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The secret, sadomasochistic erotics of food service

Brittany Newell finds the sexiness in the slow afternoons, structure, and subordination of serving customers

Brittany’s been bad. She is a drag queen and a rat. She comes from California and was born in 1994, amidst soft cyber sounds. Her debut novel, OOLA, is available here (UK) and here (US).

My first job was at a bakery. It was a humble joint, with a checkerboard floor and elderly client base. I was sixteen, pre-IBS, easy to please. I liked waking up in the cold winter mornings, being driven to work in a daze. I liked the novel pains of an eight-hour day, the heat in my glutes. Jazzed up from free coffee, I tyrannised the sound system (which was supposed to play only Sinatra). I wanted to listen to pop songs while I Windexed the fridge case; I was being paid minimum wage to space out.

It was here, probably, that I received my first taste of what I now call the secret sadomasochism of customer service. Even at this dozy bakery in a suburban strip mall, there was something of sex in the air. Like any teen, I was obsessed with bodies: it felt appropriate to work in a bakery, to redirect this obsession into something as literal as food. I touched the things that strangers put in their mouths. It was fun to stare at customers with the counter between us, to let myself be appraised alongside the pastries (which were a better investment). I lived for hot dads, their noncommittal flirtations. If only they knew how I tallied their winks.

Something better happened when a kid my age came in: my subservience went neon. I felt small, yet so visible, in my one-size-fits-all apron. As I made change with shaky hands (often dropping the pennies), I felt a delicious mix of hope and self-hatred. There was a particular boy who made me feel, sublimely, like trash. He always got a large mocha. After he left, I would hide in the bathroom and replay our exchange in my head. Longing gave purpose to the slow afternoons.

“I lived for hot dads, their noncommittal flirtations. If only they knew how I tallied their winks”

As it turned out, I was turned on by turning off. I enjoyed the frank use of the body as just that: a body, a thing without thoughts, meat employed to hand out sweets. Since then, I’ve had many jobs. I made smoothies at a health food store with names like Witch’s Brew and Sassy Lassi; I sat in a gallery and twiddled my thumbs; I bartended for the ballet, where arts patrons didn’t appreciate my long gay bar pour.

For two years after college, I supported myself as a writer. Freelancing is luxe and lonely; I had only my foster dog to hold me to a schedule. I became a harsh boss, highly sensitive to the notion of wasted time. If I took a bath, I needed to be having productively literary daydreams. I looked in the mirror a little too often. As 2018 neared, I fantasised about getting a regular job again. I wanted to be instrumentalised, needed. I wanted to clock in and clock out, fade into a larger structure. Plus, my bank account was running low.

So I went back to my roots and got a job at a bakery, a San Francisco institution where grown-ups blow up if you run out of buns. The building is brand-new, high-ceilinged, glossy, filled like a cream puff with natural light. Last week Rebecca Solnit bought a pain au chocolat from me. After double-checking her name on the credit card receipt, I stuck out my hand.

“Sorry if it’s sticky,” I said.

This place is famous (or infamous, depending on your tastes) for bread, long lines, and sexy employees with many tattoos. “Oh…” a neighbour said when I told them I worked there. “So you’re into techno? Everyone who works there loves techno.” I offered my personal theory, that the mechanical chug of the bread machines is partly to blame. The dull beat gets stuck in your head.

It’s true that a disproportionate number of my coworkers are slinky, inky, and lean. I’m no longer sixteen (alas) but I’m still obsessed with bodies, and thus tuned in to the airborne erotics of my airy workplace. There is so much eye contact in customer service. My manager got mad at me for taping up a sign that said: BIG TIPPERS ARE SEXY. Maybe I was being unsubtle.

One thing I noticed after I started at the bakery was how I smelled after work: like I’d been fucking for hours. My sweat had that specific manic tang. In my days as a drifting freelancer, aroused only by Enya, I rarely smelled this way. It was thus a shock to encounter the smell of myself on the bus ride home. I looked around, feeling naughty. What did the heavily-layered grandma to my right think I’d been doing all day? She didn’t peer out from her baklava of knits.

