Amid the clatter and chatter at the Iron Monkey bar you'll find Jennie Oliver, serving drinks and making small talk. Like many waiters and bartenders in the city, Oliver's interests lie far beyond martinis and microbrews. She spends much of her free time perusing the papers and the Web for acting work and studying capoeira, a centuries-old Brazilian martial art. As much dance as self defense, it was created by enslaved Africans in Brazil during the 16th century.
Participants form a circle and take turns playing instruments, singing and sparring in pairs in the center, using fluid acrobatic movements with extensive sweeps and kicks.
A cross between yoga and break dancing, capoeira is "a sexy way to kick someone's butt," Jennie says. She became hooked when she witnessed a co-worker doing cartwheels and talking about his martial arts studies. It didn't take much convincing for her to check out a class.
After studying for about a year, she's now working with her capoeira mestre (master) along with other students to open a school in Downtown Jersey City. Their goal is to introduce city youth to this unique way of connecting mind and body and to keep bored kids off the street and out of trouble.
The inspiration she gets from studying capoeira has also played a big part in her performance career, Oliver says. She landed a role in the play "Indians" by Arthur Copit and has been in a number of educational shows about the history of Afro-Brazilian dance.
Oliver embodies the richness and diversity that is life in Jersey City. Stop by and see her sometime. Just be sure to tip well or watch your back ... er butt.-Stephen Bailey THE IRON MONKEY IS AT 97 GREENE STREET
PHOTO: STEPHEN BAILEY
Who do you turn to if you're out for a night on the town and want to know the primary causes of World War II? You might want to ask your waiter.
Nicolas Perez began working at Azúcar as a busboy right after his 18th birthday to help pay for his education at New Jersey City University. A history major, he has a particular interest in World War II and a passion for foreign policy.
Now, two years later, Perez has put in the time and hard work to become a waiter/bartender at the lively Cuban restaurant. He's currently studying for his bachelor's degree and plans to pursue a master's and doctorate, so he can teach history to college students.
"The reason I came to the restaurant business was to make money," Perez says. "Right now, for a person my age, this is the best kind of job. I always recommend it to my friends, but it's not easy."
Neither is the profession he's pursuing. Perez is a firm believer that history is as relevant to the world today as it will be to future generations. He speaks passionately about the way college students made an impact on the world in the '60s, citing the civil rights movement. His also opposes the war in Iraq, citing the old adage that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Perez sees our past as more than a progression of wars and dates.
"I just wish people had more respect for history, because it's very important," he says. "Especially when you see kids in school and they're like, 'Oh, history, it's so boring.' I think teachers should make it more fun."
What does this future history professor want to teach his students?
"I just finished a class on Cuba and Puerto Rico. I'd love to teach that course. Besides that, I'm a huge fan of music. If I could make a history of rock and roll kind of class, that would be great!"-Mary Paul AZUCAR IS AT 495 WASHINGTON BOULEVARD
PHOTO: MARY PAUL
"I just wish people had more respect for history"
Keys (like Madonna, he says he goes by just one name) hates it when servers talk about getting a real job. "This is a real job and you make real money," he says. A server at Skinner's Loft, Keys is only 20 but already has his sights set on a career in the restaurant business.
In an earlier, two-year stint at Chili's Keys says he worked as host, server, expediter, and as a trainer for new hires. All those jobs helped him learn how a restaurant is run-from how to deal with people to spotting an improperly cooked steak before it reaches the customer.
"An expediter is the person in the kitchen who checks the food before the servers take it into the dining room," Keys says. "And though the kitchen is the epicenter of a restaurant, there is no person-to-person contact, and I love the customers."
Keys says he thought about going to school to learn the trade, but right now he's happy to learn by doing. "Skinner's Loft reinforces hospitality," he says. "It's personal and friendly, and I have regular customers."
How does he keep them happy?
"Basically my philosophy is that everyone can serve but not everybody can do it well. I'm not an order taker. I'm there to present you with a good time. If the customer expects an eight, I love to give them a 20. At the end of the night, I know where they work, their names, and their kids' names." Being gay, he says, helps him to "understand people's differences and broaden the conversation."
Keys, the youngest of seven children, grew up in Jersey City. "When I was a kid, I worked in diners, I loved food, and was always drawn to the business. I even wanted to live in a hotel."
"I wouldn't mind owning something," he says, singing the praises of Skinner's Loft owner Maggie Vecca. His dream gig? Owning "a 60-story hotel and casino on the Vegas Strip with a four-star restaurant and bar on the ground floor. It would be called Keys Hotel and Casino."-Kate Rounds SKINNER'S LOFT IS AT 146 NEWARK AVENUE
PHOTO: MARY PAUL
Hold the Trash! Two seconds into a conversation, Megan Gertler reveals her age-she's 36 and has been a "server" for 20 years. When we caught up with her, she was at O'Connell's restaurant Downtown. "'Server' is more politically correct than 'waiter,' she says, "and though I'm a seasoned server, I'm not at all jaded like some people in this business."
One of the things she likes about being a server is the time it allows her to pursue her work as a found-object artist. Working in a restaurant also gives her access to some pretty useful stuff. "I yell at my boss if he throws things away," she says. "Restaurants get free crap like Miller Lite signs and Absolut Vodka key chains that glow in the dark."
But she also likes picking up "treasures" off the sidewalk. "I make art out of garbage that I find on the streets of Jersey City," she says. "I find parts of old furniture and picture frames. People get ridiculous awards at work that they throw away. Children break and lose their toys. My job is to take junk and make it into something. This is precisely what I am into."
To prepare for this career she studied sculpture at Kean University in Union, NJ, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. "I love the Jersey City art scene," she says. "Recently I was in Amsterdam and saw a picture of the Pulaski Skyway by Ron English, a world-renowned Jersey City artist. It's great to know that Jersey City is part of the international art scene."
Her favorite galleries here include the Lex Leonard Gallery, the Mana Fine Arts Exhibition Space, and the Balance Hair Salon, which doubles as an art gallery-all Downtown. "This is cutting-edge art by up-and-coming artists," she says.
She and her husband Joel, a collage artist, are also involved in the Jersey City Artists Studio Tour but only "under the radar," meaning they don't have a studio but hang colored balloons outside their building and show their work on the sidewalk.
Gertler is in exactly the right city to pursue her dual career as sculptor/server, rattling off the names of Jersey City restaurants that she says display good art: Madam Claude's, which shows small pieces by local artists and craftspeople; and LITM, which, she says, has some of the best artwork around. Her husband shows at the Star Bar, where she does some curating. The Star Bar caters to a gay crowd, which gives Gertler a chance to tell you how much she hates any kind of discrimination. "I'm anti-racist and always speak up if I hear a racist remark. I'm open-minded, liberal, political, I'm into current events, I vote-and I'm extremely creative."
Which brings us to the Sunday art nights that she wants to start at O'Connell's, featuring artists showing and talking about their work. But not to worry, she'll be serving on other nights. "I genuinely like the work, and that's a reward in itself," she says. "I usually get good tips, and customers show their appreciation."
Speaking of which, next time your boss gives you one of those plaques thanking you for ten decades of dedicated service, don't think garbage, think Gertler-Kate Rounds O'CONNELL'S IS AT 111 MONTGOMERY STREET
PHOTO: MARY PAUL