For many, the sun-sparkling Atlantic, the clean-as-seashell beaches, and the freshly-caught seafood of Provincetown are a vacation paradise. For gays, it’s a liberating mecca where kissing, hand-holding, and public displays of affection are smiled upon. For me, it’ll forever be the place that I was called a nigger to my face. More than twenty years have passed since that incident occurred, as I was nineteen at the time. But in 2013, knowing its sandy shores were still littered with racial inequality, I became a bartender there.
It was two months after my partner, with whom I’d lived for four years, and I broke up. I had spent those years taking courses to get into a medical anthropology PhD program. I was thirty-nine. On the suggestion of a good friend, John Morse, who had made forty thousand dollars tending bar at the Boatslip one summer in his early twenties, I got my bartending license and went down to Ptown hoping to do what he did—though I questioned if a black “washashore” like me could do the same thing. He was white, young, muscular, and beautiful, drop dead. I was black, two-hundred-and-twenty pounds of beefy muscle, turning forty in two months, and had never received a warm reception from the seaside resort.
I knew the extra steps necessary to divert judgment away from my brown skin, having grown up during the 1970s and 80s in all-white neighborhood in Warwick, Rhode Island, and gone to all-white schools, one of two black kids. So I wore a tight-fitting Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt that said “Major Anatomy” across it, jeans that clung to my muscular legs and glutes, and fluorescent-orange Reebok sneakers with zigzag soles as I zigzagged my way down Commercial Street. The restaurants, bars, and retail stores on the street, having been just woken up from a long winter’s nap, stared at each other with imperturbable faces. Every bar I entered had young, muscular, white bartenders, and the owners of those bars said they weren’t hiring as soon as I said I wanted to apply for a bartender position. I found it peculiar since spring hadn’t officially arrived yet, and on top of that, many of the places had ads posted in the local rags. The Boatslip Resort, which hosted Tea Dance every day from four to seven, and was where John had worked and made his money, rejected me. Then I went to the Buoy Bar, A-House, Crown & Anchor, Monkey Bar, Victor’s, and the always-busy restaurant, The Patio, all of whom told me they were all set. I saw not one black bartender in any of the gay bars and clubs. Flashbacks of being the token black kid in class, picked last whenever the teacher made us work in teams, flooded my mind. People say when things are black or white they are easy to understand. But things are never that easy to understand. I can remember with painful vivid distinction the white kids not wanting me on their team, and feeling like a liability, but excelling at whatever they asked me to do. So I was determined, shall I say, to make my way past this embankment the way I had in high school.
I decided to apply at what I knew to be the lesbian bar in Ptown, Pied Bar, having been there a few times for After Tea T-Dance, but never seeing it get very busy or for very long. I didn’t want to work there particularly, but there was a “Bartenders Wanted” sign posted inside of the glass display just outside of the bar, and it was far more lucrative than working at a smaller bar or at a restaurant. After Tea T-Dance was where the crowd from the Boatslip’s Tea Dance went after it ended.
I stood in front of the water’s edge and watched the sunlight’s reflection swimming upon the water’s surface before walking down a long wooden pathway into the bar. It was empty. The walls inside were bright fluorescent orange, and light blue, and green, depending on which room you were in. There was a dancefloor, a pool table, and floor-to-ceiling windows that lead to the deck outside with tables and chairs that looked out on a vast view of beach and ocean and boats bobbing in the water and kayakers kayaking. A lighthouse could be seen far in the distance along with whale-watching vessels overcrowded with people. Behind the bar stood a potbellied, rather gregarious thirtysomething white man who spit when he talked, and repeated everything he said at least three times. When I inquired about the bartender sign posted out front, he told me was he was the head bartender then took me up to the office and introduced me to Susan, the short, grey-haired, rather stubby fifty-something owner who half-joked how she cracked the whip with ease. I wondered to myself if this was the kind of person I wanted to work for, but it didn’t seem important enough at the time because I had so many other things to worry about: where was I going to store my stuff when I moved it out of my ex’s? Could I afford to pay the two-thousand dollars a month in rent that every place in town charged? Could I live in a one-room apartment with no kitchen for four months? Was I emotionally ready to just move on and do all this after spending four years with someone who I loved and wanted to spend the rest of my life with? I was sad and found it difficult to move out, to accept that our relationship was really over, but knew I needed the money and that I needed to do this. Susan offered me the job once she found out I had just gotten my bartending license from Boston Bartender School. She and Sean both guaranteed me that I would make thirty thousand dollars by the end of the summer.
