I had so much to tell Darrell and Nick, a gay couple I befriended during my UofT days, that my plate of Indian buffet began to go cold. Darrell is a soft-voiced police officer turned academic. Nick is an author. I recounted, in too much detail, the twists and turns of entering journalism and writing about fashion.
“I’m probably the least fashionable person you know,” said Darrell. “Nick’s the stylish one. You could never write about me!”
I put down my fork and thought for a moment.
“You used to be a cop,” I began. “If I were to write about you, I would ask how it felt wearing a uniform people have very strong reactions to. What were your thoughts were when you first put it on? How did people treat you? How was it different from wearing your civilian clothes? Now that you’re not a cop, do you miss the authority of the uniform, or is it a relief? Did you ever use the uniform for sexy games?”
“He yelled at me once for wearing it while making breakfast and getting bacon grease on it,” Nick chimed in.
“I’m sure the Toronto Police department has a good laundry service,” I said.
Uniforms are funny. Like costumes, they transform the wearer from an individual into an idea. They iron out individuality–people see the uniform first and the face second (if at all). Agatha Christie had at least four mysteries that involved characters not recognizing someone because they were dressed as a nurse or butler. Christie may have been of a class and generation that barely thought of servants as people, but things aren’t so different now. I work at a café and even with the bare minimum of uniforms (black shirt, black apron), customers often don’t look me in the eye. Because we both have dark hair and glasses, at times they’ll confuse me with my boss, who is at least a foot taller.
Perhaps it’s the anonymity of uniforms that inspires sexual fantasies. There’s also the naughtiness of doing something that, as an official, you’re not supposed to. It’s not just cops, firefighters, nurses, and cheerleaders people find erotic. I went out on a date with a guy who worked for the TTC. He didn’t drive a bus or streetcar. He had a desk job, but for whatever reason he still got to wear one of those nifty maroon TTC jackets. He told me women, sometimes married, came on to him all the time.
No such sexual fantasies were directed my way…or so I thought.
Back when I was doing my Masters at UofT, I worked at Starbucks. As uniforms go, it’s a pretty easy–black or white collared shirts, black or khaki pants, the famous emerald green apron. (I once worked with a woman who asked “Do you bleed green?” as a way of gaging how much you followed all the rules set out from head office in Seattle.) It’s easy and flattering, but not particularly sexy. I especially never felt sexy at work–my uniform was often covered in sweat and spilt steamed milk.
I definitely didn’t think a customer like Will would notice me. An actor with blue eyes and sharp cheekbones, Will had the kind of undisputable beauty that I’ll never have. I’m pretty self-deprecating about my looks, and it has taken the majority of my twenties to become comfortable with them. Will introduced himself on his first day at my store and we would chat every time he came in.
“Max,” he said one fateful day. “How interested would you be in seeing me naked?”
“Well, I’m part of an all male burlesque show,” he said, handing me a flyer. “Our first show is this weekend. I’d love it if you came.” At the door he turned around, “Invite as many people from the store as you can!”
My Starbucks co-workers were too busy and important, so I took my best friend Dervla. The show was at the Drake Hotel, so we got a bit tipsy before going in. Will told me that I would be on the list, so at the door I said my name.
“Oh, you’re the one from Starbucks,” said the young man with the clipboard.
“I’m Will’s roommate. He said you’d be coming. Enjoy the show!”
“Oh my God,” Dervla whispered to me as we took our seats. “He loves you!”
For the show’s opening number, a man in a business suit did a strip tease as though he was coming home from a long day at the office. (This is what all men who work on Bay Street do, I imagine.) The number set the tone for the night–equal parts sexy and silly. Male nudity can often verge into comedy, so might as well embrace it. The crowd was an odd mix of young women, Queen West gay guys, and the performers’ parents. With our beer buzz, Dervla and I were having a fabulous time, hooting and hollering and generally making asses of ourselves.
“That was pretty good,” the MC said after the first number finished. “But I think you guys can cheer louder! Some of you are looking a little tired. Maybe you should have a coffee. Who hear likes coffee?”
“Woo!” I screamed.
“Who hear likes Starbucks coffee?!”
“Woooooo wooooo!” Now I was also clapping.
“And people keep going back to Starbucks all day,” the MC continued. “Is it because of the coffee, or is it because of the cute, hipster baristas?”
At this point, Will came out from behind the curtain wearing a black wig which gave him bangs, thick horn rimmed glasses, and a green apron. Both my friend and I stopped mid-cheer and gasped.
“Oh. My. God!”
My hands shot up to my mouth and my eyes bugged out.
Will proceeded to perform a strip tease as a sassy, moody barista, spilling milk, shaking a tip jar, sitting on a customer’s lap, and yelling emo things like, “Nobody understands me!” I was laughing and cheering, but I also turned bright red. In my paranoid mind, everyone knew it was me. I couldn’t bring myself to look over at Dervla because I knew I’d lose it all together.
When Will finished, with nothing but the apron left to cover his biscotti, he bowed and ran off stage.
“That was one of the best moments of my life,” Dervla said. I was both intensely embarrassed and intensely flattered. “Whatever, man,” she cajoled. “I’ve never had a strip tease based on me!”
After the final curtain, Will found me. Despite dropping trou multiple times on stage, he now appeared bashful.
“Hey Max,” he said. “Did you enjoy the show?”
“Yes I did.”
“Did you like my first number?”
“…You were my inspiration.”
“Yeah,” I laughed. “I got that.”
Even after that, I never saw Will outside of the store. But I feel fortunate I learned I was the inspiration for someone’s fantasy in such a funny, public way. If we had actually dated, he would have found out there was more to me than the sassy, hipster barista. And I would have found out there was more to him than the handsome actor who takes off his clothes. Fantasies are fun, but real people are messy. Aprons come in handy.
Max Mosher writes about style for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @max_mosher_.