Two nights ago, a stranger asked me what I did for a living. When I told her that I tended bar, she said, “Well, you can’t be a bartender forever…” Ellipsis intended; she trailed off and waited for a conclusion. I assured her that I possess other skills, have held other positions, but that, for right now, I’m very happy doing what I do. She looked at me like I was lying, or worse yet, as if I am too young to realize my own condition (no, not a spring chicken here, but this woman was older, with children nearly my age…one of those still-beautiful creatures who has doomed herself to prudence and floral prints before nature ever demanded or recommended it). Having finally learned that it is a waste of time to argue with strangers unless someone’s life is on the line, I gave her a smile and told her she was right. I kept the rest to myself, but here is how I could have answered her:
No, I can’t work at this job forever. Eventually I’ll die or the bar will burn down, or perhaps I’ll marry well and stay at home (doubtful). I may move to a commune or a treehouse (although, never again a dry county). Worst case scenario, the owner will sell it, some awful chain will purchase the building, and none of the drinks will have the name of a liquor in them, forcing me to quit, as I’m just a shot-and-beer tender, the ultimate sympathizer but clueless when it comes to trends and frills. The bottom line, ma’am, is that I don’t think you know what I do. Yes, I open bottles of beer. I pour shots. I wipe counters, give change, fill pitchers, clean glasses, but that’s all incidental. Mostly, I make people smile. Once in a while, I get ’em to cry, but only when they clearly need to, and that’s their call, not mine.
For instance, today I served four hours of Coors Light and three shots of Jameson to a veteran whose brother is a CEO, whose ex-wife ran up twenty grand in credit card bills a week before she left him, who now rides with the rodeo for pleasure and whose son is about to lose his house. His best friend’s son died two weeks ago — dropped dead from an aneurysm on a horse. He was seventeen. His own father passed away in the car with him twelve years ago. It was a heart attack, and they were driving through Nebraska (his native state), and he had to cruise twenty more miles on the interstate with the body before he found an exit. The man was tough. I played him some Patsy Cline on the jukebox, “Walking After Midnight”, because it seemed to suit the mood, and then he told me that Patsy was his dad’s favorite, that if his brother was there with him he would be crying, and right after that, the old rodeo cowboy turned his bar stool around, and I stepped out back for a smoke so that we could both pretend I didn’t know he himself had fallen into tears.
I opened about six Miller Lites for Mark, who works in corporate real estate acquisitions downtown (he knows both of the law firms I worked for in my twenties and agrees that Bullaro & Carton is a far warmer climate than Gould & Ratner and has assured me that the Chicago Crowns are all absolute lunatics and gems). Then he told me that I look like a Kennedy with my hair pinned up all boho and asked to take me out for Italian on Thursday. As part of my job, I made sure he knew how good that made me feel but politely declined — you never date a customer. It ruins the mystique for everyone, and if you ask me, he just needed to feel some potential in himself anyhow.
I met Rudy and his cohorts, Colleen and Warren, three delightfully strange and honest people. I mixed a terrible attempt at a Long Island, made some mistakes, did my best to fix them, danced around the fragile ego and mean mannerisms of my put-upon manager, tapped my feet, sang along, watched the clock, felt some love, and then I went home, leaving my shift replacement to look after the next batch of people in need of consideration and condolences. Forever lasts as long as I do, and I can do this wherever I go for the duration.
That wasn’t what this woman wanted or needed from me, though. When I told her that I wrote and imagine I will eventually settle into that, that I’m just a few semesters shy of my degree and might teach, she said, “I used to write poetry”, and she almost laughed, but it came out all breath, no pitch or heart behind it. I let her have it, her superiority, her wisdom, dry air, regrets, judgment, sorrow, her moment, then I went back to my side of the bar we were in, and I let the owner buy me a drink on my night off.