We arrive on the third floor via an elevator tucked-away in a side hall. Fred’s never visited Black Horse Studio before and the building’s owner gives us a short tour of this remarkable old factory. The top floor is vacant, a vast open room showcasing the original oak flooring, old white paint covering an even older red-brick wall that peeks out with its age. This room serves as a studio space, and character like this can only be earned with time. Black Horse Studio was originally home of the Nissen Wagon Works; its unique layout and design always a welcome piece of Downtown Winston-Salem. But the party we’re attending is on the first floor.

River Run Film Festival is Winston-Salem’s annual opportunity to see great films, attend great parties, and for the working stiffs in the service industry, make some extra cash working these events. It’s an opportunity to network and have a change from the usual. We have no shortage of these things throughout the year, be it High Point’s Furniture Market, the National Black Theatre Festival or our most recent yearly multiday event, Gears and Guitars. Most industry professionals clamor for these gigs. They like the change of pace and new, albeit temporary, coworkers.

Below us, the caterers hustle, lighting sternos and stocking the bar with last minute additions. People slowly arrive. The River Run Film Festival is a couple days from wrapping up and Fred, one of my regulars, has invited me to come to a filmmaker’s party at the space. We arrive a little early, so the owner has time to give us a tour. The last time I ventured into this building during the late ’90s, it was vastly different. It’s now cared for. Curated. 

We arrive back downstairs to see everyone in their place and guests starting to find their way in. From the building’s large turret, a projection of the festival logo beams down and lights the way to the entrance. I find Britney working the door, checking passes. She’s a service-industry veteran who comes in for a drink every so often. I’m sure it’s not the first event she’s worked this week. Having to work a similar event the next day, I’d be exchanging courtesies with the previous night’s workers as I served them a beer instead of roaming, as I was doing tonight. You work some, you attend some. 

The folks in the service industry have their steady gigs, most stay enthusiastic about picking up extra work. I know so many who work festivals, conferences and concerts in addition to the shifts they already have. The money tends to be better, the change of scenery is nice and there’s an excitement with certain events that most feed on. The week before, a caravan of us bartenders and event workers traveled to Raleigh to provide backup at J. Cole’s Dreamville Festival. Sixteen hours of directing traffic and putting out fires is intensely tiring, but fun all the same. 

Chad, a recent import from Chicago, is bartending tonight. Tomorrow, I will see him again, organizing a showing of the Dick Van Dyke masterpiece Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as I set up the bar. If anything, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang gave me night terrors as a kid. Good to see the terror being passed to today’s unsuspecting youth. I’d serve beer and watch future therapy bills increase. Something about that car, man. 

Fred and I mingle a bit, see some Winston-Salem regulars, speak to some filmmakers and festival organizers, take advantage of the food and drink, and enjoy the space. But the whole time, an undercurrent of anxiety is consuming me. I’m not used to attending these things, mostly just working them. The whole time I’m gracious, appreciative and certainly don’t avoid conversation, but every plate or glass left on a table I want (need) to pick up and take to a dish bin. I want (need) to ask if the director I’m chatting up wants (needs) another drink. I look at the time and wonder what the clean-up over/under is. Two hours, tops. Two-and-a-half if there’s no dishwasher. I overtip the bar, even though the drinks are free. I feel like a big faker. “HA! Joke’s on you, I should be SERVING you tonight! I’M A FRAUD, I’M NOT ONE OF YOU!”

My mind goes terrible places when I let it. 

Fred vanishes, so I figure that’s my cue. I also respect and utilize the Irish Goodbye, so I voicelessly excuse myself and begin the trek back to my car on Trade Street. The night’s pleasant, and I stroll with no real timeframe. I pass bars and restaurants, couples on their way to this or that. Laughter and music echo down the streets. I wander by Millennium Center and see a huge, well-dressed party through the tall windows. A bartender I know, Michael, is slinging cocktails as fast as he can. I know that game, too.

I end up at a familiar bar that’s not too busy yet. Not quite ready to go home, I sidle up next to a woman wearing the familiar black pants and white shirt that all servers recognize. The High Point Furniture Market is wrapping up the week’s festivities, and she’s just returned from working that night’s event. The ever-present shot of Fernet Branca and $2 Tecate are being contemplated in front of her. The bartender turns to me.

“I’ll have what she’s having.”

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