We always picked the Crawlspace. Nobody really liked the Crawlspace. Some of the roof is strapped to the half-dead chestnut tree whose roots are damaging the sidewalk outside, and the constant drip in that part of the bar was used to water a bamboo that no one dared call lucky. At least one bar stool was half of a barber’s chair that the owners never bothered to unbolt from the floor after buying Crabbie’s Cuts, and it still smelled like old hair. We were pretty sure that the combination of fluids that, over the years, made the light brown stain at the far corner swell to take up half of the floor would make a health inspector blanch, but the last health inspector who looked at the Crawlspace did an about-face at the door while reciting “NOPE” under his breath, so, that hasn’t been a problem.
I usually got there early. I liked to get my order in before the rush, and arriving early meant I got first dibs on Barb. The other bar stools had cushions stuffed with human hair and shredded fast-fashion clothing too worn to be used as automotive insulation, so Barb was an important part of my day. My CrawlburgerTM, salad harvested from between the sidewalk cracks outside, and water were already in front of Barb by the time I raised my hand to get Gina’s attention. Gina returned to cleaning the coffee machines with her usual dead-eyed smile.
I envied that smile. It said, “Sometimes, when I go out to eat, it’s not CrawlburgersTM.”
Ashley arrived next. She was still in her all-black ensemble from her own server gig, and looked like she’d had a rough shift. Shaking the dust from her leggings, she took the seat to my left and immediately removed her high heels.
“One of those egg and sausage sandwich things, please,” Ashley directed at Gina.
“One BiscuitcreepTM, coming right up,” Gina answered, disappearing into the kitchen.
“Still having breakfast for dinner?” I asked Ashley, half a smile on my face.
“It’s how I deal with not having time for breakfast at breakfast,” she answered, putting her head in her hands. “Has that jar of olives always been there?”
I leaned toward the jar of olives at the other end of the counter. It appeared to have fused with the bar varnish, and I couldn’t move it. “Probably.”
“I don’t remember olives here.” Ashley seemed unnerved. “We go through them so fast at Skoti’s, I hardly notice them at all.”
Our next thoughts were interrupted by Jennifer’s phone notification noise. We could hear hers before she even entered the bar, because she used the loudest setting she could and each web site that sent her notifications had a different movie-monster sound effect. The Godzilla roar just now meant that someone was soliciting her services on TaskRabbit. She pushed through the front door, holding it open with one arm and typing out a message with her other hand. She took the other seat next to me, and kept typing for another minute while Gina brought Ashley her BiscuitcreepTM. I picked up my CrawlburgerTM and took a big bite. Jennifer’s phone rang, and she answered on the first note. Her nigh-delirious excitement soon waned, and she eventually turned down the gig.
“They’re always farther than I can get to between shifts,” she sighed darkly. “Doesn’t seem to matter what distance I set in the system.”
“Mine are always ‘didn’t read the ad, can you do this thing you can’t do?’” I responded, “Or ‘can you do it for half your rate?’”
All three of us sighed. Jennifer took most of my weed salad from my plate and started munching. I didn’t stop her. We all looked up in time to watch Nazreen collapse into the chair next to Ashley, without us noticing her come in. She stayed there, arms down and head thrown back, for a few minutes, while Jennifer’s and my phones alerted us to inquiries about our services on the Internet.
“It’s over,” Nazreen intoned, leaning up and then putting her head on her folded arms on the bar. “I just sold the last thing my ex left behind when he took off. That’s it. There’s nothing after this. I can’t make rent after this.”
Ashley put her arm around Nazreen.
“I’m supposed to be better than this,” Nazreen squeezed out, voice cracking. “I trained to be so much better than this.”
“We all did,” I added. On my phone, I scrolled through a mix of multi-level marketing offers and contract positions that capped out at about three hours a week as long as absolutely nothing else was making firm claims on one’s time, and felt inspired.
“Gina,” I called, “four of whatever the opposite of your finest scotch is.”
“Sure thing,” Gina answered, pouring each of us a glass of Klaus’s Peaty Armpit from a bottle whose label depicted a kilt-clad Santa Claus playing bagpipes on the Giant’s Causeway, and then pouring herself one. It smelled the way falling off a bicycle into a muddy ditch feels.
“If this is how it ends,” I began, holding up my glass, “let it end drunkenly.”
The five of us clinked our glasses and took long sips.
“Remember when it wasn’t like this?” Gina asked, checking her watch to make sure she had time to get ready for her shift as an overnight stocking clerk at the nearby grocery. “Remember unions? Remember when those were a thing?”
“Remember full-time hours?” Ashley added, putting her glass down. “Remember needing only one job to make ends sort of meet?”
“And doing work and then getting paid for the work you did!” Nazreen added, sipping a bit more.
“And having health insurance!” I continued, reminiscing bitterly.
“And being able to occasionally not work for at least a few conscious hours at a time!” Jennifer contributed, acknowledging pings from various contract sites without looking down from her glass.
“Those were the days,” Gina mused.
“None of that ever happened,” a much younger voice chimed in from behind us. He sniffed and took a long snort from his Starbucks-brand Cocacchino. Ashley swallowed the rest of her drink while the rest of us raised eyebrows at our visitor. He adjusted the stack of readings he was carrying for his Master of Science in Being a Barista. “You’re making things up,” he insisted, looking like he might doze off where he stood. After another Cocacchino snort, he continued, “there’s no way it’s ever not been like this.” The five of us sighed, and turned back to our drinks. The visitor looked at his watch again, panicked, muttered “shitshitshit, too much studying, gonna be late for job number seven!” and ran out of the Crawlspace.
“Maybe we did imagine all of that,” Nazreen thought out loud. “If we’d ever had it, how could it fall apart so fast?”
Outside, it started to rain. The bamboo’s tray swelled.