Day Five: The Surfing Tribe

To preface this entry, I’d like to express how exhausted I am. Though today’s activity’s were not emotionally draining like the other events this week, today felt impossibly long.

We had an early breakfast before we walked down to the house of the Surfing Tribe in San Bartolo. The house is one of Generacion’s illegal shelters. It’s registered as a community center, but it serves as a home for 18 kids, many of whom have grown up there.

When the kids were moved to the house, they were given a few surfboards since they would now be living just a couple of blocks from the ocean. With nothing but time on their hands, they took to the sport quickly. They are now some of the best surfers in Peru, and several of them are sponsored. Almost more amazingly, they are almost all in school and a few are heading to college.

At the house, we all introduced ourselves and then the Tribe played a few songs for us. After a small meal, the Tribe explained their fight for children’s rights to work. They explained that if kids are not allowed to sell pens and play music on the streets, they will turn back to stealing or prostitution, easy and lucrative businesses. The establishment of this right is one of the main focuses for this group of kids. After our talk, we headed down to the beach for some surfing lessons. The boys were very patient with us, considering that I don’t have enough upper body strength to do a single push up, and our Spanish vocabularies don’t extend to water sports. I didn’t manage to get up on the board, to my dismay.

We went back to the house for lunch, and then the boys in charge of the tribe said that they wanted to take us for a hike. In a group of about twenty people ranging in age from 6 to 21 years old, we walked and played for several hours, visiting three different coastal towns.

The dynamic of the group is fascinating. I found myself thinking of them as the real-life Lost Boys. There are only a few girls in the group. The Surfing Tribe is both male-dominated and kid-dominated. Incredibly, they are a well-functioning clan of self-governing orphans. Most seem to be immature for their age, but they clearly care about each other, and the mere fact that the Tribe functions at all is a testament to these children’s resilience and drive.

We will all be sad to leave the Surfing Tribe. As we walked away after a nighttime soccer game, the smallest children ran after us, asking when they will see us again. I wanted to say soon. The children here are an incredible success story. It is such a relief to finish a day here in good spirits. I can’t be sure that the children understand how fortunate they are, despite the circumstances that brought them to Generacion, but I think that they are grateful. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be so caring towards each other and so dedicated to the fight for children’s rights. Today, though exhausting, was a very inspiring day.


Day Four: El Ojo Que Llora

Today was a big day. First we hopped on the bus to go to Pachacamac, a pre-Incan ruin site. In the ancient city there are visible ruins from four different civilizations from 300 AD to the Inca in 1400 AD. Due to underfunding, only a small number of the temples and houses have been excavated, and most of the temples have been looted. A large portion of the tour consisted of our guide pointing to large mounds of sand and describing what lies underneath, waiting to be dug up.

After we left Pachacamac, we went to the national museum to see the exhibit focused on Peru’s two-decade civil war. After the war, the Committee for Truth and Reconciliation announced that 69,000 Peruvians had been killed in the struggle. Since this number was published, several more mass graves have been found. The number is probably closer to 75,000. Thousands more were arrested by the government never to be seen again. These are the desaparecidos–the disappeared.

I was strongly impacted by the exhibit. The hundreds of photos that adorned the walls were both incredible and horrendous. Rarely does an image capture the depth of emotion in the actual situation. These pictures displayed such dismay and desperation that I was left speechless, uneasy, and restless by the sheer force of the captured moment.

Many photos inhabit my field of vision when I look back on the day. One of the most prominent is a photo of Abimael Guzman, the leader of Shining Path, the terrorist group that began the war. In the image he is raising his fist triumphantly and defiantly beside the corpse of a comrade.

This is the image of a madman, excited by blood and invigorated by the contagious effects of his black charisma. Looking at it, I was shaken. Shaken and ashamed that I had never even heard of the atrocities that had been committed in Peru within my lifetime. This devastating effect of the Cold War is not even broached in our schools.

We left the museum in silence. When we boarded the bus, the driver was listening to “American Idiot”.

The next stop of our trip was the monument El Ojo Que Llora–The Eye that Cries. The memorial is a labyrinth, representing the confusion and misrepresentation of our paths in life. Each stone in the labyrinth bears the name of a victim of the war and the year that they died. At the center is a stone fountain with the abstract of a face. Water courses from the eye.