“My sweat had that specific manic tang. In my days as a drifting freelancer, aroused only by Enya, I rarely smelled this way”

Another thing I rediscovered is the body-high of exhaustion, that zingy feeling of pushing myself over the edge. It gives me a thrill to double-book my days, to leave the house at 6:00 am and find ways to stay out until long after midnight. As a working girl, I veer between vegetation and flamboyance: the urge to hole up, to disappear in the bath and bail on my weekend plans, and the urge to keep moving, to see how much this bag of bones can bend. With work and drugs and exercise, I’ve always loved to feel spent.

Maybe because of how my clothes smell, my fussy libido has been juiced up by working. When my shift ends at 3:00, I feel like the natural conclusion to my day is to get fucked. I’m possessed by the urge to go lower, to capitalise on my passivity and be as much of a body as I possibly can. Sex is already present, in that I feel dreamy and scraped out and beat, so why not make good on the promise? I wanna zero out. Usually, though, I go straight to yoga, a healthier version of the same goal: self-negation. Anything to postpone the moment when I have to be whole again, when I have to be me. I never understood the necessity of the after-work drink until now.

As she rings people up, one of my coworkers yodels, “My pleasure!” I love that phrase, because it feels coded. The sadomasochistic kicks of food service are not really about pain. They’re about submission, structure, the private pleasures of subordination. I submit so hard to my job that I enter a trance state. Every interaction feels like an experiment. I like having a role to play, that of smiley helpful femme. “What can I do for you?” I ask total strangers. What an odd and intimate question.

“Bad girl, huh?” one dude said, reading the tattoos on my chest. “How can you be bad if you’re so nice?”

In my regular life, I would tell him to fuck off. On the clock, I smiled. “You’d be surprised!”

To be fair, these kicks don’t come easy. Often my job feels like adult daycare. For the week that our soft serve machine was out of order, people would fix me with a blank stare and murmur, after a tense beat, “Bummer.” That was the only word they ever used.

A twisted part of me enjoys the friction. How gracefully can I take it? Bad days are thrilling in their horrors: the dropped cakes, mutinous customers, register jams – they all add up to a keen awareness of my body as not just a thing but a worthless thing, a non-feeling entity that needs to be told what to do. Long lines are the customer service bukkake.

“Do you have Apple Pay?” a big important man asked. I misheard him in the lunchtime din, and started to explain that while we didn’t have apple cake, we did have a very nice lemon. It had been a while since a man looked at me with such contempt. “Never mind,” he snapped, and my whole body twanged.

“Bad days are thrilling in their horrors: the dropped cakes, mutinous customers, register jams – they all add up to a keen awareness of my body”

In my stupid droopy apron, I’m caught at the intersection of multiple power dynamics: those of good taste, gentrification, new money, bodies/wellness, San Francisco’s fucked prices, plus the usual mix of gender, class, race, ability, people’s various complexes about dessert. It would be ignorant to dismiss these dynamics, the information they impart about my city and the world. From where I stand, things look funny and grim. The other day a courier came in to pick up a corporate breakfast order. When I asked the name, he looked nervous.

“They don’t like me to spread it around,” he said. He glanced over his shoulder, then whispered: “AI. It’s the order for AI.”

I told everyone about this exchange, how we were making eggs-in-a-hole for transhumanists, before a waitress smirked and said, “D’ya mean the order for the Art Institute?” I turned into soft serve, dripped to the floor. I still think it makes a good story.

When you work in a place where you don’t feel respected, it seems natural to mine cheap thrills from the whole situation: to lean into the surreality of being paid to smile, to sink deep in the body that strangers snap their fingers at. True, I see sex everywhere. True, I could psychoanalyse a cereal box. But I don’t think it’s just me that feels these things, the lone pervert poking brioche. During a slow hour at the bakery, “I Wanna Be Your Dog” started to play on the sound system. My coworker gave me a look. “Cute,” they said. “That’s cute.” We licked jam off our fingers and stared into space, until someone replaced it with Jason Mraz.