Katherine Scott Nelson’s extraordinary essay, “Dinner and a Fight,” recounts their past experience in the gig economy, working as a waiter and bartender at catering events in the Chicago area. It’s an insecure life of low pay, no insurance (though injuries lurk around every corner), and no future. Compounding these difficulties, Nelson, who is a nonbinary trans person pursuing gender transition, worked in a business where male and female boundaries are carefully marked. Yet throughout this essay Nelson displays a can-do brio, a stubborn slogging bravery, and even humor, which adds poignancy to the march of one grinding day after another. In these sudden, terrifying days of the coronavirus pandemic, the lives of the people you will read about here have become even more precarious, as our country’s shameful economic and healthcare inequality worsens in the crisis. —Philip Graham
Katherine Scott Nelson in Ninth Letter:
I am a cater waiter. I go when and where I’m called: hotel lobby parties for fertilizer sales conferences in downtown Chicago, million-dollar weddings in suburban backyards festooned with pink tulle, outside in hundred-degree heat on Western Illinois golf courses, holiday parties at Lake Shore Drive condos where the client sarcastically asks if she’s still allowed to wish us a Merry Christmas, pristine penthouse conference rooms where lawyers discuss international weapons contracts over sea salt caramel truffles and fresh coffee.
In my all-black uniform, I can be as invisible and silent as a ninja. I have a pickpocket’s skill at palming dinner rolls, a homing pigeon’s sense of taco trucks, and an alcoholic’s knowledge of how late everything is open. I can swing ten boiling-hot plates of beef tenderloin over one shoulder without burning the curve of my ear, and carry them from a makeshift outdoor kitchen across wet grass and up half a flight of stairs without spilling half a drop of red wine reduction sauce, and maneuver my way back without dropping so much as a greasy butter knife down the back of a guest’s dress (most of the time).