“Hey, you know this is beneath you, right? Like, I can tell you could be doing so much more.”
He put his hand on mine when he, this man I’d never seen before, said this and looked into my eyes, searching them for the spark of understanding I knew he hoped he’d planted. I looked back at him and, with our eyes locked, I felt a surge of familiar emotion: Like I wanted to reach across the bar and slash him in the face with my wine key.
I hate that it’s a feeling I’m familiar with, but I’m 31 years old and have been bartending full-time for almost a decade. I have heard every iteration of When are you going to get a real job? there is.
I’ve watched confusion and then horror crawl across the faces of bar guests who have asked me what I’m going to school for and struggle to process my answer: that I graduated from college years ago, that I finished a master’s degree in 2014.
And I’m so very, very tired of explaining myself.
Of all the stereotypes of people who work behind the bar — that we’re uneducated, have drug and alcohol problems, are promiscuous — the most damaging is that we’re in this line of work as merely a stopover until we “get a real job” — that we’re somehow incapable of ascending from the world of hours on our feet to the supposedly more professional realm of hours sitting behind a desk.
The thought that we’re doing what we do because we want to has largely yet to sink into the national psyche. The thought that we do it because we more than like it (we truly love it) and that, for many, it is an intellectually challenging, creatively fulfilling career — that the jobs our college educations have qualified us for failed to provide — doesn’t register.
This disconnect affects everything from tips and wages to the prospect of paid leave, from #MeToo to people simply saying please and thank you. It’s a prejudice that’s easily absorbed because it comes at you from all sides, parents, and peers.
Most insidiously, however, is that when people you interact with at work feel the need to tell you they think your career choices are unworthy. The apparently evergreen “bartends because his life fell apart” trope in sitcoms and beach reads makes it difficult not to tunnel into the mental traps of What if and Maybe I should have.
I wish I was exaggerating, but I’m not. I did it for years.
I distinctly remember being at work one night in 2015 and having a conversation with a coworker that would, no joke, change my life. It was, obviously, about shoes:
I’d been working at a cocktail bar in Harvard Square for a few weeks, my first job with what I know now are fairly standard industry hours but what then seemed not just unfair but illegal: 3 p.m. to 3–3:30 a.m. on an easy night.
I wasn’t new to restaurant work, or even to tending bar, but standard and frequent 12-plus hour shifts were not something I’d experienced. My feet ached by last call, and by my second week that ache had spread from my soles to my ankles to my knees to my hips. I was 26 and walking like my grandmother.
“You better get some decent shoes, kid,” Nick, my closing partner on many a Saturday night, said after he once again found me awkwardly balanced on one foot, trying desperately to stretch the dull ache out of my right hip. I looked down at my black flats.
“These are decent! I just got them!” I said, stunned that anything so basic as footwear could possibly be responsible for what I was sure must be a rare and as yet undocumented strain of muscular degeneration.
“Yeah, well, they’re clearly not working. Get some clogs.”
“But they’re ugly,” I said, my nose wrinkling at the thought.
“Whatever, it’s your career,” Nick replied.
It wasn’t just that I thought Dansko clogs, the ubiquitous form of footwear for chefs, bartenders, servers, and, yes, nurses nationwide, were unsightly (they’re not, really) or expensive (they are, absolutely). I didn’t want to buy a pair of industry specific shoes because I didn’t want what Nick said to be true. Investing a decent chunk of change in a pair of shoes I knew I’d only ever wear to work behind the bar would mean I was going to be doing this for a while.
I worked in the service industry, but I wasn’t really a part of it, and that was just fine by me. This is just for now, was the way I saw it. In my mind I was just bartending to make rent, to do something I knew I liked and was good at until I figured out how to make a living doing what I really wanted to do: tell stories.
I’d never experienced so much anxiety over purchasing a pair of shoes, and as a woman with a closet full of black stilettos that have all been worn maybe once I don’t say that lightly — but it wasn’t just the shoes.
F. Scott Fitzgerald allegedly once said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” If that’s the case, I’m a fair candidate for possessing a first-rate intelligence: I certainly functioned from 2010, when I started bartending, to 2015, when I knew that being behind the bar was exactly what I wanted to be doing, what I should be doing — but just barely.
Buying those shoes was a signal to myself that I was jumping into the deep end, that I was no longer just in it for the money. I was in it because it was what I really wanted. I thought I had to get out of the industry to make peace with my goals, but I had it backward: It was never that I needed to get out, it was that I needed to dive further in.
And making drinks is, really, a very small part of any bartender’s job: We are in the business of making not just cocktails but experiences; of interacting with the public in a way that no other profession requires — or encourages.
But there’s a whole other side of being a part of this industry that takes place largely off the clock.
Yes, sure, I write for various industry magazines, and about the industry in more mainstream publications, but I also work and organize fundraisers, attend and compete in cocktail competitions, contribute recipes to my bar’s menu, and am working to raise awareness of and combat sexual harassment in bars in my city.
We make things every day. The world of this industry, with its creativity, collaboration, activism, and production, is all I’ve ever wanted out of a career.
Haley Hamilton is a Boston-based bartender and freelance writer. She writes about booze, bars, drinking culture, and Millennial angst. Her writing appears in Eater, Bustle, PUNCH, and MELMagazine. You can find her infrequent retweets and musings on Twitter.