I’ve been in New York three weeks and finally got a bartending job.
There’s a local coffee shop in PLG that I’ve been slinging espresso at in the mornings - the community space coffeeshop, not the post-industrial concrete floored coffee shop - but it’s not really a job. It pays too little. Though I get bread from the community fridge and use the leftover steamed milk for my own coffee, it pays too little.
For measure: I went to the grocery store a few days ago with eighteen dollars in cash from tips. A jar of tomato sauce cost eight.
So we toss something in the wrong bag by accident and walk out the door of the hollow supermarket. We buy one thing and take one thing. We leave our change for the person working the checkout line because we know they aren’t getting paid either.
I quit the coffee shop and started at the bar last night - it’s a restaurant, really - a nice one with no decor on the walls except for one poster with sexual innuendos about seeding. We work only with local farms and the four story brownstone houses the owner above us. She’s always watching.
The kitchen holds a belly full of characters: there’s a teenager with a single line tattoo on his skinny bicep, a beautiful person with a tan whose curls sit round and pristine under their hat, and a furiously angry woman whose eyes are permanently lined in dense black ink. The darkness covers her lids so completely that instead of speaking from her mouth, all sounds come from her eyes and when I met her I said nice to meet you this is my name and she grumbled hers in one huff and turned on her heels, dragging her body in the other direction. Sometimes it’s better when the names don’t stick.
The person training me behind the bar was not who I expected, though I never know what to expect from a bartender. They live on Long Island and after showing me the bottle organization, we juiced some lemon and broke open a pomegranate for the seeds. We talked about Fire Island, age and height, compared measurements for drink recipes. He likes whiskey sours. The dry shake of an egg white, the shake of silence. You think nothing’s happening until you open the tin back up.
The thing about restaurants is that I love them. I know they are a sham like any business, but only to a point because you get the food and it is tangible and you must physically digest it. You walk in the door with a stomach like a deflated balloon and leave feeling filled, maybe physically, sure, but perhaps the expansion of the walls of our skin also brings us closer to the people at the table. To taste is a spiritual space.
I’ve worked almost all the positions in restaurants, prepping food and killing chickens and serving and bussing and bartending, and behind the bar is by-far the best position, not for the money (yes, also for the money) but it’s like standing on the stern of an open ship.
In restaurants, the physical bar is typically set along a long wall and faces into the space, meaning that the bartender gets to watch the whole crew function symbiotically. It’s the perfect job for someone who likes to look or experience humans at multiple scales.
As bartenders, we hide in our own shadows, functioning both as ourselves and as no one at all. Really, we’re just an outline. Maybe you’ve seen us in a dream or in a book or in an airport or a hundred cities, each time with the same siren song. A shaking tin. Dirty ice crashing into metal — asking, “Another one?”.
Though each bar is different, bar design is ancient. It must be. The bartender’s body is protected on two, three, or four sides with short walls, a bartop, and usually shelving behind. Physically, in any restaurant, the bartender is shielded and protected, but in the metaphysical realm the bartender often act as the protector: of fragile things, fragile people, glass bottles on shelves, bottles full of things that have been made over years with passive labor, active labor, a history, immense care (or not).
As I said, we juiced some lemon and broke open a pomegranate for the seeds. We joked how we wished we could afford to buy a pomegranate. We joked that we had never actually de-seeded one. *Autocorrect tried to change that to deserved. We joked that we had never actually deserved one.*
We stood with our shoulders touching, hunched over a half-quart plastic container, and strummed our fingers over seed families to pluck them from their seats.
If I were writing a story it would begin like this:
Two quiet queers behind a bar crack open a pomegranate. They stand side by side and pluck the seeds from their seats, watching them fall like diamonds into a plastic cup. They’ve just met.
One tells the other about his student loans, how his parents refer to his debt as his fault. The other asks, but can a child really be at fault for participating in a thing they were forced to participate in? The other responds, Can a child really make an informed decision about anything? An agreeing silence.
The pomegranate says, What kind of a decision is an informed decision, anyway? The coup glass says, They probably say it’s your fault to absolve themselves of their own guilt. The Frenet Branca screams, They were told it was what they had to do! And here you are behind a bar, pouring me. Smarter than them, and pouring me: a substance no different than coffee or mushrooms or an old health tonic or really amazing pizza. I am nothing but matter altering other matter, a thing made to alter a mind and a body, a thing to make this life livable. Pour me in the glass so I can find my shape. Just pour me in the glass — so they can find their shape.
A pomegranate is round and heavy in my palm. To open one is to open a brain. To de-seed one is to hold a ritual.
We stand side by side, hands covered in red, still watching seeds fall like diamonds into a plastic cup. I knew without words that he was a quiet queer and he told me he knew I was too. It’s hard to be a quiet queer. I wonder if its harder to be a quiet queer behind a bar.
~ ~ ~
This piece can be found in Import Sky #2: Synchronicity
Published by Funnybone Records