“Bars are the places where life in the city reveals itself…where ordinary people go have a drink, ponder the weather, and are always ready for a chat. Buy a newspaper and enjoy the ebb and flow of people.” -Paulo Coelho
Ah, the ebb and flow of people. Simultaneously enchanting and monotonous, especially from the perspective of someone partially responsible for the flow. Working on and off as a waitress for the past four years, a gig that’s helped me stay afloat through college and the aftermath, I’m no stranger to the bar habitat. I refill water glasses as strangers become friends, watch as people sip their first legal drinks, cut customers off who’ve been drinking for as long as I’ve been alive and behave like it’s their first time, clean up puke, watch break ups unfold, clear off plates at the end of a successful Tinder date, and so on. I play a part in the lives of strangers, peek into their existence, but only from a safe distance. I’m mostly a means to an end, but I’m used to it.
Last night, as I was asking a young man for his food order, he interrupted me mid-question to ask if he could take a photo of me. He was drunk. I was busy with other tables and didn’t feel like having my picture taken, not that I needed to explain myself. As I made my way to another table, I heard him say to his friend, “What else could she be busy doing? Making nine dollars an hour?” And much like those of us responsible for the flow often have to, I bit my tongue. I know how to pick my battles, and this newly 21-year-old wasn’t worth the breath – no matter how much I wanted to retaliate.
In the midst of my fury, my growing desire to tell him off, I watched his friends feel genuinely ashamed to be seen with him. I have to admit this felt good, but not as good as the choice to be bigger than them, to keep my cool under pressure. And that’s truly the key to serving it seems – keeping your cool, problem-solving with patience and empathy first. Skills that have taught me to understand why people behave the way they do. I often feel like a zookeeper tending to her animals, both maintaining a quiet sense of authority and assimilating to their energy. It’s intuitive and strategic, absolutely nothing like being a customer on the other side of the bar.
Funny how much a bar transforms when you’re shift’s over and you can finally have a drink. You’re primal again, free at last. These are the moments you really get to know the regulars, your coworkers, the locals and strangers who no longer expect anything from you. You’re a person again, as wild as the other animals on either side of you. This is when I find truth in Paulo Coelho’s words about life in the city revealing itself. All of that strategic patience and empathy displayed during the job bleeds into your off time and pays off. Suddenly, though you might never have imagined it, these “strangers” respect you, trust you, unload onto you, buy you shots in appreciation if you’re lucky. You’ve made an impact in their lives, however big or small.
For so long, I focused most of my energy during server shifts feeling angry and disappointed in myself for being stuck in a job that didn’t align with my passion or calling. I would overlook the experiences with strangers and coworkers, conversations that made me see life differently, and the day-to-day challenges that helped me grow up. As soon as I walked out of that world, I’d miss it. The people and the world they contributed to latched onto me.
My first legitimate serving gig introduced me to incredible people, which led to some of the best experiences I had in college: steak dinners and wine at my boss’s house, bringing out pancakes to fellow students and friends, blasting music and pregaming at the diner before party-hopping on campus. The fast-paced environment, the constant problem-solving, provided me with a new, thicker, and far more resilient layer of skin that prepared me for the future. I owe a great deal of my evolution to bars and restaurants – the truest union of souls revolving around our most constant and dire needs: food, drink, and companionship. What could be more human?
Painting 1: Michael Flohr
Painting 2: Alvaro Castaganet