By Maria Catt
At the job before the one I have now one of my duties was to take water frozen in red Solo cups and use an ice ball press to press the ice hunk into a ball. It took about a minute a ball. Demand for the ice balls always out-paced my capacity to create them. I was the barback at a club in San Francisco’s financial district which was an extension of a fancy menswear store. At this store insecure bankers were encouraged to spend 500 dollars on sweaters. If those insecure bankers committed to spending 250 dollars at the store each month they got to visit The Club, which is a bar with a long scotch list, and a room to smoke cigars in, and a limited food menu with a seventeen dollar burger on it.
The scientific justification for the invention of the ice ball press is that a perfectly round orb of ice will melt less quickly into your whiskey, while creating the condition for maximum whiskey on ice surface heat exchange, chilling the whiskey without watering it down.
There are a couple of things to learn from the ice ball press. The first is some physics equation about the relationship between heat and pressure, which I have forgotten despite having to explain it to eager club members at least once a shift. The second is that people who like to condescend will find a way to condescend about anything, including the best shape for ice. The third is that the condescension market is a growth area in the economy, and that if you create a product that allows a person to condescend about an unexpectedly mundane entertaining needs, you can charge them a thousand dollars for a block of aluminum that turns ice into balls. I learned a more personally relevant lesson from my time pressing ice into balls so that bankers could impress their business friends, which was that I was not a man, never wanted to be confused for one, and felt unexpectedly grateful to have received a biological exemption from having to participate in masculinity.
Femininity and I had been duking it out since I was 11 and the girls in my grade started giving blowjobs to boys and it has felt the whole twenty years since that femininity was kicking the shit out of me. To transform from an androgynous kid at 11, praised for being a tomboy, into a big bootied 13 year old who had to take the train across the city every morning and afternoon in a school girl getup was fucked up. To this day I have not recovered. Add to that the list of sexual trauma and gas-lighting which is now the norm for women in their teens and twenties and I responded in a sort of extraordinary way- I created a fantasy self who was a dude. I thought pretty constantly about who I could be and what I could do if I weren’t trapped in my body. There were a number of problems with this fantasy. The biggest was that I assumed my parents would have to die before I’d work up the nerve to ever transition.
Then I hit 30 and I couldn’t have sex without disassociating and my fantasy self loomed larger and larger- was I going to spend the bulk of my life waiting until it was safe to trot him out?
I did the unthinkable and announced to my family, my boss, my friends, my grad school adviser, that I was transitioning, that they shared a fundamental misunderstanding about who I was. Then, in the grand tradition of the utopian minded, I moved to California.
Secret selves, shielded from social feedback, can freeze into misleadingly hard shapes. My fantasy self had been my companion for years and promised a solution to my freakish problems. I would know the map of my body. My ego and loudness and anger would make intuitive sense to people. I wouldn’t feel like I was watching every sexual encounter from the ceiling like a creepy ghost. It was easier to blame my pervasive discomfort on gender rather than trauma- everyone I had told about my various traumatic incidents had not seemed to think they were a big deal. They didn’t seem big enough to explain this constant, intense disassociation I kept running up against. My misery was big enough only a big explanation could suffice.
Now, here’s the thing about being trans: it’s expensive. The quote I got from a surgeon for the chest surgery and thigh lipo I’d need to attempt to pass as a man was $8,000 dollars. In California insurance companies are required by law to pay for these masculinizing chest surgeries because they are considered medically necessary treatment for the diagnosis of gender identity disorder. In Ohio the surgeries are considered cosmetic. Hence the move to California and hence the needing a job with good health insurance. The Club seemed like a godsend. I’d get my chest surgery and I’d get an employee discount on rich dude clothing.
I hadn’t considered that rich guys expect their servants who they perceive as women to wear makeup. If you don’t wear makeup they won’t look you in the face. If you wear a bowtie and no makeup they read you as a lesbian. When lesbians speak to bankers, even to take a food order, bankers will roll their eyes at lesbians.
As the lesbian barback who didn’t wear makeup my worth consisted in being willing to run my ass off. So I worked at a frantic pace. Running tickets to the kitchen (yes, food industry compatriots, this rich person club didn’t see the need for a POS system), hauling dirty dishes, running food orders, stocking beer, pressing those ice balls. All par for the course for a barback job, except I actually wasn’t prepared for the eye rolling, and it was evident to me both the bartenders, all men, and the serves, all women, weren’t being worked like I was. But I wanted that surgery.
More troubling to my quest was the fact that I was surrounded by men and they all seemed really unhappy. I learned mansplaining was not a thing men do to women, but rather a dynamic some men do to all people at all times. 95% of the conversations I witnessed at The Club were men condescending to other men about sports. The other 5% were men condescending about cigars, scotch, and of course, ice.
The people who hired me knew I was transitioning. I had a hunch I was something like the ice ball press to them- a novelty for the members to show off to their business friends. My suspicions were confirmed when one nights, after the club was closed, the staff sat around sampling our wines. A new server had just told me I was “the heart” of The Club, which I’m going to attribute to me being a hard worker who makes an effort to be halfway decent to my coworkers. Then one of my managers winked at me and said, “M’s the mascot of the club.”
That was a little before midnight on a Friday. The next morning I had to be back at the club at 8 am for an all staff meeting. The club was expanding and the CEO wanted the staff to understand his vision for the club. The CEO was often referred to, by both management and club members, as a genius. When I would enter a room and say good morning to him he would ignore me. It was explained to me that when he dined at the club the staff should be on the lookout for eye contact from him, no matter what we were doing, because if he caught our eye that meant we should be available to him immediately. He had a habit of expecting that what he needed could be conveyed through eye contact without the use of words, and would become frustrated if you didn’t guess correctly that he needed water without ice, the channel on the gargantuan tv changed, the volume of the ever present Sinatra music raised or lowered. He was meticulous about details like which tweed coasters belonged to which area of the club, but was not bothered by challenges like the staff having 30 coasters for a club that sat 150.
