Flush with tips

Pub date February 8, 2011


CULTURE I floated drunkenly into the second-story bathroom at 1015 Folsom. It’s a tiny affair, and my head was just enough obscured to make navigating past the waiting bodies a sure difficulty. I did my business and realized that the man that I had squeezed by, near the sink, wasn’t another patron, but some sort of bathroom attendant. In my inebriated state, it appeared to be an elaborate joke.

He was Latino, wearing a nice suit, and stood in the narrow space between the sink and one of the three urinals, his back against the middle pissoir. He had a mountain of curiosities piled over the sink, and a towel for drying hands draped over one arm.

“Have you worked here long?” I asked.

He shook his head. No. Just a little while.

“Do you keep your tips?”

No. He shook his head again, indicating that there was some sort of split. Reluctantly using the towel, I thanked him and dropped a Washington into the tip jar.

Somewhere, after more French techno, I drifted off to sleep. When I awoke, I wondered, had that really happened? Had I dreamt it? Had I hallucinated?

I sent 1015 Folsom an e-mail inquiring about the attendant. Apparently it was true. Barnaby May, who describes himself as a seven-year veteran of the nightclub scene, took credit for the hookup. He felt that something was lacking from 1015, that it would be better to have a bathroom attendant than not. He put me in contact with Shaun Fausz, who runs a company called Refreshus, which trains and supplies bathroom attendants.

According to Fausz, the service is tailored to appeal to a lackluster economy: it costs the clubs nothing. “Clubs would rather have a free service than have to repaint every few months and replace a trashed sink,” Fausz says. Which makes good sense in a city where one of the dominant aesthetics of the nightlife is a sort of high-class posturing that can quickly be ruined by a Magic Marker. Other clubs have resorted to taunting taggers. Look how fucked up our bathroom is, the Rickshaw Stop seems to say, what else can you do? Put up another sticker? The Independent has painted its water closets black to nullify vandalism.

Bathroom attendants from Refreshus act as security, whether they’re at a nightclub, like 1015, or at a strip club, like the Century Club, where one of Refeshus’ longest standing employees, Gary Lawton, has worked for nine months. Lawton says it’s “a good public service,” although he never imagined performing it. Positioned in the bathroom, he’s able to monitor illicit behavior. “As you hear the snorting, you know what’s going on and you just let them know that they have to take it outside,” he says. “Or they’ll approach me and ask me if its cool, and I’ll just inform them that it’s zero tolerance, as well as alcohol, because there’s no drinking with full nudity.”

This was news to me. (My Catholic upbringing and feminist programming at university makes it impossible to attend a “gentleman’s club.”) If a club includes full nudity, and not just topless dancing, alcohol is verboten. “Our beloved senator is responsible for that, Dianne Feinstein.” says Lawton. “It doesn’t make any sense — I mean that’s what security is for. If you see someone being belligerent, you just tell them to go get some fresh air or something.”

Lawton, who looks like he could be a bouncer, doesn’t necessarily tell people he’s a bathroom attendant as much as “a member of security, who’s stationed in the bathroom.” But no embarrassment shows when he discusses the details. He loves his work, where he gets to act as liaison, recommending girls to patrons and occasionally getting a peek himself. He gets to meet people from all over, and show them a piece of the world that he never glimpsed before being at the Century. “It’s something I can’t explain,” he says. “You know you’re stuck in the bathroom, and then you see them doing something like ‘School Girl Night.’ It’s wild. Like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s just amazing every time I get out there. They have several girls who actually lift their legs up and climb all the way to the ceiling. It’s like being at the circus, but they’re stripping.”

It’s an experience that, to put it simply, Lawton is generally priced out of, a world where “private dances” can cost upwards of $100. In terms of straightforward class, Lawton has no shortage — he’s a polite man who chooses his words with the precision of someone who makes a living speaking to people — but if we’re talking economics, he’s low on the ladder. Once or twice before meeting me at the Barbary Coast coffee shop off Market Street, Lawton had to drop appointments at the last minute, his housing situation in tumult. Truth is he’s on General Assistance, in the shelter system, and shared tips from a few nights work a week aren’t enough to get over.

The income for a bathroom attendant, the flow of tips, breaks down across class lines as well as cultural ones. In Lawton’s experience, middle- to upper-class white men tip well. With African American or Indian men, he doesn’t count on tips. In some ways, bathroom attendants perform an obsolete service that only older generations know how to handle. (Think of the bathroom attendants at Bimbo’s, and that club’s retro style.)

Fausz has his own observations: “European people don’t tip. They don’t have tipping over in Europe. Women don’t tip as often — they like to let the guys pay for everything when they go out.” To my knowledge, Refreshus doesn’t have female attendants.

While Lawton can’t enforce any specific prices, he sometimes has to step in, politely explaining that the service isn’t complimentary. “Everyone under 32, they’re oblivious,” he says. “They come in and see the candy and go, ‘Oh, it’s free.’ And you have to remind them that, no, this is a service. But you don’t force any prices. Like I’ll have a jar with a $5 bill and I’ll just let them use their own discretion, just remind them that the colognes are usually this amount because it’s expensive and I have to pay for all that. You just make them feel comfortable and let them know that even though it’s complimentary, this is how I make a living. I’m responsible for all this. Because they think the club provides the service.”

A lot of this has to do with exposure. While a number of clubs — Vessel, Harlot, Trigger — reportedly have similar services, bathroom attendants aren’t common. Lawton had never encountered one before landing his job, just seen them on TV, and he describes the position as obsolete. “Each generation wants their own type of representation,” he says. “So naturally anything they think of as obsolete just doesn’t apply to them.” At the same time, Lawton acknowledges that a genuine amount of surprise plays in his favor, and patrons admire that the service is still on offer.

Whether bathroom attendant work at the nightclubs provides enough income is unclear. In a place where people pack singles, like the strip clubs, the tips are expected to flow more freely. That’s fine with Lawton, who doesn’t like the more amphetamine-infused nightclub culture as much, having had close family members ruin their life over addiction.

Fausz has seen turnover, most often when attendants steal or are headhunted by clubs. Some just aren’t a good fit ,or can’t work in the environment, or can’t hold the right amount of conversation. (The attendant I met at the beginning of this piece no longer works for Fausz.) But there are people willing to work for Refreshus wherever the opportunity arises. On a recent night I ran into Russ, a lean fellow in a sharp jacket stationed in the more luxurious main bathroom at 1015 Folsom. He described the job as “a good way to supplement my income,” adding “I’m a personal trainer.”

Fausz wants to fit bathroom attendants into more of the city’s nightclubs, even if an event tends to draw a crowd for whom a bathroom attendant is an obscure novelty. He puts it simply: “I’m kind of training the next generation of people to tip.”