by Clane Hayward
The worst job I ever had was the best job I ever had. For eight years I was a bartender in San Francisco’s Mission District, and for most of that time I was either drinking, drunk, hung over, or just sufficiently recovered to start all over again. It was the only steady job I’ve held for that long, and it was the only job I’ve had that never, ever bored me. It was one of the few jobs I’ve ever had that I felt lucky to have, that I felt grateful about. Walking to work in the evening with an espresso and a Galois, I always anticipated the night ahead.
During my last year in college I used to go to a dingy, comfortable, colorful dive called Uptown, which was on Capp Street. Betty, with her crooked teeth and lipsticky smile, and Mia, who made my first, deliciously juicy cosmopolitan, let me collect glasses and restock the beer coolers behind the bar. Soon I was Uptown’s barback, and then suddenly I was a bartender. My first night on the job, I made two hundred dollars, I made out with a rock star, and I broke a pool cue over someone’s shoulders busting up a fight. Fabulous.
Being a cute, snappy girl bartender in a loud, loose, scruffy hipster bar is a lot like being a rock star, except you don’t have to tour, practice, get gigs, or shop demos. Everybody wants you, as the song goes. Everyone has to watch you, because they need your attention to get a drink, and they’re all thinking how hot you are and wishing they had your job or maybe even your phone number, or at least your flair with short skirts and chipped nail polish and thigh-high stockings. Girls can’t diss you without looking like jealous bitches and they know that you can totally ignore them and leave them drinkless and fuming, so they keep their trampy mouths shut. Same with guys except the power dynamic is even more amusing: some fat-assed dot-com lout who thinks he’s slumming waves his money in your face, and you look at him and very calmly say, “Are you offering me twenty dollars to break your fingers? Because I’ll happily do it for five.” I was obnoxious.
When I wasn’t working at one bar or club I was drinking at a different one. I wore stunning vintage coats and outrageously huge glasses and knew all the boys in all the bands. City lights whirled around me like neon stars, always reflected by shimmering sidewalks wet with rain. Everyone I’ve ever loved, I met in a bar.
I could have stayed a bartender for a long time, but for hedonic adaptation and the physical stress associated with a regular pattern of five to ten drinks a night, five to seven nights a week. I noticed with an odd sense of detachment that my hands would be very shaky when I first came on shift, and that it was hard to be civil until I’d had a drink, and impossible to work sober. I heard, “I’d like to speak to your manager, please” often enough that I finally made a sock puppet manager, with black X’s for eyes, to keep beneath the bar. “Yes? Can I help you? I’m the manager,” the sock puppet would say wearily around the cigarette butt taped to its mouth. My relationships all involved chairs being thrown through windows, or similar catastrophes. Visits to emergency rooms were made. In the end, I had to leave town. There was no other way. I don’t think I could ever work in a bar again.