Obscured American: Katy the bartender and nursing student

Jonathan Revusky was in Philly for a few days, and I had a great time showing Jon around. We went to Kensington, Fishtown, Camden, Point Breeze, Little Cambodia and Rittenhouse Square, all but the last at the sinking end of the economic scale, places I’m well familiar with. At Jack’s Famous Bar, we ordered a cheesesteak and a roast beef sandwich for just $4 each, my kind of price, and I thought our lunch excellent. In Camden, I steered Jon to a bodega where a cheesesteak was just $3.50. Jon said, “I would never have walked into a place like that, if I wasn’t with you.” Most Americans wouldn’t go to Camden, period, even if you paid them.

Jon also introduced me to an alien Philadelphia, for he treated me to fancy joints like Paradiso Italian restaurant and Fogo de Chao Brazilian Steak House. When you can burn a Ben Franklin for dinner, life certainly becomes so much more civilized and soothing, and the lower class is mostly reduced to beautiful and smiling servers. “Is there anything else I can get you?” beamed the wholesome, slim waitress with the cute dimples.

Though living comfortably in Spain, Jon is well aware that his homeland is in steep decline. Unlike me, he’s not so sure there will be civil unrest, “I go to places like Brazil, with its vast favelas, and the poor people do carry on. Perhaps Americans will just become poorer and poorer, and get used to it.”

As we strolled past Center City’s best collection of chi-chi shops and restaurants, Jon remarked, “Any top-tier Chinese city, like Shanghai, Shenzen, Guangzhou, etc., is, in most respects, so vastly superior to any American city at this point, it’s crazy. Not only do Americans not know this, but, as you pointed out, some would even get violently enraged at you if you said this. You mean this isn’t the best place in the world??!!”

Campaigning, Trump said, “Our airports are like from a third-world country,” not that anything is going to be done about it, for we’re worse than broke. Living in a near continent-sized country, it’s not easy to experience any other nation’s achievements, so few Americans have had a chance to be awed, say, by Berlin’s Central Rail Station or Seoul’s Incheon Airport.

After Jon left, I returned to one of the bars we hit to interview a bartender I’d known for a while. I thought of Katy because she had spent a decade mingling with the rich, if only as a server. As a housecleaner for many years, I did the same.

Katy agreed to talk if I would neither photograph her nor name her Center City bar. Deal!

I was born in Frankford. I went to a Catholic grade school, St. Joachim. I read, four years ago, one of the most horrific stories ever. This girl was coming home from the bus. She’s walking down Church Street, past St. Joachim. She was pulled into the school yard and raped, brutally. When the police found her, they said she was unrecognizable. It was one of the worst brutalities they had ever seen. She was in a coma for three weeks. Not only that, he gave her AIDS.

I remember reading this article and thinking, This is where I grew up. This is where I spent the first eight years of my life. Frankford is like Compton now.

I went to Little Flower, then Frankford High School. It was lame growing up in the Northeast. I had no favorite subjects.

I love music. Both of my parents were jazz musicians. My mother was a jazz singer. She was so awesome! My father played drums. He was pretty well known in South Philly.

I came out of the womb with music, although I never played anything, which is kind of odd. I can sing a little. I love Miss Ella.

I went down to Delaware Avenue to hang out when I was 18. I started to bartend. I worked at the Aztec. I came in, I applied and that was it. I also worked at Rock Lobster.

It was really good money. I liked the diversity of people. It was a little glamorous. I got to meet a lot of people. At a restaurant, you don’t have to wait for a table after a while, because you may have waited on that waiter. Things like that.

I broke my toe. I was working at Rock Lobster, and I was limping. This guy went, “What’s wrong?” It turned out he was a foot doctor. I said I didn’t have any insurance. He said, “Don’t worry about it.” He operated on my toe, everything, and all for free!

I used to be really wild. I did a lot of drugs.

My friend was a bartender at the Cave. They had male strippers in the back, lots of bachelorette parties. It’s so fuckin’ hilarious. This lady, she tipped him a ten-dollar food stamp!

My manager was meeting a girl after work. She lived in Gladwyne. It’s, like, the most prestigious area in Philly. Very, very money oriented. He just smoked a bowl, so he’s a little paranoid. He thought he was going to get pulled over because he was black. They went through these back roads. He said, “What are these three Great Danes doing in the middle of the road?” They were deer! He was a manager at one of the hottest clubs, so he got a lot of ass. Ha, ha!

During the Blizzard of ’93, I went to Miami for a vacation and decided I was going to stay. I still have tons of friends down there.

