Alan Catlin: An Essay

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Bartenders Don’t Read Nietzsche

The short order cook dude from
the joint around the block had a rep
as a talker. Didn’t bother me any,
when motivated, I could talk the bark
off a tree, so I expected he was not
much of conversational threat. I must
not have been in the mood for talking
or listening. Must have been March
Madness season or The World Serious
as, generally speaking, I could care less
what was on  the tube. In fact, I was one
of those guys who wouldn’t mind seeing
every single TV, in every bar on the planet,
in a landfill with all the vital parts removed,
but no one cares what I think on that subject
or among others.  I had my brain on Hold
while he went on and on, sipping his bottled
beer, trying to pass off stuff he must have
learned in Modern Philosophy: Nihilism
through Existentialism, as his own thoughts. 
When he got to the inevitable, “What doesn’t
kill me, makes me stronger,” it was time
to call a halt to this nonsense,
“That’s Nietzsche.” I said.
“You read Nietzsche?”
“Now and again.”
“In my world bartenders don’t read Nietzsche.”
“Well, in my world, they do.  Actually, reading
him was a logical progression from what
I was working on for a paper in grad school
in a course on the later Romantic poets.
I was doing a study on the verse plays of Byron
and I was struck by how his Romantic notion
of the hero was similar to that of Wagner in his
libretti. Everyone who has read them knows they
are excellent verse plays. And not just the
Ring Cycle but the whole of his work
from the Flying Dutchman to Parsifal
Once you’ve read Wagner, you are led to his
commentators like Bernard Shaw whose
critical discussion of his work pointed out
some of the serious political ramifications
of Wagner’s work in often hilarious ways.
The cover of the Dover edition of The Perfect
Wagnerite, has one of those nifty, demented,
Beardsley drawings of randy folks at the theater. 
Perfect. Nietzsche was also an early admirer
of Wagner but eventually realized that if you
extrapolated what he said into actual social situations
you would end up with perfect Nazis.  History is
nothing if not cruel. And that’s just how his work
was misused and misunderstood.  The ultimate irony
being, the author of Birth of Tragedy, Beyond Good
and Evil, Thus Spake Zarathustra, and Human All
Too Human, would die a raving maniac, brain eaten
away by syphilis. I expect ole Friedrich and Bernie
would have agreed with Twain’s assertion that
German music wasn’t as bad as it sounds.”
He was speechless for a few moments, looking up
at me like I was one of those exhibits from The Mutter
Museum of medical oddities somehow escaped from
my specimen case and put to work here, then quietly
began picking up his change from the bar,
hoisting the beer he seemed intent on nursing all
afternoon, and polished it off in one go. 
“How did you end up here?” He asked.
“Just lucky, I guess.”


For the sake of argument, let’s say you walk into a bar. There’s a guy behind the wood you don’t know. He looks presentable enough, garrulous, holding court with a group of people he obviously knows and is comfortable with. You are unfamiliar with this particular bar, but you bring with you a certain set of preconceptions about bars and bartenders.  Very early in my so-called career in the service industry, a term which covers a multitude of sins and all levels of food service. For the record, I have worked in a college bar checking proof, cleaning up, occasionally waiting tables, tending bar, managing, and so on. I have also worked in lower management and been recruited for upper management by a national hotel chain, worked banquets, been a night manager, and worked a lounge with entertainment. I have also worked in an Italian American Club that was open to the public, a night club/supper club as night manager and bar manager, handling over a million dollars worth of business in the late 70’s. Finally I went full circle and ended up as a mercenary, tending bar with no strings attached, in a neighborhood bar that catered to college kids at night, but also working class people, state workers and local patrons. If that doesn’t cover the full spectrum of the bar business, I don’t know what does.

Early on, I discovered that people have a very clear ideas of just what a bartender is like. More than likely he is: uneducated, high school at best, maybe a course or two of college before flunking out. He is an inveterate gambler, womanizer, substance abuser, fast talking person of questionable morals, who is more than likely a thief at heart, if not in practice. In nicer clubs you can add on that he is of the service class, which is no more than a servant employed by someone else who is constantly at your disposal. He can be bribed, even by insignificant sums, which you may call a tip but is clearly used to procure a service rather than for as service rendered. If you    are new in town, the bartender is who you ask: “What’s it take to get laid in this town, or “How do you get laid here?” Or who you ask where the best place is to score some illegal substances and who to contact to place a bet.    

Bartenders are always impressed by big rolls, flash women, and people of low morals like themselves. They have an endless supply of jokes, dirty ones especially, that they will access at any given time, appropriate or no.  Once you know these things to be true and self-evident, you have a decided advantage over the person making those assumptions.  As working in a bar, especially a long time in the same place, where it becomes a cross between the Zen parable that everything that can happen will, and a psycho drama, filled with characters who will assign roles to themselves as the plot reveals itself.