In 2007, fifteen supporters of the ex-president and mass-murderer Fujimori came to the memorial with guns, sledge hammers and buckets of orange paint. Upset that the monument memorializes terrorists along with civilian victims, the fifteen destroyed the monument. Orange paint, the color of Fujimori, is still visible in the rock.

A friend of Generacion explained the significance of the monument. It is a tool of remembrance, of learning, and it is a sacred ground for families to pay respect to their loved ones whose bodies were never found. After she explained to us the importance of continuing the foundation of human rights and remembering that no group in Peru was innocent of human rights violations during this period, she handed out white flowers and told us to go find a name that we connected with. I placed my flower on two adjacent stones bearing the names of two siblings, ages 3 and 7.

After we left El Ojo, we visited the headquarters of Generacion. The beautiful old house used to be a home for just under 100 street kids. It was located in a poor area, and the organization employed most of the neighbors. But the neighborhood eventually turned their economic situation around and began to complain of the presence of street children. The church down the block sided with the new neighbors, since these children, famous for their drug addiction and prostitution, are incredibly stigmatized in Lima.

In 2006, police declared the house illegal and raided Generacion, smashing the lights, the toilets, and nearly everything else that made it possible for the kids to live there. Generacion kept offices in the building, but had to close their doors to the children. Most were put back onto the streets. The smallest, who would have died, were moved to Lucy’s house, where they lived for the rest of their childhood. One of these children, Marisol, has just been accepted to a Jesuit university in Lima, where she will begin classes in the fall.

The kids in my group left Generacion energized and full of ideas for fundraising and donating to the cause. I was not feeling as hopeful as most of my friends. The problems of the street children seem impossibly daunting. The church refuses to help–they won’t even allow the kids to be baptized. The government will not help because Generacion criticizes their work. Peruvian culture is not one of giving or helping, despite their strong religious sector. Most devastating is perhaps the fact that almost all of the men who pay these young girls for sex are either taxi drivers or policemen.

It seems as if the entire society is poisoned. What was once a culturally rich and forward thinking country for a thousand years AD, as proven by the amazing architectural and engineering feats we saw this morning at Pachacamac, is now stagnant, resentful, and prejudiced. After twenty years of civil war and utter devastation that left no citizen unaffected, there is still rampant hatred amongst social groups and an unwillingness to help each other.

I am willing to help. I want to help. I am desperate to help.

I think what Generacion does is an inspiration. They stay positive in a world of negative. They push through periods without funding, periods when the government is breathing down their necks and newspapers accuse them of helping criminals. I have a lot to learn from them. I just hope I also have something to give.

Day Three: Veronika’s House

A bit of background: In the 1980s Peru was in the midst of an extremely bloody civil war. The majority of the violence was centered in the countryside, where the resistance army was gathering child soldiers. Many children fled rural Peru and came to find salvation in the streets of Lima.

At the end of the war, when Fujimori came to power, he pledged to clean up the streets, which were heavily populated by the new wave of homeless youth. Fujimori accomplished this cleansing by sending out death squads during the night to shoot the street children.

Generacion, the organization we are observing in Peru, was created in response to this crisis. Lucy Borjas, who had been working to spread HIV awareness in Peruvian schools, switched her focus when street children came to her begging for somewhere to sleep where they would be safe from Fujimori’s soldiers.

25 years later, the homelessness and sex trafficking in the streets of Lima are still a prevalent issue. The system of sex trafficking and the establishment of pimps and prostitutes is almost entirely established within the juvenile detention facilities in Peru. The government’s response to Lima’s troubled youth does not simply aggravate the problem, it makes it possible, and the government-sponsored safe houses are merely breeding grounds for further abuse. Lucy and a few other psychologists work in the streets of Lima every day, spreading information and support to the women and children still living in the streets. Few of the people involved in Generacion ever make it out of their cycle of drug addiction and prostitution, but a handful make it out of the streets and into a shelter. Today we visited Casa Veronika, one of Generacion’s private safehouses.

Casa Veronika is in a secret location south of Lima. It is a house for women who escape sex trafficking and their children. On the property, they are taught to cook and sew, and each girl is responsible for taking care of one plant in the backyard.

