Make It a Double: My Lives as Barkeep and Academic, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept Bar Life
Issue #54, March 2001
It's mid-afternoon on a Friday, and the rare winter sunlight sifts through nicotine stained windows. Wes hands me money, and I go to the register to get change for his Budweiser. The front door creaks, announcing a new customer, and I look up as two men enter. I do not recognize them, but that is not unusual. I only work here a couple of days a week, so many faces are new to me.
As a professionally cordial person and all-around nice guy, I greet them with a smile as they sit down, one stool between them and Wes. On his usual perch at the end of the bar, focused on rolling his cigarette, Wes does not look up. He doesn't appear to know them; nor they him.
Such is the bartending life. Faces come and go. Some come back; some don't. Others I wish would come back but never do. More are ubiquitous, though I wish they'd disappear.
Various ethnographic, sociological, and cultural studies have attempted to explain the various behaviors of those who inhabit bars. Wes, like other returning customers, is referred to by the apt yet odd name of "regular." The implication that frequent denizens like Wes are "normal" would not be accurate. Nor would it be fair to say that the infrequent or one-time customer is "irregular" by default. But as many studies have shown, the term "regular" is an accepted one. The repeated visits of these customers suggest a social intimacy with bartenders like me, but I have rarely found this to be true. While their face and type of drink are familiar, I usually don't truly know the people bearing them any more than I do the first time customer.
But I cling to the faces. They have their idiosyncrasies, be they an "Amstel Light" and nary a word thereafter, or numerous Irish Coffees with increasingly random and indecipherable babble from a "wide awake drunk." While my relationships with the regulars are tenuous, they often provide glimmers of recognition on days when it is needed.
The bar is one filled with regulars and tourists alike, and on a given weekend night, as stories get louder and laughter more boisterous, the regulars provide an anchor, albeit a wobbly one. Bartending is about banter and jocularity, but it is also often about maintaining a cautious eye, and to some extent, babysitting. In a room full of unpredictable behaviors, the regulars can be trusted to be themselves, for better or worse. On these nights, the unknown characters are balanced by the familar, predictable regulars. These regulars are never any more normal than the unknowns milling around the bar. Nor are these "strangers" necessarily any odder than the faces I see each week.
I try not to make value judgements about my customers, unless they give me reason. The regulars are not necessarily better humans than the first-timers. I just see the individuals within them more clearly. It is part of the continuing process of humans trying to make sense out of an incomprehensible world.
I am coming to grips with these seemingly obvious ideas as I work on my master's thesis in American Studies. I'm attempting to understand the world of people who make bars part of their day-to-day existence. As my research is largely qualitative and subjective, I confront the intersections between my lives as graduate student and barkeep. While these worlds may seem disparate at first glance, I've come to recognize similarities in how people deal with strangers, strangeness, and the unfamiliar. In each world, the familiar often goes unquestioned. The unknown is kept at arm's length and susceptible to limiting assumptions.
As my thesis is ethnographic in its methodology, I have come to see my role as bartender being parallel to that of the participant-observer associated with anthropological thought. Behind the physical buffer of the bar, I am witness to behaviors that seem unconcerned with my presence mere feet away: the heated argument, the off-color jokes, the passionate kiss, the stubborn social wranglings.
I carry neither notepad nor taperecorder. I violate many tenets central to ethical scientific research, as I do not give my 'informants' the knowledge that I have been watching and learning. My deductions, while usually shared with my peers, are unbalanced and often never "nice" enough to share with those I have been studying. Yet in various saloon environments, I have noticed many consistencies and customer archetypes worthy of the scientific gaze. While these patterns emerge, I am reluctant to adhere to them, for as soon as I see consistencies, they are broken. But they allow me to recognize many of the unfamiliar people in the bar.
