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Life as a Sober Bartender

It's one thing to be a drunk on the other side of the bar, with unlimited access to free liquor. It's quite another to be working there after 20 years sober.

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By Harry Healy

05/06/13

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When the café where I was working in 1988 moved up from serving beer and wine and acquired a full liquor license, I accidentally learned how to tend bar. I picked it up quickly (it’s not too hard) but I was already developing an ambivalent relationship with booze. I loved pouring it down my neck, and I loved how it made me feel. I didn’t love living down the humiliations of my actions under the influence. Regarding those head-splitting 48-hour hangovers, the less said, the better. But drinking is an occupational hazard for any bartender, alcoholic, non-alcoholic, drunk or sober. I’ve been lit up like a rocket back there, and I’ve been sober as a judge. It’s a simpler task if you’re not drunk, but being sober behind the bar has some real minuses, too.

In the bar business, it’s a given: If the bartender is going to drink, he better damn well be able to manage his drinking. I don’t care about the policy of any particular establishment, the bartender is going to follow the First Rule of Bartending—i.e. the bartender gets to drink whatever he wants to drink, and no number of surveillance cameras, rat-fink co-workers, or “spotters” (management-hired spies) is going to stop him. I should know. I was that guy.

Snare Number One: unlimited access to free liquor. I drank my way into full-blown alcoholism, which might sound obvious, and I’m not trying to ignite the born-not-made debate, but at some vague crossroads, the option to ease up on my drinking got thrown out of the car.

The glitz and the glamor were gone. I manned a corner dive where my favorite customer traded me bags of dope for cognac with honey. If we had honey. 

Once I polished my rhythm and my mechanics, I used the contacts I cultivated to land jobs in swank joints that catered to the fabulous. On one of many evenings serving the needs of the young and the restless, I vaulted out into the barroom to confront some customer who had offended me. I couldn’t tell you what he did. But in the event, the guy was entirely non-plussed. He said, “Maybe you shouldn’t drink so much when you’re working.”

I had no answer for him. I put down my head and I slumped back to work. My buddies were beckoning me to a late night on the town, and I abandoned a bar where the clientele was clamoring for service, left my partner in the tall grass, and ignored the warning of the manager. It was more important for me to go carousing. That manager did the right thing and fired me.

Scotch whisky was making the decisions. I quit a promising day job, quite in line with my alleged interests, to go back to making drinks. I was battling a heroin habit by this time too, and I needed cold cash, and a lot of scotch to help outlast the dope sickness. That is, until I could cop. Whisky wasn’t available at the office.

The glitz and the glamor were gone. I manned a corner dive where my favorite customer traded me bags of dope for cognac with honey. If we had honey. Otherwise, he’d make do. That guy’s been out of the scene for a long, long time—dead or doing life. I didn’t follow-up on the rumors.

And then, as unintentionally as I flunked into bartending, I got sober. That wasn’t my plan. I was going to take a break. Nearly 20 years later, I’m still on that break.

I have been employed as a teacher, and as a freelance writer. I've had three books published by major publishing houses. I’ve been paid to research subjects I find deeply compelling. I produced a television documentary. I’ve been away from bars and restaurants for years at a time, and my resume might look intriguing, but I’ve never been able to support my family by pursuing my interests. Very few people do. I’ve also been fortunate in a lot of ways. I’m lucky I know how to do something that makes money.

About three years ago, after an audit of the household exchequer, I took on two shifts in a nightclub to supplement my other bartending job. When your service is housed in genteel surroundings, the job is not altogether unpleasant. When the patrons bum-rushing the bar at last call are so stuffed with cocaine they cannot speak, it’s something else. Nightclubbing, as a patron or an employee, is a lifestyle. But it’s not a sober one.

Bartending is not the job it used to be. Almost no job is. Talk to a doctor or a lawyer about that. And without rehearsing the inside baseball of tip-outs and percentages and taxes, I made more money when I was drunk. Bitter pill, but there’s the truth.

The nightclub closed. These places have short lives. So here I am, in my 50s, and I went to work at a hotspot in an ultra-hip part of town. I became an immediate curiosity, sort of like the rarest ape at the zoo. My status as a grizzled veteran generated a thousand cracks about my age, born of the deepest affection. Of that, I have no doubt. The jokes didn’t dent me at all. I’m self-possessed enough by now, and I ought to be, to understand who I am and what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

But you know what? The kids have a point. I’m a strong man in good shape, and while to bar patrons, bartender appears to be a glamorous job, eight or 10 hours on your feet behind a busy bar is backbreaking. I’m aging out of the game.

I’ve changed. I never paid much attention to who was drinking how much of what, unless I knew a guy to be a problem when he was, ahem, “over-served.” But the hipster hotspot was an ambitious operation with a huge staff, and I got to know a lot of the employees (or I got to know their drinking) really well. They drank their way through their shifts, the way I used to, and by the end of the night, everybody—the clientele, the other bartenders, the waiters, the cooks, the managers—they’re just wasted.

As an AA guy, I’m not ready to label anybody else an alcoholic. It means different things to different people anyway, especially outside of AA. But I have enough experience with alcoholism to know a drinking problem when I see one, and to encounter people who are blasted on a nightly basis—and at work, no less—that was a brutal fact. The holidays were surreal. A handful of the biggest drunks—a tough distinction—swore on to a sober January. The month ended around the 17th. As they are, I once was. As I am, they shall be.

Problem is, I still need to make a living. Years ago, I thought that my writing ship would have come in by now. I’m still standing on the dock, gazing at the distant horizon. I have no choice but to fall back on my AA program. It may have been at my first meeting that a woman said, but not to me, that "more will be revealed." In the meantime, step right up. What’ll it be?

Harry Healy is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about celebrity worship in AA.

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