cups of coffee at the little artsy cafe in the heart of the downtown, he frequently attempted to convince me to quit working my job all together. “You’re dedicating your life to the man” he would say, “I really don’t think that’s who you are or who you want to be.” I would bite my lip and halfheartedly agree with him simply so I wouldn’t totally snap on him for having the audacity to tell me who I was or what I wanted. I would dig my fingernails into the old wood of my seat to stop myself from saying something awful (and true) like, “Well, we can’t all live in our Mother’s basements forever.” A statement which would inevitably be followed by a worthless argument and ultimately end in an agonizing silence. Although he may have had a point and maybe my so-called “joe job” wasn’t necessarily my favourite thing in the world, what I could never really explain to him was that my “joe-job” as a bartender and server was the best fucking acting job I had ever had, and, at that point in my life, the best paid one as well.
There is something strangely intimate and bonding about serving someone an ice cold pint or a piping hot plate of delicious food. I may have been a bartender but I was also a therapist, a teacher, a DJ, a ringleader, a punisher, a confidant, a shoulder to cry on and much, much more. I would be lying if I said it was always fun because it certainly was not, but it was like getting paid to be at the party. Working at a bar in the downtown core was infuriating and rewarding all at the same time. I was consistently challenged: try not to roll your eyes at the woman who asks you what she can eat, try not to punch the guy who barks his orders at you and whistles at you and is apparently allergic to manners, try to be really nice to that wine drinking regular even though she tips terribly, try not to take things personally when cleaning the bathrooms at the end of the night. I seemed to always be acting like something didn’t bother me, acting like the perpetual birthdays and bachelorette parties were a big deal, acting like I loved that song too, acting like the information was new when really the drunken regular had told me three times already. The acting training I received from working in bars in the downtown core of our Garden City was not only cheaper but far more valuable than any expensive lesson or course I’d ever taken. Now, when I order a drink from my favourite bartender, I can’t help but wonder what he’s been acting like recently. He smiles at me as I walk into the old wooden pub, he acts so happy to see me that I almost believe him. I ask for my usual and, like a classically trained professional, he acts surprised. [S]