You chose this said the voice in my head as I took refuge behind the cash register to tune out the clamor of the bar patrons. With my arms folded in front of me, my head dangled on my chest while I stared at my dirty boots on the dirty floor. Offering brief respite from the bitter reality of my personal purgatory, I reanimated myself and went back to playing the role of bartender, bar maid, or bar bitch depending on whose talking. Acting is easy when you’re the one in control. And as long as I was behind the bar, I was responsible for most everything and everyone.
While serving drinks and entertaining the underbelly of society in the dirtiest bar in the city, I keep my aura of outward kindness intact while throwing back a whiskey double… the peace offering made by my cocaine riddled boss after he publicly belittles me. He continues to trail behind me, shouting things in a strained whisper as I go about my business. Walking fast to keep up, he hunches over so that his mouth is next to my ear. If he’s drunk, he’ll spit when he talks… and I’ll nod my head while walking forward so that I won’t have to look at his little weasel face. He lets his friends sell cocaine out of this bar. Lots of it. But I stay because I’m an undocumented employee, I get paid in cash, and when the drug bust happens…which indeed will happen, I’ll just slip out of the back door and disappear. When I detect the faint indication that a drug deal is underway, it continues only if I let it continue, and my benevolence is always reimbursed in one way or another.
Stage fright be damned, because being a bartender means that you turn yourself off so that you can play the role the customer wants you to play. Be whoever they want you to be. You are a shape-shifter who transforms into someone you don’t know, or like, in order to satisfy the needs of social forms. These forms are the unspoken rules of our world, that tell us how we should act towards one another based on our role in the social setting. But if your real self gets turned back on while on shift, more often than not, the rest of the night is spent in mental anguish as the feud between your separate selves threatens to show itself to the outside world. My bartender self had a list of simple mantras that played on repeat for hours upon hours. “Smile.” “Be polite.” “Ignore it.” “Just nod.” “Get in, get out.” They helped to pacify my own conscience, to ease my self-contempt for capitalizing on my own submission to things that left me unnerved.
I slather on the “war paint” until I am unrecognizable. Layers of black eyeliner, eye shadow, and red lipstick to keep the enemy from seeing my real face. A designated costume consisting of uncomfortably short shorts and tight tops to keep the enemy from acknowledging my humanity. Its hard to be real with someone who goes out of their way to look this fake. Most people don’t get too personal with someone who looks this excessive and overdone, there’s just something off putting about it. This is exactly what I went for on a nightly basis. Every night before work, it was important to do these things in order to play my part, and refrain from breaking a bottle over someone’s head. Just before heading out the door, the goal was to get as stoned as humanly possible to promote my state of apathy towards life. Besides, its not like my job required any real brain power, rather, it was better if I didn’t have any at all.