Monday, September 8, 2008

The Other Side of the Bar

My friend Jillian has a great article on bartending over at the newly-launched Culture 11 site. Having bartended myself for the better part of a decade, I can attest to much of what she writes, but I wanted to go a little further than she did because the dark side she alludes to is as alluring as it is destructive.

She writes:
The bartender-client interaction is a sacrosanct relationship in American culture, but having seen both sides I must say it is terribly overrated. Pouring beer and feeding fried fare to car salesmen, construction managers, and custodial workers puts you in touch with a slice of life that you can’t get in the ivory towers, or even at your first office job. But in so doing, you’re typically not forming real relationships with those people, so much as helping them to substitute alcohol for friendship, love and ambition.
Granted, at my last bartending gig, my clientèle was usually of the professional variety--marketing folks, lawyers, professors, military contractors, and business owners in addition to older undergrads (such as myself) and grad students--but the relationship aspect is pretty dead-on. Sure, I made a few good friends from slinging America's legal drug of choice, but mostly my regulars were just lonely people trying to drink the stink of their own day away.

But for the most part, they were relatively successful people who felt comfortable at my bar and with me--and their relationships with the staff were mutually understood. I don't worry about them now that I'm gone and moved so many miles away--and I think most of them are probably doing just fine.

The thing about being a bartender in a college town is that, basically, you become a low-rent rock star. People know you all over town; you get free drinks and food from restaurants; cash is aplenty and temptations (i.e., drugs and the opposite sex) abound. While it sounds like a perfect recipe for a crazy summer, it can become a lifestyle that traps people.

College towns are known for their transient nature. Kids file in, kids file out. A few stay behind because they like the community--that great mix of big city culture and small town familiarity is attractive to a lot of people. So, too, is "the industry."

In the industry, nearly everyone goes out every night to drink: drink because you had a great night and made $300; drink because you had a shit night and made $45 on a 10-hour shift; drink because we were all busy as hell; drink because the bar was dead and it was a waste of time; drink because it's your buddy's birthday; drink because we need to get to know the new server; drink because its karaoke night; drink because it's doesn't matter. There is always a reason.

It is fine for awhile, but for those few that stay behind for any number of years, what seemed like a short crazy summer turns into a short crazy life.

One of my more painful memories about bar life involves a man named James. James was a bartender at one of my former establishments for many years. He was affable, charming, and almost always had something nice to say. He came to Bloomington in 1977 to go to college--and he never left. Everyone who came into that bar with any regularity knew James, or knew of him--the guy who looked like an old-school Irish bartender complete with mutton chops and a giant smile.

There was a change in management, during which a lot of the established bartenders and servers made their exodus--and I came in. He went to another restaurant/bar in town, and while he was gone, people continued to ask about him--where he was, how he was doing, etc.

His hours were cut at the second bar, so he came back to what was now my* bar, for a little while. It was clear, working on the same side of the bar with him, that James wasn't a happy-go-lucky guy who liked to drink--he was a full-blown alcoholic. His work suffered; our productivity suffered; and indeed, he was suffering. He left (my) restaurant again, and later he came back--under the conditions that he would always show up and would never drink on his shift (in the face of a rather established practice at my bar and many others). He agreed, and while he was slow, it seemed to work out well for a time.
*Bartenders are a territorial sort.

But, of course, eventually he failed to show up after a night of drinking and was fired.

I saw him one other time after that--he was at the bar next door. He was drunk, and not in a good place. He was broke and, by the looks of it, almost broken himself. He hid it well--but you could see the wretched sadness in his eyes.

On a Friday night a few weeks later, the hostess came up to me and asked if I knew how to get a hold of James. I asked her why and she said that James's mother was in the hospital and they needed to get a hold of him--and this was the only contact information that they had for him. I told her to talk to the manager. It was a busy night and I really didn't have the time to deal with it myself...although I felt bad for him.

As with any game of telephone, the message was screwed up--as I came to find out later. When I came into work Saturday night, I learned that it was James who was in the hospital--in a coma--and the hospital was trying to get a hold of his mother. We really didn't have to ask what was wrong with him--his rather large stomach was hard as a rock in a very unnatural way, and it only took a man of well over 200 pounds one drink to show signs of heavy inebriation. It was his liver, and we knew it.

When I came into work on Sunday afternoon, a bunch of old regulars who rarely came into the place anymore were at the bar crying. James was dead. He was 46.

The funeral was lovely, although sparsely attended: a (markedly) few former co-workers, a couple regulars-turned-friends, and family. Those of us who worked with him sat way in the back, huddled together and far away from most of the mourners--as if we were admitting some sort of guilt through dissociation.

James was a special man who made people feel better, through the chemicals we slung and, more impressively and importantly, through his ebullient personality. But, in the end, he was just a bartender--a man who served 1000s of people, whom hundreds knew by name or face, whom some lucky few of us will miss as a gentle human being, but whom most will just remember as that one really cool guy with the mutton chops-- if they remember him at all.

I have friends still in the business, and most seem to be doing fine, from what I can tell from 600 miles away. I'm actually going back to Bloomington soon to celebrate the wedding of two of my friends whom I met at my first bar gig--and most of the attendees whom I know met there too. But most of us--now 5+ years removed from that job-- are out of the business now, or at least the rougher side of it.

But the dark side of the business takes its toll, and I've known a few more than James that have been killed by it--and a couple more that are probably not too far away.

I'm just glad I got out when I did.


Mama Melch said...

So sadly spot-on. Bloomington seems to be such a black hole for some people. Some become addicted to alcohol, others to the never ending stream of hot young girls who just want to party until the graduate. Soo glad we got out of that cycle. :-)

Brian said...

You've got a great point about the industry buddy. I hope you're well in The District.

Anonymous said...

Every now and then I'll go to a bar and think "Hmm, it'd be nice to do that for a while." And then I remember my coworkers—who could've easily ended up like the one you describe—and I that thought quickly fades.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Jon.

Anonymous said...

Jon, that's a great, great (sad) essay. Both well-written and enlightening.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jon. A nice reminder of a guy I hope to never forget.

Anonymous said...

I feel funny living and have lived these moments. This is a good article but...Oh my..