“You have to wear one of our shirts,” he said. “What size are you?
I gasped for air before saying, “Large.”
His mouth reeked of cigarettes. Sean disappeared into the closet, and reemerged with two white T-shirts, both of which had designs of events that occurred at the bar the previous summer. They had a boxy look to them. The shirts wouldn’t fit me snug the way my own shirts did. I waited for him to leave the room, or at least turn around, but he stayed and ogled me, smirking with delight at what he saw as I took my shirt off and put theirs on. He adjusted the shirt, rubbing his hands on my chest, and then grabbed my crotch before saying, “I’ve been with enough black guys to know it’s true, but goddamn! Is it ever in your case.” My first experience being the only black bartender in all of the gay bars and clubs in Ptown was silence and malleability. The lesson my ancestors knew all too well. There was no other lesson for me to learn now. I was there to make fast money.
As I was leaving, Sean and Susan both yelled out, “Welcome to the Island of Misfits.”
May 17, 2013, Single Girls’ Weekend: my first day bartending. After moving my things out of my ex’s and storing them at my mom’s house, I moved into a musty one-room apartment at the Archer Inn that had been sealed up for the past six months. I didn’t have time to change or put away my things because I was scheduled to work at four o’clock, and it was already four minutes past. I was late and Sean was pissed. He told Susan who threw me into the job. There was no time for me to be trained, Sean said, because the girls were arriving. He introduced me to the other bartenders: Eric, a twenty-three-year-old gay, white, Canadian twink college student on summer break, and Barbara, a straight white local with a Jamaican boyfriend and young son. Barbara had a full-time day job as a hairdresser at West End Salon and Spa on Commercial Street. She warned me to get a second bartending gig in case something happened.
“Like what?” I asked.
“People are sketchy in this town,” she said. “You’ll find out that Jamaicans power this town, making the clam chowder, lobster rolls, fried clams, and everything else. But you won’t find one bartending in a gay bar.”
“Laid back, (with my mind on my money and my money on my mind),” as Snoop Dogg sang in “Gin & Juice,” I didn’t fret, I didn’t stress. I hummed the song to myself, even though I didn’t know where anything was behind the bar.
The lesbians were out in full force. Barbara helped me out a lot, and once I got the quick pace down of making a drink—making a good drink—the night became fun. There was one woman whose beauty still accompanies me. Brown-skinned with the body of a Victoria’s Secret model and a soft rope of cornbraided hair that swung as she sashayed. She was visiting from New Jersey with her very friendly counter-intelligence black girlfriend, who stood behind her with her fingers parked inside the front pockets of her jeans and her neck resting upon her shoulder. While I was making them drinks, I felt something poke my ass.
“Is that thing real?” her girlfriend asked.
Not turning around, I said, “Bona fide, baby, bona fide!”
Then something hit my ass. I turned around, ready to go off on whoever had thrown something at me, but the girlfriend pointed to her Victoria’s Secret beauty and said, “She just bounced a quarter off your ass.”
“You did not just bounce a quarter off my ass?!”
We all busted out laughing.
All night long she would give me the fingers-to-eyes gesture, say, “I got you,” and call me her brother to Sean, Eric, and Barbara.
Sean found it bewildering and thought she was giving me the evil eye, then the “I’m watching you” look, before asking me, “Is she giving you trouble?”
“She’s basically giving me The Nod.”
“Do you know her?” he asked with an incredulous expression, as if we were part of some mysterious cabal.
I shook my head. “Black people nod to one another in acknowledgment of solidarity when there aren’t any other black people around.”
Sean spoke not a word, but went on to make drinks.