I won’t examine the assumptions individually or else you would have a sociological abstract with each point being a bullet point of several pages, or chapter lengths. (I could comment on length on social histories of bars that I have read which are laugh out loud funny: from the outside looking in, which means the examiner can describe the social constructs but has no idea about the actual social dynamic of the bar.  The only way you can really know is by doing it and what sociologist would deign to tend bar?) Let’s just say that, of those assumptions only one actually applies to me, substance abuse.  It is worth noting that it has been twenty years since that term applied to me, specifically, which means, for the purpose of this piece, that I remember how it was but don’t partake myself.  Readers assume that all first person poems about a wild, obnoxious bartender wired on the substance of the day are true. Let’s just say, they could be true or are based on a certain truth or truths.

There is a method to my madness. Once you understand the rules, the game changes.  As the bartender, you have control of the board, thought the patron thinks he or she does.  Ultimately, it’s what I, the bartender thinks or does that matters. After all I have the ultimate power: I can street you and the best you can do is react.  Once streeted, who do you think the Law is going to side with, some furious acting out wild person, or a calm and collected bartender explaining the facts of what happened? His facts, his game, his results.

In general, I am a mild mannered, amusing, informed raconteur, well-versed in many fields.  Perhaps, instinctively, I have been trying to reconcile the greatest of the bar perception dichotomies: while the bartender is an uneducated no brain, lowlife, he is expected to know everything.  If I had a dollar for every time I heard,” Ask the bartender, he probably knows….”I would have retired wealthy instead of just retiring.  A corollary to this dichotomy is the often       demonstrated and inexplicable fact that people, when drinking, will tell a bartender anything.  I mean stuff they wouldn’t tell their wives, children, analysts, colleagues…. Stuff that could get you killed like a coming rendezvous of mafia families in the Catskills. Stuff like that.  And the bartender will be standing there nodding his head up and down, fervently wishing the guy would shut up because, essentially, he could care less.  But that’s another story altogether.

I might add that I came to this profession totally by accident, through a connection with a college friend whose family owned a steak house across the street from the university I was attending and were opening up a rathskellar bar which needed a person to check proof two nights a week. The perfect part time job for a grad student, with a family and draft eligibility which made him otherwise unemployable.  Inside of three months, I would be working five to six nights a week, never sleeping, as the bar caught on, and in two years, running the place.  It was as good a place as any to learn the rules and how to use them to your advantage.

As I am naturally affable, and don’t real enjoy participant sports like, belittling people in public, I do see it is a function of the job; a defense mechanism.  While, I generally like people, it doesn’t take long to realize that there is a whole tribe of people, loosely affiliated, but all sharing common indefinable traits who are out to get you and any other service person in their way.  They are called the assholes.  Why they do what they do is unknown, they might not even not know themselves, it could be genetic, a lost gene or mutated one that makes them feel honor- bound to make themselves bigger by taking advantage of people who can’t or won’t fight back.

So when a guy says to me, breaking out of a conversation to his much younger girl friend, who clearly is not interested in his latest discursive, I’m smarter than you are, conversation, “I’ll bet you don’t even know who Lawrence is.” As I had overheard just enough of his conversation to understand the Lawrence he meant was DH , I decided to play dumb, to be the stereotypical bartender, “Lawrence, yeah I know him, He’s short guy, wears a goatee, writes books about screaming ladies in the rain, insufferably English son of a coal miner, but  upper class English in manner. Yeah, I know him. I hope you’re not looking for him because I heard he’s been dead now for a lot of years.” Okay, so I blew the tip.  Tips aren’t everything, but I made her night.  Blown away by a mere bartender, priceless.

And then there was the guy who wandered into the slow night lounge where I was reading The Portable Joyce and he sees the book and says,” Joyce what she write?” Now ordinarily, I would let that one go but it was like a lob shot in volleyball, you have to hit it. So I did.  “Joyce writes books about a woman with a cheating heart.  Real saucy stuff. Go to a book store and ask for one of Joyce’s books. Joyce will blow your mind.” Deferred gratification. They used to say you had to talk to people in the lounge business, but they neglected the essential qualifier: they didn’t say you had to be nice to them. People just assume you would be nice.  Fools that they are.  

The ones who really get you are the guys who take the assumptions to an absurd length.  Once you’ve worked in a hotel lounge you get to spot the hookers right away.  We had a standing “convention” joke about one girl, let’s call her Missy, who we thought we should hire to work cocktails because, “That Missy turns over tables faster than any other waitress we have.”  So when this guy dressed to the eights, that’s one less than the nines because he thinks he has it all together in the best of taste but just doesn’t quite have it, asks you about Her. He points to her and it’s Missy’s evil twin, only better made up, and with more expensive perfume and less clothes. We’re in the super club now and the guy says Nice, huh!? And I have to says, honestly, “Real nice.” “Would you like a piece of that?” “Who wouldn’t?” He proceeds to tell me the deal: I get a cut of the action plus a night with Missy every month “To do what you want. She’ll take good care of you. I know for a fact what she’s capable of.” And I look at her and I look back at him and I said something to the effect of, “Gee that’s just what I always wanted to do with my life. When my kids get to say what their dad’s do in school, they can say,’ He works in a bar, He’s a pimp.’”  So when a guy I’ve never seen before says, “How do you get laid in this town?” I feel honor bound to say, “Same as anywhere else, I imagine.” As I said tips aren’t everything, and there is a distinction between a bribe and a tip; bartenders don’t read Nietzsche do they?