I’ve had many aspirations in my life. When I was a Catholic schoolboy I thought I wanted to be a priest. It seemed like they had it all figured out. Father Jenkins was quiet and powerful and wise. Turned out he was also drunk. But people took their greatest fears and regrets to him and laid them at his feet. He carried them away so that they could sleep in peace. I admired that.
In the 25 years since those holy aspirations, I have worn many hats, none of them a mitre. I’ve been a writer, a chef, an actor, a waiter, and even a vaudevillian burlesque clown. That last one doesn’t pay well, but it’s damn good fun. So how did I, and countless other creatives, settle on bartending as our chosen profession?
The cynic in me wants to say it’s because I just wasn’t very good at any of those other things. There’s some truth to that. But I like to paint a more optimistic picture: bartending is all those things rolled into one. And when I discovered bartending, (and even better, discovered I was good at it) I felt like a great search had ended. This is where all those different paths converged.
Chef? The lessons and techniques I learned in the kitchen are put into practice everyday. Writer? I am surrounded by inspiration; each shift brings with it a colorful cast of characters, each with their own story to tell. Priest? You’d be amazed how many people confess their sins to me. Performer? Oh boy am I, especially on days when I don’t feel like a charming and charismatic bartender. Acting is a huge part of what servers and bartenders do. Open in ten? Time to get into character.
When I think of all those other paths I could have taken, I am often comforted by a description of the original American startender, Jerry P. Thomas, found in Dave Wondrich’s seminal book on cocktail history, IMBIBE!
Wondrich writes, “he was a gold miner, a Broadway dandy, a (minor) theatrical impresario, an art collector, an artist himself (of sorts, anyway), an inventor, an author, and a gambler.”
It seems that bartenders have always emerged from the fringes of the counterculture, artists and seekers with a knack for showmanship, and a penchant for vice. I don’t spend much time thinking about those other paths these days, or what might have been. And when I do look back on them, I'm just thankful they were leading to a bar.