Camel Nights

Making rent in a self-righteous world

Michelle Tea

Let me tell you about my last job.

I worked for a San Francisco marketing group with an office in Union Square. My boyfriend had found this job first, and was so exhilarated by the impressive pay rate and the scam-like ease of the work itself that he worked to recruit everyone around him.

I’d understood long ago that my true work, writing, would never pay my rent, and so set about seeking jobs that offered maximum pay for minimum work. I worked in bookstores where I could sneakily read new releases; answered the phones for phone sex hotlines, using the long-distance to book DIY performance tours on my breaks; worked in offices with photocopy machines where I could xerox my zines. Late night telemarketing jobs allowed me to sleep in, as I spent my nights in bars and clubs, reading my writing, dancing and getting drunk.

Everyone I knew lived this way. While middle-class 20-somethings could always attend college to pursue a more lucrative occupation, the lower-class alternative was to not be an artist, not go to college, and in fact have nothing going on for you save a dead-end job that made other people rich and kept you working poor. I come from the lower classes, and feel incredibly lucky to have been born a creative sort.

The marketing group had a single client: Camel cigarettes. They’d approach various bars and ask them if they were interested in being paid to become Camel bars.” Camel ads hung in bathrooms, pint glasses were placed upon Camel coasters, phone numbers were written down on Camel bar napkins. If you asked the bartender for a match you’d get a book stamped with Joe Camel’s phallic mug. And the final privilege the Camel money bought was the right to send its people into the bar each night to hand out free packs of Camel cigarettes to smokers. 

This was my new job. For every pack of cigarettes I handed out I got one dollar. Even the slowest workers were able to rustle up or outright lie their way to fifteen packs per hour, which made the job a guaranteed $15 an hour. And those lucrative hours were perfect — hit the bars around eight and stay as long or as little as you like. I told my boyfriend to sign me up. I had never been paid so much. The bookstore paid $9.50 and it had taken me five years of employment to get it up from $7.50.

At the Union Square office I was given cartons of Camel cigarettes — menthols, lights, wides, and the various flavored sorts that come in tin boxes and have a phony art-deco aesthetic. In order to prove to the authorities that the smokers I gave freebies to were old enough to smoke (and to cull information for future marketing schemes), I was to digitally photograph the driver’s license of everyone who received my smoky gifts. The mammoth cameras were outdated and confusing to operate; they malfunctioned frequently, costing workers hours of pay since without the photos we had no proof we’d worked. I was given a big black bag to haul it all around in. 

That night I showed up for training at my supervisor’s home. Her house was decorated tiki-style, with bamboo wall coverings. My supervisor had the job-as-scam work ethic. She showed me the paperwork that accompanied each ID, and encouraged me to make it all up. People don’t like to give out their e-mail address. She liked to make up e-mail addresses that went with the ID photos, so that the boy with the shaggy hair and thrift store eyeglasses became EmoNerd99, and the mod girl with the sleek bob VespaChick2000. I was to wear black, which sucked because my only black clothes were a pair of ratty corduroys and a mock turtleneck I kept meaning to throw away. Together we hit the bars.

— —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  — —

Each night a fleet of Camel workers descended on neighborhood drinking holes. To start off easy we went to a place in the Mission on 24th Street. The smokers out on the street cheered when they saw me, following me inside the bar, awaiting their turns. I made my quota of 15 people in about as many minutes. Thanks!” people shouted as I left.

On my next night I was stationed in North Beach. I lumbered around the glitzy neighborhood with my bulging pack, and wandered into Gino and Carlo’s. The bar was bright and the patrons were older professional types who looked at me with a bristly curiosity. At Gino and Carlo’s I shyly asked some possible smokers if they wanted free cigarettes. Unlike the broke-ass Mission barflys, smokers at the more upscale bars seemed to take offense at the offer of free smokes. There had to be a catch if the offer was free, right? There was. The few people who deigned to accept my offer of free cigarettes blanched when I requested to photograph their IDs. Never mind,” they’d say.

I began to feel humiliated. I was giving things away, but the work felt strangely like begging. I packed up and hiked over to Vesuvio, another fancy sort of place, but one with a literary vibe. A very drunk man in a suit asked me, quite somberly, if I would like him to take his pants off. No thank you,” I replied. He retreated.

What are you doing over there?” inquired a gentleman sitting with some friends. There were about three of them, nattily dressed, drinking amber glasses of whiskey. I offered up the free cigarettes, and the man made a terrible face. Why would you do such a job?” he asked. Working for Big Tobacco? Do you smoke cigarettes?”

I stared at him, a multitude of responses, mostly hostile, swimming in my head. No, I don’t smoke,” I told him. Then why are you doing this?” he demanded. To pay my rent,” I spat. To buy groceries.”

I wondered what this man did for a living and if he was ever called to defend his need to do it. Clearly he made a good living. I thought of my job at the bookstore. Better for the world, perhaps, but did it pay a decent wage? What about my many nonprofit jobs, doing good work, certainly, but again for low pay. Then there were the two years I worked as a full-service prostitute. The world of low-wage work is beyond middle-class ethics of good and bad.

The man nodded his head condescendingly. Well yes, yes,” he said, we all do need to buy groceries.” He was studying me. Would it help you if I took a pack of your cigarettes?” he asked. My cheeks burned. It would, I confirmed. Well, then, cigarettes for all of us,” he said grandly, until he realized that I needed to see his ID. My shame at having let him upset me was another layer in the sediment of humiliation that had settled around me.

I left the bar in tears. At least in prostitution the humiliation is private, I thought.

— —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  —  — —

Later that night my boyfriend returned from a house party one of our friends had thrown. He’d gone after work, still with his own bag of cigarettes, and at the party handed out packs to our broke, smoking friends. A drunk punk accosted him: Get out of here with that!” he shouted. He jumped up and threw a beer can at my guy’s head. Get out of this house!” he shouted. But you don’t live here,” my boyfriend said. A bunch of friends, smokers some, workers all of them, defended his right to be there. We want free cigarettes,” some said. He’s just trying to get paid,” others said. 

Homeland Security!” the boy accused insanely. You’re Homeland Security!” My boyfriend sat there with the glowing digital camera. How am I Homeland Security?” asked my queer, gender-dysphoric boyfriend who had spent the last six months frighteningly, desperately unemployed — we feared, unemployable.

Why not travel the country,” the punk suggested, if you can’t find work? Hitchhike, crash on couches.”

God!” I shrieked, hearing this story. Traveling the country costs money. Leaving your life is difficult. That boy punk made at least part of his income at a dive bar, charging low-income alcoholics money for corporate pints of Budweiser. What’s the difference?

The next evening I lugged my bag to a friend’s birthday dinner, intending to hit the bars after. I didn’t. Depressed, I shuffled home. I didn’t have it in me to defend myself to drunk people with more money and better jobs. I would return the camera and the cigarettes, keeping a single pack of Camel Lights for myself. 

I had lied to the man in Vesuvio. Like so many low-wage workers in America, I tend to smoke when I’m really stressed out.

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Michelle Tea is an award-winning San-Francisco-based writer. Her latest book is the graphic novel Rent Girl.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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