“I mean, it’s not that hard to tell who you shouldn’t bother with,” Megan tells me. “If it looks like a bike messenger, stay away from it. If it looks like LA trash, stay away from it. If it looks like it has a coke habit, maybe you shouldn’t go up to it.”
I’ve made it out of North Beach with a bunch of tips, and Megan’s driving me towards the Castro. It’s around 1 AM when I go into a mostly lesbian bar, where I’m greeted by either a transgender woman, or a man who likes to dress as a woman (I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask what she identifies as). She’s around 50, I’d guess, and has the skin of a lifelong smoker.
“Honey, do you know I knew the original Peachy Puff girl, Peachy? She was fabulous.” It’s clear my new friend isn’t going to buy anything–she’s the kind of drunk who likes to talk instead. Luckily for me, I’m enjoying listening.
“Guess how old I am.”
“Um…37?” I figure it’s safest to round down my guess about 15 years.
“No! I’m 45! And you know, I look at pictures of my mother when she was half my age, and she looked twice as old as me!” I picture her mother: a glamorous chain smoker in a fur coat whose memory serves as both her inspiration and rival.
After a lesson on the power of moisturizer, I excuse myself and head to another bar, where I approach a lonely looking middle-aged man at the bar. I ask him if he’d like some smokes, and he starts slurring in a nearly unintelligible Irish accent.
“Me girlfrien’ lef me tonigh, on Christmas Eve.”
He looks so forlorn and drunk that I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts to cry. He is a sitting barfly cliché, and I wonder if he finds deeper sorrow in this fact. Maybe he finds comfort. He hands me a 20 for the pack of cigarettes, and when I take too long getting change, he tells me to keep the rest. He looks like a weepy puppy, and waves away the money, as if to say nothing so petty serves a purpose now that his love is gone. I look him in the pathetic eyes.
“Things will get better. They will.” Feeling unusually empathetic, (was it his generous tip, or our shared humanity?) I give him half a hug. My tray forms a blockade between our bodies, but his stubble briefly grazes my cheek. He returns my half-embrace with a half-hearted attempt to grope my ass. My fur coat is too thick and all he grabs is fabric. So much for shared humanity. I make a note to myself never to hug customers again–especially sad drunk Irish men whose girlfriends broke up with them on Christmas Eve.
I go on to a few more bars, and make my favorite sale of the night to a middle-aged married woman who buys a vibrator–(she didn’t have one!)
Megan picks me up, and we go to get Sharon and head back to the office. It’s after 2, but Ruth will be at a club called The Endup until at least 4. Sharon gets in the backseat with me and eyes my tray.
“Wow, you did a lot better than me. That’s ok, we knew tonight would be a gamble.”
On the way back to the office, Sharon talks (mostly to herself) about how Christmas is sure to be another disappointment this year.
“You spend all this money, and build it up so much and of course it’s a letdown.” I feel sorry for her, maybe even more so because she doesn’t want me to.
We get back to the office and start counting our stock and cash.
“Wow, you did well. You’re my new worst enemy,” Sharon says, laughing good-naturedly.
I make a little over a hundred for the night, which I’m told is excellent for such a slow night. I don’t have the guts to ask Sharon how much she made, but I have a feeling that like Christmas itself, it’s a disappointment.
And with that, my first night of puffing was over. And apparently, I’m a natural. Considering I had expected to be mostly terrible at it, the ease with which I slipped into my candy girl persona was both exciting and a little concerning. I’d thought I wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face without acting like someone else, but instead, I found it was easy to play myself. Just the accentuated version.
What does it mean to be a great candy girl? Does it mean you’re charming, smart and adept at sales? Or does it just mean you’re good at using your looks to con people into paying 4 bucks for a pack of gum?
My hunch is it’s a little of both–the good, the bad, and the beautiful, so to speak. In retrospect, I realized it wasn’t surprising I was a natural candy girl. In a way, as a woman, I’ve been training for the job my whole life. Even before I was sexually mature, I knew how to use a smile to get my way; the value of selling my cuteness, in one way or another. It was always a currency.
Walk into a bar as a woman, and sometimes, it feels like there’s an elephant in the room. Your sexuality. You know when someone is checking you out, and maybe they know you know. If you’re insecure, which most of us are, perhaps you wonder if the men or women looking at you think you’re appealing. Looks are exchanged, but usually, (especially in coastal, urban spaces) sexuality is subtext.
Walk in looking to a bar selling vibrators and candy, and well, it’s safe to say that subtext is removed. Your purpose is clear–to sell as much as you can. Whether you are attractive is no longer a question, but instead assumed fact. And just like that the starting point is changed from, ‘does that guy think I’m cute?’ to ‘ of course he thinks I’m cute–now how much money can I get out of him?’
And yes, that can be empowering, if admittedly problematic. The elephant in the room is gone, or at least you’ve wrangled it, and hung it around your neck. In this way, you do feel powerful, because you’re playing a very different game, one where you hold the tray.
I have a feeling there’s a lot to learn from that game, even if you ultimately decide it’s not the kind you want to play.