Alan Catlin

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Zen and the Art of Bartending



They all think that
when I've got nothing
to do, that I've got
no place to go, that
when I'm standing
behind a bar, staring
at a wall that I'm
bored, that I'm
smoking cigarettes.
They don't know
about Zen, think
it's a funny sort
of foreign word
you can't cook out on
like a hibachi.
They don't know
anything about the
candles on the tables
between me & the wall
& what they might contain.
They don't know what
I see inside them.

In the early 70’s, when I first found myself working behind a bar, everything was Zen and the Art of something, due largely to the surprise popularity of the Robert Pirsig, sort of memoir, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Pirsig was a man with a genius plus IQ, whose life was defined by a battle with depression and mental illness.  Despite his infirmities, he was a man of almost infinity curiosity with a love for philosophy especially Plato.  Pirsig was able to see that almost any task, no matter how mundane, could be a vehicle for mediation and contemplation about the meaning of existence.  On a motorcycle journey across the United States by motorcycle with his young son, Christopher, Pirsig develops his multi-faceted theories about motorcycles and how the task of keeping one functional was, on one level, practical, but on another, a Zen like meditation on the intricacies of the machinations, of the universe.  Gradually, he reveals an intricate theory combining Zen and Plato’s dialogues and relates them to his own troubled life which he sees as following him into the wilderness even as he undertakes this journey to escape what troubles him.  Gradually, Pirsig understand there is no escaping the past (what lies within him), and in one particularly memorable passage, sees the personification of his mental illness, embodied in the Plato figure, Phaedrus, from the dialogue of the same name, in a threatening thunderstorm. The danger presented becomes real both, figuratively and literally.  Despite all his brilliant constructs, his philosophy, his attempts to reconstruct his life and reconfigure his future as a sane man, he knows, in this one revelatory instant, he is lost: the illness, the storm, the black dog is about to pounce and this time, there is no coming back.

Obviously, there would be no book if the journey ended there. Pirsig has his son to consider, again, figuratively and literally, long road ahead to consider, which he navigates and lives to complete this amazing book. Ironically, his son was later killed outside of a Zen Center in California.

That the book sold in the hundreds of thousands remains a kind of fluke, given how difficult the book is. Pirsig’s argument, which is roughly half the text, is intricate, complex and fraught with meaning, both intellectual and emotional, that bears more than one, or more, close readings.  That he has structured the book as a physical journey gives the book a narrative hook for the reader, but once you leave the road and enter into the depths of his mind, the argument is as much a symptom of his disease as it is an attempt to transcend it, you can easily get lost. Though it was written and published in the 70’s, it is a quintessential 60’s book, appealing to an audience that was still trying to find direction and intellectual home. In addition to the context detailed above, Motorcycle Maintenance is an examination of Western Morals. The complexity alone would limit its audience now, and the subject? Well, one questions if television, advertising, and corporate sponsorship haven’t made the whole concept of morality quaint. The book would be lucky to be an El Libris title now.

Zen has always fascinated me. Memoires like the trilogy by Janwillem Van De Wetering: The Empty Mirror, A Glimpse of Nothingness and Afterzen fascinated me. I first discovered this Zenman through his mystery series set in Amsterdam which follows the exploits of two cops through the seedy underworld of the city known for its extreme licentiousness. A Zen acolyte who wrote mystery novels, what could be better than that? Don’t all mysteries have an element of Zen in them?

Van De Wetering experiences of the rigors of Zen, and his inability to sustain the aesthetic life, showed the human side of the often opaque discipline.  The opaqueness, the emptying, fascinated me but I knew I could never develop the kind of discipline needed to pursue it. Of course, I had read all the necessary 60’s texts, all the Alan Watts books, which gave a layman’s superficial glimpse into the mirror, but feeling it the way van de wetering was a different kind of revelation. If there was Zen in motorcycle maintenance and Zen mystery novels could there be a Zen in bar life?

