When Bartending Restores Your Faith in Humanity
With so much drama in the world, it can be difficult to remember that we are all part of a greater community tied together by love, decency and kindness. I share some responsibility for the darkness, I suppose — I write about bar ownership and my focus tends to be the negatives: rape culture, gentrification, entitlement and so on. A lot of bad things happen in bars, and we shouldn’t ignore them.
It’s almost enough to create the perception that bars are inherently bad, that drinking is bad, that it’s a dangerous and unhealthy pursuit and we should all just stay home. There are certainly troubling aspects to the business, but when operated responsibly, bars can help build communities and bring people together. People treat their regular bar like an extension of their homes, and the other regulars like an extension of their families. Bartenders often see people at their worst: drunk, sad, angry and engaging in all sorts of terrible decisions. But we also see them at their best: generous, compassionate, empathetic and kind.
I reached out to several bartender friends for stories about moments that helped restore their faith in humanity, in hopes of warming the cockles of your heart — a feeling we could all use right about now.
I’ll start with my own story. Four years ago Women With A Vision, a local women’s health nonprofit and advocacy group, was the victim of an arson attack on its headquarters, retaliation for controversial legislative changes their founder had fought for.
Bars are incredibly malleable spaces — mine will be a dance club on Saturday, a sports bar on Sunday morning, a sleepy neighborhood hangout that night, and a comedy club by Monday evening — so it’s no surprise that they are often host charity events, too. We do it pretty often, maybe twice a month on average, and when I heard about the attack I jumped at the chance to host a fundraiser to help WWAV get back on their feet. The response was enthusiastic. As RSVPs came in, it quickly became clear that the event would stretch our moderate capacity.
The night of the fundraiser was a testament to how neighborhood bars can bring people together from different walks of life. It was slammed. City council members shared space with sex workers (who benefit from WWAV’s services). The highlight — not just of the evening, but of the bar’s existence to date — was the speech delivered by WWAV executive director Deon Haywood. She stood on a chair (we didn’t have a stage yet) and, in front of the video fireplace I had queued up for the occasion, spoke powerfully about how her organization would rise from the literal and figurative ashes. While powerful, the symbolism was also unintentional, the TV fireplace being my go-to “wallpaper.”
Other bartenders shared tales of the unexpected generosity of regulars or bartenders buying well-timed drinks for well-deserving patrons. Jeffrey Knott, in Pensacola, Florida, says, “I routinely see people pick up the tab for military kids that they don’t even know to thank them for their service.” We owe much of our way of life to the sacrifices made by the men and women of our armed forces. Small as the gesture may be, it’s nice to hear that their service does not go unnoticed.
Stephen Joseph was a bartender and manager at Winston’s Pub in Metairie, Louisiana, for many years, and it was there that he saw one of his bartenders give a token for a free drink to a middle aged woman with whom he had been chatting on a slow shift. I’ll let Stephen take it from here.
On a weekday night, a demure woman came in alone, sat at the bar and asked the bartender for guidance in picking a drink to order. The bartender happily helped her find something she enjoyed. He introduced her to a friendly couple nearby and chatted for a good while with her himself. Closing out her tab, he handed her a token for a free drink on her next visit, she thanked him and left.
Since the male bartenders more often than not give them to attractive women to bring them back, another off duty bartender jokingly asked if he was interested in an older woman, since the customer was probably in her mid 50s. When he replied that the woman confided she had recently finalized a divorce of a couple decades long marriage and further, that she was in therapy trying to cope with her world being turned upside down, the off duty bartender said he respected the hell out of that. Her therapist had instructed her to go out by herself and interact with anyone just to acclimate herself in public again. She came in, was able to find good company for a couple hours, and that was an early step of regaining her bearings.
It's so quotidian a scene that I would not have noticed on a busier night. But it speaks to the ways in which real hospitality is facilitating simple human needs of which we often aren't aware.
These acts of generosity aren’t always on behalf of patrons. Sometimes the patrons can do things for us bartenders that might seem small to a casual observer but suggest real thoughtfulness. Trevor Frye, who’s doing amazing bar work in my beloved hometown of Washington, DC, shares this simple act of kindness, “A regular of mine comes in almost every day and has lunch, an iced tea, and pays his bill. The tip? A lottery ticket.” Trevor is always touched by the gesture, how it means that this guest has such a good time that he thinks about it even when he isn’t there. It’s a reminder of how much people carry their experiences in our bars with them long after they walk out the door. Also, it may be a savvy investment. Trevor continues, “He always laughs a little and says if it hits, his 10% cut can be delivered in coins.”
The world is tiny, and bars are a great example of that. You never know who you might meet. Take this anecdote from Sam Perez, bartender at the Catahoula Hotel in New Orleans.
My family, they’ve been in Delacroix, Louisiana for 250 years. Delacroix more or less doesn’t exist any more because of coastal erosion, because of the storm, because of BP. It’s all just commercial fishing property now. So I was behind the bar at Catahoula one day and these two people come in and they’re talking about coastal restoration, environmentalism, and I was listening to them for a really long time. Then I stopped and said, “Hey, do you guys do environmental work? Where do you work?”
And they said, “Oh, yeah, we’re working with the government to put together a plan to start restoring coastline and barrier islands.” I asked what specific areas they are working on, and they were working on restoring Delacroix, so that it isn’t absolutely nothing any more, so that it can continue to exist. I thought that was really awesome, because my family was there for 250 years until the early 2000s, and now no one is there any more.