Being black and gay, I found it demoralizing to see how accepting Ptown was of homosexuals, but lacking in racial nuance. Black people nodding at each other to hide the anguish on their face and feel a sense of internal ease while white gay men and women flaunt their sexual orientation to the world angered me, because so many gay people compare the civil rights movement to the gay rights movement, even going so far as to say they are indebted to the civil rights movement, going even further to say that gay men and women are where they are today because of the civil rights struggle.
As Sean counted out our tips after the bar closed, and I learned that Susan was not only reporting our credit card tips for taxes, but also our cash tips, and that the Pied was only going to be open on Saturday and Sunday until the Fourth of July weekend, the official kickoff to the summer, I thought about James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. Baldwin is a man whom I feel a strong connection to, being black and gay and living in a world where, despite many decades of big steps forward, progress at times feels like mere baby steps. I wondered how Baldwin would handle being in an environment where his homosexuality was accepted with open arms by his gay brothers and sisters, but his blackness was still an issue. Rage took hold of him when restaurants refused to serve him because he was black; he came close to being lynched by a bunch of white men.
I watched Sean hand Eric his cash tips. Eric hadn’t spoken a word to me the entire night. He smiled as he took his money, but I felt an overwhelming regret rush through my vessels. Most of the men went to Eric for their drinks. Not surprising, most of the women went to Barbara. But when Eric’s line got too long, Sean or Susan moved the men down to me. I made sixty-three dollars in cash tips having worked from six o’clock to one in the morning, a third of what Eric did, and a quarter of what Barbara made. “Injustice is a commonplace,” James Baldwin said, “but this does not mean that one could be complacent. One must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.”
I knew what I needed to do.
After the bar closed, while we were cleaning up, I learned through Barbara that that weekend was also the seventh annual Women of Color Weekend. The organization held most of their events at the Crown and Anchor. I found it disheartening that Susan not only didn’t inform me, but didn’t host any of the dance parties for the black women. Barbara also told me that the Pied was for sale, but because Susan refused to budge on the price, it had been on the market for several years. This just solidified my decision.
“It’s called Baby Dyke Weekend because it’s the weekend that the jails are filled with young lesbians,” Sean said, as we stocked the coolers with cases of Bud Light, Corona Light, Coors Light, Miller Light, Sam Adams Summer Ale, and Heineken. Susan made all of us come in at noon that Friday. “These girls start drinking beer at eight a.m., are cheap tippers, and cause fights all weekend. Be ready.” But between calling Memorial Day Weekend “Baby Dyke Weekend,” young girls filling up the town’s prisons, and making less money than I did my first weekend bartending at the Pied… the only thing I was ready for was to get out of there.
There was so little traffic the Saturday and Sunday of Single Girls’ Weekend that Susan closed the bar early both days. Less than a dozen people came in, and as I recall quite well, one of them, a white, short-haired, chunky lesbian, gave me a quarter for a tip, and another, a gay white man with a southern twang, after I made mojitos for him and his male companion, said, “I never expected to see a Canadian bartending this far down on the Cape.” He gave me a cunning wink and then hiccupped. He was a bit tipsy. I laughed thinking he was making a joke, one I didn’t quite understand, but his face stayed straight as I handed him change from his twenty dollar bill. He picked up his drinks and walked out onto the deck leaving me no tip.
I was nonplussed by him not tipping me, but more by his comment. I hadn’t any idea what he meant. Canadian? It didn’t make any sense for him to think I was Canadian. I figured he must’ve somehow confused me with Eric. With no one else in the place, and me being the only employee in the bar, I decided to do a search on my iPhone for “Canadian bartenders.” I came up with nothing. Then I typed the words “Canadian dictionary” and what came up in the Urban Dictionary shocked me. “Canadian: A term that describes black people,used in order to get around politically correct language.” I had never heard the word used that way before. My face got all hot and flushed and I felt embarrassed to be a black man. Then I felt angry because what he really wanted to call me was a nigger, and I knew that if a black man had done that to a white man in his place of work the police would have been called, and the black man would have been removed from the premises. But there I was standing mere inches away from the gay white man who had used a euphemism to express his hatred for me, my color, and my ancestry, behaving the same way I did the first time a gay man called me a nigger to my face.
