Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I've got madd skills, yo

"Yo, Miss," my Brooklyn students often said to me, "I've got madd skills." They always said this when they'd finally figured out something difficult, like subject/verb agreement or the art of using an apostrophe.

Yes, I'd say. You do.

I'm a city girl. I don't belong anywhere else. I've learned this about myself over the years, especially those years I spent in any place with a population under a million. When you grow up outside Chicago and cut your adult teeth in New York City, you stop being afraid of things. Bad things happen. You deal.

I wasn't always this way. As a young girl I had great fear. Common cruelty from other children was something I couldn't brush off. 

I remember one day -- it was the first day of school -- another girl came up to me and said she liked my shoes. I went to Catholic school and because we wore uniforms, the only real differentiator between us girls was our shoes. (And in the winter, our legwarmers.) I hadn't liked these shoes, but picked them because they were the only option available to me. That's why I was so surprised when Lorena said she liked them. Really? I asked her. "Yes," she said. "I used to have shoes exactly like that. But then my dad got a job."

Yeah. More than twenty years later, and I remember that like it was yesterday.  Hey, don't judge.  I told you I internalize things.

I don't remember what I did after that. I probably did what I always do in a situation where someone hurts me: I pretended that it didn't. But when I lay in bed that night, I thought of all kinds of alternate responses like, "Your dad has a job? I couldn't tell."  Or, "Even with a job, your dad couldn't have afforded these shoes."  Or, "Who paid for your haircut?  Your dad?  You should get his money back."  None of these came to me in the moment, of course.

I tell that story to my students all the time and they all want to know if I kicked her ass. Of course I didn't. I spent my entire childhood looking for approval from my peers, and when I didn't have it, I would work and work to convince whoever didn't like me to change their mind. And I'd win, because really, I was a winning kind of kid. Lorena and I eventually became friends. I'd go over to her house, she'd show me her Menudo magazines, and we'd sigh over them together.

Yeah.  I don't know what we were thinking.

It's still incredibly easy to hurt my feelings; I've just gotten much better at hiding it.   You have to have this ability as a teacher because kids will say the meanest stuff to you all. the. time. If you can't look them straight in the eye after they tell you that your platform shoes make you look like the sixth Spice Girl, the one named Teacher Spice, you won't survive more than two weeks in front of a classroom.  (Even I had to admit that one was funny.  But yeesh.  They were new shoes.  And platforms were very in at the time.  I swear.)

Okay, fine.  Yes.  Platforms are only a good idea if you're a Spice Girl.  Shut up.  

So I lived in Brooklyn for a bunch of years and cut my classroom teeth on Brooklyn teenagers and spent my nights out in Manhattan nightclubs and now I'm not afraid to talk to anybody.  

One of my great frustrations since moving back to Chicago is that most of my family and friends still live in the suburbs. It makes sense, I suppose, since that's where I grew up, but it makes me a little crazy how often I have to get in my car if I ever want to see anybody I love. A friend of mine refuses to come to my house at all because she's afraid she'll get jumped.  I want to tell her she's crazy, that the worst things that ever happened to me happened in the suburbs.

The reason I bring all of this up is because every so often, I convince a friend to make the trek into the city with me. Enter Laurie, who is recently divorced and every other weekend has some time on her hands. She wants to go out, she tells me. Good, I say. I'm all about going out.

So I take her to a bar on the north side, a hole-in-the-wall neighborhood joint in Wrigleyville (go Cubs!) called Trader Todd's where they sing bad karaoke every night of the week and it isn't long before she tells me she doesn't like it.  And it's not just because she's a White Sox fan.  I'm a little surprised because I'm feeling rather comfortable at this bar, but she says no.  None of these people are talking to us.

And I get it.  Remember, I really am the sensitive one.  This talking to strangers thing is hard. You have to be prepared for cruelty.  Because really, in a bar, guys can be jerks.  They're looking for someone who's not-you and it's tough not to internalize that rejection.  But here's the thing: we do it, too.  It's the game.  It's all a game, and you have to pretend it doesn't matter when you hear a guy complain to his friend about never getting to talk to the hot one.   On her first night out, neither of us wanted to run into the assholes, so I stop and think and put into words all that I know about the bar scene.  And let me tell you: I've got madd skills, yo.

Of course we'd been sitting at our table having a cozy chat.  So I tell her it's very simple: we simply have to act like we want to be spoken to.  We're not looking friendly.

She's been married for most of her adult life so navigating the bar scene is something new to her.  I take a look around the bar.  There are men here to meet people, I tell her, and there are men here to hang out with friends and/or girlfriends.  You have to be able to tell the difference so you don't even try to approach someone who's not interested.

I look around the bar and see a couple of likely fellows.  Two guys near the bar, both looking around.  There, I tell her.  They want to meet someone.  And indeed some girl walked up to the bar and they pounced immediately.  She shot them down.  I grinned.  

"Jesus," said Laurie.  "She weighs about fifty pounds.  Most of the women in here weigh nothing.  Don't they have regular-sized women on the North Side?"

I told her it didn't matter.  Men like all types, and the type they like the most is the type that smiles and acts interested in what they have to say.   They also especially like the type that will go home with them the same night, but I didn't say that.

