In her bi-weekly column for Document, McKenzie Wark writes about raves in relation to service workers, and how she once got on the wrong side of one
There are two kinds of people in New York. Those who are rude to service workers—and service workers themselves. My day job is a college professor, and these days, being a college professor feels like a service worker job. Many of my students have one or several service jobs, so we have that in common. Although, I also have a few students for whom I rank somewhere between their personal trainer and their dog walker.
Being a service worker is about providing someone with not just a product, but also a feeling. You have to manage how the customer feels—about you and about themselves—on top of providing them with whatever tangible thing passes through the transaction. It can be emotionally taxing. Sometimes, you want to shake those feelings out, on the dance floor. Get your flesh free of the feelings left over from managing other people’s.
At least the people who I serve are (usually) sober. Nightlife service work can be its own special kind of hell. So my philosophy with nightlife workers is: Be kind, don’t waste their time, and tip generously. Just don’t be that asshole—the one who is going to put everyone in a bad mood. Who is a bit too drunk, or high, who feels entitled, who is rude to nightlife workers. And probably rude to other service workers, as well.
There are nightlife workers who I’ve come to know a bit. I like to show up at raves after 4 a.m., which is when a lot of nightlife workers (including sex workers) knock off and come to the rave to shake it off. While there are a lot of differences among service work roles, varying in pay, safety, security, and “respectability,” they can all leave their emotional marks. It doesn’t matter what parts of your body, brain, nerves, emotions, and self you have to put to work to pay the rent—for many of us, it’s all on some level.
“My philosophy with nightlife workers is: Be kind, don’t waste their time, and tip generously. Just don’t be that asshole—the one who is going to put everyone in a bad mood.”
Here is one of my pet rave theories: Raving first became a thing when the industrial economy was falling apart. Techno music is Black music from Detroit, the poster city for deindustrialization. It caught on in Berlin, just after the Soviet model of industrial life collapsed, and also in Northern England, where the factory system first started, and first declined.
The revival of raving today, in places like New York, has to do with the information economy running out of steam. Many people in big cities have service jobs, handling the human, emotional consequences of an extractive, exploitative information economy, the beautiful promises of which have long lost their charm. It feels like we’re trapped in a decaying, enclosing control system, the one that replaced the old industrial system—but, if anything, turned out to be worse. So what can we do about our feelings about what work does to our feelings? Let’s dance! To music that’s hard, that’s fast, that has rhythms like an industrial machine. To which we can make our bodies move as if they were machines, too, burning off the friction of post-work feelings.
Some nightlife workers come to raves to dance, and some come to work—who, to some extent, are the same people, just on different nights. Since I think of myself as a service worker, I like to especially empathize with nightlife workers. Their version of it is much harder. Above all, I try not to be that asshole, who gets on the wrong side of service workers.
Although, once, I was that asshole. Which could have ended badly.
It happened at Flanger, one of my favorite raves. I’m not someone who is going to wait in the interminable line for the toilet—if I actually just want to pee, that is. I just go outside and pee behind the nearest truck. So there I am, peeing behind the nearest truck, when the EMT guy comes over.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“I just took a piss—oh, shit, is this your truck?”
“Yes, it’s my truck!”
“Well, because you didn’t lie about it, I won’t punch you in the face.”
“I’m sorry. It’s a really nice truck.”
“… Thank you.”
“The revival of raving today, in places like New York, has to do with the information economy running out of steam… So what can we do about our feelings about what work does to our feelings? Let’s dance!”
After that, whenever he saw me, he’d wag his finger at me, but smile with it. I told Jenny this whole story, and she said, “Not that I want this ever to happen, but it’d be pretty funny if you needed emergency medical care and he came running over—but was like, ‘No, not this bitch! She peed on my truck!’”
“Funny—not funny,” I say.
I really enjoy Flanger. Last thing I want is to be on the wrong side of anyone who works it. So at the next Flanger, I make a point to stop on the way out to chat a little with this same EMT guy. I had asked around, found out that his name is Chaz, and a little about him. I’d heard Chaz adopts cats. The kind nobody else will adopt. Older Persians, some that have been through scrapes.
You might not expect this in looking at him, which is why it’s a good idea not to put too much faith in first impressions. Chaz is a big guy, and can look intimidating if he has to. He sometimes doubles as a bouncer. The intimidating look, too, is about managing emotions. He wants to convey the impression that, whatever feelings you have, it’s not worth taking them out on him.
“How are the cats?” I ask.
“Good! Thanks for asking! I just got a new one.”
“What’s this one called?”
“She’s white with gray flecks, so I call her The Grey Ghost.”
“How’s she getting along with the others?”
“So far, so good. I introduce them to her one at a time, in the bathtub. So I can grab her and get her out if it’s going badly.”
Which makes me think of the rave as a bathtub, where, if we don’t get along, he’ll grab us and throw us out, with a band-aid, too, if needed.