When the women arrive at Casa Veronika, they are broken. The location of the house is kept secret not only because the operation is illegal, but because the women who live there have done the unthinkable and the unforgivable. They have run away from their pimps. Despite this act of bravery, the women at the house have no sense of self worth. They have been told for their entire lives that they are trash and that they are prostitutes because they are not capable of anything else.

The vast majority of the pimps in Lima are women. The sexual exploitation is a vicious cycle, in which former prostitutes become the ringleaders. Women who have spent their entire lives believing that they are garbage believe that the young women who grew up in the same streets under the same circumstances are no different. It takes years to reverse this way of thinking.

Veronika, who the house was named after, was sold into sex slavery when she was eleven years old. She was well-known at Generacion and a beloved friend to many of the street children. Soon after Veronika shared her story with Generacion, they were informed that Veronika’s body had been found in a garbage dump. She had been killed by one of her clients.

Veronika’s story is an embodiment of why Generacion is so important and why the women in the streets need a safe space like Casa Veronika. Today we met Veronika’s best friend and many other women at the house, where we spent a day telling stories, eating together, and talking about solutions.

Many of the women who were so stand-offish at the beach were at the house. Away from the men and in their own space, the women were much more talkative and active in the day’s activities. To begin, we each introduced ourselves, talked about where we are from, what we like to do, and what our favorite food is. There was a lot of laughter during this session and I felt much more comfortable than I had the entire previous day.

After the women had told their stories, we made posters to answer questions like “Why do boys, girls, and adolescents leave their homes?” and “Why is it so hard to leave the streets?” This activity was less comfortable for those of us who had absolutely no personal experience to contribute, and my sub-par Spanish certainly didn’t help.

It was inspiring to watch the women who had lived through these tragedies talk openly about their experiences and fully throw themselves into the exercise. The pimp who had been at the beach was in my small group for this activity. She stayed almost as quiet as I did, but she was shockingly supportive of the women who were making the poster. They appeared to be friends.

After we shared what we had made, we gathered in the shade for lunch, where the groups were wonderfully diverse. Laura, Preshi and I sat with two women, 16 and 20, who split their time between talking to us and laughing to each other about the grammatically disastrous things we said. The 20-year-old has two daughters, one of whom is one month old and incredibly tiny. The father is currently in prison. The 16-year-old does not have any children. At first, we had nothing to talk about and I was concerned about making conversation. By the end of the conversation, we had talked about Cuban politics, dialects of language in India, and Laura had attempted to explain what “transgender” is in broken Spanish. We laughed about the absurdity of the conversation topics for the rest of the day.

I walked away from Casa Veronika feeling better than I had they day before. The work that Generacion is doing there is inspiring. They live, laugh, and work with women who are still living on the streets, selling themselves and huffing glue on a daily basis. They provide love and support for girls who treat them with spite and resentment. They invite anyone who wants to change their lifestyle to stay with them, regardless of their history or even their current occupation. We talked to many girls who had lived at Casa Veronika in their teens and were able to get real jobs when they moved out, something that they never would have allowed themselves to dream of when they were living in the streets.

Along with the inspiration, there was a definite feeling of hopelessness. Though the Peruvian women were consistently positive about the situation, to me it seemed a daunting and futile effort. These practices of sex trafficking are so powerful and engrained in the culture. The policemen beat and sleep with the children just like other adult figures in their lives. Many girls’ families are the ones pushing them into prostitution, and owning their own body means turning their back on their loved ones.

This problem is not going away. Casa Veronika, which accepts any girl brave enough to break away from the sex trade, only has nine girls living there now. The wonderful work they’re doing does not make a dent in the issue at hand.

San Francisco is one of the highest sex trafficking cities in the world. How can we help these girls in Peru, who are so open and positive about their tragedies, when we cannot even face our own issues at home?

Day Two: Puerto Viejo

As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry about mass. We had our first encounter with Peruvian time when our bus driver was over an hour late so we had to cancel on the Jesuit. We had planned on going to a small, underfunded church where a late entrance would be noticed. Instead, we walked to the main square in Miraflores to drop in on mass in the large church there.

We had some time to kill before the service, so we were free to walk around the park, which was still warm and vibrant at dusk. The park is filled with stray cats who wander through the flower beds and lap up spilled arroz con leche. We steered clear, but the locals did everything they could to catch the cats’ attention, clicking at them and dangling untied shoelaces to lure them closer.

