Confessions of a Bartender: A Job to Love and Hate in Equal Measure

BartenderBartending is a fiercely competitive field, a way to make great money, and a job that occasionally induces hair-pulling frustration. But in the life of a mixologist, it's the fascinating characters and their colorful tales that ensure there's never a dull moment.

For seven years now, I've been known as Jennie the Bartender. This has its pros and cons. It's fun when I'm selected to create the drink menu for a cocktail-themed class at the cooking school where I moonlight.

It's annoying when I walk into a Super Bowl party after an eight-hour bartending shift and everyone shouts, "Yay, she's here!" while handing me their empty glasses with the expectation that I will refill them with something delicious to drink.

In my 32 years, and with more job changes than I can count, bartending is the one career I keep coming back to. How many other jobs allow a person to make a better-than-average living in three shifts a week, while pursuing other passions (writing, for example) in her abundant free time?

No doubt that is the reason that bartending is such a hard field to get into. I was lucky. Shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 2003, I was hired by the Sofitel Hotel as a cocktail waitress, with the expectation that I would help the bartender when the lounge was busy. I eagerly absorbed every detail of the art of mixology, knowing that I would eventually have the experience on my resume to allow entree into future bartending gigs, which is where the real money is made.

Forget School, On-the-Job Training Is Best

My industry friends swore that bartending school was a laughable sham. Some of my gutsier contemporaries had forgone school and just embellished their work histories, only to be asked during their interviews to prepare, on cue, drinks they had never heard of -- an experience they assured me was terrifying. What I learned (and still believe) is the only proven way to break into the business is to get a job requiring little-to-no experience, such as that of the bar back (the bartender's right hand, the person who restocks alcohol, glassware and condiments as needed) and work your way up.

Rex, my senior bartender at the hotel, showed me more than the basics; he made sure I left that position armed with valuable tricks of the trade. In addition to a killer recipe for a strawberry-basil martini, I learned to cure customers' stomach woes with sparkling water and a hearty dash of bitters. Thanks to Rex, when pesky fruit flies invade my home in summertime, I know how to slay them with a concoction of apple cider vinegar and dish soap. And more than once, he demonstrated how to inspire awe -- and bigger tips -- by lighting the bar on fire. (I'd tell you how, but that is filed in the "Don't Try This at Home" category.)

A Job to Love -- and Hate, Too

Since that time, I've learned why ours is a job to love and hate in equal measure. I've been propositioned, asked all kinds of inappropriate questions (which I only reveal to my priest or my shrink) and offered a lap dance -- from a man.

I've been on the receiving end of furiously shouted insults, had a pitcher of beer poured down my back at a filthy joint straight out of the movie "Coyote Ugly" and worked for a shady character who ended most evenings passed out facedown on the pool table.

Undoubtedly, this job requires a thick skin and, of course, the ability to resist drinking an entire bottle of Jack Daniels at work when the going gets tough.

But there are wonderful aspects of working in a bar, and these are the reasons why my colleague, Steve, calls himself a "lifer." (He intends to bartend until his sandy hair is gray and thinning.)

More than anything, it's the fascinating people you meet. And for an aspiring writer like me, it's also all about hearing (and remembering) their inspirational stories. Each day, I sling kamikazes and Jager bombs, and I study the human condition.

I've served dozens of celebrities, and while the starstruck feeling quickly fades, the way that they behave never ceases to amaze me. I once mixed Martinis for a pair of heiress/socialite sisters who were apparently absent the day manners were handed out. A certain dark-haired, agent-vanquishing surfer dude got so tipsy that he waltzed around my restaurant with a giddy stranger. I've poured champagne for a statuesque blonde who's just as crazy in real life as the boyfriend-murdering character she plays on the big screen. I've muddled mojitos for rock stars, Playboy bunnies, and presidents (OK, not really, but he played one on TV).

Real People Make the Job Fantastic

And while that's all very entertaining, it's the real people -- the teachers, the grocery checkers, the electricians -- that help me look forward to going to work every day. Folks that inspire and intrigue me, like Jameson-loving Jason, who crossed the nation on rollerblades to raise money for a children's charity, or Captain Dan, who took a group of us to Catalina on his 40-foot sailboat before he left to circumnavigate the globe.

Patrons like Bobby, whose "flower child" parents dress up as gnomes and photograph themselves in front of national monuments, keep me laughing.

A remarkable woman, whom I easily consider an all-time favorite customer, passed away during the writing of this article. She seldom drank; she just graced the bar with her presence and her hearty laugh every week of an 18-month stint I did at a dive joint. While I rarely visit that dirty little bar anymore, the night Queen passed away I went to pay my respects. More than 40 people turned out to mourn, warble sad karaoke ballads in her honor and celebrate her big, beautiful heart. Not one person made it through the night dry-eyed; this demonstration of how many lives she touched profoundly moved me.

So, sure, ask me on any given Tuesday whether I love my job and the answer is likely to be "no," perhaps preceded by a colorful expletive. But catch me after I've just seen Queen belt out her rendition of "Pour Some Sugar on Me," and I'll tell you a very different story. One where my life is immeasurably more vibrant due to the acquaintances I've made over the top of a martini glass.

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