I’ve been a full-time bartender for the past 25 years, working my way through this business in everything from pool halls to the seven-time James Beard Award-nominated bar program I currently run today.
I started my career in college, where I plied my trade in a rough-and-tumble bar across the tracks from the university I was attending during the daylight hours. I was the youngest bartender on staff by a number of decades. To say I was the new guy would have been an understatement: many of our regulars had been coming in since well before I was born. My favorite coworker, Nancy Bertini, had been working there even longer than that—and she took me under her wing.
Nancy was the epitome of professional. She was fast, courteous, undyingly patient and yet kept control of the room with a firm hand. She believed in the honor of the job and taught me on my first night that there were two things no bartender should ever discuss at work: religion and politics. And believe me, back then nobody enjoyed a loud political debate like a bunch of guys who fought in World War II. But I followed Nancy’s lead, nodding and frowning in agreement when conversations with guests turned taboo, sometimes helping to gently steer the conversation in a different direction. “Hey guys, it’s almost time for Wheel of Fortune!”
But that was then and this is now.
If the Coronavirus pandemic has taught the current generation of American bartenders one thing, it’s that nobody seems to care about what happens to us. We gave up our livelihood in the name of protecting people from a deadly virus and months later we were still on hold with our local unemployment department, trying desperately to scrape together enough money for rent, utilities or food. Never mind the fact that most bartenders were already living without healthcare and struggling to make a living wage before the pandemic.
Based on the conversations I’ve had with other working bartenders over the past 14 months, the average tolerance for guests who don’t move through our social spaces in a courteous and respectful way has dropped considerably. The fatigue that comes from repeatedly having to remind guests to put on a mask when approaching the bar to order a drink is very real. Showing patience for someone ordering food on a restrictive fad diet is one thing; maintaining composure with a guest who couldn’t care less about transmitting a deadly virus to “the help” is very much another.
Bartenders have always had to keep one eye on their service well, and another eye scanning the crowd, watching vigilantly for theft, potential violence, drink tampering and a 100 other potentially bad things that happen every night in bars. Now, they’ve got even more on their plate and as a result that endlessly patient level of hospitality is starting to reach the breaking point.
As a result of this and the endless number of other injustices in this country, bartenders are taking a very different approach to service from the generation I was trained by: in this climate, bartenders feel absolutely compelled to take a political stance in a world that feels hell-bent on keeping them from achieving physical and financial health. I’ve had many conversations with bartenders who were openly and proudly denouncing the type of guest they don’t wish to serve anymore. And as for those guests who can’t be bothered to wear a simple piece of cloth over their nose and mouth? Most of the bartenders I’ve spoken with don’t care about losing their business…forever.
And yet, one has to consider the question: are we going to be responsible for further polarizing this already polarized world by not welcoming everyone—even those who couldn’t care less about us—into one of civilization’s original and most sacred social spaces? Is this where we’re headed? “Oh we don’t go there anymore, it’s a Republican bar.” That is the next step from where we are, and it’s very, very dangerous place to be.
It’s hard right now. Believe me, I know—I’ve been in the fuckin’ thick of it for more than a year now. The once-thriving bar industry that I’ve dedicated over half my life to, through literal blood, sweat and tears, now lies in shambles. And in addition to all of the other losses I’ve suffered with you, I’m now witnessing our delicate social fabric being torn apart. Bars in America have always been places where people of all walks of life come together and brush up against one another. It’s not without its frictions, but at the end of the day it’s incredibly healthy and necessary for a functioning society. We don’t arrive at understanding without engaging with other human beings. And we don’t engage with other human beings—in a human and humane way—over the internet.
It’s going to be a long, slow, and potentially painful transition back to the sort of world we remember from before the pandemic. In fact, that world may no longer exist. In every situation like this, someone has to step up and be the bigger person. But that responsibility can’t land on the shoulders of the working class this time. It’s going to have to be a group effort or it’s not going to happen.
So, after a quarter of a century behind the bar, the only wisdom I have for those who ply their trade behind the mahogany is the same advice I have for anyone who walks in off the street: this world would be a much better place if we could all find some compassion for others during our short time here. As Nancy used to say to me, “We’ll never know what happened to that person before they walked through our door. All we can do is take care of them when they’re here with us.”
Here’s to hoping we can all remember that the next time we’re all at the bar together.