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Hold Hard the Tap Handle

The joy of bartending.

Images of a bearded man doing the labor of bartending.
What, besides the alcohol, am I selling? Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Once, when I had just opened for the day and the bar was still full of promise, a woman popped her head in, not quite sure if she should make the journey through the doorway. “I love the vibe in here,” she told me.

“Thanks,” I said, gingerly setting down the last of the barstools. “Are you thirsty?”

“No, I don’t drink.” She continued assessing the place, glancing around, stepping toward me. “Would you mind if I hooped?”

It was only then that I realized she was shouldering a bedazzled hula hoop, spangly and fringed. She loved the music I was playing, she said, and for the next hour she spun the hoop around and around, tossing it in the air, taking up most of the empty dance floor, no other soul in sight. Not a bad way to start a shift.

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I like bartending. At its best it feels honest and complete, an uncomplicated and noble series of transactions. I confess, though, that I almost never experience these exchanges from the other side of the bar. I’m a musician, and when I’m out playing gigs I’m constantly handing off my drink tickets to a buddy or asking the venue bartenders if they have decaf coffee (they never do). So I’m not sure I fully understand what the people beyond the taps need from me, exactly. What, besides the alcohol, am I selling?

One of the worst people I know once told me that, as a bartender, he was “curating a vibe”—that his attention to appropriate house music and lighting votive candles was what the customers were really paying for. I rolled my eyes—what an asshole—but now that I pour beers for a living I find myself setting the mood just so, truly believing that friendly and attentive service can ever so slightly improve my little community. I wonder if I’m naïve. But I do know this: The soggy singles I fold into my wallet when I get off are sweeter and steadier than any dollar I ever earned sitting at a computer professionally. Hold hard the tap handle.

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First I must open the bar. There’s a magical, incantational quality to the opening routine which can be deeply satisfying. Lights on, tunes of your choosing loud on the stereo, stools off their stacks, taps flushed, cups arranged, rugs rolled out, televisions turned on, faux neon OPEN sign blinks hopefully. It feels required, too, that I curse the coworker who closed the night before: Why didn’t they stock more paper towels? The curse is part of the spell. But then all at once the room—once over air-conditioned and reeking of last night’s party—is now a bar, which means that eventually someone thirsty will wander in. And I’ll be there to help them.

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I do like it when the bar is slow, in the afternoon. I like spacing out, letting my mind wander, awaiting the activation of a customer. I like the hollow echo of the music on the stereo when there’s no one here, the wet snare slap. I like needlessly wiping things down and carrying flats of canned beer to and fro, lining them up in the cooler and rotating their labels around.

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And then there’s the one-on-one attention I can give a solitary drinker. Before it gets busy I truly have nothing better to do than to go deep with a stranger. Occasionally, after making pedestrian small talk for half an hour, I learn something absolutely wild about my only customers. Once an otherwise unremarkable couple casually mentioned that one of them possessed the ability to communicate with the dead. Excuse me, would you care to explain? This particular medium enjoys hazy IPAs and feels the presence of the dead viscerally. I learned about the spirit in their basement and the ghosts she passes through when walking down the sidewalk. Surely there are dozens of ghosts here, I said, in the bar’s 200-year-old building. She held her hands up as if to shush us, chin pointed toward the ceiling, postured like a satellite, tuning to a broadcast from beyond. Some time went by. No, she said, you’re good, no one’s here. I looked around to confirm—yup, only three of us in the bar.

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I prefer to make money, of course, and the only way I can do that is if lots of people drink in the bar and give me tips. And really, I like serving people, as many as possible in a row, boom, boom, boomboomboom. I like it when someone wants something from me—they’re sure of it—and then I am able to provide exactly what they want without additional thought or friction. How clean, how simple, elegant even. They hand me the right amount of money and I hand them back the right amount of change and then they leave the right amount of tip on the bar. It can really be deeply meditative, responding to requests and inputs as speedily as possible. During a two-hour rush, the most pressing problem in my life is simply who got to the bar first. When they thirstily crowd the bar there’s no room to think about anything else—it’s blank and serene underneath all my running around, a rag tucked into my belt loop.

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There is a lot I don’t like about bartending, too. It has gotten tougher over the years to stand for ten hours. My heels will sing, my knees will groan, I’ll have to sleep all the next day to recover. I’ve had horrible conversations with tedious or mean or poison people who keep me pinned to my spot. Lectures about crypto. Unsympathetic sob stories from people who don’t realize that they’re the true villain. I have deeply mixed feelings about getting people drunk, watching them melt and slur over the course of a few tallboys. Ugliness floats to the top. And the energy in the room when people get wasted puts me on edge. The volatility can be scary. After midnight it can really feel like people have drowned their common sense.

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And you never know how much money you’re going to make. Sometimes I’m lucky to take home fifty bucks cash, other times I can pay my month’s rent with one night’s haul (great). Then again, the unpredictable rewards also activate a deeply reptile part of my brain, slot machine mode. One more spin and I’ll win big. I get superstitious about it as if I’m really gambling (if I count my tips too early in the shift, I’ll jinx it). Stacking my odds, flirting a little bit with everyone who buys a beer. And the thing about a bar is that you truly never know what will happen there. Chaotic, yes, but I prefer to frame it this way: This place where people gather holds infinite possibility.

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And after the chaos I am rewarded with another routine: kicking people out and closing up shop. I am now the guy who yells “last call.” I like putting on gentle music while I settle the tabs—those who want to keep partying will scatter like roaches upon hearing Hiroshi Yoshimura. I like hearing the last smokers out front decide where they ought to go next while I count my tips—their travels don’t concern me. I like being alone in the building once more, the echoes of 2 p.m., how I then must systematically turn the bar back into just a room, strip it of its welcome trappings. I like the exertion of the closing checklist, how the most difficult part of the job is the very last thing you do. I like dragging a mop heavy with dirty water across the checkerboard floor, watching the footprints disappear. I like running a pine-scented rag over the various surfaces of the bar and stacking up the stools. I like turning all the lights on max to clean and really earning turning the lights back off when I leave. There’s the hefty rattle of the big bag of empties, how sweetly it clangs in the dumpster when I toss it out.

The negative space at the end of the night is delicious. Every closing duty shuts off a corresponding part of my own brain. The OPEN sign blinks one last time with a definitive click. The bolt slides into the lock whole, a satisfying machine. The bar is closed. I am done. I walk home through the alley, my mind blissfully still, my back pocket heavy with wrinkled paper currency, a song leaking out from the soles of my shoes.

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