Even though I grew up in an all-white neighborhood, and attended all-white grade schools, I never got picked on for being brown-skinned, nor did the one other brown-skinned kid. No one ever called me a nigger, a coon, or any other derogatory racial remark. So when I went up to a white man in Ptown who I thought was attractive, and he stared at me in a strange way before opening his mouth to say, “A nigger should know better than to try to mix with the white race,” then walked over to a group of his friends, my mind drifted into the ether. I was too stunned to do anything, to say anything, unable to get my signal-to-noise ratio reset. And when it became clear to me he was telling his friends what had just transpired and each one began laughing like toy soldiers, I ran out of the Boatslip’s Tea Dance in tears, down the thronged main street, my friends chasing after me.
It didn’t make sense to me twenty years ago nor did it at that moment: why a gay man would discriminate against another gay man knowing that we gay men are discriminated against collectively. Then a sudden feeling of thankfulness and amusement washed over me. It doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the fight my ancestors fought, and the path to freedom they paved for me. Every time I get called a nigger, I become more and more determined to keep moving up, to not give up, to fight, to protest, to stand for justice, to succeed, which was what I knew I needed to do. As Baldwin said, “This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.”
I went outside onto the deck and started wiping down the tables. When I got to their table I gyrated my body, making the coins in my pocket shake and fall against my keys. Once or twice the man glanced at me. I lingered, knowing what I was doing was useless and counterproductive.
“Bless your heart,” I mumbled, as he and his partner scampered past me on their way out of the bar.
“What did you say?” he asked through a hiccup.
“I coulda sworn I heard you say something.”
“Must’ve been the music,” I said waving goodbye. It certainly wasn’t a wistful goodbye: I was happy it would be the last time I ever saw them, as my stay at the Pied was ending.
I had befriended many people during my first month in Ptown. One of those people was Gary, a handsome, tall, older, white bartender who tended bar at the Shipwreck Lounge inside of the Brass Key Guesthouse. He would come into the Pied on his days off to get a drink and chat with me. I would go into Shipwreck, which was up the side street from the Pied, on my days off to see him. There were flat-screen televisions that played music videos throughout the bar, a fireplace with barrel chairs that Marley and Dylan, the owners’ very friendly Asian Bengals sat in to greet the patrons. In the back was a patio with another bar, a stone water fountain, and a gas fire pit. Each day the bartender had to come up with a drink, and put it on the board as the special of the day. Every Monday, Mellow Mondays, free marshmallows were available for people to roast in the fire pit, which brought in a huge crowd.
Gary and I clicked from the inception of our meeting. We got along extravagantly well. It was as though our souls had known each other in past lives. We have since become great friends. Word spread around town that we were having a fling. What was really going on was he was helping me get a bartending gig at Shipwreck, where he’d make thirty-thousand dollars in three short summer months. Gary had been living in Ptown for the past five years, and had been a bartender at Shipwreck for four of them. He knew the bad reputation Susan had created for herself, the little money bartenders made at the Pied, and how there were no other black bartenders in the gay bars. He informed me that I was indeed the only black bartender in all of Ptown’s bars and nightclubs; a Jamaican woman bartended at the Lobster Pot Restaurant on Commercial Street. The Lobster Pot was the only place in town that hired black bartenders.
There was a bartender at Shipwreck, Steven, an aspiring theater actor, who had unexpectedly gotten an acting gig at a theater in San Francisco, and put in his less-than-two-week notice, as he needed to move as soon as possible. Gary wanted me to apply for the position knowing I’d make a lot more money. He didn’t see my color as a problem, and neither did his bosses, the owners of Shipwreck, when I interviewed for the position. They knew Susan’s reputation, and had sympathy for me, and hired me on the spot, but the position wouldn’t start until after the Fourth of July weekend, which meant I had to keep working at the Pied, and get through Baby Dyke Weekend.
