I Was a Bartender Before the Pandemic But I Probably Won’t Step Behind Another Bar Again
Taking a stroll through my town’s main street, you could hardly tell that we’re in the midst of a pandemic. Tables and chairs have migrated from inside restaurants to the sidewalks where fresh air circulates freely. On weekends, crowds struggle to stay distanced while they wait for tables and reservations. The diners, maskless and unbothered, are the most obvious indications of the life we used to have before the pandemic.
When I pass through these crowds on my daily evening walk, I can’t help but notice the servers. Their eyes betray a harried and exhausted look behind their plastic face shields. You can feel that their masks are covering perpetual grimaces while they’re on their shifts.
Sometimes I’ll turn my head in a quick glance to the interiors of the restaurants hoping to see the bartenders — my kindred spirits. It’s hard to tell the look on their faces, but I can’t imagine it’s too far off from those of their coworkers.
I was working at two bars in downtown Los Angeles when Covid-19 shut us down. Before that, I worked as a bartender in Oakland for a few years which is where I really got my start.
The first night I stepped into a bar to train to be a barback I couldn’t tell between a pint glass and a collins glass. And after months of lugging buckets of ice, cleaning up spilled drinks, and dunking my hands in scalding hot water tinged blue with sanitizer, I was finally allowed to start mixing drinks.
Moving from a barback to a bartender is a badge of honor.
That job changed me. It turned me from a self-conscious neurotic to someone who learned to let go of the small things (I’m still pretty self-conscious though). I have great memories of insanely busy nights punctuated with shots of liquor with my coworkers — fuel to keep us going until 4 a.m. when we would finish cleaning up the bar.
What’s so interesting about the bar breed of people is how it becomes a way of life for them. When they’re not at work, you’ll probably find them in another bar, perched atop a stool with an air of belonging that’s hard to mimic. The liquor flows and many of them regularly drink with a senseless abandon that conveys the feeling this is what I’m meant to do, these are my people.
It’s a world that I wanted to be immersed in, but I always had one foot out of the door. As a single mother, there was no room for the same kind of senseless abandon in my life, not when free time was a luxury I could seldom afford. But still, I was content to participate in it from a distance.
I remember regular jokes from one of my bosses about how bartending is a recession-proof job. In fact, recessions just drive people to drink at bars more to numb themselves with liquor and frivolous human interactions fueled by intoxication.
But we never thought to ask ourselves whether our jobs were pandemic-proof.
The restaurant and bar industry is undeniably one of the hardest hit during this pandemic. Despite attempts at restructuring their businesses towards take-out and hastily assembled outdoor dining areas, restaurants and bars are permanently closing in droves.
I remember scouring r/bartenders in May and trying to prod discussions about what other out-of-work bartenders were planning for the future. I was surprised to see how many people had decided to end their bar careers, resigning themselves to the fact that serving liquor to ungrateful turnips who might blow a gasket if asked to practice proper safety precautions wasn’t worth the harm it could do to themselves or vulnerable family members at home.
The entitlement of customers was already bad before the pandemic. The pandemic just made it worse.
I never got a chance to say a proper goodbye to the bars but I remember my last week there as muddled with uncertainty and defined by my incredulity that no one in management had mentioned anything about the pandemic. The piss poor lack of planning on the part of the government only translated into an inability for management to prepare for widespread closures or to tell their employees to brace themselves.
There was no thought in my mind that the last shift I worked would be the last time I would be there or that it might be the last time I ever stepped behind a bar again.
What’s resulted since then is a strange type of mourning — a mourning that struggles to keep up with such a sudden change— like losing a loved one who is here one moment and gone the next because of an instant accident, or being left to figure out what’s happened to a pet that’s never to be seen again.
What are you supposed to feel when you never got to say a proper goodbye?
I’ve chosen not to go back not because I can’t, but because trying to navigate an already tenuous job that lacked benefits (and oftentimes sanity) was already tough before the pandemic. Covid-19 has made it even more difficult with dwindling customers and tips, and of course, an airborne virus.
I salute the barkeeps who’ve chosen to stay on for the long haul even during these uncertain times because of their love for the craft. I salute the barkeeps who stay on because they don’t have a choice. And I look forward to walking arm in arm with the former barkeeps who are embarking for new and uncertain pastures. We can only hope they’re greener.