I was going to go home.

After an opening turn on a Friday night, it’s very easy to sit down with a shifty on the other side of the bar, maybe take a shot (it’s early yet) and finish the conversation about Fleetwood Mac and whether all poly relationships do make great bands.

I mean, do the Mamas and the Papas fit into that category? How about whatever was going on between George Harrison, Eric Clapton and their spouses? Did they ever perform together? Quick, google that.

Where do you draw the line? Is there one? Next thing you know, it’s midnight and you’re full of booze and unanswered questions. Like I said, I was going to go home. Early, for once. 

Nope.

If this happens more often than not, you might have an issue. But me, I was looking for a story. A couple of drinks might lead to a good column. Other times, all you’re left with is a headache the next morning, pondering what Eureka! moment you might’ve encountered a few hours earlier. It’s easy to get caught up in it. Especially when you see other colleagues who also just happen to have the night off. That’s how I ended up talking to a local bar owner who I’ve known for years, but rarely see. 

It’s always good to catch up with people in the industry. They feel your pain; they offer tidbits that might be helpful to you, such as job opportunities, local drama, who to watch out for, etc. There’s a local private Facebook page which does virtually the same thing, but it’s nice to have a conversation face to face.

This person, who shall remain nameless, owns a couple of bars in Winston-Salem. I frequented them in my younger days when she was just a bartender.

We’d already had a couple, when the “lifer” conversation comes up. Why we do what we do.

I offer some stoic reasoning, saying, “It’s not about the money.” I’m not entirely lying. The money does play a part: Money helps us justify babysitting adults. Money eases the late hours and social isolation in your free time, while being surrounded by a party at work.

I offer up the customer-service angle, and she pounces on dive-bar culture.

“How many times have we just come in these bars, pulled the mats back, turned the lights on, made sure there was toilet paper, put money in the register and opened the fuckin’ bar?”

We take a shot. She continues.

“There’s people that come in here, they count on us. They count on us to be here, and be fuckin’ short and crass with them, yet serve them a drink.”

The dive-bar culture, while not based on focus groups and “Systems of Service” is a valuable tool for those who just need an ear. Sometimes the only person who will listen is standing across from you mixing a drink. Sometimes that’s all you need. She expounds on that theory.

“That’s why people come to bars,” she says. “Not for the cheap booze, not for how cold it is or how comfortable the seats are. They come for how comfortable the fuckin’ bartender is and how receptive the bartender is to not just your problems, but everybody’s problems. Even if the bartender doesn’t understand those problems, the bartender will understand those problems.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced someone’s joy and pain through hearing them unload to the person serving them a drink. I’ve counseled break-ups, injuries and deaths. I’ve seen money issues and legal battles. I’ve celebrated with strangers whom I’ve known all of 15 minutes. It’s not disingenuous. We do attach ourselves to these losses and victories. It’s a vicarious thrill that most people behind the bar experience and feed off of, at times. There’s a joy in feeling happy for other people. There’s a wistfulness in seeing familiar situations you empathize with. There’s humanity in holding the hand of a person you’ve never met and telling them it’ll turn out okay. 

Now it’s 1 a.m. I regretfully say my goodbyes, and start poking around on my phone for an Uber. What was supposed to be an early night, yet again, turns to these late-night conversations and, perhaps, not too bad of a hangover the next day. 

Whatever. As so many of us do I’ll power through it, put those mats out, check the toilet paper, load the drawer with money and turn on the lights, just to see who’s going to walk through that door today. 

I see my car coming and as I get in, I hear Stevie Nicks echo out of the bar I just left. Poly relationships do make great bands.

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