Sunday, July 1, 2012

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

"What do you like doing more, bartending or practicing law?" my counselor asked a couple of months ago at my intake session.  It was one of two questions that stood out to me that day.

"Bartending." I answered quickly.  

"I had a feeling you would say that."  

Truthfully, the answer isn't that simple.  Bartending is what I've been doing for nearly ten years.  I was just 22 years old when I first walked into Charly's and submitted my job application.  I had just walked out on a job as a cocktail waitress - the only job I've ever just walked out on - when the managers asked me to pay for a ticket for a couple of dine and dashers.  "Wait!  They were just kidding!  You don't have to pay for the ticket, just come back!" the bartender, Schmitty, called after me as he chased me to the parking lot.  I wasn't turning around though.  I never liked cocktail waitressing.  I didn't like the access the customers had to me, I preferred the security of standing behind the bar over weaving in and out of tables.  I also didn't like playing second fiddle to Schmitty or any of the other guys.  I wanted my own show, and I could have it at Charly's.  Cindy, the bar manager, called me back right away.  I never even met Charlie until my first day of work.  

Jed was my trainer.  He was about my age and a complete wreck - both of us were back then.  We were allowed to drink on shift and Jed regularly got drunk and told customers what he thought of them.  Jed was orphaned when his dad shot Jed's mother and then himself, and Jed had been raised by his grandmother, Sue, also a regular at the bar, and Sue commonly bore the brunt of Jed's anger.  But when Sue wasn't there, anyone would do.  Jed got fired not long after I started, and Charlie cut my hours too to hire Cindy's son.  When Tony didn't work out, I was bumped up to five nights a week and quickly sucked into bar life.  

There's just something about a neighborhood bar.  Friends are made easily there, and Sean and I clicked right away.  "I bet you don't know who wrote this song," he challenged me one evening. "Robert Zimmerman, better known to most of us as Bob Dylan." Sean was in the death throws of a four year relationship with his live-in girlfriend Autumn.  A few months later, Sean and I were dating.  Sean didn't seem to mind that I was a bit of a mess.  He was a mess himself, and we were messy together.  The afternoon that I found Sean, everything happened so quickly.  The ambulance and the police and the coroner, the questioning, the phone calls, the priest called to the scene to comfort me. . . it kinda felt like I was walking in a movie, like it couldn't be real.  I wasn't scheduled to work that night, but I felt like I had to tell Cindy right away.  I called her into the office and she could tell I was upset.  I hadn't cried, I couldn't cry because I couldn't believe it, but as Cindy teetered behind me on her characteristic heels that were much too young for her, as I poured the story out to her and as she hugged me to her fake breasts and for once I didn't resist her, it became very real. I left the office and headed for the door, feeling the eyes of concern on me, and I remember Bob grabbing me by the arm and saying, "I don't know what's wrong, but it's going to be okay."  

My connection to that place was really sealed that day.  I could have quit, I guess, and everyone would have understood, but I wanted to be there because my memories of Sean were there.  After that, I saw the bar through a lot of changes and they saw me through changes too.  Patrons have come and gone, moving in, moving out, getting sober, passing away. I was accepted into law school and proudly passed the letter around the bar.  Charlie died and the bar was sold.  Rick and Lynn took over and Cindy quit.  The 6 AM shift was dropped so Charlotte moved on too, and before long Cheri was gone too.  I was used to being the baby of the bar, Charlotte, Cheri and Cindy each at least 20 years my senior, but Lynn brought in younger girls to revive the place.  That's when they hired Lisa and Elise.  

I didn't like either of them at first.  I couldn't understand why they were so full of energy.  This was an old man bar, and they were loud and bouncy.  It's not until now, 6 years later, that I realize how much they breathed new life into me too. I hadn't realized how much I was becoming an old man myself, how bitter I was becoming.  Elise and Lisa had been dealt a rough hand too -- it seems to be a running theme among bartenders -- but they weren't soured.  They, along with Jessica and Natalie, have become some of my closest friends.  It's funny to me now to hear them tell me I am strong.  I'm strong in large part because of them.  I also swear a lot more. 