In the middle of the square, a large crowd was huddled around a small dugout where a PA system was set up. Couples, almost all over forty, danced together in the middle while a crowd formed around them to watch. Someone in our group pointed out that not a single person in the square had their cell phone out. When I thought about it, I hadn’t seen anyone on their cell phone all day.

This realization, along with the romantic lighting and the slow beat of the samba made me nostalgic for a time I never lived through in the United States. When driving past Starbucks on the way from the airport, I had been frightened that we had come to Peru too late, that it had been spoiled by globalization and cultural imperialism. Standing in the park, looking at community doing the same things that their grandparents had probably done on summer nights, was a comfort.

When we reconvened at the church, it soon became clear that normal mass was not scheduled for that night. But we had already settled into our pews. It was too late. We were officially wedding crashers.

The sermon was in Spanish, which I was only vaguely able to follow. I spent most of the service gazing at the neon lights extending from the glorious fingers of an effigy of Mary, watching the stray cat that was wandering around underneath the pews of the adjacent aisle, and trying to keep track of when to sit, stand, and kneel.

An hour later, there was finally a kiss, and we hurried out of the church. After some pasta and a few rounds of Texas Hold’em, we went to bed, where I finally got a solid night of sleep.

March 12:

The drive out of Miraflores was quite a departure from the previous scenery. Instead of the lush tropical landscape I was expecting to see in Peru, we drove past brown, dusty hills dense with brown, unfinished houses. The only color came from the graffiti (much of which was leftover propaganda from the prior Peruvian president Fujimori, whose incredibly corrupt administration left office in 2000) and the laundry lines that swung from the crumbling upper levels of the hillside homes. The air was permeated with the smell of burning trash. Towering above the slums, all the way to San Bartolo, were an astonishing number of billboards. Most were hypersexual, and all portrayed beautiful, smiling white people.

We dropped off our bags at our beautiful hotel in San Bartolo. The stark contrast of the past hour of driving and our giant rooms with an ocean view was not lost on us. After putting on a heavy layer of sunscreen, we climbed back on the bus to meet with the street kids at the beach in Puerto Viejo.

This trip is a sort of partnership with a Peruvian non-profit called Generacion. The Peru Arrupe Immersion trip has been funding a beach camping trip for seven years, and the workers at Generacion invite all of the homeless children they work with to attend. We are told that they ask about the camping trip all year long, and the turnout is usually around 150 kids.

Driving to the beach, I felt nervous. I’ve never been good with children. Kique had warned us that these children have never been taught how to interact with other people, and not to share water, because many of them have tuberculosis or other diseases. I pictured acrid smells, skeletal bodies, and visible disease.

But the children were clean, and they were children, smiley and eager to meet us. After introductions were made, the USF group stood outside the tent, unsure what to do next and extremely out of place. The Generacion women sliced up the huge cake we had brought and began to distribute it, while a few of the older street kids disappeared and came back with instruments. We sat down, ate cake, and tried to blend in as they played music. Everyone knew the words to the songs.

Soon the group split, and all the men took their surfboards (provided by Generacion) down to the beach to give all of the younger children surfing lessons. The younger girls ran around in the sand and water, playing with the boys. The older girls sat in the shade, nearly silent and clearly exhausted as they breastfed their babies and held toddlers’ chubby arms as they washed the sand from their rolls.

The boys clearly loved us being there. They showed off and crowded around the pretty girls. The women didn’t care about us, and I don’t see why they should have. They were, however, happy to hand off their babies to the visitors. So we, the sheltered college girls who are children ourselves, gave a brief break to these mothers, 16 going on 30.

This classic image of patriarchy and the uneven burden on these young girls snapped me back to reality. This wasn’t just a picnic on the beach. This was a group of homeless Peruvians from Lima. The poorest of the poor. The turnout this year was much smaller than usual because they told the children that they couldn’t bring their drugs (mostly glue) to the camp. Many children chose drugs instead of the activities. The youngest mother at the camp, with two babies on her lap, looked fourteen years old. Kique informed us that one of the women, who’s arms were latticed with scars, is a pimp, partnered with Lima’s most infamous kidnapper, who is currently in prison.