That morning, on 5 hours of sleep, I sat in the club I had closed the night before and watched what turned out to be a 3 hour Powerpoint biography of our CEO. I saw his wedding pictures, was told his college GPA, learned about the short-lived reality show the company had some years back, saw a picture of the time he met Kim Kardashian. He told us there would be lots of opportunity for growth within the company, such as training to be a butler. He showed as a schedule of his “perfect day” that he hoped to live out at the club in 5 years. From 6 in the morning to 9 at night he was receiving a service- getting a shave, having his shoes shined, having the paper and a cappuccino brought to him, spending time in the golf simulator, time in the cigar room, having a business meeting where he would crack a glass case to use a special pen to sign a deal. He put this question to the staff; “Is there anything that would be different in your perfect day?”
I looked around the room at my coworkers, wildly searching for eyes filled with the judgment I felt. No one else was thinking, “In my perfect day at some point I’d have an interaction with another human being that wasn’t a stylized power ritual?” No one appeared to be.
I wasn’t on testosterone when that meeting happened. I had been on it for 9 months, but had stopped because body hair was coming on quicker than the fat re-distribution I had been hoping for was. It seemed likely I has going to become bearded and bald while still clearly being read as a woman. I had loved being on testosterone. It had knocked out my anxiety. While normally my brain swims in a soup of managing other people’s moods and needs around me, noticing what might go wrong, is about to go wrong, what people are probably getting annoyed about, what people might be feeling hurt by, on “T” (there’s some inside trans slang for you) I didn’t give a shit. I wasn’t trying to make people feel bad, but if they caught feelings, oh well. I felt, in a way that I’d never felt before, that I was the awesomest. Awesome on a profound level. So smart, so brave, destined for big, revolutionary things. When I had to stop taking T I was heartbroken, but I promised myself once I got my surgery I’d be back on that good good permanently.
That Saturday morning I saw our CEO glowing with ego and it occurred to me that maybe testosterone wasn’t that cute of a look. Maybe the estrogen my body makes naturally was what kept me from doing dumb shit like paying 50 people for 3 hours of San Francisco minimum wage so that someone would look at my wedding album.
I used to have a joke in my standup act where I’d tell the audience I was transitioning, and they’d clap because everyone wants to be an ally, then I’d say, “Woo-hoo, one more white guy! Just what the world needs!” But that morning in that club was when I really started to consider that the estrogen my body makes, while setting me personally up for some rough times, actually was better for the people and the world around me. And the question really hit me: did I want strangers on the street to look at me and think I was in any way the same kind of person as this joker with the Powerpoint?
The next shift I came to work with no bow tie and a face full of makeup and the insecure bankers loved it. For the rest of my time at the club they would flirt with me and tell me all their rich dude problems, like having a hell of a time kicking the tenants out of the SRO he had bought to renovate, or being so relieved to be away from the air pollution in China since he got back from his trip inspecting his company’s factories over there. They called me sweetheart and insisted on hugs. My manager was pissed. The CEO finally talked to me and asked what was up with my new look. I told him it made the members nicer. I worked the job for a couple more months until one day I was on my period and was thinking about how I’d moved to California to wear makeup for the one percent, and I couldn’t stop crying, and I quit abruptly. Another win for female hormones.
It turns out there are a lot of upsides to being a woman. You get to hang out with women. You don’t have to hang out with men. You don’t have to condescend to people about things like ice. You notice other people’s reactions to you. People consider you safe enough to tell you their problems. You get to smile at kids you don’t know. You get to hang out with women. You get to hang out with women. Your whole life. Between the old guys congratulating themselves for being able to drop 700 dollars on an ounce of 40 year old scotch, or my mom getting goofy on ice wine with her retired nurse friends, I know who’s throwing the better party.
The well-meaning among you might be tempted to explain to me, hey you could hang out with women who went to women’s colleges and still get called he or they or ze or hir or you might want to explain to me that there are so many good dudes who are transforming what it means to be a dude, and I could join in and transform it with them. Nope. No thanks. I think estrogen is good deal. I think this female thing is a good deal. Even with the rape and the gas-lighting and the poverty and the shitty jobs and the sexual harassment and the doing all the housework and the watching jokers kill the planet and the regular ice, this womanhood thing is where it’s at. Those ice balls have melted. I’m good.
ADDENDUM: One talent I have been rewarded for developing is the ability to talk about sad things from a place of strength by being funny. It is a talent which often gets me into trouble by obscuring the fact that I’m in pain. I was in a lot of pain before transitioning, and mourning the loss of a solution has been exceptionally painful. I went through about 8 months of crying everyday about it. Now I cry about two days a week about it. Was it wise to share a deeply personal piece of memoir on the Internet about something I have wept about in the past week? Probably not, but I am proud of this piece and want to show it off. What I’m asking is that as tempting as it is to put a political agenda on the piece, and no doubt there are lots of class and gender politics to unpack in it, please remember the person who wrote it is right this minute still in the body that went through that, still with the bank account that went through that, still dealing with everything she was dealing with before and also had to figure out what to do with the creepy ass experience described in the essay. I tried to speak from the heart and not talk about other people’s choices in the piece intentionally because I have my hands full with my own choices. Please be compassionate and considerate with your reactions, not only in regards to my journey but other people’s journeys as well. Everyone’s life is complicated, overwhelming, and too much to handle, and everyone is trying their very best to get some joy before their time is up. Please keep that reality in the forefront of your mind as you react to the piece.
To read more by Maria Catt, click here.