Recently I got a tattoo from my cousin, of a cherub next to a drink called the sidecar; it’s orange and comes in a martini glass with a silvery sugar rim. I came up with the idea in a night, and it turned out better than I could’ve imagined. To me, it means something along the lines of including my cousin’s art on my body, and implying the significance of being a bartender as it has affected my life as a whole. The more tattoos I get, the less important an easily digestible story of why seems. But I think this is true of many people; the more people with lots of tattoos I meet, the less important the why seems when compared to the quality of the art, the care put into the work. I am a bartender right now, though for how much longer, I have no idea. I guess what’s important is that I am a bartender today, and that this job has taken up a great deal of my physical time and mental energy in a time of youth, complication, and transition in my life.
Almost every shift at work, someone asks me some question that initiates me talking about my grad school, and every time I respond that bartending is not what I want to do for my career. It’s a reflex, a desire I have to defend my brain to someone looking at me as a person working a job they assume to take no intelligence. I hate myself for my need to please other people, to feel emptied out if their opinion of me is lowered.
But in my defense, this statement about me not wanting bartending for my career is entirely true, truer, at least, than the statement that I only bartend for the money. If I was only in it for the money, I think I would’ve left a long time ago. I would’ve found a nice office job with comparable fiscal opportunity, would have given up the physical and emotional exhaustion that I get from being a young girl trying to support myself in the service industry. I bartend because I like to be social, I like to drink, I like the people that I meet. I like the freedom, the hours, the ability to spend my days how I like, the feeling of being in on a secret when I interact with my coworkers in front of customers. How many times have we all gone someplace and longed to climb over the barrier separating customers paying for a service and the people who are too cool to ever pay for that same service? I remember the first time I worked in a restaurant, how strange and amazing it felt to be able to go into the kitchen, behind the bar, talk to my coworkers as a human on their level, not as someone they needed to pretend in front of. It felt like stepping behind the curtain of a reality that I always felt didn’t make total sense.
The service industry is a really interesting, transient place. In my experience working in other types of workplaces, I’ve seen a lot of the same social problems, but these workplaces don’t get as a bad rap as the service industry does. At my marketing job, I got laid off with no warning and with no severance. Sometimes adtech startups close without much warning, just like restaurants. At my job at an environmental nonprofit in San Francisco, my boss was hired and then quit in a matter of a few weeks because of how much she felt crippled by upper management. Sometimes you can’t count on your manager to save you in a corporate workplace and must learn to swim and be transient to save yourself, just like in a bar. Of course it isn’t unusual for bartenders to be alcoholics; I’ve seen it firsthand. But so much of my clientele at the bars where I have worked has been young and old people from corporate workplaces, trying to get social, trying to talk about things other than work, trying, in a way, to escape from a portion of their lives that appears to be taking over. Sometimes these people keep coming back, until they breach the line between being a person in a bar and being a regular, someone using alcohol as a form of escapism, and talking to the bartender as a form of therapy.
Of course it isn’t unusual for bartenders to feel guilt for the ways they are slowly killing themselves and the ways they are consistently confronted with the culpability of slowly killing others; almost every one has seen both of these things firsthand. But making drinks is an art form, talking to strangers is a form of social intelligence you must have a natural knack for, patience under duress is a virtue.
I think of my job as a constant learning experience. I have thought of all of my jobs this way; it is the only way in which I can feel satisfied each day, the only way to avoid the anger that grips me when I am bored, when I feel as if I am wasting limited time. It isn’t that I inherently enjoy cutting fruit, measuring the same ingredients for the same drinks a thousand times. I enjoy the learning aspect of working with food and drinks, of finding better ways of completing a simple task, of putting together pieces to form a complete puzzle, of things going the way that I expect, of being part of this whole process that looks so much more complicated and impressive than it actually is. I love the power that comes with turning the action of mixing a drink into something the layperson doesn’t recognize how to do anymore. I like the performance, I like being under pressure in this way, in the way that if I mess something up, it isn’t the end of the world, and I am the one with the control, who knows the secrets, who can give to the customer whatever I decide to make, and they do not know my world, and so they cannot call me on it.
But, as a bartender, my power is limited to the people that recognize it. I am part of a secret world, but it is also a world that is dependent on completing a tangible service, and of completing this service well enough that people wish to give me money for it. To work front of house in a restaurant means accepting a job that does not require an extensive educational background, and accepting the fact that most people think they can do your job just as well, or better than, you, and they want you to know that. In many ways, I am no more important than my body. My wages are only as good as my tips. The things I do don’t necessarily require mental contemplation, my brain is not valued as much as my attitude, my ability to physically attract people, the opportunities I have to trick people into giving me money. I don’t get angry when people tell me that I get most of my tips because I am a hot girl, not because I am a good bartender, but I’ve had people tell me that a lot. It isn’t something that I am allowed to forget.
Sometimes I get lucky, and I have conversations that are stimulating. Sometimes people understand that I am a human being, with human interests, and with a life outside of the drinks I can make for them. Sometimes people ask me questions, sometimes they come back to see me again, sometimes they have advice for me, things for me to read, people for me to meet. I get to talk about my research, about my school, about the difficulty of living in the mentally gripping world of academia and the physically and emotionally demanding world of the service industry at the same time, often in the same day. But sometimes I don’t. Sometimes people three times my age get drunk and flirt with me, sometimes they say things that are demeaning, sometimes I want to cry, or scream. And always, always, they want to know more about my skin, about my body, about what things happened in the world to allow me to come out into it looking the way that I do.
Sometimes it seems like the whole world is on a mission to get at my body, to claw past my skin, to swim in my blood, to snap through my bones if only to exercise the possibility of full control of me. Sometimes it feels like I can’t stop this, that it will happen regardless of what I feel, and that whatever happens, will, ultimately, be my fault. Bartending feels a lot like this. Being a woman feels a lot like this. Being ambiguously brown feels a lot like this.
There are reasons that being a bartender feels empowering. When compared to being a server, this is even more true. But I’ve been learning recently that it isn’t the job title that comes with the empowerment, so much as it is the race and the sex and the unequal opportunity of the bartender that gives power to himself.
How do I explain myself without saying things I have said before? How do I make problems as small as wine glasses and keg changes and silverware shortages and liquor inconsistencies appear to the layperson as the affronts they are to someone in the service industry? I can do my job while drunk, not that I have ever regularly done so. But it’s pretty well-known throughout the service industry that the job is a physical one, that bartending is a series of memorizing recipes, of understanding consistencies of the palate, of doing whatever it takes to please someone so that they pay you for doing something they are perfectly capable of doing for themselves. But what does it mean, to have a job in which others feel above you, feel justified to demean your work? My mom has a master’s degree in speech pathology, and yet she works in a school, and is regularly corrected by non-experts about topics on which she spent hours researching in order to graduate from her master’s program. This is the same thing.
I understand this intimately. My whole life has been a series of people trying to make snap judgements on my entire being based on what I look like. And I have been in the unique position of making this process of judgement complicated, because I do not immediately adhere to stereotypes. And this process of proving myself, my identity, in a way that is palatable to most people, is exhausting and interesting and hurtful and exhilarating all at once.