I respect the fact that Generacion is a non-judgmental group, but sharing cake with someone who is involved in child prostitution doesn’t sit right with me.

We ended the day by discussing ten points that the street kids compiled the year before. These ten points are basic demands, like housing, sufficient food and health care, and the halt of child trafficking in Lima. With the help of Generacion, they gave these points to the Peruvian president and the mayor of Lima. So far nothing has been done.

We brainstormed seven ideas for how to continue the fight, but the conversation was not a hopeful one. Most did not voice an opinion.

Personally, I had nothing to say. I have never had to fight for food, shelter, or the rights to my own body. I wouldn’t know where to begin. It is clear to me that I could not live a day like these small children do.

We left the camp quiet and tired. Eventually we went to dinner, where we cracked jokes, and chatted happily. We tried a traditional (very strong) Peruvian drink called Pisco Sour. We went out for ice cream. No one talked about the day we had shared.

At the night’s reflection, we opened up about it for the first time. We were all required to share about our impressions, and the overall theme was clear: discomfort. Most of us have never been so out of our comfort zones, and the trip has just begun.

Peru: Day One

Thursday, March 8:

3pm: begin to pack for Peru.

3:15 pm: give up.

4:30 pm: head to work.

10:30 pm: consider that my SuperShuttle will arrive in 5 hours. Go to Grace and Lauren’s instead of going home.

12 am: step over my suitcase, finish jigsaw puzzle. Priorities, you know?

1 am: pack.

2-3 am: lay in bed with my eyes open.

3 am: alarm goes off.

Friday, March 9:

The 6:00 am flight from San Francisco to Houston was a blur. When I wasn’t actively sleeping, I was only awake by technicality. I absorbed nothing and remember little. My four hour layover in Houston was surreal as well. After a week of midterms, the idea of going abroad had not sunk in. I passed the time with Einstein’s Bagels, half an hour of Reservoir Dogs, and a Jeffrey Eugenides novel.

After sitting on the tarmac for two hours due to lightning, the actual flight went smoothly. I oscillated in and out of sleep while my neighbor slipped mini pretzels under his surgical mask, getting up every hour or so to brush his teeth. Customs was fortunately also a breeze, although, with my new standards, nobody’s oral hygiene seemed up to par.

When we stepped out of the airport and spotted our driver, we had to push through a crowd of young Peruvian girls, awaiting the arrival of a K-pop band with glistening eyes and laminated photos ready to be autographed. After a minor struggle, we were able to break through the crowd and into the street. The first thing that made me fully realize that I had arrived in Peru was the air. At two in the morning, the atmosphere was hot and muggy. At a time of night when even my fellow San Franciscans would be heading to bed, people of all ages were casually strolling the sidewalks and having dinner on outdoor patios. We drove past five casinos, three McDonalds, two Pizza Huts, two KFCs, and one Dunkin’ Donuts before pulling onto a dark, silent dirt road.

When we arrived at our hotel, Casa Serena, at 3 in the morning, we promptly changed, got into bed, turned off the lights, and willed ourselves to go to sleep. But there I was, lying–and sweating–on a bed south of the equator, on a continent I’ve never been to, on an impossibly quiet street. I was not tired. Not in the slightest. For the first time, the trip felt real, and I was ready for it.

Saturday, March 10:

Eventually I must have dozed off, because I awoke with the start when someone pounded on our door at ten, yelling for us to come to breakfast. After some bread, a bit of diced papaya, and a gallon of sunscreen, we walked out the door, unsure of what was lying on the other side.

Miraflores, the district where our hotel is located, is one of the nicer parts of Lima. The buildings are colorful, there are tropical flowers blanketing the parks and yards, and there are small cafes on almost every block. We walked through town, pausing to take pictures of street art and the local flora. The street we had chosen spat us out onto a sea cliff, from which we could see surfers dotting the turquoise water. Walking along the drop off, we saw parasailers, roller bladers, and Peruvian couples shamelessly canoodling in every available spot of shade. Meredith and I renamed Lima “La Ciudad de Amor.”

Now spoiled by sea breeze, the walk back seemed three times as long and four times as sweaty. My fingers swelled in the heat like little sausages. We weren’t entirely sure which direction to be walking. We never figured out how the hell right of way works in this country. The promise of lunch was the only thing that kept me going.