You’re just in a better mood when it’s sunny out every day. When you have such a bad winter, and everything’s gray, gray, the sky, and there’s black snow on the ground, and it’s piled up, you know what I mean, and it’s freezing. You go to Miami, and it’s bright! Instead of pigeons outside, you see two dozen parrots. It’s beautiful.

I was a cocktail waitress at the number one club in the United States. It’s called the Velvet. They’re actually doing a documentary about it. It was so crowded, people would wait for hours to get in. It’s so bizarre.

We had the Money Party on Monday nights. You paid the cover, and everybody received an x amount in fake money. It was, like, anything goes. Whoever accumulated the most fake money at the end of the night won a grand prize. People would do the craziest things. Let’s put it this way, no cameras allowed! Girls would be going at it, on the bar. People would get naked. It was out of control.

We had a room called the Blue Room. One day, the Sugarhill Gang came in, so the DJ put their song on. There were, like, 14 of us in the room. He got up and he went, “See, I am Wonder Mike, and I’d like to say hello! To the black, to the white, the red and the brown, the purple and yellow!” He picked up my hand and he started singing it, so I was, like, with the lead singer of this band. It was so fuckin’ awesome! He was singing to me.

I met Charlie Sheen. He was so down-to-earth. I loved him. He’s one of my favorite people, as far as, like, famous. He started telling me jokes, and if I laughed, he gave me 20 bucks. Then I had to start telling him jokes. If he laughed, he would give me 50 bucks!

A lot of them were cheap. John Cusack was cheap. Charles Barkley was a good tipper. Dave Grohl, of the Foo Fighters, would tip people a thousand dollars.

The worst tipper was Prince. He was horrible! Prince told the bouncer he wanted beautiful girls. They had to be drop-dead beautiful. He ran them ragged, then tipped each a dollar. He tipped the DJ a thousand to play his newly released CD. The DJ was already getting paid, like, 700 bucks. Prince was such a dick.

There was a music venue next to the club. One of the bouncers told me, “Prince is next door! Prince it next door!” It’s because Sheila E. was performing. I remember standing literally right next to Prince while watching Sheila E. It was such an amazing thing! There were literally, like, 23 people in the whole place, and I was next to Prince! It was so overwhelming. It’s Prince, you know. It’s still Prince!

The first time I went to a chic party, I was on this 15-million-dollar yacht. We had, like, Matt Dillon there, Janet Jackson there, and I remember thinking, What the hell am I doing here?! I’m from Frankford! It means nothing, but I remember thinking, My life is so fun.

I was so wrapped up in it. I never finished college. Oh my God, it was such a great time. It was the best year of my life. I wish I could go back, for one day. Nah, a week! Ha, ha!

I’m from Philly. We didn’t have that kind of interactions. In Miami, you’d walk by and you’d go, “Oh, that looks like Gianni Versace,” and it was Gianni Versace!

The last time I was in Miami, I was a clothing stylist. It’s when people want to get dressed for really big events. We manufactured our own clothing. It’s very performance, very expensive. It’s stage clothing. Beautiful. Crystals. We also had high-end couture.

I’d put an outfit together. Very wealthy people would come in. One time, I had this guy who’s on Fortune 500. He brought his wife, her best friend, his daughters, the maid, two hairdressers, and those dresses were like $4,000 a pop. They’re so rich, they don’t know what to do with their money.

I also worked retail. Once, this teenager came in. She was sitting on the couch and she was sobbing. I said, “What’s the matter?”

“My dad, he won’t give me money to buy the dress.” Sob, sob.


“He gave me 5,000 this month. The dress is 4,000, and I only have 2,000.” Sob, sob.

Fuckin’ insanity. Insanity! You fuckin’ privileged . . . Like, get a fuckin’ real problem!

I remember this one guy who was hanging out with all the bouncers. He was an heir to Nestle. His parents thought he was going to college in Miami. It’s nuts! He partied all the time and wasn’t even enrolled. Every time his parents came, he would get the books out and take them around the campus. It was crazy! He thought it was funny as shit. I could never do that to my parents.

I came back to Philly because it’s my home. I love my city now more than ever. I know people who moved to Brooklyn and New York a decade ago, and they’re all moving back. I love it. It’s so awesome here.

I never got married. I came close four times.

I love kids, even though I never had them. I have a calling for them, especially for children that are underprivileged, sick, anything . . . It’s just like a soft spot for them. Some people love animals. You know, I love kids.

One time, I was meeting my girlfriend on South Street for lunch. I had these crazy shoes on, and these really dark, Jackie O glasses. They were so dark that even in the sun, you could barely see. So I had a couple shots of tequilas, margaritas, and something to eat.

