Mikael Ellis holds four jobs and works six days a week, but he’s not complaining.
Mondays and Tuesdays he works the overnight shift at a private gay men’s club. Ellis usually takes off Wednesdays. Thursdays and Fridays he bartends at two gay bars. The weekend can see him splitting his time between bartending and another Side Hustle at a smoke shop with a large LGBTQ+ clientele. Ellis usually works 50 hours a week on all the jobs combined.
Video and photos by Jeff Haynes/Signal Cleveland
“I have a strong work ethic, and I have found something that I’m passionate about,” he said. “That makes it less like work.”
As a gay man, Ellis has purposely decided to work at businesses that either primarily cater to LGBTQ+ patrons or have a large clientele from this community. Working at businesses serving queer people of various generations allows him to reflect on how he belongs to a bridge generation of LGBTQ+ rights. At 36, he remembers a childhood when openly criticizing people for being gay was widely accepted. From older patrons he learns of a time when they had to remain closeted for fear of losing or being denied employment. Some younger patrons have expressed disbelief when Ellis recounted the struggles the Gay-Straight Alliance club at his high school sometimes had in gaining acceptance for LGBTQ+ students.
“These different jobs that I’ve picked up have kind of attached me to the queer community, closer and closer, every time I get one more,” he said.
That doesn’t mean Ellis is necessarily looking for another Side Hustle. (Actually, he hasn’t looked for some of his jobs. Employers saw his high performance in one workplace and made job offers.) Four Side Hustles is a record for him. He has usually worked a full-time job and a part-time job. Keeping a Side Hustle gives him a sense of security. Early in his work life, Ellis found himself unexpectedly jobless with nothing to fall back on.
Before the pandemic, Ellis was working full-time managing five video stores. Bartending was his Side Hustle. Then the video stores went out of business. He returned to his old Side Hustle at the smoke shop and then to bartending once bars reopened. Last year he started his fourth gig at the private men’s club, which includes a gym, hotel and gay spa, also known as a bathhouse.
For now, Ellis enjoys the variety of working four Side Hustles.
“People will say, ‘Oh, you work six days a week?,’” Ellis said. “Yes, but I’m doing so many different things. It’s a change of gear and it’s a change of pace that makes it fresh and feel good and fun. It would bore me to death to do the same thing over and over six days a week.”
Shade in Old Brooklyn
Ellis sits at a table at the Shade nightclub in Old Brooklyn, where he has worked since it opened five years ago. A variety of rainbow flags cover one wall. He’s wearing shorts, a t-shirt and a baseball cap turned backwards. Ellis sports a large silver septum nose ring, stretched ear lobe piercings with spacers and arm tattoos he describes as an “artistic representation” of Pokemon characters. His medium-length, manicured fingernails are painted teal. He points to the constellation of stars adoring the nails of his left hand. He applied them with a nail art stamping kit.
“You can see that there are no stars on the other hand,” he said. “This is my dishwashing hand when I’m bartending. The stars have been scrubbed off my dishwashing hand because I didn’t clear-coat them. Live and learn.”
Ellis said he likes each of his Side Hustles because they require him to use his strong customer service skills. In years past, bartenders often had this reputation: They’d pour the drinks and customers would pour out their joys and sorrows to them. He said nowadays things are more transactional: customers order a drink and the bartender slides it across the bar. The customer slides back the payment. Words may never be exchanged.
“People are shocked at me just remembering how they like their drinks,” he said. “Remembering things like how many straws they like, remembering that they like light ice, remembering that they like a dash of lime.”
Ellis knows such details about customers because Shade is not only a gay club but a neighborhood watering hole. It draws both straight and gay residents. Ellis, who lives in the area, said a benefit of working there is keeping up on neighborhood happenings. But even at jobs outside his neighborhood, Ellis takes the same approach to customer service.
“Good customer service is about making those connections: remembering people’s tastes and helping them to branch out from what they normally get,” he said.