Lunch was cold potatoes in a spicy yellow sauce that could have been a spin on hollandaise or perhaps something jalapeno-cheddar-ish with a kalamata olive on top, followed by chicken and rice. I gave my chicken to Laura, who gave me her olive. The meal was accompanied by a salsa that was simply red onion, habaneros, and lime. I tried it with apprehension, prepared for my mouth to catch fire. But by some Peruvian magic, it was not hot, but refreshing. I ended up eating it less as a garnish and more as a side salad.

Now it is siesta time. I think  I may be the only one still awake. All we know of our post-nap plans is that at five we are leaving to pick up a Jesuit priest and going to mass. In Spanish. It will be interesting to see whether this alleviates my fear of Catholicism or merely aggravates it. Stay tuned.

Though today’s leisurely schedule and swanky neighborhood was a nice beginning to the story, tomorrow is when the real trip begins. We will be meeting with a group of homeless children on the beach to play soccer and go swimming with them. Kique, our trip director, says usually around 150 kids show up.

Hell is a House Party

It’s hot. Really hot. Like there is no air in here at all. From what I can hear of the shrieky bits of other people’s conversations, we are all in agreement that it’s really fucking hot. And sweaty. Really sweaty.

I’m here for Elizabeth’s birthday. The invitation had said “small gathering, and don’t forget to wear your PJ’s!” Thank God I forgot. I imagine the other 75-or-so people in this two-bedroom apartment who failed to comply are thankful for their fully-clothed security as well. I’ve been standing frozen at the top of the stairs for at least five minutes, inhaling sweat, stale beer, and a nauseating bouquet of perfumes.

I’m still clutching the gift I brought, a small Moleskin notebook wrapped in pink tissue paper. I can’t set it down; I’m skeptical of any or all surfaces. And I certainly don’t want to push inward past the sardined mob to find the birthday girl. So here I stand. Clutching.

Someone below me on the stairs screams, “COPS!” Being the sober and responsible individual I am (known in other cultures as “no fun”), the arrival of the police doesn’t scare me. Stampedes, however, do. I wedge myself in a corner away from the staircase, visualizing dozens of drunken bodies lubricated with sweat slipping down the stairs in a panicked dogpile.

As it turns out, I have nothing to worry about. A few people raise their heads, look at the doorway, and then look back to their beers. I step out of my corner, and I’m soon met with a one-woman stampede. “You caaaaaame!!” Elizabeth slurs as she hug-slams me into a doorframe. She’s a vision in a red evening gown with the Victoria’s Secret tag still on it. Her long black hair, once meticulously curled, is now slack and sweat-plastered to her forehead. “Happy birthday!” I shout at her above the roar. “Are you having f–” She cuts me off, screaming, “IT’S MY MOTHERFUCKING BIRTHDAY!” to three dark-haired males walking past.
While Elizabeth is distracted, I slide past her and toward the door, planning my escape. It’s slow-going. The bodies are packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the tiny hallway, bobbing to the music (presumably LMFAO or Katy Perry) in a giant, lethargic mass. Every time I scan the crowd I see less clothing. I need to get out of here.

I make it to the stairs. College-age kids are still pouring up them, cramming themselves into any remaining breathing space. I’m imagining crushed ribcages. I look over my shoulder to wave good-bye to Elizabeth. She is pulling one of the dark-haired guys into the bathroom with her, screaming “BJ’s and PJ’s!” She doesn’t see me wave.

As I push down the stairs, I can already smell the sweet, cool air of late night San Francisco. I slide past the ineffective doorman, who’s feebly moaning about “maximum capacity” as people push by him. I slip past the two cops who are, in fact, stationed outside. Taking deep breaths, I sprint to the bus stop.

Pay No Attention to the Girl Behind the Uniform

No matter where you were born or what career you eventually fall into, nearly everyone works a boring, minimum-wage job at some point in his or her life. For me, that job is a part time hostess/takeout position at a California Pizza Kitchen in downtown San Francisco.

It turns out that in this city, you need connections to get hired anywhere, even a corporate-owned pizza place. After applying at half the city’s eateries, I got the job at CPK because my cousin’s girlfriend’s friend tends bar there on the weekends, and apparently has a great reputation with the management. As I soon found out, this is code for uptight and in a civil union with the Employee Handbook.

