One of the most rewarding (and also ridiculously hilarious) summers I had in college was the summer I spent being the youngest bartender at a local cowboy bar in Montana. I was not yet 21 and in the middle of being a contract performer at one of the theaters, I was just looking for some side work to keep me busy on my off days. The owner of the bar, John — a dude with a crazy temper and limp who smoked in a lawn chair in the corner of the kitchen when he wasn’t making steaks – barely interviewed me before asking if I could make a drink. I figured since I had a smartphone, yes, I could make drinks.
Now, I’m not naive. I know John hired me because I was young, cute, and a girl. What started as a summer of me really only knowing how to make a whiskey and coke ended with me learning from his surprisingly skilled bartender, Mike, all about how to make the perfect bloody mary from scratch (celery salt is the secret), martinis with impressively smooth ice on the lake, and light shots of 151 on fire. I even got to serve John Cusack non-alcoholic beer that summer. True story.
I bartended on and off through college after my summer at the cowboy bar before leaving the Big Sky behind and moving to a city where the serving age laws are actually enforced. But I’ve never forgotten about the life lessons I learned from my days of telling drunk girls that no, you may not pretend to be in Coyote Ugly on top of the bar, or that if you have a two year expired Minnesota license, no secondary form, and can’t tell me what the capital is you can have a big ol’ Blue Dolphin. (Seriously, rookie move man)
I learned that patience really is a virtue, and we don’t have enough of it these days. When there are two girls behind a bar, and there are 45 people waiting for $1 wells that stop at midnight, you’re going to need to give them a second before you get your Tito’s and soda. Nobody wants to be snapped at or told “It’s about time,” because we’re all just doing our best. And also snapping your fingers is a really easy way to go from being next in line to never getting served.
I learned about how to and how to not hit on people by observing groups of single people who were constantly sizing each other up. You know what’s effective almost every time? Basic human decency. You know what’s never effective? Being gross. Did I give my number to the guy who before taking a shot told me, “I’d like to see how you swallow things?” Sure didn’t. Did I give the guy who asked me about North Dakota when I was wearing my Medora Musical tank top my number? Yes, yes, I did. Keep it simple, stupid.
I learned that sometimes all someone wants to hear is, “Thank you.” When my bar back says he’ll handle the drunk girl who is losing her lunch, lack of dinner, and all twenty of her vodka cranberries in the bathroom because I’m a sympathy puker, I don’t just nod and go back to pulling pints of Bud Light. I say, “Thank you, and I totally owe you one.” When I remake a Manhattan for a 45-year-old guy because I apparently used, “Just a hair too much vermouth” I shouldn’t get a “Well that’s much better, sweetie.” I should get a thank you. Yes it’s my job, but I’m also a human being. Treat each other well, it’s not that hard.
I learned that a true friend does the dirty work. Cutting people off isn’t fun, but sometimes it’s necessary. Not only because you don’t want them to end up face down, ass up at your bar-rail, but because you’d want them to do the same if it were you. It’s also necessary to take their keys even if it means they’re going to scream obscenities at you and make you want to cry in the back room. If the choice is either saying, “No, Kelly, you can’t have any more Jameson tonight. Here’s a big glass of water followed by a chaser of STFU” which will make them drunk mad, or saying nothing and having them potentially getting hurt, I’ll take the drunk mad every single time.
I learned that really, at the core, we all just want someone to care about us. The stereotypical vignette of the lonely person just wanting to chat with the bartender is kind of true sometimes, and whether that’s the scenario you find yourself in or if it’s just another person by themselves at the DMV, it doesn’t mean you have to spend the entire time looking at your phone. It doesn’t mean that even though you may never see that person again, you can’t be there for them just for that moment. Listening to people is almost never a bad thing, even if for no other reason than it will up your karma count.
My days of making rounds of kamikazes for bachelorette parties and crossing my fingers that someone else pulls the tap when the keg is blown may be over, but I take all of my bartender life lessons with me everywhere I go. They not only made me a better tipper, a more efficient orderer, they really made me a better person. I stand by the age old saying that everyone should have to work a service job at least once, because it makes us all more appreciative and kinder in the long run.
I learned (pretty much) everything I learned in life from bartending, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Oh – and I learned that the best revenge is not a thrown drink. It’s a cement mixer. You’re welcome. .
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