A favorite archetype, although a despised customer, is the "Panicky Guy." Invariably a male, this person frequents bars throughout the nation, and is always in the company of at least two other people. Out of the corner of my eye, usually during a busy evening, I see this guy waving money at me, undoubtedly exasperated having fished a twenty out of his pocket. He is in a rush and looks flustered, as he is removed from the bar by one or two rows of people. If it's a particularly busy evening, I note him with a head nod, and comment with false concern to my co-worker, "Uh-oh. Panicky Guy by the Guinness Tap." Eye contact reassures him, but also heightens his urgency. When I get finished with the task at hand, I arrive in front of him, and depending on the way the evening is going, I say anything ranging from the congenial, "Hi, how are you this evening? What can I get you?" to the perfunctory jaw thrust and eyebrow raise that mutely says, "Whaddya want?"
He is glad I have arrived. After frantically waving his bill at me from the other end of the bar, he just now considers interrupting his friends' Nasdaq and/or golf themed conversation to ask, "Hey, you guys wanna drink?" They look at each other blankly, as if the thought had not yet occurred to them. "Coors Light?" he asks, but they respond, asserting individuality, "No, Bud Light." "Michelob for me." It's usually a two or three minute process, an eternity on a busy night.
Some think my thesis is an effort to justify my existence as a bartender over the past eight years. I'd rather consider it an expression of my desire to understand the prevalent role bars play in people's lives.
Thank or blame Ray Oldenburg for this. In The Great Good Place, Oldenburg notes a Carterian "malaise" in America that likely stems from the lack of a "third place" (his term) outside the workplace and home where people can meet and talk and communalize. Oldenburg's definition of a third place requires conversation amongst people of various social rankings, which means that many of the places that come to mind — bars, cafes, book clubs — do not qualify.
Reading Oldenburg made me question my bartime. Have the bars of my life truly been third places? People from various walks of life frequent my current stop, but I am not sure whether they really connect. Regulars and tourists or first time customers rarely intermingle. Conversation between strangers is rare.
So if people don't come to my bar to meet others, what meanings do they derive from their (sometimes frequent) visits? I hope the ethnography I'm conducting of the bar where I work, with analysis of my own reasons for being there, will yield some answers.
Philosophy and Spirits
The double life I have led as an academic and service worker has been thought provoking. I know and accept each world but am not totally absorbed in either. Living in Baltimore and commuting to College Park, MD, just outside of Washington D.C., has given me an interesting slant on my graduate career. I decided to commute because I wanted to live in an urban environment and couldn't afford or acclimate to pricey and headstrong D.C. There are times when I regret the choice, because I see a camaraderie and intellectual bond amongst my graduate school peers who live in College Park. With classes and campus work together and time left to discuss postmodernity, The Simpsons, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer over coffee, my colleagues build upon each other's intellectual musings in a process of elevation that I sometimes miss. Academic life and dialogue hone thought, and the cheap rents in Baltimore do not always seem worth missing such an opportunity for intellectual growth.
Every weekend, I return to the bar in Baltimore. The mood is not as serious; nor are the thought processes of my peers here as intellectually rigorous as they are in College Park. Can the levity be attributed only to lack of academic concerns? Bar patrons and workers alike have their respective (serious) lives outside the bar, yet the bar is often understood as a place where such concerns are left behind for the supposed sanctity and potential anonymity of the saloon experience.
Since I started tending bar, my understanding of the service industry has come full circle. I began bartending eight years ago as an escape from the corporate path. I saw it as a means to save money, travel, and reconsider my life choices. My parents were supportive but skeptical of where veering from the "real world" of the nine-to-five white-shirt-and-tie America would take me.
The sheer variety of folks I soon encountered as coworkers had me reeling. Some were there for reasons similar to mine, while others were serving artistic needs. There were still others for whom the service industry represented jobs they had and could not let go of because it was the only thing they knew or had the opportunity to do. Regardless of the reasons, the diversity of people opened my eyes to a landscape that offered a richness not often seen in the confines of suburbia, where there is a overly simplistic "right" and "wrong" way to approach the world, and where differences and encounters with the unfamiliar are largely shunned.