The first thing I do when I get to work each day is alter my appearance so that I, too, seem to care about the 200-some pages of the aforementioned handbook. I remove any “distracting nail polish” (i.e. anything that’s not a shade of pink), flip my septum piecing into my nostrils and out of sight, take out my nose ring and slip it into my pocket, and rearrange my hair so that it covers my forbidden “ear-stretching jewelry.” I also spend another few minutes fiddling with the tongues and Velcro straps of my ugly non-slip shoes to make sure none of my rebellious non-black socks show. Luckily I don’t have any visible tattoos, or part of my paycheck would go to the monthly purchase of bandages to cover them.

The uniform at CPK is all black: black button-down shirt (standard issue), black slacks (get them yourself at Old Navy), black belt, and black shoes (from the Shoes for Crews catalog, a piece of writing that would nauseate anyone with the slightest fashion sense.). Dyed hair is permitted if it’s a natural hair color. Plain black barrettes and headbands are allowed. Failure to remember your CPK lapel pin or nametag will result in paycheck reductions–$3 per time, per item. If you’re forgetful, this adds up. Trust me.

In addition to having to follow inanely strict uniform regulations, working at a corporate restaurant means listening to the same kinds of music you hear at your local mall. Shakira, Nickelback, and Genesis are played on repeat along with a few other pop and country hits. After nearly a year of standing directly beneath a speaker at the host stand, I know every word to every song in the CPK repertoire. I even know the Spanish verses in Shakira’s songs and often sing along to wailing guitar solos to pass the time.

A standard host shift has about one big rush. 12:30pm for the lunch shift and 8:00pm for dinner. The rest of the five-hour shift tends to be painfully slow. This is why I know all the lyrics of the background music, why I’ve done every puzzle and color-by-number in all three versions of the kids menu, finished an entire book of Sudoku, and why the door in front of the host stand is immaculately clean from being Windexed every half hour during lulls.

I used to read books during these slow periods until I got written up for reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows last December. Being written up is a mind game. It will not threaten your employment and it won’t cost you financially. However, it’s completely humiliating. Having been written up twice (the second time for being 5 minutes late and failing to follow protocol when setting menus on the guests’ table) I can say from experience that managers like to draw out their lecture as long as necessary until the employee in question either lashes out or begins to cry. I’ve experimented with both reactions. Having gained the supposed repentance they seemed to be looking for, the manager then has you sign the write-up and asks you to leave the office.

All of my frustrating experiences with the managerial team, however, cannot measure up to the most frustrating experiences with customers. I’ve been yelled out at for forgetting bread that I was never asked for, grabbed by a small Asian woman who clenched my arm as she menacingly demanded parmesan, and completely ignored more times than I can count. Much of the time I feel see-through.

The most offensive thing that has ever happened to me while working at CPK occurred about a month ago on a Thursday night. A man who looked to be in his thirties walked in and requested a table for one. “I have a special request.” He leaned in. “I don’t like waiters. I like waitresses. I don’t feel comfortable tipping a man for doing a woman’s work.” My immediate response was to keep smiling and follow the Sequence of Service. I took him to a booth, explained each of the menus, and told him that Ami would be right with him. Then I fast-walked to the server’s station and told everyone what happened. There were a lot of stunned looks, and then complete outrage. A male server delivered his salad and another man, Matt, offered him fresh ground pepper. “No thanks,” said the man. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Matt replied. “Does it make you uncomfortable that I’m serving you?” The man got up and left without touching his food, despite my manager running after him, spewing apologies.

Many restaurant-goers see employees as slightly less than human. This could certainly have to do with the fact that we all look the same due to CPK regulation, dressed in all black like a theatrical running crew that makes things magically appear without being seen or heard. Maybe it is the fact that we are mandated to say the same thing in the same order to every guest. We may look at guests and smile and act as if the customer is always right, but you can bet that any server is usually pissed off or at the very least annoyed by at least one customer at any given time. You can also count on the fact that we’re talking about you the second we’re out of earshot, laughing about stupid questions guests ask or even your ugly T-shirt. Working in food service is an acting job, and you’d be surprised just how great we are at putting on a happy face.