I was told to take a fifteen-minute break thirty minutes after I had started my shift because I wouldn’t be able to take one for the rest of the night. I grabbed a cup of clam chowder at the food court next door, walked out onto the food court’s deck, and stood against the railing. A remixed version of Madonna’s song “Swim” suddenly began blaring from the Pied as I peered out at the crescent moon hugging the starry night sky and reflecting off of the crystal water. “A lost treasure plucked from the sea,” is how one patron described Ptown to me. But I always felt it was too artificial, nature tamed and reconstructed, like a piece of a city dropped at the corner tip of Massachusetts’ coastline. A once wet and fertile area as green and blue and isolated as Easter Island turned into a place where millions of tourists overcrowded the land, built houses on top of each other, and established restaurants and bars all to escape the exact same city lifestyle they lived in. Commercial Street did indeed live up to its name. The days of hearing thousands of different kinds of birds sing, seeing hundreds of deer looming among the trees, and watching countless North Atlantic Right Whales dive in an azure haze of ocean were over. The same way my fifteen minute break was.
The bar was jampacked within an hour of my return. It was usually too breezy at night to be outside on the deck, but that night the women lounged under the stars and drank and smoked and danced with the playful, delightful breeze that blew across them. I expected the bar to be filled with a numbing sea of trouble-making, chunky, crewcut-haired lesbians after what Sean had told me, but what I saw was women’s fingers enveloped in women’s fingers, playing with the hair at the nape of women’s necks. The only lesbian who was obnoxious that night was my boss, who went all operatic on me when she saw me let a woman who wasn’t sure what kind of shots she wanted to buy her friends look at the drink sheet so she could take her time, and I could help the countless other women standing in line waiting to get a drink. Susan ran behind the bar, knocked me to the side, and snatched the drink sheet out of the woman’s hand.
“You don’t ever give the price sheet to the customer!” Susan shouted at me. “What’s wrong with you? Are you crazy?”
Everyone in the vicinity turned and looked in at me. A room filled with white women, where you could count the women of color on a few fingers, all looking at the black guy behind the bar. It was as though the music stopped, the crowd went silent, and the spotlight shined on me. Demoralized and humiliated don’t begin to describe how I felt inside. I had never in my thirty-nine years of existence been disciplined, degraded like that in front of a packed room full of white people. I stood out like a black smudge on an all-white wall.
“I didn’t see the prices on the side,” I said discombobulated and with a bit of timidity. “I gave it to her because she was looking for a sweet shot, and it was the list of shots—”
“—I don’t care!” Susan yelled, then walked away. She went around the bar telling all the other bartenders what I had done. If she wasn’t the woman who had hired me I would have sworn she was a man-loathing dyke with a dagger between her teeth.
“What a bitch!” The women standing in line all said out loud, some of whom proceeded to walked out, saying they’d never come back, and that I should quit.
“Will I get fired for that?” I asked Tracy, who was pissed but not surprised.
“You better not.”
The walk to my apartment that night was a long one. My boxy T-shirt was soaked with sweat and spilled alcohol, my stomach was roaring from hunger, and my mind was reeling from everything I had gone through to make one hundred eighty-seven dollars and sixty-four cents in cash tips. The streets were jostled by drunken men often engaged in some kind of sexual activity. The night is the best time in Provincetown. Its darkness hides the misfits’ misbehavior. But the streetlamps appeared to take stock of the activity and shone their feeble lights on them. Every time I passed men behaving this way, they would stop and laugh, and my racial insecurities would lead me to believe they were laughing at me. The lyrics of “Swim” bounced against the walls inside my head: “Put your head on my shoulder baby, Things can’t get any worse, Night is getting colder, Sometimes life feels like it’s a curse. I can’t carry these sins on my back, don’t wanna carry anymore. I’m gonna swim to the ocean floor, let the water wash over you, wash it all over you, so that we can begin again, wash away all our sins, Crash to the other shore.”
June was a dark, dreary, and damp month. The unusually rainy and foggy weather stopped many people from coming. Susan never extended an olive branch, nor did she apologize. She micromanaged everything I did. I couldn’t even look at my phone to check the time without being accused of using it. Barbara convinced her to have a Reggae Night on a Saturday with the hopes of bringing in business, but that turned out to be a bust. One woman came in the entire night. Barbara’s boyfriend, whose baby she was now carrying, stopped by as well. On all of the other weekends, Sean would stand outside of the bar and ask people to come in and have a drink. He was so desperate that he forgot to ask a woman for her ID before serving her, and, of course, she was an undercover cop. There was the possibility Susan would lose her liquor license. We bartenders were furious waiting, wondering if we still had jobs. The verdict came in on the last Monday of the month: close down for one week and pay a fine. I decided then to give my notice. Susan was upset. Sean was jealous.
