OK, I fully admit this one is gonna be a bit of a mishegaas. This whole last year has been … so who am I to kick against the bit?
Less than a year ago, I was working weekends at one of the higher-end restaurants in town, and weekdays at a proper cocktail bar that never quite found its niche. These days, I run laps around a hotel pool. The scenery is nicer.
I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on what it means to be a “lifer” in the industry—sorting out my memoirs, as it were. Bear with me.
I first got into bartending about 15 years ago, although my dad was one of the legendary bartenders in Boston’s infamous “Combat Zone” in the ’80s, so I have always been around the industry in some respect. In 2005, I decided to leave Portland, Ore.—where I had been LARPing as a booze-soaked failing novelist—to help build a bar from the ground up in Pinetop, Ariz. When I say “from the ground up,” I mean literally: I was in a pit, shoveling for the drainage pipes. In retrospect, that may have been the best use of my skill set at the time. When I wasn’t shoveling, I worked at a ski shop, selling skis to people despite never having skied myself, something I am proud of to this day.
Actually, perhaps that was the best use of my particular set of skills—shoveling bullshit.
The day the bar opened, I caught a wicked blow to the temple that I am still partly convinced killed me. I was carrying a 300-pound slab of stone with a kid who was maybe 150 pounds soaking wet; the slab fell on a hand truck with the handle articulated at 90 degrees, sending the handle straight at my head. I went across the street, got stitched up and reported for duty without an MRI, because, well, I’m from Boston. On my first weekend shift, I sliced my hand open in a freak accident, and the same guy across the street stitched me up. I started a tab with him.
Things got better. In my mid-20s, working at an Arizona resort-town nightclub, drunk off both my own power and Jägermeister, I caught the industry bug. My shift was from 10 a.m. to 2:30 a.m., and I was drunk most of the time. Then I came home and was drunk. Mixed in were nine random months of sobriety where I learned to get high on smug superiority and stacks of cash.
You learn things at a place like that. You learn who you can intimidate into leaving the bar peacefully, who is going to punch your lights out, and who is going to be waiting for you when you leave. You dodge a bottle that was meant for your head, only to have it hit your barback square in the face. You wait nervously with your heavily armed redneck security guy while your boss counts thousands of dollars of cash, because some guy you kicked out said he was coming back for you. You give the local meth dealer a free Long Island iced tea once in a while to help keep the peace, and so he won’t deal inside the club. Looking back, it was more than a little like the movie Road House. I am not sure how we survived.
I returned to Boston, and I managed to land a job at a place that you know, even if you don’t think you know it. Anytime they run Boston B-roll during a national sports presentation, they show their blue umbrellas. We didn’t know your name, and neither did the Cheers replica next door. This place was smack in the middle of Faneuil Hall, or “Faneuil Brawl,” as the locals called it. The bro-tastemakers at Barstool Sports got their start there by posting fuzzy bar-fight videos shot on Motorola Razrs in that neighborhood, and taking cheesecake photos of our staff. At one point, I was featured in a Food Network spot for Goya that was filmed there … go figure. To this day, it was the best collection of bartenders I have ever known, even if we barely made a proper cocktail. What a collection of humans … some are still in the game; one is a plumber; one is a scrap-metal mogul. Some are mothers and fathers; some I have lost track of.
Many bartenders are unlikely bartenders—a collection of introverts, substance abusers, artists, literary/music nerds, and the occasional Gemini … the best and worst of society. It used to be a job where you could be a misfit, a rebel, and make money off of your wits.
So … where do the lifers go now? Sure, we can work as servers, but the serving jobs often go to the young and cute. Where does your grumpy neighborhood bartender work, whose knees and back are too shot to serve, who is 60 years old? The restaurant owners aren’t hiring, anyway. It turns out you can do “to-go” for a lot cheaper, and now that the kitchens get a fair share of the tips, owners don’t have to pay the cooks out of pocket. (This is something I first saw in San Diego and have worried about for a while.) Don’t get me wrong: The kitchen should get a cut of the tips, but on top of a fair wage. The tips shouldn’t be taken out of the servers’ pockets to pay the kitchen so the owner gets richer. Add to that the fact that many valley restaurants only hire for weekends, meaning that if you have a weekend job, you can’t get another.
Still … I choose to be hopeful. I have seen how much people want their bars, and bartenders, back. I sheltered some couples from a sandstorm recently, and although they were just protecting their drinks from the wind, for a minute, I thought I was actually tending bar again. The guests felt like they were at a bar again … and for a moment, life was normal again.
I can’t wait until normal becomes the new normal. Until then, be safe.