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In the Age of Trump, the Service Industry Must Adapt to Nonstop Politics

You can't escape The Donald at your local dive bar anymore.
Images via Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons.

This is an op-ed about the political atmosphere of the service industry from Brooklyn-based and Southern-born bartender Eric Kingrea

"No Politics; No Religion."

It's one of the golden rules of the service industry, a hoary dictum squeezed in importance between "Be Nice, or Be Gone," and "Tip or Die". But as a golden rule, we should admit that it has finally done what gold doesn't do: tarnished, oxidized, crumbled. Or I suppose you could say that it's been melted down and poured to spell out a gaudy, clumsy collection of initials: DJT, POTUS. "No Politics; No Religion": you had a good run. We might be able to keep the second part, but the first? Forget about it.


I wouldn't go so far as to say that the service industry has been rocked by the current political climate, but it has been shaken. You used to go to your local bar or restaurant as a treat to yourself -- a way to escape the bullshit. But now the country's bullshit is incessant, overflowing, and your bartenders and servers are the ones dealing with you dealing with it. As a bartender myself, I can say from firsthand experience that this is the trickle down that we've experienced in our industry.

Chances are your favorite happy hour joint has taken a side. Even if they haven't, you can be sure that management and ownership have wrestled with whether it was in their interests to open early for the Comey testimony, or what to write on the sandwich board after the election.

Now the country's bullshit is incessant, overflowing, and your bartenders and servers are the ones dealing with you dealing with it.

"In this presidential cycle there was no controlling it," Michael O'Donnell, a barman at Farrell's, one of the oldest bars in Brooklyn, told VICE Impact. "Hugh Carey was governor of New York [in the late 70's], he'd stop by for one or two, and if anyone asked him a policy question, he'd tell them that neither Farrell's, nor any other bar, was the place for that type of discourse." In 2017, that type of statement doesn't even sound quaint. It sounds absurd. It sounds like a lie. Sorry, Hugh. Fake news.


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"We have a picture of Trump in our toilet bowl with his mouth open, and someone didn't like that, so they wrote 'Trump 2020, MAGA' all over," said Paul King, co-owner of The Boobie Trap in Bushwick. "We just painted over it that night."

All I'm saying is that it's hard to imagine a Sanctuary Restaurant movement if You-Know-Who hadn't had his surge through the Rust Belt. Your food is political, after all. So's your beer.

O'Donnell observed that since the election Trump supporters have been quiet (it is Brooklyn, after all) and a bit proud, while Hillary/Bernie supporters have been "almost deranged."

The divisiveness felt in the industry didn't start with the election. Our part of the world shifted when Donald Trump won the candidacy, maybe even as soon as he announced his run. Get outside the protests and the Trump rallies and you realize that the center isn't holding anywhere. It's not just between left and right.

Catty-corner from Farrell's is the Double Windsor, a hip little spot with wifi and microbrews where Khara Gilvey tends bar.

"Leading up to the election, a woman overheard one guy trying to convince his friend to vote," Gilvey said. "His friend was a Bernie supporter and going to abstain, and this lady was like, 'Anything that isn't a vote for Hillary is a vote for Trump.' And when the guys said they weren't talking to her, and I tried to sway her away from them, she told me that I was a misogynist, and that this bar was misogynist."


READ MORE: Watch VICE Impact's New Video 'Solidarity for Sanctuary'

Lindsay Collins, a server in Charleston, SC, and host of Effin B Radio, a food and beverage podcast, finally realized that Trump had a chance to win during service on election night. She was working a communal table of eight—people from every background--when talk turned to the election. Six of her customers expressed their desire to see Clinton lose, and the majority eventually revealed themselves to be voting for Trump. The remaining two dropped their eyes and quietly finished their entrees.

"I wanted to apologize to the two who had eaten their meal in silence and tell them that I hadn't voted for Trump, as if that would help make their experience less unpleasant,"Collins says. "But I work for tips and was worried about losing over 60 percent of my money if I offended anyone else at the table." Instead she smiled apologetically as the couple declined the dessert.

More often than not there's something ethically squishy about bringing up such loaded topics, especially while sitting at the same table as strangers who might disagree with you while being served by a stranger who might vehemently disagree with you. This is a free country, but we in the service industry judge customers in different ways based on our own positions. We know what our job entails. And we know that you know.

"I'm obviously a captive audience," said Kimberly Dinaro, a bartender at a very nice spot that attracts very nicely appointed people in Manhattan. "Often I have to choose between nodding my head or losing my tip when a man with five houses says to me, 'As a doctor, sometimes I only get paid for two-thirds of the work that I do. We treat people without insurance, but what if someone only paid for two-thirds of the drinks you poured?' As if a martini is a life-threatening situation."


It doesn't help that people often confuse "server" with "servant." "The customers my age are worse than the older ones, I think, because the debates that start off at social issues turn rapidly into class struggles," Dinaro said. "Suddenly, my opinion as a server is not as important to a 23-year old trust fund baby with a job at Goldman Sachs, especially if they feel they control me since they're determining my tip."

"Am I in support of sending them all back and building a wall to keep them out? Fuck no! Of course not. "

I haven't even mentioned the parts about the business right now that are truly hard. There are concrete effects this political sturm und drang has on a business that you might have thought of as your respite from politics. The possibility that Obamacare could be eliminated is scary in a job where cut fingers and burnt hands are a point of pride.

And don't forget about the immigrants who are too afraid to be interviewed about any of this. There's an undeniable burden on people who are paranoid because someone is legitimately out to get them.

"The harshest example for me was coming into work soon after the election and being asked, somewhat sheepishly, by a member of our 100 percent Mexican immigrant kitchen if I liked Trump," said Scott K., a manager of a Mexican restaurant who requested I not use his last name because he didn't want to blow up his people's spot. "Am I in support of sending them all back and building a wall to keep them out? Fuck no! Of course not. But this question was being asked of me by a coworker of 10 years. These are people I consider family. I know their kids and have been to their weddings. And suddenly they felt unsafe and worried."

I like talking politics -- civilly and respectfully. I'm addicted to it. The problem is that the country is addicted to it too. We haven't enjoyed so much as a vodka cran in two years without talking about the latest tweet. It's the new prix fixe: table de Trump. I don't know if the courses will keep coming, for four years, or eight years, or beyond. I don't know if we'll ever be able to stop. The idea sounds like hype for a world that existed a long time ago, one that doesn't seem to be coming back. It sounds wonderful.