Spilling Secrets

A bartender opens up about what it’s really like to spend your nights as a therapist/wingman/entertainer/best friend for an entire roomful of inebriated New Yorkers.

Spilling Secrets

The unspoken agreement states that patrons are ordering that next drink and staying a little longer because they’re having so much fun, not because they don’t want to go home to an angry spouse, or worse, to an empty apartment. Their sad stories are for your entertainment and shared with incredulity, not out of a desperate need for someone to talk to. With a good bartender, that illusion is never shattered, and the patrons get the healing they really need. The casual conversations about their lives provide an outlet so they can go home free of anger. The advice offered as a natural part of the discourse actually helps them figure out what to do.

Lilly O'Donnell working a Sunday night at a bar in the East Village.
Lilly O’Donnell working a Sunday night at a bar in the East Village.

Sometimes you want to ignore the really annoying customers, like our regular who drinks a case of Bud a day, can often be heard puking in the bathroom, and occasionally makes racist comments about Obama. But as my good friend and coworker Leah pointed out, “We’re probably the only human interaction that guy has all day.” With that in mind, I continue to smile as I set down bottle after bottle in front of him. I even throw in an occasional “Yeah, fuck them” when he mutters about his enemies.

Bartending is one of those strange occupations in which, if you’re any good at your job, people forget you’re working at all (See also: actors, sex workers). The danger is that if you’re really good at it, you can forget, too. You have to build up a persona to tend bar. If you have to kick someone out, the persona might be meaner than you; if an irritating customer wants to talk your ear off, the persona might be nicer than you. Either way, if you spend enough time playing a role, it gets harder and harder to tell where it ends and you begin.

I dole out relationship advice left and right, never mind that I’m single, bitter and afraid of commitment. I agree that people’s kids, who are often around my age, are ungrateful and just don’t know how good they’ve got it. I feign indignation at rude coworkers, shop clerks, traffic cops. But as with any caretaking job, other people’s problems can get exhausting.

“When I was younger I just wanted to help, wanted to be there for people beyond the point of basic empathy,” says Ashley, another bartender. “I would allow myself to feel hurt for them, thinking that maybe it would lessen their own pain.” One time, a woman came into Ashley’s bar fighting back tears. When Ashley asked her what was wrong, she unfurled the long saga of her cheating boyfriend.

“Having experienced that same heartbreak a time or two, I just felt heartbroken for her,” Ashley says. “It felt like I was going through it myself, reliving my past for a brief moment.”

Empathy is a beautiful thing, but when you hear sad stories all day every day, you have to put a cap on it for your own sake.

When my mother was in school to become a massage therapist, she was taught to stop every so often while working on a client to shake out her hands, exhale and loosen up her shoulders. The teacher explained that during the massage, she was absorbing their tension into her hands — literal tension because of the physical exertion needed to get deep into the muscles, and the more abstract emotional tension that she was kneading out of them. The teacher stressed the importance of taking the tension from the client without absorbing it into yourself. She also suggested that masseuses get body work themselves when possible.

This is why I sit down on the other side of the bar and take my turn as a patron after every shift. It’s a necessary part of the job. Doctors need doctors. Lawyers need lawyers. And bartenders definitely need bartenders. If we went straight home after a day of playing therapist and making endless superficial small talk, we’d forever lose the ability to have a normal human interaction. So we try to relearn, using the same crutch as anyone else who has trouble talking to other people.

I’ve made a joke to customers more than once when they’ve watched me mix another drink after finishing my shift. “The most important one of the day!” I’ve said. “This one’s for me!”

But when I step out from behind the bar, I don’t automatically shed the lessons and habits of bartending. That’s impossible. I take all of the secrets and confessions with me, all of those burdens the customers shoved in my direction along with their empty glasses.

I don’t know whether cynical people become bartenders or bartending makes people cynical. It’s probably a bit of both, but no matter how jaded you are when you start, seeing people at their drunken, depressed, sloppy worst, day in and day out, is bound to make it worse.

“I don’t think I expect worse of people,” Ashley says when I ask her if tending bar has lowered her opinion of humanity. “I think I just like them less.” She laughs, even though she is serious — exactly the kind of deflection that time behind the bar forces you to perfect.

There’s a guy who comes into my bar a few times a week with his girlfriend. They seem to be really into each other; they hold hands and when she looks tired he’ll ask sweetly if she wants to go home. I’m friendly with them both. I usually give them their first drink for free and keep up with the smaller dramas of their lives.

Sometimes the guy comes in with a different girl. He’s just as cuddly with her. And I act the same way as I do when he’s with his girlfriend: I make conversation, buy back a few drinks, smile.

If these people were my real-life friends, the guy would be putting me in an incredibly awkward spot. I’d wonder if I should say something to his girlfriend, or at least to him. But behind the bar it’s my job to accommodate, and to keep my judgments to myself. So I say nothing. And when the two-timing blows up in his face, I’ll be a sympathetic ear for whichever pieces of the triangle come in looking for some solace.