“Fuck you for being beautiful!” he said, then stormed out on the deck and had a cigarette.
Barbara looked at me and laughed, “Like, what?” Sean was the one who had the advantage, being a white man. He was the head bartender. He got the most tips. If he wanted more, all he had to do was get rid of the jolly-ol’-Saint-Nicholas belly, lift weights, and he’d have his pick of places to bartend at. It was a burden he could change. I had the brown skin, gray hair, no money to work out at the gym because I was barely making enough money to pay my rent, and subsisted on illicit Doritos, potato chips, clam chowder, and pizza because I didn’t have a kitchen to cook in. No one told him to make sure the labels of every liquor bottle faced forward, or to pick up all of the empty beer and liquor bottles and put them in the correct boxes outside for the liquor companies to pick up for recycling, or to bring down all the boxes of beer from the upstairs and stock the coolers, or put the windows in, or marry the half-empty liquors, or wash down all of the chairs on the deck andbring them inside then stack them around the pool table, or clean the cigarette ashtrays, or empty the ice cubes out of the sinks, scrub the sinks, make sure to use the right cleaners, empty the trash bins, bring the garbage bags to the front, make sure I tied the knot exactly right when putting the new bags in the bins, and don’t ever tell anyone in town the prices of the drinks as it was grounds for firing.
I did all of this for two dollars and sixty-five cent an hour plus tips while Sean went upstairs to the office to count out our tips, for he did the delegating when Susan wasn’t around. In using cheap labor, and oftentimes exploiting African and Jamaican laborers, the town’s establishments cared little, if at all, about their workers’ cultural competency or safety.
Hardly anyone came in on the Fourth of July. People who went to the Tea Dance stayed at the Boatslip and watch the fireworks from there. Susan and Sean said that the Fourth of July would be the start of the season, the bar would be packed, and we would make a lot of money. All I made was one hundred and thirty dollars. I was let off of my shift three hours early because the bar emptied out around ten o’clock, right after the fireworks. It just made my decision to quit liberating and guiltless. The day after the Fourth, the Pied got slammed. From six-thirty to nine-thirty, me, Eric, and Sean made drinks. For some strange, untold reason, Barbara was scheduled to have the day off. Susan just watched. Around nine o’clock she decided to fill the ice bucket, but ended up dropping the ice everywhere. She left the bucket on the floor in the closet next to the ice machine, and then asked me to pick it up and dump it in each of our areas. She had Sean clean up the floor before she left for the night. I made just thirty-two dollars more than I had on the Fourth. Sean and I closed the bar that night, sending Eric home early for not feeling well. Sean did his usual counting of the tips as I cleaned up the bar. No words of substance were spoken beyond basic business banter. When we left, neither of us said goodbye. I crossed the street to get pizza at Spiritus. He caught up with friends walking down Commercial Street, and then went into the darkness towards the Dick Dock. That was my last day at the Pied and the last time I ever saw Sean or Susan.
Afterwards, after I had returned home to Rhode Island and received my last paycheck in the mail, I saw on the local news that Sean had won the Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic by defeating eleven other regional winners from gay bars around the country. The anchor described him as a big, soft man with a party mouth and a taste for the liquor who brought his own infusion of special energy. Barbara and I continued our friendship until she moved back to her hometown in Pennsylvania and we lost touch. Susan is still trying to sell the Pied, more than five years later. That was the finish of them.
I sometimes wonder why they hired me. Was it out of pity, or desperation, or did they genuinely think I was qualified, or was it to bring diversity to a town with so little? The latter makes me think at times that I made some sort of a difference by staying and sticking it out in a place that so clearly has its mind still set back in the 1950s. My impression is that Susan and Sean didn’t care much about my color. They may of course have hired another black bartender. It is quite possible that they even may emerge from the town as activists for blacks and start a trend. Sometimes, though, I think my presence wasn’t enough. Sometimes I think I shouldn’t have behaved like an obsequious ass-kissing Uncle Tom. Sometimes I think I should have risked it all, and paraphrased Baldwin, “I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only include what they feel from the state of their institutions.”