George Clendenning, Shade’s owner, values Ellis’ interpersonal skills. He said they are a basis of his good customer service and of his ability to de-escalate potentially volatile situations. He recalls how there was a “troublemaker here who I was very familiar with” getting confrontational. Clendenning said Ellis was able to get the person to leave by standing behind him and then walking him to the door. Anytime the patron got off course, Ellis was able to redirect him to the door without shoves or nasty words.
“He probably handled it better than I would have,” Clendenning said. “I tend to want to get somebody’s attention by grabbing a baseball bat or something like that. Sometimes you’ve got to get to the primal part in the back of their head that goes, ‘Hey, he’s going to mess you up. You better calm down.’ Mikael didn’t need to do that.”
Coming out in elementary school
Ellis, who grew up in Oberlin, said he always knew he was gay. In elementary school, he remembers hiding that he was gay for fear of ridicule or worse. Not revealing who he was wore on him. So did the taunts and bullying from schoolmates who targeted him because they perceived him as being gay.
“I often suffered through school,” he said. “I would have headaches regularly. I would come home stressed. The stress of knowing a part of me was not out there for the world and that I was living this kind of cover life.”
Then in 1997, comedian Ellen DeGeneres came out. It was life-changing for Ellis, then 10. He too felt that he could come out, even to his mother and stepfather. One day his parents were complaining to him about spending too much time on the computer. He told them there was a reason he was always instant-messaging friends: It was because he is gay. As an adult, Ellis doesn’t see the logic in the statement, but it accomplished his goal of letting his parents know that he is gay. He had wanted to tell them for weeks.
“My mom fainted and just hit the couch,” Ellis said. “My stepfather freaked out and said, ‘Look what you’ve done! Why would you say something like that?’”
“Back then, all my parents knew was that if anybody said they were gay that meant that they were going to get AIDS and die,” he said.
Their anxieties only heightened the following year when Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student, was killed in a hate crime. Ellis said it took his mother about five years to accept that her son is gay. He said his stepbrother, who is a psychologist, played a major role in helping her work through any concerns or fears she had about having a gay son.
His stepfather hasn’t fully accepted Ellis’ sexual orientation. Still, Ellis said, they have a good relationship. For example, he said he is very thankful to his mother and stepfather for instilling in him a strong work ethic.
“We just don’t talk about me being gay,” he said. “He’s a very intelligent man. I can have intelligent conversations with him. But I just don’t bring up a boyfriend, queer communities, etc.”
Ellis would rather that family and friends accept that he is gay, but if they don’t, he can live with it. He said not being “my authentic self” was damaging. He said the headaches and bouts of stress caused by “keeping everything bottled up inside” stopped soon after he came out.
“I felt a massive weight come off of me that I could just be who I was inside,” he said. “I didn’t care if people judged me. At 10, I didn’t know the connotation and the repercussions of telling people that you’re a homosexual, I just wanted to be my true self and talk to people from my true place.”
Start of Side Hustles
By his late teens, Ellis was living in Columbus and working at a supermarket. Parts of the store were undergoing major renovations. The department he worked in was among them. Ellis was unexpectedly laid off.
He said he went from living paycheck to paycheck to becoming homeless. Ellis said he lived on the street for about three weeks until some friends took him in.
“I’ll never put myself in that position again,” he said. “I will never let myself be reliant on just one thing. I have a two-job minimum.”
Several months later, Ellis was back in Greater Cleveland working at a service plaza on the Ohio Turnpike. It was a secure job with “good pay and great benefits.” He didn’t have to work a second job.
Ellis didn’t like the job. He didn’t like that it required him to either be stuck in a booth or work outside in extreme weather. He didn’t like that co-workers frequently were absent, requiring him to work double shifts. Most of his co-workers did not like their jobs either.
He also saw how many of his co-workers, who had worked there for several years, were coming down with serious illnesses. Unhappy and sick. Ellis didn’t want that for his future.
