In the beginning…
I began tending bar in a San Francisco pool hall in 1995 when I was just twenty-one years old. At the time it was a really fantastic gig. Going to school or starting a vocational career and working from the ground up wasn’t on the radar for me. I’d already tried to go to school, but with no family support I was only one tiny tragedy from losing everything. Being behind the bar changed all that; I wasn’t worried about making rent anymore. I lived in North Beach, wore cool 1930s and ‘40s vintage clothes (all the rage in the mid-1990s, seriously, I am not a freak), rode a 1975 BMW motorcycle, and was having the time of my life. Best of all, I made a lot more money than any of my friends at the time and had a lot more freedom with my time. Little did I know that the delayed gratification that my friends were capable of would pay off greater dividends in the end.
I am not complaining about my life by any means. Sure, there have been struggles and difficulties, but I have always made it through. I didn’t bar tend the entire time over the last twenty-two years either. I tried a bunch of other things; I went to school to be an EMT (that sucked), I sold cars, I moved across the country to NYC and did real estate. But I always came back to bar tending because it never left me high and dry. But more than that, it was a default job, one where I could make believe that I had much more skill than I actually did. Here is an anecdote: There used to be this old San Francisco bar tender called Jack. He was a legend. One day I was picking his brain as a twenty-two-year-old kid and trying to siphon off some of his expertise. He turned to me and asked, “How hard is it to hand a glass of gin to a drunk, kid?” Jack was right.
If we are good at what we do, it means that we have learned the culture—stemmed glasses get napkins not coasters!!! In the old days, being good at tending bar meant we learned to be accurate with speed pourers, but laziness and the return of the jigger is killing that “skill.” Bar tenders have to memorise drink recipes; this isn’t as hard as we like to think it is. (Over the last two decades I have forgotten more drinks than most bar tenders ever learn. This doesn’t make me special, it just means that drink trends change over time.) More than anything, being a good bar tender is about being fast and accurate. You have to multitask, but so does almost every other person in the hospitality industry. In other words, bar tending is a relatively easy skill set to obtain but many of us pretend that it is some sort of magic knowledge. It isn’t.
About half way through my bar tending career I became pretty convinced that I had about enough. I was managing a couple of hip and popular bars in San Francisco. By hip, I mean jagged hair and listening to electro, not the current lumberjack-on-Instagram version. But I digress. Anyway, there I was in my early thirties, surrounded by the beautiful people, alcohol, and a scene that just begged for a party. I got invited to parties that no one would ever have invited me to before. I met famous musicians and kind of felt important (I wasn’t as important as I felt). This lifestyle had never really been me. In the old days I used get off work, ride my motorcycle to Coit Tower at 3 AM, and listen to the ocean and the sounds of barking sea lions. No, this was something completely different, exciting, and irresistible at the same time. I got swept up, and I let myself go. I have always been into fitness, but I gave it up for a time. I was working hard, but I wasn’t saying no to the playing as much as I should have. I had everything any guy my age would want, and I was miserable.
My health was suffering. My interpersonal relationships were little more than crappy facades. I was unfulfilled, to say the least! I needed a change. I decided to go back to school, leaving the Bay Area to go to Reno. My parents had retired there and offered to let me live in their camping trailer for free and go to school. Unfortunately, it was just another waste of time, because the school was greatly impacted by the financial crash in 2008. By impacted, I mean, nobody had a job and they all went back to school. Also, the city college in Reno is somewhat limited. So I went back to tending bar and managed a small place right on the outskirts of downtown Reno. Every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in! However, I never went back to the partying life, and I maintained physical health as a cornerstone of my identity. I eventually went back to the Bay Area and just put my nose down and went to school.
In my mid to late thirties I mostly felt like the old guy on campus. I went to Laney community college in Oakland, California and really stuck it out. Although I had started and stopped college many times before, this time was different. I put school first. I was tending bar, but I told myself, this time I am putting the school over the job. I always put making money first, and it bit me in the ass in the end. I got my general education out of the way and eventually transferred to San Francisco State University.