My customers often ask me, "Do you do anything besides bartending?" The question is an understandable one, but also one wrought with societal expectations that there must or should be something more. I have my academic world. Others lead their respective lives, some content with the bar experience, others pursuing their passions. Many come in on a weekly basis. These people are prevalent in my lives, as I am in theirs to some degree. Yet we hardly know each other. Our interactions suggest an intimacy that is lacking, a familiarity based only on recognition, one similar to the familiarity people have with academic disciplines. This is where my seemingly disparate worlds come together.
I answer the question with, "Oh, I'm also in grad school," which often leads to me explaining what American Studies is. I usually get blank looks on my first attempt.
"So, it's like history?"
"Well, it involves aspects of history, but it also challenges some of the conventionally held assumptions about what history is." That makes the eyebrows stand up. Ted Danson doesn't discourse on theories of history on Cheers.
I continue, "It tries to encompass an understanding of how America as a nation and as a notion is represented and understood on the national level on down to the personal one. It works with and between traditional disciplines like literature, history, anthropology, sociology, while also using aspects of gender studies, material culture studies, multicultural studies, film studies and others."
That would never pass with my professor — too light and fluffy. But it's too heavy to fly in bars, where my customers are usually pulling at the wrapper of their Camel Lights by the time I'm finished. The gap between worlds is a broad chasm to leap, and my success rate in landing an understanding is low.
And to think I taught an introductory course in the subject.
Some folks lunge to make the connection, and I am bombarded with questions like, "I just read a biography on John D. Rockefeller. Do you use that?"
"No, but someone likely does."
More importantly, I stress thinking critically about which stories get told, and which do not.
I get similarly blank stares if the discussion turns to my thesis. When I tell people it's about bar culture, I either get a quizzical look or jests that I "should get a grant to do 'on site' research."
I explain, "I'm going to do an ethnography of this place, asking both customers and workers what they get from the bar experience, and what they get in particular from this specific bar." Speaking to them about something they relate to, across wood we both can knock, I usually succeed in distilling these "strange" concepts into something comprehensible.
Just as many people resist conversing with the stranger next to them, many are reluctant to look at something in a new way. The value I see in American Studies is that it emphasizes understandings across boundaries, and lets a variety of materials inform each other. People in this country have been schooled with "History" and "English Lit" classes. Asking what purpose these classes serve would likely receive answers such as "learning about America and the world" or "learning about writing and literature." To someone not exposed to post-structuralist thinking, the concepts of "English" or "History" are not politicized.
Trying to explain, in non-academic jargon, how the books we read and the stories we get from history are the products of the selective machinations of power structures and ideologies is not easy. I value American Studies for its abilities to look critically at "American" institutions, even to the extent of getting people to interrogate how notions of "nationhood" are constructed. American Studies, while emphasizing the same critical thinking processes and methodologies as traditional disciplines, is regarded with the same suspicion as the garrulous bar customer on the next stool over. Guards are up. Conversations are not forthcoming. Maybe the customer is a total nut, about to chew your ear off. But maybe the customer has stories to tell that will force a shift in thinking about narrowly held views about the world.
I'd like to bring the critical perspective American Studies fosters back to the suburbs of Chicago, where I was raised. Like many traditionally held assumptions about academics, the lifestyle I grew up in strongly emphasizes a "right" and "wrong" way to go about living life. While an economics major as an undergraduate, I saw the need to move beyond these categories (i.e. that of the corporate career and the married-with-two-point-five-kids-SUV-lifestyle). I was as fed up with the corporate mindset as I was with the prospects of cocktail parties and golf for the rest of my life.
A certain archetype walks in, and while I have never seen this person before, I sense a familiarity. With combed hair and fancy watch — things I have long since abandoned — it is a peer from high school, or maybe college, and they walk with a confidence that they played the game the right way. I recognize a glimmer of who I was, or might have become, or who many of my friends now are. While I am amicable, I also hold this person in chagrin for not recognizing the patterns and limitations of their own behaviors. There is a warmth and at the same time a disdain crossing both ways across the bar, passing through money and pints that says, "When're you going to figure it out?"