“It was a good union job, and I was like, ‘You would be a fool to leave this,’” he said. “But I was not living my life. I was just going through the motions. At 26, I felt 66. I thought, ‘I can’t stay here until I retire.’”
After seven years, he quit.
Where would he work next? Ellis thought about the past jobs he had liked, going back to working at Target in high school. All were customer-service focused. He dedicated himself to looking for that type of job, even knowing that it was unlikely such a job would match the pay, benefits and stability of the one he had just left.
Ellis found a job at a video store that drew upon his customer service skills. He got a Side Hustle working at the smoke shop, which he gave up after being promoted to managing five video stores. When the stores closed during the pandemic, he went back to the smoke shop. He did that Side Hustle along with the two bartending gigs.
Working at FLEX
Ellis was already working three Side Hustles last year when one of the regular customers at Shade offered him the prospect of working a fourth.
He accepted the offer from James Foster, general manager of FLEXspas Cleveland, the private men’s club, also referred to as a gay bathhouse, near downtown. He said he knew Ellis would be a valued employee because “he has an amazing energy surrounding him” and because he isn’t ”afraid of a day of drudgery.”
Foster said Ellis is also a “self-starter” who “needs little to no supervision or assistance.”
“Mikael brings empathy, a heightened skill of customer service, but doesn’t perceive his grace/hospitality as a weakness,” Foster wrote in an email to Signal Cleveland. “Rules are rules to be followed and put in place for a reason.”
Ellis works the overnight shift, primarily doing housekeeping. He likes working at FLEX because it provides a haven for gay men. For example, he said, some gay men don’t feel comfortable in gyms with heterosexual clients.
“The gym at FLEX is a safe queer space,” he said. “They can work out or swim, or just soak in a hot tub and not have to worry about somebody judging them for their appearance or the way that they walk or what’s on their fingernails.”
The Side Hustle next door
Two of Ellis’ Side Hustles are next to each other in Cleveland’s Edgewater neighborhood. The Hawk is a longtime gay bar. High Society Boutique is a smoke shop that isn’t LGBTQ-owned, but Ellis said it serves “a huge facet of the community.” Sometimes he ends a shift at one business and walks next door to begin a new shift at another.
He said High Society Boutique “sells so many different things” beyond tobacco. They include pipes, adult toys, incense, crystals, graffiti paint and tarot cards. Delivering good customer service means being knowledgeable about a broad spectrum of products. Given the nature of some of the products sold, customer service often means deftly steering them away from certain items to other ones.
He uses the example of adult toys.
“I might say something like, ‘If you’re going to use this type of toy that’s silicone-based, you need to have a water-based lube,’’ Ellis said. “The lube that you’ve picked up might be your favorite type of lube, but it is going to degrade this toy. That Walmart cashier is not going to stop you and tell you that these two things shouldn’t be mixed together.”
At The Hawk, Ellis enjoys giving great customer service and also getting history lessons. The pub has been open for decades, and many of the regulars have been patrons for years. They can offer a perspective on gay life in the Cleveland. He said once there were about 20 gay bars in the Cleveland area. Now, there are fewer than half that many.
Ellis said because of greater acceptance, many in the LGBTQ+ community feel comfortable going to non-gay bars. He said some of these establishments even seek to attract LGBTQ+ patrons by hosting drag shows and other events that often appeal to them.
He said dating apps have also led to the decline of gay bars.
“The idea within the queer community that you have to go to a gay bar for a safe option to meet somebody has kind of gone by the wayside,” he said. “With dating apps, you don’t have to leave your house. “
Ellis laments the closing of gay bars. He said they can offer a place of community and serendipitous encounter. Apps can’t do that. Non-LGBTQ+ establishments often can’t.
Ellis doesn’t just say this because he works at two gay bars. Even if he didn’t, he said he would still go to them. However, he probably wouldn’t order a drink. Ellis gave up alcohol as part of Dry January and hasn’t had a drink since.
“I work six days a week,” he said. “I can’t afford a hangover.”