“What do you do?”
“I’m a bartender”
“Right, but like, what do you WANT to do?”
I have a handful of prefab responses to this rude and presumptuous question, designed to politely end the conversation as quickly as possible. What I want to, but only very rarely, say is: “I don’t know and it’s none of your damn business anyways."
My early 20s were spent scraping by on the meager wages provided by “real” jobs. Eventually, I found myself waiting tables and was delighted to discover that I could make more cash in one night than I had in a week at one of those other places. That led me to the bar, where I’ve been ever since.
I’ve made my living exclusively as a barkeep since completing my BA in Anthropology in 2007. Believe it or not, I have zero regrets about taking out 50 grand in student loans to obtain this virtually useless degree. I’m grateful every day for the way those classes and experiences shaped my worldview and taught me how to think critically. But the fact of the matter is that getting a job in anthropology with only a bachelor's is nearly impossible, and getting one that pays a living wage is definitely impossible.
The few positions that are available pay less than half of what I make slinging drinks and I’d have a hard time even being considered for them since I have virtually zero contacts in that field. I put myself through school, which meant forgoing the door-opening opportunity of an internship since I was already juggling three jobs and a full-time course load. Even though I graduated with a near-perfect GPA, I have very little experience to show potential employers.
My graduation from college coincided with the beginning of our current economic depression -- Congratulations on your degree! The world as you know it is ending! Good luck! -- and my bubble of hope for a stimulating and fulfilling career popped. So, I stayed put.
While my peers sent out resume after resume, competing with hundreds of other applicants for jobs that they were overqualified for, I continued to come home from work every night with a pocketful of cash. During times of strife, alcohol sales increase as people seek out an escape from their problems and so I found myself with the unlikeliest of things at that time: job security. The bar became a bunker where I not only took shelter from the broken economy but, horrible as it sounds, profited from it.
In that sense, I’ve been incredibly fortunate. This line of work will never make me wealthy but it has afforded me a modestly comfortable lifestyle. I can eat out whenever I want, indulge in expensive cosmetics and clothing from time to time and drive a car that isn’t a total piece of crap.
In addition to the income, my work schedule is always flexible, allowing me to travel and take time off whenever I need it. While people scrimped and struggled, I was snorkeling in Thailand and dropping obscene amounts of money on getting my hair just the right shade of blonde.
If you’re wondering how I managed to do all that without feeling like a total asshole, it’s because I busted my butt to earn every one of those dollars; working through sicknesses and injuries, sometimes for weeks on end without a day off. I was willing to slum it with a servant job while my friends and former classmates stubbornly pursued “nobler” stations.
For a few years, I didn’t even bother looking for another job. I just worked and saved money and tried really hard not to think about the future. I made excuses when people asked what my plans were, I halfheartedly applied to grad school, I started a blog because writing was pretty much the only thing I liked to do.
Finally, in a moment of clarity, it occurred to me that I was no longer doing this out of necessity but out of fear and, with that, I packed up my car and embarked on one of those vision questy road trips all over the country, eventually landing in Los Angeles. I was determined to jump back in, to express myself creatively, find a career that I loved and go after it full force.
The first thing I did in LA was find a bartending job. Wait, what? I know, I know. But it turns out that the cost of living in lovely LaLa Land is twice what it was in my former city and the bar is the only surefire place I know to make money. And so, the cycle began again.
For some, tending bar is truly a passion. There’s a serious craft to cocktail making, elevated to high art by many of my peers who’ve built a tight knit community that I respect but will never become a part of because I just can’t muster the same enthusiasm. They carefully and lovingly craft; I schlep.
I can make you a killer Old Fashioned but at the end of the day, it’s just a job.
But it's by no means a bad one, with perks like meeting a constant stream of new people, access to some seriously amazing booze, free food, wonderful co-workers and the best eavesdropping ever. On the other hand, it can be extremely degrading, as customers at varying levels of drunkenness get rowdy or treat me like garbage from time to time.
The late hours aren’t conducive to having a social life that involves anyone with a 9-to-5 job, there are no benefits, I’m constantly covered in alcohol/food/sweat/bleach, income can be extremely inconsistent and it’s physically and emotionally exhausting.
But worst of all is the stigma. Just saying, “I’m a bartender,” seems to automatically imply that I’m a party girl, unambitious, an alcoholic or -- worst of all -- not good at anything else. People often assume that my job as a bartender is just an unfortunate situation that I’m in until that “real job” comes through.
Is tending bar the end-all, be-all gig for me? Probably not. But fielding constant stereotyping and judgment from others about the nature of my employment isn’t helping me figure things out any faster. And I'm not really interested in quitting to take a $10-an-hour job fact-checking for a cool research firm just so I can see people’s eyes light up with interest when I tell them what I do, or eating Ramen noodles and taking the bus just so that I can stop dodging questions about myself and find out what “business casual” actually means.
I will, however, continue to work hard at my writing and maybe, one day, actually have the best of both worlds: doing something that I love AND living without the agony of poverty.
Thanks for reading and don’t forget to tip your bartender.