August was the month the town became like a raucous wind that roared so loudly I found myself thinking little about the future and a lot about the past. After I turned forty, on July 10th, my eyes were often full of tears, which caused a tsunami of loneliness to flood my heart. It was a sad affair that left my soul hungry for my home and my ex. I tried to find solace in the countless good-looking men I saw, some of whom I hooked up with, but while they pleasured my eyes, they left my soul unsatisfied. Then came the start of my new job at Shipwreck, leaving me no time to ponder my messy life and the end of my longest relationship.
Carnival Week, the biggest week of the year in Ptown, was celebrating its thirty-fifth year, and the theme was “Viva Las Vegas.” Shipwreck and the Brass Key were hosting the kickoff party: Rehab Pool Party. My first day started at noon, but the party didn’t start until two. I wore a T-shirt that had two dice on it next to the phrase “Kiss me, Blow me, Roll me” with cut-off sleeves to show off my muscular arms, even though I had gained some ten pounds in my belly. As I walked over to the bar, the deep blue sky spoke of an enjoyable afternoon. A heady, exhilarating thought filled my mind with sensibilities of a certain kind. I imagined a place where a learned people steeped in New England practicality respected diversity. I paused, and watched the blue sky deepen. I realized quickly how hope can make a fool of a man.
I arrived to find all of the other bartenders wearing swim briefs with black and white dice on them. Gary was one of the two main bartenders at Shipwreck; Jacob was the other one. The rest were fill-ins. Gary introduced me to Jacob, a very tall, very thin Rhode Island native who was good friends with Eric. Gary had me work with him at the bar opposite the pool. I was nervous, fearful that the men would reject me and prevent Gary from making his usual amount in tips. There were so many beautiful, fit, and well-off white men. Most of them were Gary’s regulars, his platform of people who came into the bar just to see and get a drink from him. Gary introduced me to each and every one of them, told them I was his star pupil, and to treat me as they did him. To my delighted surprise they did. I got the usual stares and glares, but no one denied me a tip. In three hours, I made more money than I did the entire Fourth of July weekend at the Pied Bar. Over a thousand people showed up at the pool party. Gary, knowing how prevalent racism was in Ptown, shielded me from those who, if they wanted to be racist and not tip, didn’t because he was there and we worked as a team. Gary believed that once people saw me with him they’d be open and accepting. His understanding, kindness, and generosity helped me to make some two thousand dollars by the end of Carnival week, more than I had made the entire time I worked at the Pied. While Gary, Jacob, and the owners of the bar were in the parade on the Shipwreck float the day of Carnival, I was given the keys to run the bar all by myself, and I set a record in sales. Jacob and I became friends, too. Rihanna’s “Pour It Up, Pour It Up” was our greeting to one other.
Come Labor Day, which was to be my last day at Shipwreck, the owners asked Gary to ask me if I wanted to stay on through October. To make more money, and knowing that my lease wasn’t up until the middle of October, I happily agreed. When they asked if I wanted to come back the next summer I wanted to throw up. “Every day’s a struggle, but struggling to be, is very hard,” Mary J. Blige sang. If I had to struggle to pay my bills, I wanted to do it in a place where the wrong thing wasn’t always, as Mary sang, “tempting me to make me disagree about how I feel about me.”
The day I left Provincetown I walked down Commercial Street one last time, and stopped when I got to the Pied. It was already closed for the winter. There was a sign in the glass display that read “Experienced Bartender Wanted.” It was the same sign Susan had posted after I quit.
ALLEN M. PRICE is a writer from Rhode Island. He is a 2018 semi-finalist for Grub Street’s Emerging Writing Fellowship. He has an MA in journalism from Emerson College. His fiction and nonfiction work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hawai’i Review, Gertrude Press, The Adirondack Review, Tulane Review, Columbia Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, Muscle & Fitness, Natural Health magazine, and other places. Excerpts of the memoir he is writing and spent time working on with Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Paul Harding have appeared or are forthcoming in The Fourth River (chosen by guest editor Ira Sukrungruang), and Jellyfish Review.