I got my degree in international relations from San Francisco State in three semesters. I worked hard and diligently, but I also had student loans to help me get through it. One thing that had stopped me in the past was fear of the loans, but this time I wasn’t going to let anything stop me, so I took them and got a fantastic education. I pursued things that I am passionate about. I mean, I really love international economic systems, that sort of thing just butters my biscuit. I became a teaching assistant and was even grading papers for a class on international political economy. I began engaging in my own research, and Cambridge University Press even published my thesis paper as a chapter in a book about human rights in the internet era. Here’s a link: Information Politics, Protests, and Human Rights in the Digital Age.
I had sort of hoped that some job prospect would manifest itself while I was finishing my undergrad degree. After all, I am pretty exceptional, right? Well, maybe not as much as I would like to think. With nothing in mind, I decided to go to graduate school. Why not just stay in the same place and carry on doing the same thing? I reluctantly continued down the road of academia, and all the while I was tending bar. Only now the bar owners were talking about making me a manager. Um, dude, I’ve already done that before. Anyway, one day I was riding my motorcycle to buy a tri-tip for a barbecue and a woman in a minivan took a left hand turn right into me. I was left with seven broken vertebrae and a broken leg. In the hospital I contracted pneumonia as a little cherry on top. I was wrecked. I was in bed for three months. I tried to continue school the next semester but couldn’t make it work. I also decided that I wanted to work and live my life, not just train for some next step that was always only one more hurdle away.
About nine months after my accident I was back at work on a very limited schedule. About a month after that they made me the general manager of the bar. I won’t lie, I didn’t want to do it, man! But I did the job and I did it diligently. I went about improving the myriad things that had been long neglected. I used the same formulas for increasing business and decreasing pour costs. I trained new bar tenders and corrected a couple old ones on their bad habits. I took the initiative to perform renovations on the bar to better serve our clientele. And it occurred to me, I am bored out of my skull. I wasn’t learning anything because I was doing stuff that I felt like I had done a million times before. It was stifling. It also hurt my back because I have never recovered completely from my injuries.
I was bouncing off the glass ceiling and, to be honest, it didn’t feel good to be at the top of my game in that place or that point in my life. I realised that I just don’t have anything to gain in this job. It was never going to nurture me as a human being. I mean, didn’t I know that already? Well, sort of… But now I really saw there was nowhere to go. And so I kept working as the general manager for over a year until one day, I called my boss and said, I quit. I gave him plenty of notice and hired and trained my replacement.
What is next?
When I was trying to decide whether or not to go to graduate school, one of my mentors advised me against it. Ultimately, my goal has always been to work and live abroad, to explore the world, and I am already very well-travelled. This mentor of mine, who was the head of the International Relations programme at SFSU, said that my best bet was to go to the country of my choosing and kind of hang around until I got a job. My degree is basically tailored for either working at the state department or working for a non-governmental organisation (NGO). I have now decided to take the option that I was first advised to take.
Over the past year of managing the bar in Oakland, my girlfriend (who has the same degree as me) and I have gotten our finances and affairs in order. Although we both specialised in Middle Eastern culture, politics, and economics, we have decided to go to Cambodia. It happens to be one of the poorest nations on the planet, but it is also home to the second largest number of NGOs (the first being Rwanda). It is a way for us to get into the lines of work that we trained for. Don’t worry, we aren’t the type of people who will go to another county to have a photo op of ourselves pretending to build a house for people when we have no clue what we are doing. I, for example, would like to get into economic development.
The moral of this story is… Well, there isn’t a moral of the story because life isn’t neat and tidy that way. There isn’t even an end to this story because I’m not done living. But here are a few things I wish I knew or was better at:
- It is totally okay to not know what you want to do. I failed to mention in the body of this article that I was kind of a dog with each leg pulling in a different direction, which left me going nowhere.
- Delay gratification. If you aren’t a trust fund kid, then think in the long view. Where is this ride going to drop you off?
- You aren’t special, but you are worthwhile and deserve to be happy.
- Bar tending isn’t that awesome of a skill. I mean, welders can do way cooler stuff, for example, and they have to train a lot harder to be good at it.
- Take the student loan. It sucks, but do it anyway.
- When you apply hard work, knowledge, and methodical technique in intellectual pursuits, you can accomplish amazing and beautiful things. My experience is that this isn’t possible in a bar.