It takes work to cultivate the kind of detachment required to mask my disgust, to not let on that something’s amiss when the girlfriend is there. In order to build up the kind of indifference required to go along with something like that, you have to accept that scummy behavior is just part of what it means to be human. You have to tell yourself that this guy’s not an anomaly; this is just the way it goes. Unfortunately, once you develop that level of cynicism, you can’t just leave it behind the bar with your bottle opener when your shift ends.

“You get really good at keeping people at a distance,” Leah says. “If you show any weakness behind the bar you’ll get taken advantage of. They’ll eat you alive. So you put up a wall.” Problem is, once the wall is up, it doesn’t come down so easily.

“We forget how to be vulnerable,” Leah says. “It’s terrible for your love life.” And it can be terrible for friendships. After exchanging banal chitchat with a bunch of strangers, I often feel by the time I’m off work and with my friends that my patience reserves have been exhausted. I can’t always muster fake interest in landlord battles or boyfriend troubles when I’m off the clock. Ashley optimistically points out that maybe the depletion of patience is not always a negative.

“If anything, tending bar has made me a more honest friend,” she says. “I don’t feel the need to sugarcoat things, not because I’m a bitch, but because I don’t want someone I care about to go around acting like one of the drunk assholes.”

But sometimes it is necessary to go around acting like one of the drunk assholes. When you spend all day and/or all night in a bar, you witness the clumsy, groping beginnings of relationships and their tearful, curse-filled ends. You see the girl who had perfect makeup and an expensive handbag on her way in stumble out while wiping the vomit from her chin. You watch from behind your hands as a disagreement over the rules of the pool table escalates almost to the point of banging on chests like gorillas.

This is all much easier to process if sometimes you are that clumsy groper, that crier or puker, that gorilla. I find I’m much more tolerant of the more obnoxious drunks when I’ve recently been one. Bartenders, maybe more than anyone else, deserve to get drunk and rowdy and hold up their exposed nerves for all to see.

“I’m usually so much of a mother figure that when I’m getting drunk I announce it,” says Ama, who has been bartending for nineteen years: “Don’t expect me to get your asses home tonight; I’m getting drunk.’” It’s a conscious decision to lay down the position of responsibility.

When I got a job as a bartender at my favorite bar, it didn’t occur to me to stop hanging out there as a patron. But switching back and forth between the two roles proved more complicated than I anticipated.

This summer had its sharp edges, and there were several nights when my best friend and I, sitting at the bar, acknowledged the exact moment we were about to go from casually having some drinks to getting smashed. We’d raise our shot glasses and our eyebrows and say, “See you tomorrow!” I remember what followed as a montage of yelling (way too loud), dancing (it’s not a bar where people dance), smoking (I quit seven years ago), and crying (more publicly than I have since pre-school). There was one night that we refer to as “our West Side Story night,” because it included singing, dancing and a fight. And hot Latino men.

The vulnerability of getting drunk and acting a fool is at exact odds with the role of the bartender: the grounded adviser, the vessel for everyone else’s troubles, the babysitter. When you switch over from bartender to regular, you break down the wall that you so carefully built from behind the bar. This is helpful in that it allows the bartender to retain some shred of faith in humanity, but it’s also risky to blur the carefully negotiated lines that define the different roles.

The adjustment back into the role of bartender after a stint as a regular is much more awkward than the initial switch from bartender to patron. One night I quit a game of pool right in the middle because I was too drunk to keep playing, and when one of my regulars protested, I told him to go fuck himself. The next day, I had to come into work and be the person maintaining order.

When you’re back behind the bar, you have to reclaim some semblance of authority. You have to once again be the sounding board for other people’s trouble, a role that’s impossible to fill if your own problems come center stage. If you’ve ever been at a bar where the bartender was complaining to you about his or her life, you probably felt cheated. It’s a role reversal. It’s not the way it’s supposed to work. A group of people came in recently and told me they’d left half-full drinks at a different bar because the bartender was texting and on the verge of tears. They didn’t know how to react, so they left.

When you step back behind the bar, you slap on a smile that says you’re there to have a good time with everyone else. You pour, listen, nod and sympathize. You dial the conversation back down to idle chitchat and rebuild the wall that keeps other people’s problems from burrowing under your skin like scabies and following you home.

“When I’m out, I’m loose and having fun,” Ama says. But the fun version doesn’t get to go to work. “If I let that person behind the bar I wouldn’t have a job anymore.” Just as it’s incredibly necessary for a bartender to take a turn being the drunk mess once in a while, it’s equally necessary to leave that mess where it belongs, and not bring it back behind the bar with you. Except that compartmentalization is never that neat and clean, and bits of each role bleed into the other.