Anecdotes of a Quasi-Immigrant: Why I Cry During "Hamilton," Every Damn Time
Some time during my 18th year on this planet, I started working at a men's club in Houston, Texas. I was a waitress and then a door girl. I needed the job to keep a roof over my head and my boyfriend's. I needed the job to keep us in the United States. I needed the job to survive. The job taught me much and also it sucked. The job was both infinitely interesting and a waste of my abilities. But it was a job that shaped me into the person I am today and I am grateful for it.
When I worked at the club, we needed every dollar to cover rent, our phone bill, utilities, school books, clothing, gas, and all the expenses that just "living" requires. We did groceries at Sam's Club, buying a massive lasagna, a fried rice packet, and the massive garlic breads. We lived off of those for a week. We couldn't afford a bank account (more on that in a future post) so we kept our cash in a glass jar on the counter. When I went to work, I ate olives and cherries from the bar for dinner, until the bartender would shoo me away. Some nights, a French dancer called Lea would use her "dancer rebate" to buy a $5 chicken sandwich plate with fries. She shared it with me when we worked the same nights. I think she knew how much she was helping me but she didn't let it show. I don't even remember her eating a lot of the meal. I am grateful for the food and I am also grateful for the gracious silence.
Every night waitresses would begin with approximately $20 or $25 in our pocket, our own money, called "the bank." We were supposed to use our "bank" to make change for customers who paid cash and, unfortunately, to pay for "incorrect" orders and spilled drinks. Some nights, I left the club with less money than I had brought in. Invariably, it was an arrogant patron who forgot what he had ordered or enjoyed toying with the "little waitress" and claimed I'd gotten it wrong. I had not. It did not matter.
We did get paid an hourly wage. I don't remember exactly what it was but it was around $2.17 (that number is stuck in my memory for some reason). It certainly was not more than $3.00/hour. Have you tried living on $3.00/hour? It's actually not possible. And if you tell me that being a waitress in a sexually oriented business is supposed to be "just a college job" then we've immediately reached the fallacy of that argument, because it means you assume a sexually oriented business is what "college girls do" to get an education. Sex work is work, it's respectable work, it deserves to be remunerated, but it's not "college kids' work."
So night after night (three or four nights a week) while going to college full time, I worked from 6:30 pm to 3:00 am. I ran around in heels smiling and serving, dealing with drunk guests and underage drinking. I still wasn't making enough to make ends meet, night after night. Eventually, I read the tiny print on the bottom of our club-issued booklet to track cash tips. It said that if my income did not total minimum wage ($5-something an hour at the time) I was entitled to a gross up. I was making under $20 in tips per shift, which even when added to my "base wage" did not break minimum wage. I brought this up to my manager. He answered, "I have no idea how much you make in tips. You could just be lying to me." End of conversation. I was 18, I was new to the country, I had a household to support, so I shut up and moved along. I did the next best thing: I worked more hours.
So one day in particular, I came in around 2:00 pm and worked until 3:00 am. I was on my feet with no breaks, eating cherries and olives, for 13 hours. I worked, and worked, and worked. I didn't count the money I was stashing in my bra (I had no other place to keep it). I just kept my head down and served drinks. For hours on end. At 3:30 am I walked back into my apartment, my legs aching and my mind blank. I quietly made my way to the bathroom (my husband was sleeping) and sat on the floor, with my head between my legs. I pulled out the money and counted how much I had made that night: $25.00. Twenty-five dollars. Twenty. Five. Dollars.
It wasn't enough. It wasn't enough to live. It wasn't enough to pay my bills. And it dawned on me that no matter how many hours I worked, while attending school, I was running up a disintegrating dune. There was no way out.
The sobbing that shook my body felt like it was going to break my chest. I tried to stifle it so as to not wake him, which only made things worse. I leaned my upper body into my legs and muffled my mouth into my thigh. I kept crying, catching my breath and finding it disappear. To feel that cornered, that desperate, that screwed is...well...it is something that gets seared into your very soul. I was invisible. I was discardable. My efforts meant nothing. I was not a person. My labor, my efforts, my attitude, my resilience were not a guarantee of survival, let alone of success. Work alone would not guarantee a roof over my head.
That night was approximately 19 years ago. I have spent the past two decades fighting for an education, fighting for success, building a career, buying two homes, getting the highest achievable degree in the legal field, and writing. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and gave talks all over the country. I wrote briefs, I wrote college essays, I wrote a college thesis, I wrote articles, I wrote letters to elected officials, I wrote to employers, I wrote law books, I wrote a science fiction novel, and I am writing this blog. I have been living like the wolves are at my heels, every day. I have worked and pursued goals like failure is a black hole threatening to suck me right back to that bathroom floor, with my head on my legs, suffocating on my desperation.
I have listened to the Hamilton soundtrack for days at a time. I have cried listening to it on airplanes, in airports, and in the car. It may be silly and it may be overreacting but I am neither silly nor particularly emotional. There is something about this piece that does something to me.
"I am not throwing away my shot
I am not throwing away my shot
Hey yo, I'm just like my country
I'm young, scrappy and hungry
And I'm not throwing away my shot"
- Lin Manuel Miranda, Hamilton
It moves me because it speaks to me; it hits that mark inside me created by those years of uncertainty and struggle. It validates my experience as an immigrant and as a scrappy little nobody trying to survive. It encourages me to embrace my ambition; in fact, it allows me to feel validated in my ambition. The truth is that most days, I feel completely invisible. However, when I listen to Hamilton, I am less invisible. But it's not just about me.
Hamilton takes us on a trip on the wings of Black culture. Cabinet meetings turn into rap battles, hip hop and rap are interwoven into every aspect of the musical, the cast is overwhelmingly diverse, intelligent women push against the boundaries of what society lets them do, and I can hear non Caucasian voice timbers carry modern rhythms and playful storytelling. This is America! What I love about Hamilton is that it's not white. Sure, the story is about white folks, but that's about it. I love that. That alone is subversive and deliciously so. (Daveed Diggs is slave holding, racist, raping Thomas Jefferson--come on! That's brilliant!).
Hamilton may be about the founding fathers, but that aspect is largely fanfic. Hamilton is more purely a hymn to immigrants and their ability to throw themselves into this country's history with no safety net, to the artistic and cultural beauty Black communities have cultivated and contributed despite the violence done onto them in every way, every day, it is about the hunger to raise above our stations and fight for a better life against all odds as outsiders, and it is beautiful. It is beautiful because it is quintessentially American for reasons that have little to do with the founding fathers themselves or even the Revolution. It is beautiful because it takes white men's stories and pushes their narrative and their aesthetic to the margins.
Hamilton reclaims a past that was not ours to reclaim but it does so anyway. Much like white mainstream culture has shamelessly appropriated Black, women's, and immigrants' culture, intelligence, talents, and work, Hamilton does a reverse appropriation and just takes something that was not about us, to make it about us. That subversion fills me with glee.
"And when you're gone, who remembers your name?
Who keeps your flame?
Who tells your story?
Who tells your story?
Who tells your story?"
- Lin Manuel Miranda, Hamilton