Find what you love and let it kill you.
This quote is often attributed to Charles Bukowski, but there’s no record of him ever saying or writing it; Kinky Friedman seems to be the actual source. I am now suspicious of every popular quote these days after being burned enough times.
Actually, I like this quote a lot better with “like” rather than “love”—find what you like and let it kill you. It rings more true; how many of us really do what we like, much less what we love?
I didn’t start as a cocktail dork. I got into the food-and-drink industry for all the wrong reasons—fast money, booze, parties, sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll … the same reasons all of the best bands were started. As a bartender, I was a “volume guy” for a long time: Think a holding-four-bottles-at-once, pouring-a-Long-Island-iced-tea type. However, I always wanted to make better drinks, but this was the early ’00s, and the “cocktail revolution” was in its nascent days. We didn’t know any better.
Flash forward a few years to an unremarkable bar in Boston where a guy made me my first proper Sazerac. It was a revelation. That was more than 10 years ago, and today, I have no idea if it was even that great. Nevertheless, I dragged every one of my friends there for one. That bar’s not there anymore.
Six months later, I left my job in the city to do a craft-cocktail program with the help of a couple of books. It was a failure—so I went back to the volume racket. I never lost the drive to make a better drink, though, and I haunted the local craft bars.
I paid well for my education. I asked questions like a curious toddler. Young, arrogant guys with twisty mustaches and badass ladies with sleeves of tattoos—those were the stereotypes, and they weren’t unfair. These bartenders started making drinks because they actually cared about what your drink tasted like. This was, to me, like a used-car salesman who actually wanted to get you the right car at the right price—he’s either a unicorn or a liar. Also, these bartenders didn’t seem as strung out, and as jaded, as those in the bar scene I was a part of at the time. Eventually, I jumped ship to give craft cocktails another shot and was soon neck-deep in egg whites.
The change may have saved my life. The tourism and nightclub grinds are not healthy: Working a busy season, making money hand over fist and having nothing to show for it. Feasting in the summer and fasting in the winter (kind of the opposite of here). Forgetting I liked the beach because I hadn’t been to it in years, my skin pale from nocturnal living. Jostling a co-worker because we have another double-shift in four hours, and he needs to call it a night. Having a friend slap me lovingly in the face for the same reason. There were many nights when there was no one to do that, and I found myself pulling a shot of vodka out of a bottle from the freezer before I headed to the train so I didn’t run out of steam. I remember one particularly tough stretch; I still have friendships that haven’t totally mended over the consequences.
This is not a mea culpa, although maybe it should be; I want to emphasize how normal it all seemed at the time. When you see your co-worker arrive as bleary-eyed as you, Gatorade in hand, a cigarette hanging off his chapped lips, you feel better about yourself. God forbid he’s chipper. There was always another co-worker we would talk about who was “needing to slow it down” as we found the nearby bar that was open for 10 a.m. screwdrivers. We had a 14-hour shift to get right, after all.
When you get out of work at 3 a.m. (or later), it’s easy to lose all track of human life. If you have service-industry friends still awake then, you gather in the kitchen of someone’s apartment and pass the bottle of Jameson. For some reason, it’s almost always Jameson—not just in Boston, and I’ve worked all over. When the first birds chirp before dawn, you can almost hear them saying “looo-ser.” We call them the “loser birds.” They love to remind us that the sun is about to rise, and healthy people will be soon putting on running shoes for a morning jog. Everyone is in bed except for bartenders and drug addicts—and those are certainly not mutually exclusive. I have known people who used cocaine like coffee and cigarettes, never really high and never really sober. Weed, Valium, Xanax, Adderall, Ritalin, caffeine, cocaine, obviously alcohol—these were and are tools in the coping tool box for many in the business. That goes from the back of the house right up to the host.
Then there were the opioids. During season, it was common to lose a couple of staff members to rehab. Sometimes, you saw it coming; sometimes, you didn’t.
In some ways, the craft life is better … but it’s not like it is a health retreat or anything. So why would anyone put himself or herself through this lifestyle? The service industry is where your demons are always just at arm’s reach. I have tried over the years to justify it to my loved ones, as well as myself, and end up running in circles. Would it help if I said that some of my best friends in the world, people who would do anything for me, I met behind the bar? Would Stan or Janice in the cubicle next to me help me move? Maybe the idea of a 9-to-5 life is terrifying. Maybe I love the stage. Put a bar in front of me, and I’ll comfortably tell a joke to the pope, but when I go out into the real world, I have a hat pulled low and earbuds in to avoid small talk. Maybe it’s that I enjoy being surrounded by other lunatics, howling, ever so quietly, at the moon on a Monday, while the rest of the world sleeps. I guess the answer is I like it, even when it tries to kill me. Thankfully, my routine is much healthier than it was all those years ago. That’s not to say I never still stay up for the “loser birds” on occasion.
All of this is on my mind because of the loss Anthony Bourdain, a service-industry champion who truly seemed to love—not like—what he did. I have had so many emotional moments with chefs, servers, bartenders and guests since his suicide that I just couldn’t do the article on Negronis I had planned.
Chef: From one restaurant lifer to another, thank you for everything. To everyone else reading this: If things are getting dark, don’t let us lose you, too.
Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.