What are the odds that Sam would have ever met these people working to make sure that her ancestral home would continue to exist, had she not been behind that bar? Now, not only does Sam know that there are people working on protecting her family’s heritage, she had the opportunity to serve them a drink, which I’m sure felt pretty good. I’d wager it also felt pretty good for the two patrons, meeting someone who’s a powerful reminder of the importance of the work they’ve chosen to do.
Lucinda Weed, bartender at Black Penny in New Orleans, also shared a story about an unlikely encounter, this one perhaps even closer to home.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine came in and sat at the bar. It was empty except for one guy that was two stools down from her, so, naturally, I try to spark a conversation between the two strangers. She’s giving me the eye, like “No, stop what you’re doing, it’s going to be weird.” But it was too late. The momentum is already built up. She’s studying for her cicerone [the beer equivalent of a sommelier], he brews homebrew, so it’s a natural conversation and they’re both just going to have to roll with it.
So they start a conversation, it gets a little awkward, she tries to back out gracefully, and then he leaves suddenly to go get some of his homebrew, says he’ll be right back ... Of course he did come back with his homebrew, and she was still there. He shared it with everyone at the bar, and everyone was very happy. She ended up leaving before him the next time, and he pulled me aside and said, “Did she tell you how we know each other?”
I said “No,” playing coy, and he said that he had been seeing her mom, but it didn’t really work out even though she was really cool. I was hanging out with that same friend and her mom the next day, and she asked her mom, “Why didn’t it work out? That guy was really cool, super intelligent, pretty charismatic, makes a baller homebrew.” And I think her mom ended up seeing the guy again. And that’s just lovely.
At the encouragement of Lucy’s friend, who was initially reluctant to even engage with him in a potentially awkward exchange, a kind homebrewer got another chance at love.
Good manners and timely decency
My mother used to tell me that manners are the glue that holds society together. I didn’t understand when I was younger, but now that I’m an adult and especially now that I’ve been in the service industry for more than a few years, I’ve found out just how right she was.
This anecdote from Kaleena Goldsworthy of Chattanooga, illustrates just how far a small act of politeness can go in making a difference in our days.
One night, our door guy was taking a break so I went up front to check IDs. I am quite literally half the size of our door guy. An older gentleman was walking up to the bar. I wasn't going to card him, as he was clearly over 50, so I greeted him, "Good evening, sir! How are you doing tonight?" He stopped, smiled and said "Best day of my life. I hope the same for you." He just smiled and walked into the bar. I know that sounds so strange and seemingly small, but his optimism and stopping to take the time to say something so kind and positive really resonated with me. I was just standing at the front of the bar grinning ear to ear thinking that I needed to be more like him.
Positivity is infectious. Taking a little bit longer to make a casual greeting more robust, this man left a lasting impression on Kaleena, and if she follows his example she’ll be passing those good vibes along to who knows how many other people. Good vibes are real. The hippies were right.
Anna Mangiardi, who currently lives in Australia but has lived and tended bar in more places than most of us will ever visit, shares a similar story of unexpected kindness. Hers is about a man who, for once, wasn’t the worst.
There was this customer, Russell, at my bar in Carrboro, North Carolina who would come in when the bar opened around 12 p.m. He had a slightly hobbled walk, a cowboy hat, and was extremely intelligent but always a couple of double well whiskeys in. They changed him quickly for the worse. He’d been banned multiple times, said lewd comments to me in his stupor, taken off drunk in his car. Our bosses were terrible and wouldn’t let us not serve him when he was on the line. I couldn’t stand him and barely tolerated him as his bartender.
In October of that year my aunt Celeste passed away after a long struggle with multiple forms of cancer. She left behind a 10 year-old-son, 8 older children, and countless cousins who regarded her as an extra mother. She was my mother’s Irish twin. I was devastated. I didn’t know where to go or who to talk to, so I went to the bar at noon to sit in the corner and just let the sunshine wash over me. Russell rolled up right after me, ordering his double whiskey on the rocks “heavy on the pour.” I remember thinking, “Please leave me alone, don’t sit next to me, just leave me in peace please, pretty please.” He came right up to me and clonked down.
He tried to speak to me and I half-ignored him. He mentioned I wasn’t in a great mood and I made a comment that probably wasn’t very kind. As I was zoning, trying my best not to cry, he took out a leather cup and then opened up a little pouch, spilling its contents — dice — onto our bar table. He put the cup over the dice, looked into it, and pushed it over to me as he yelled out a number. I didn’t know what the game was and did not want to play, but it didn’t seem as if I had a choice.
We sat there for two hours pushing this cup of dice back and forth, calling out numbers. We even got to talking about other things in the world, and had some laughs to ourselves. When Russell finally left, at least half a bottle in, he left me with his pouch of dice and a beer of my own. He never asked me what had happened, he didn’t say any lewd comments. He just knew.
I had to ban him the next week — until the bosses let him back in — and I still poured his whiskeys short so he wouldn’t hurt himself, but I did start smiling when he walked in the door. He helped me that day in a way that no one else could, and for that I was thankful, no matter my misgivings with him. I don’t remember how to play the game, but I still have that pouch of dice and will always carry them with me on my travels.
All bartenders have regular guests that make us cringe when they walk through the door. It’s often these guests, though, than can do the most to make us feel better when they rise to the occasion. All of us are capable of great kindness and empathy under the right circumstances.
Bars offer us a rare opportunity to make personal connections with other people in a world where so many of our interactions come at a great distance. There are those who will use that opportunity to lash out, but the majority are interested in sharing real, meaningful time with their fellow humans. At their best, bars are where we can come together, find each other, lift each other up — places that remind us of our shared humanity.