You learn a lot about yourself working in a bar.  I've learned that for a woman, the odds are in her favor.  If a girl wants to feel pretty, she should go to a bar alone.  Men will clamor to buy her drinks and tell her she's beautiful.  When she's the bartender and the center of attention they will do so even more.  But when I opened up, when I let people into my life and I shared my troubles with them and more importantly, listened with honest interest to their troubles, I found that I was much more satisfied.  I was useful, and needed, and genuinely appreciated and it changed the way I carried myself and that changed the way people saw me.  I didn't need to dress like I did when I first started.  The patrons liked me for the person I am and it was a wild revelation, and one of the best things to happen to me.  When I graduated from law school and passed the bar, celebrating the occasion at Charly's - now called The Wright Place, I felt even more valued by the patrons.  Lawyer after law firm after government organization dismissed my qualifications, but every time a customer walks in and says, "I'm glad you're here, I have a question for you" I know that I'm still doing something productive with my life.  

I've learned that I don't have to put up with crap.  One night years ago, after breaking up a fight between two girls I tried to return to behind the bar when a guy I'd never seen before tried to cut me off by holding a pocket knife in my face.  "What are you going to do?  Stab me?  Get the fuck out of my way, I'm calling the police." He moved, ran out the back door, and I followed him with the phone in my hand and the 911 operator on the line.  I don't know where that came from.  I suspect the courage came from the heat of the moment.  But what a rush. 

I've learned that sometimes, you do have to put up with crap.  Sometimes, everything in your life is falling apart but to the person in front of you asking for a drink, everything in their life may be falling apart too and to them that's the most important thing.  For more than a month after Gabriel was diagnosed with anencephaly, we kept his condition quiet.  Many nights patrons would come in complaining about things that seemed so petty and it took all I had not to come unglued.  But it was good practice.  Because for the last year - more than a year - I've wanted to come unglued but I can't and I won't.  The world doesn't stop spinning just because you've got a problem.  Everyone's got problems.  If no one had problems, I wouldn't have a job.  My job, both of them, is to fix problems.  And I can't fix problems if I come unglued.  And if I can't fix problems anymore, I will lose a big part of what keeps me happy.  

More than 8 years after I first walked into the bar, I feel like we are experiencing the greatest changes yet.  Jess, Lisa and I got married. I'm getting divorced.  Jess, Lisa, Natalie and I all had babies. We're over 30 or pushing 30, a general expiration date for bartenders.  I guess that's why Lisa never came back after maternity leave, why Jess is cutting her hours dramatically and why Elise is quitting to go to school full-time.  Even Jed got married to one of the girls later hired by Rick and Lynn.  She had three daughters already, one of them a teenager, but they clicked, and now they've got a family together.  The last time I talked to Jed, he told me he was sober now, and getting baptized soon.

I wonder where that leaves me.  The hand therapist asked me if I have thought about what I am going to do with my life, hinting that I can't keep up bartending forever.  I looked at her curiously.  I guess there's always that lawyer thing, it's got the potential to be a pretty solid back-up plan. I feel like I've got a good grip on who I am, but if I stopped bartending it would strip away a big part of who I am.  I know I may have fallen into a trap, allowing what I do to become such a definitive part of my identity.  

Sometimes I hear patrons talking about the way the bar looks, about the wood paneling that hasn't been updated in years or about the old bartop that was brought over from Freddy's Top of the Hill.  I always think the outdated appearance is part of the bar's charm.  If they only knew how much HAD changed since the bar was established over 20 years ago.  If they only knew how much I had changed right along with it. 

1 comment:

  1. This was beautiful Andrea. Thanks for sharing this. You've had a lifetime of changes just in the past year.