In 2003 I worked as a cigarette girl. It was the closest I felt to being both performer and prostitute. It was the strangest gig, I felt: desperate, exposed, vulnerable. We had to wear strange fluttering, feather, boa-like clips in our hair. We were called, the Peachy Puffs, what a porno name. I wore a spaghetti strapped black cocktail dress with high heels to look elegant but with the mandatory feathers, I felt like Big Bird from Sesame Street with a wooden tray strapped to my neck full of neon plastic trash.
We sold blinking LED electronic blinking roses, flashing, sparkling, snow ball tipped, Lady Liberty torches, a galore of chocolate bars and a variety of cigarettes. Everything we sold was marked up triple the retail cost: our buying point was convenience, drunkenness and sex appeal power. I initially joined them because of nostalgia. I still remembered the black and white movies with pretty cigarette girls, winking and flirting in glamorous night clubs and glitzy tropical cabanas. For some reason I didn’t connect the sexism, objectification and all that when I was a younger woman. I experienced sexual harassment at work and barely complained; I thought it was a nasty part of life back then, unwanted neck massages and “compliments” about my body under skirts.
Our driver would drive us to designated bars throughout San Francisco. We went to North Beach, the Mission, SoMa, Sunset etc each neighborhood had it’s own persona and clientele. At certain bars, the bartenders gave us free shots. My coworkers drank up to enjoy the night, but I was a nerd and wanted to stay sober. I was a light drinker, the swoon of bar energy and my precarious heels made me ready for eminent disaster. Some barkeeps were friendly, some very angry, sometimes we were rushed out of the door. “You’re bothering my customers!” the Irish bartender shouted us. We had about 20 minutes at each venue afterwards I’d clomp across the street to catch my next ride. That’s what made me feel like a call girl, that walk across the traffic lights gleaming colored lines on the street and worse; the necessary begging with my lips and eyes to sell my tray full of overpriced rave accessories.
At the end of the shift you had to pay for any mathematical errors, and each night I progressively lost income. The last night I worked, I made absolutely nothing. I had to pay all of my meager minimum wage to pay for odd errors, so I quit that very night. “Why am I doing this Shit job for nothing?” The driver, cute, blonde-haired, Simon flirted with me all night so we exchanged numbers before I left. I watched “Waking Life” with him in his apt. He told me stories about his childhood sweetheart, that they had regular child sex. They were the same age, he said they were kids, seven or eight and that it was like they were married. I was shocked, didn’t know what to say. Simon didn’t try to sleep with me, it was a weird, awkward, kind-of-a-date, our first and last one.
Drunk guys with beer goggles on tried to convince me to leave my tray and party on with them. “You’re too good for this shit” they said. “Come join us, we’ll buy your whole tray!” But when I told them how much it would triple cost, the drunk guys gave up their pleading. I bowed and swerved avoiding collisions, weaved in and out of crowds with my wooden burden like a catering servant (I did that gig too). As I moved through the maze of people it was like a dance, I was the ballerina in charge, in an arena full of drunken jocks at the sports bar.
I did meet a famous SF Giants baseball player who pitied me and bought several packs of triple priced cigs even though there was a convenience store right next door to the bar. That kind of generosity stays in my mind, he knew how humiliating my job was, so he bought more than he needed and made my tray lighter, I think he even bought a tacky glowing electric $20 rose while smiling. He wasn’t hitting on me, he was just being a kind human.
Synchronicity greets me everywhere and at unimaginable times. I only worked for Peachy Puffs for about 2 weeks, but I ran into an ex-lover at one of the Inner Sunset bars. He was having a dinner party, seated next to what I assumed was his girlfriend, (she hatefully stared at me). Our eyes recognized each other at the same time. It was instant mutual shock and for me embarrassment, because of the boa hair costume.
Adam and I almost had a child together, correction we almost had twins. Twins that I wanted more than anything, but he didn’t. I had an abortion at Christmas when I was in my early twenties. It was the saddest regret I ever had, all because he wasn’t ready. I could’ve been strong and moved back in, to the dysfunctional violence of my childhood family in MD; but instead I made the impossible choice to end their miracle existence. I cried and I cried and I apologized to them, our never born children. I still think of them. I have an altar of two baby angels on a high shelf. I can only imagine their glorious faces. I’ll never know them. It’s my fault that they never had a chance. I wanted only the best for them and thought it was the best decision but not now. If I could claim them again I’d commit forever, no matter the circumstance.
Adam wasn’t there for any of it, he just got what he wanted. So seeing him again after a decade, with ridiculous feathers in my hair and a tray full of hyperactive wares, was a humiliating conclusion. He stood up, hugged me, introduced me to his waiting bourgeoisie friends seated at the table. In his sad eyes I could see apology and regret. That was the last time we met, we started as strangers and that’s how we ended. And that’s the end of this bizarre, lonely, true San Francisco story.