Jillian Bandes has an article up at the new Culture11 that, at first, I was able to relate to. It’s about the time she took off of college to work as a bartender and how this taught her the thrill of becoming good at making drinks and introduced her to people she would not have otherwise met. I had a similar experience in the service industry, first in coffee and then in bartending. Without the friends I made in those jobs, I would have left DC by the end of my first year there (and had actually planned to, giving up my job and apartment before making a last minute decision to stay).
But then Jillian turns sour on the bartending experience:
By the end of my stint at the Shmunkhouse the chicken wings tasted gross and the kitchen staff became more lecherous. The diamond grills of our most infamous clientele started to seem ridiculous rather than novel, as did their enormous chains and wanton behavior. I began to eye the posse of 50-year-old men who hung out until 2AM every night of the week as less a source of tip revenue as much as an example of what can happen when one has literally nothing to live for besides the next “Purple Hooter”—a bluish concoction that left the drinker mostly incoherent.
Of all the cheap gin joints in the world, I wondered, why do they keep coming back here? I’d gone from imagining that learning how to live in Shmunkville was as important as anything I could learn back at college to realizing its most important lesson was that I never wanted to live that lifestyle myself.
In the years since I returned to college to finish my degree, I’ve loved going out as much as the next gal. Just not every night. Or even most nights. 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.
I’ll still frequent an occasional bar with friends. But I try not to overdo it, and I am not a “regular” at any bar. And when I have a family, I am quite sure I will stop going altogether.
No offense to Jillian, but maybe she just worked at a shitty bar (and maybe she’s being a little too judgmental of its clients). If I were staying up till 2 every morning serving purple hooters to 50-year-old men, I’d want to move on too. Luckily there are plenty of other places where the clients drink in moderation (usually), relate genuinely with the staff, and are more concerned with getting a well-balanced drink than maximizing its ABV. At its best, bartending engages with history, mixology, craft, and customers at a much more satisfying level.
Tending bar isn’t for everyone and I doubt that I’d ever want to make it my full-time career. If bars aren’t the right environment for Jillian, it’s good that she figured that out quickly. It does have its virtues though, and she’s painting with far too thick a brush here.