Perhaps, the most fascinating of all the pure Zen texts for me was, Zen and the Art of Archery. In that text, the practitioner of the Art, the man who draws the bow and the arrow and the target all become one, through an act of extreme concentration.  I’m not sure if I ever wanted to become one with a Whiskey Sour or a Sloe Gin Fizz, but there was enough down time, enough moments of extreme loneliness and solitude, where the mind could wander.  Where it wandered to and how long it stayed there, and what came back with the person who took it there, was strictly up to the individual.  As many of the places I worked in were extremely dark, illuminated only by small café table candles, there were opportunities to go where Zen thinkers often went: inside the candle, where the flickering flame can represent so much more than a room kept dark, not so much for atmosphere as management suggested, but because it covered up how shabby the place was, and that there was no money to fix it.

Many were the nights, in bars, waiting out the hours between last customers and the stipulated closing time, with nothing to do but stare.   You were on the clock after all, a prisoner of time, and there was no escaping that, but you could escape yourself, you could take yourself somewhere else, where it was peaceful and timeless. The exercise worked well in restaurants, when the lounge was essentially closed. There was just the waiting for the side work to be done by waitresses in another area, and then, counting the minutes until the night man, who did the cleaning after hours, to arrive. Then I could lock him in with his mops and his thoughts, call in the alarm code, and escape.  

In a neighborhood bar, such as the last tavern I worked in, the possibility always existed of someone wandering in from the street to abruptly end your reverie.  On Sunday and Monday nights, during the dead of Winter, or everyone out of town but criminals and misfits Summer, this was less likely, but still a possibility.  That is, unless you locked the front door, which I often did after two A.M., and sipped beer and scotch, until time was all I had until 4 A.M. closing. Time, that is, and the images on the silenced television tuned to MTV: silence and reflections of people pretending to be singing, and alcohol to tighten my focus, to facilitate a kind of Zen meditation.

                        After hours

                        Puddles of spilled beer
                        broken glass
                        & cigarette butts;

                        the sound of one draft
                        beer tap leaking

Sometimes, on slower nights, my mind wandered even while there were people in the room.  The place where I was, physically, rarely was the place where my mind was at. Years earlier I had learned, even while maintaining a frantic pace (and I could work at paces that were considered well beyond frantic), I knew that making drinks was what my body did when my mind was somewhere else.  The degree of concentration it takes to keep a room with two hundred or so people, literally squeezed together, under control, with depleting supplies and unforeseen difficulties, while still maintaining order, borders on the superhuman. But, you can do it, if you know how. Rarely is it the busy times that kill you, it is the slow ones, the time where everything more or less stops, and focuses on something outside of the order you have internalized, that gets you.  No one can control everything but you can try.

More often than not, there is the routine and the knowledge that the variation on what Lao Tsu said is true: if you stay in one place long enough, everything that can happen, will. I stayed in a place for twenty-five years and most everything happened.  You waited and watched and looked for the one thing that hasn’t happened yet and when it did, you hoped you would be ready.  In the mean time, there was the stuff that happened all the time, but never noticed until your gaze was focused.

                        Blue flame on
                        the lip of the lit shot

                        an odd, reflective
                        light in the tarnished
                        back bar mirror


                        Inside sleazy dive
                        all the bar flies are flush

                        spending welfare check
                        cash on long neck Buds

                        Baby Powers


                        Old men silently drinking
                        tap beers sliding exact

                        change across the wood
                        for each new draw;

                        same time, same place
                        every night

If I learned one thing working all those years, it isn’t the job that matter so much, what you do, no matter how it is perceived, or why people continual asked, why you do it, it is what you bring to what you do.  I have heard the sound of one glass breaking, and known the fight that starts after. I have seen the nothingness inside the eyes of people so drunk they can barely stand, and are unable to articulate a clear thought. I have seen people die on wash and wear carpet, and lying beside a urinal, their life literally draining away.  I have seen the beauty of a flower in a glass and the shadow it cast in a dark wall covered in years of grime. I have looked inside a cracked-by-a-fist mirror and seen myself and written this,

                        In dim tavern light,
                        sad eyes drunks,
                        an almost empty glass.
                        I have known the Zen in the Art of Bartending.