I had a little buzz going on. She left to go back to work. Again, getting back to kids. I love them! I can’t even walk by a cute kid. Awwww, I have to say something to them. So I’m walking down the street, and I see this little kid, and he got like a wifebeater on, cut-off shorts, Doc Martens, and he was like this big! The kid was so cute, so I went, “Look at you! You’re just a little baby! Look at your outfit! I love your outfit! You’re such a cute baby!”

The people who were with him were just appalled, and the baby was going like this. He stared me down! I took off my glasses. He was a midget!

I tried to volunteer for a Vietnamese orphanage. Two years ago, I went onto this website. They said they were looking for volunteers, but it’s a strict process. These babies were so beautiful, but they had these deformities. They need constant medical care.

I’m used to instant gratification. I want to do it now, but the reality of it is, I can’t do it now. You have to be a college graduate. If you’re in nursing, or any kind of healthcare, your odds of being accepted are excellent.

If you’re in nursing school, it would look good on your resume, but that’s not why I would do it. I’m going to nursing school because I want to help the sick, but I’m changing my mind about that. Now that I’ve lost so many people in the past two years, I can’t even step foot into a hospital. I can’t even stand the sight of a hospital.

My one best friend died in a car accident last year. I lost my mother 18 months ago. My roommate also died last year. I found him dead. Aneurysm, he was 42. Another friend hung himself. One girlfriend overdosed on pills. She did it on purpose. Another friend died of a kidney transplant that didn’t take. There was one more person. There was so much, I can’t even remember. At that point, I was so tired of hospitals and people being sick. I’m tired of it.

It’s a disaster because I have all these credits for nursing, and now I don’t want to go. I can’t stand it! Every time I go to a hospital, I’m reminded of my dead dad, my dead friends. Who wants to be reminded of that every time? It smells like death.

You must have a calling for it. If you do it for the money, good luck with that! You’re going to hate your job.

Healthcare is one of the biggest problems we have. My friend who died in a car accident, he had just moved to L.A. A lot of time, when you get a job, you have to wait six months before you can apply for health insurance. When the ambulance came, his friend went to the hospital, but he didn’t, since he didn’t have any insurance. When he got back in his car, he hit a cement wall and died instantly. When they did the autopsy, they found out he had had a concussion prior to hitting the cement wall.

That’s a problem in America. It’s an American problem. Johnny didn’t go to the hospital because he was afraid of the doctors’ bills. It’s just a really hard thing. I miss him terribly.

This is the first job I’ve had as a bartender in about ten years. I like people. You see, there are a lot of people who don’t like people. I genuinely like people. You hear all the time, “I hate people! I hate people!” I don’t. I’m not an isolater. I can’t spend a lot of time by myself. It’s depressing.

I find people very interesting. I like to get to know people. I like to joke around. I like to talk about current events.

I like the diversity. This bar, it’s so different than I’ve ever worked. There is so much diversity that walks in here, it’s unbelievable. Like you’ll have a Mexican from across the street who doesn’t speak any English, then you’ll have a journalist for National Geographic who’s now just coming back from, like, wherever he was. It’s crazy. It’s crazy!

There’s a guy, Chang, that comes in here. He’s really touchy feely. He’s so nice. I feel bad for him. His English is not so good. There’s a communication barrier, so I went on Google Translate and had a full-blown conversation with the guy. I really got to know him. That bump on his head? He probably fell off the barstool!

I swear to God, if you told me 20 years ago, that this is where I’d be right now, I’d never have believed it. I really thought I would have, like, a great career. In whatever.

I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grow up. Isn’t that terrible? I have this empty hole in my stomach, and it gives me so much anxiety.

I was really wrapped up in the scene, really wrapped up.

I was ambitious. In my 20’s, I was trying to figure out what my goals were. I wanted to have a purpose, to do something meaningful.

At 30, I was a coke head.

Even my drug addiction was glamorized. It wasn’t Kensington and Allegheny. It was Dom Perignom at the Hilton, so it was a lot harder to admit that I had a problem. My rock bottom wasn’t like Kensington Avenue. I couldn’t even relate to that kind of addiction, but I wasn’t any better than that person at K & A.

When you get sober, you realize that drug isn’t the problem, it’s just a symptom. You stop doing one thing, and it will metastasize into something else. I stopped doing drugs, and I developed a severe, severe eating disorder. I starved myself.

I meditate. I love it. I don’t have a TV at my house.

I’m 43 and I don’t know what my goals are. It’s giving me a lot of anxiety. I can’t sleep at night. You have no idea.

Linh Dinh’s Postcards from the End of America has just been released by Seven Stories Press. He maintains an active photo blog.

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