The pair we had our eyes on tried the next girl who walked up.  She stopped for a second to chat.  We could try them, I suggested.  "No," Laurie said.  "They look like they're about twelve.  I prefer grown men."  She looked around.  "Like the bald guy over there."  The bald guy was clearly taken, though.  He was hanging on every word that the girl he was with said to him.

"They're just not friendly on the North Side," she insisted, but I wasn't going to accept that.  They're friendly everywhere.  They're men. 

So I told her we could leave and go somewhere else.  This wasn't really a pickup place.  It was a hang-with-your-friends place.  We stopped and talked to the bouncer on the way out, but she was right: he wasn't friendly.  But bald guy was outside smoking with his girl and so I walked up to them and told them my friend thought northsiders weren't friendly.  He proceeded to do his best to prove her wrong.  He and his friend invited us back inside, but we said no, we were going somewhere else.

If there's one thing I know, it's that if you want friendly, you go to a reggae club.  So we go to Wild Hare, the biggest reggae bar I've ever been to.  They've got live music most nights, too.  This night was no exception.  So we get inside, head back to the dance floor and within minutes this guy is trying to dance with me.  He's got a Spike Lee look going, but no: he's not cute.  And anyway, I wasn't out to meet men that night.  I just wanted to dance and have a good time.

Laurie goes to get another drink and when she comes back, she suggests going upstairs.  So we do, and while we're sitting and chatting, this man walks up to me.  I'm half a second from freezing him out when Laurie asks him, "Why are you talking to her and not to me?"

He looks surprised.  "Because you look married," he said.  She didn't look open to the approach, which was exactly what I'd been telling her.  Eye contact, smile, look away.  If they're interested, they'll come.  No need to get out of your seat.  He tries to get me to dance, but I send him away.

"So I have to smile?" she asks.  Yes, I tell her, and you have to do it near the guy you want to talk to.  Or, ask him a question and then walk away.  Men love to help.  If he's interested, he'll find you later.

She looked around.  "I like the bouncer," she said.  I told her to go and ask where the bathroom was.  Fifteen minutes go by before she returns.  She's grinning.  "He was really nice," she said.  And indeed, for the rest of the evening, said bouncer kept coming to check on her.  But the ice had been broken, and several men thought she was approachable.

I was so proud.  I felt like the nightclub pickup guru.  Buddha on the reggaetop.

But then at some point it was crunch time and everybody and their brother was looking for someone to take home and I had to turn into Xena Warrior Princess and send them on their way.  Baby steps.  I wasn't going to let her go to anybody else's home but hers.

We were walking back to my car and a man was standing in the doorway of a bar.  "You're hot," said Laurie (she was more than a little drunk at this point).

"Yeah?"  he said.  "I'd like to ..."

If you know what's good for you, I interrupted, you won't finish that sentence.  I used my teacher voice on him.  He looked me in the eye, saw that I meant it, and backed off. (My teacher stare is even more frightening than my teacher voice.)  I felt like I should be doing kung fu or something.  The streets of Wrigleyville when the bars are about to get out are no place for a drunk girl.  Thank god one of us was sober, because they were coming out of the woodwork and pouncing.  I don't know what they were thinking -- are they really able to just accost a girl on the street and get her to go home with them?  Not on my planet.

I got her to the car and got her home.  Skills, I thought.  Getting everybody home safely takes skills.

A few days later, I was proudly telling my trainer about this part of the night.  "You know what we call girls like you?" he said.  "Cockblockers."

Shut up, I said.  She wasn't going to go home with any of them anyway.

He laughed.  "And anyway, correct me if I'm wrong, but you were working with a beginner.  That doesn't make you an expert.  An expert can go to a bar without a cent in her pocket and walk out fifty dollars richer."

How does she do that?

"She walks up to a guy, smiles at him and talks to him for a while, and when she's got him hooked, offers to get a drink.  Then when he hands her the money, she brings back the drinks but not the change.  A few minutes later, she dumps him and moves on to the next guy.  That's an expert."

Yeah, I said.  Expert whore, maybe.  

"And what were you wearing that made all the guys come up to you?"

I didn't like his tone.  A shirt.  Jeans.  A jacket.  

"Uh-huh.  And how low-cut was that shirt?  Because let me tell you, guys like breasts."

Ha ha, I said.  I know.  I've got them.  But here's the thing: I kept my jacket on and zipped up all night.  They were approaching me because of my beautiful eyes.  

He snorted.

Which, if you think about it, makes me even more expert, because I wasn't dressed like a hoochie mama.

He looked doubtful.  He likes to do this with me, find the holes in my arguments and shoot them down.  I, on the other hand, refuse to lose, especially to him.

He shook his head.  "Nope," he said.  "Unless you walked out richer than you went in, you're no expert.  Better than average, maybe, but not an expert."

Right, I said.  Those are skills I don't need.  For now, I'm like Snapple: happy with #3.


David Toussaint said...

Good work, as always. Straight bars and gay bars are very different. I don't quite understand the dynamics of girl-and-guy because I've never been in that world. I often feel sorry for straight women because it seems a place of degradation.

With men, it's insulting, cruel, high school, shallow, narcissistic, humiliating,

but at least it's equal.

Cecilia Baader said...

Degradation is a good word for it at times, but at others, no. Just ... difficult. In a perfect world, you'd suddenly realize that you're already in love with your best friend and not have to go through all this, but then this is not a perfect world.