As with the challenges American Studies poses, the bartending lifestyle I have led, while not recognized as a success on a résumé, has allowed me to see the world differently and to take a literal step back behind the bar and reconsider and re-evaluate not only my own lifestyle, but also the worlds of the people I see around me. In a previous incarnation, I would have looked at some of my customers and written them off, as they did not fulfill my notion of who an interesting person should be. I am now more likely to look at the person next to me, or across the bar from me, as a trove of information. They might look, act, or sound "weird", but I see value in the ideas and people that make me re-evaluate my own position in the world. I used to only seek out those who were most like me. Now I talk to them last.
On a recent Friday morning, after I finished setting up the bar, I ran down to the coffee shop to buy a newspaper. On my way down the street, I saw a man approaching. His hair was shoulder length, grayish white and greasy. He looked like any number of panhandlers that frequent the area; his clothes were stained, his shoes had no laces. His right eye was very swollen and bruised, and my immediate assumption was that he had been on the receiving end of a beating for sleeping on the wrong bench, or asking the wrong person for change. I continued past, went in the store, and bought my paper.
Returning to my job, I saw the same man ahead of me, opening the front door of the bar. This is no way to start the day, I thought. Maybe he just wants to use the bathroom.
As I entered the bar, he grabbed a stool and sat down. Various folks come in off the street. They usually ingratiate themselves to neither staff nor customers, thus giving quick reason to be escorted out. There was a time in the recent past when they were the rule rather than the exception.
As he was the only one in the bar, I decided to give him a chance, although I did not want to serve him. The sight of this unkempt and bruised man might deter my lunch crowd, the means to my income. I would throw him hurdles, though. All I needed was one excuse, be it lack of money or unacceptable behavior, and I would ask him to leave.
"How're you today?" I asked. The question was not as congenial as it was a test of his ability to answer. Maybe he was already drunk, and some mumbled words would give me enough reason ask him to leave.
"Been up since seven," he said coherently. "Miller," he followed, offering up the proper amount of money. I got him the beer, and watched him out of the corner of my eye, as others started coming in. They gave him a cautious look, and sat at the tables. Others sat at the bar, though a few stools away from the man.
He finished his beer, and I thought he might leave. I returned from waiting on one of the tables, and he had placed his empty bottle on top of three more dollars. Not a tip, but a mute request for another beer. He was placing a sizable wad of cash in his dingy coat pocket. A veritable Howard Hughes.
He was acting reasonably and had money to pay for beers. Although he was neither tipping nor talking, I had no reason to ask him to leave. He continued for a couple of hours, moderately drinking four beers and eating a cup of crab soup. He left no tip.
But I was given a more than gratuitous reminder about crossing the boundaries between the two lives I lead in the service industry and in academia. I was drawn to the service industry as it allowed me to lead a life outside the conventional nine-to-five existence, and it enabled me to pursue other interests while still making money. Cultural Studies enamored me with it's humanistic outlook and the emphases it has on understanding the multitudes of ways people create and get meaning from their lives. Within each of these worlds, I place a high value on moving beyond a conventional societal outlook. And yet I was still largely unwilling to give this man a chance.
To some, he might be referred to as a "bum." A more sympathetic person might call him "unhoused." These stereotypical terms are limiting and largely inaccurate. Strong adherence to these or any other labels often causes the ignorance at the core of racist, sexist, and other phobic thought. And I think back to the man that I so quickly judged. There are times when quick judgements are needed behind the bar; whether or not to serve someone, or to intervene in a heated discussion. The snap judgements run against the deliberate and layered thinking required in academia.
No, I would probably not want him to come in again. Someone similar in appearance might come in at a future date, and might give me good reason to feel justified in my skepticism. But they might not.
The bar, and the world, might seem a safer place if homogeneity ruled. I like to think of myself as someone who craves eclecticism, but I recognize that I only want variance within certain guidelines. I look down at those who live within certain boundaries, while at the same time recognizing the boundaries of my own acceptance level. The two disparate worlds of academia and inebria intersect at odd places to remind me of the need for difference in outlook and opinion.
Wayde Grinstead is a master's student in American Studies at the University of Maryland. He knows how to make and deconstruct a Woo-Woo, but he would prefer not to.