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I was suffering slowly through the security checkpoint at the State building the other day, and after a half-hearted pat-down and a thorough search of my purse, the guard triumphantly held up my wine key between two rubber-gloved fingers and said, “Ma’am, you can’t take this in there.” I tried to explain that I was an ex-bartender, and I carried that wine key with me for emergencies — you know, to open a bottle of Pinot should I get caught in a snowdrift or something. I said I’d be right back — could she just hold it for me? But my pleading fell on deaf ears, and eventually there was a loud clunk as the guard threw my wine key into a nearby trash can.
I was broken-hearted. That was my very last wine key, a final leftover relic from my halcyon days as a bartender. I had carried that wine key around faithfully in my purse for the past six years, ever since I’d finally hung up the old apron and gotten a desk job. Losing it made my “retirement” from bartending seem so final — it signified the bittersweet end of a very long era in my life..
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of reasons to be thankful that I no longer tend bar: I get to wake up in the morning like a normal person, and my feet no longer scream in agony those first few steps out of bed. I get weekends off now, and most major holidays. I don’t have to spend my entire workday babysitting drunk people, and I certainly drink less myself nowadays — a lot less. I no longer smoke (shit, I can’t afford it!) and it’s been a really long time since I broke up a fistfight.
But there are plenty of things I miss about bartending, too. The money is a big one — my income has dipped dramatically in the six years I’ve been on the other side of the bar. Long gone are those two and three and four-hundred dollar cash shifts, that steady, daily flow of tips that happily financed all my vices. I used to make so much cash behind the bar that I often tossed my paychecks, unneeded and uncashed, into a drawer until they expired. These days, I have to patiently wait two full weeks until my next meager paycheck, like every other working stiff.
And I miss the freedom. When I bartended, I could always find someone to cover my shifts at the last minute so I could jet off to Mexico or New York City or St. Maarten on a whim or a dare (and I knew that river of money would be waiting for me when I got home.) Now that I work a 9 to 5, I’m required to submit a vacation request form – in triplicate and duly signed by my supervisor – and wait for approval from the drones in Human Resources. And I’m limited to two weeks’ vacation per calendar year, which is, in my opionion, criminally insufficient for any kind of real living.
But the most dramatic change since I got a “real” job has been my appearance. My face piercing is gone now, my tattoos are dutifully covered, my wardrobe is staid and boring and acceptable in professional circles. But I’ve also gained about sixty pounds, no doubt from sitting on my ass at a desk all day instead of schlepping dirty dishes and lugging cases of beer and changing those enormously heavy kegs for eight hours straight every shift.
So would I go back to bartending right now, given the chance? Probably not. I’m just too old and my body is plain worn out. And I have no more patience left in me for petulant, groping drunks. But do I miss it? Hell yeah, I do. I miss the camaraderie with my fellow bartenders and servers and line cooks, that grim and bawdy front-line humor we shared when our customers weren’t listening (and sometimes when they were.) I miss the rock star mentality that shaped our lives, the luxuriant flirting, the over-the-top excesses that burned some of us out along the way. I miss hosting what was essentially a riotous party for hundreds of my closest friends every single night, and getting paid handsomely by them to do so. I miss the carefree, stick-it-to-The-Man ease of a pirate’s life lived out on the fringe of society, and the delight I had in being something, somebody different from everybody else.
I miss my wine key.