Bullshit Job Diary: The Bar Worker Who Does Coke to Get Through His Shift
Anytime someone in the service industry has been rude to you, it's actually been your own fault.
Photo: Alex Segre / Alamy Stock Photo; Illustration: VICE
In the latest instalment of our column about stupid fucking work, a bar worker drinks and takes drugs as a coping mechanism to deal with the difficulties of a job made harder by last night's drinking and drug use.
3.30PM: I wake up not hungover but, if you can believe such a thing, still drunk. I shower, all the while muttering "fuck" and "nooo" and hitting myself on the forehead. It's unseasonably warm outside and I can't stop thinking of the Saturday that I've wasted, all the things I might have done.
4.45PM: I'm 15 minutes early when I arrive at the pub, but my manager still sees fit to make some wisecrack about me always being late. I start my shift and pour myself the first of several pints of Diet Coke that I'll drink throughout the evening. It doesn't contain any sugar so it's actually very healthy!
There are five of us working. Everyone knows I'm still shit-faced and no one minds. In every bar job I've had, it has been permissible to turn up hungover, strung out or without having slept. Your colleagues might be sympathetic or they might take the piss, but it's unlikely they'll see it as a cause for either discipline or concern. In some ways, this is nice: the worst part of being hungover in an office job is having to pretend otherwise – much of the anxiety dissipates when you can loudly and incessantly complain about how much you're suffering.
But for me it's also dangerous: I need to be externally shamed in order to stay on the rails. The lack of any kind of social censure is just another barrier removed to getting wrecked all the time. Nowadays, I drink too much, I take drugs too frequently, and it's beginning to take its toll. When I go to yoga and breathe deeply, I feel my body hurting in places I couldn't even name or point to on a chart. If I try to feel it, it hurts all the time.
The problem is, at my pub, I'm far from the worst. This means I can look at the people around me, think 'at least I'm not that bad' and convince myself that my behaviour is OK. But, believe me, these people are not a healthy benchmark.
5.15PM: I've been at work 15 minutes and I've already sworn at a customer. He wasn’t overly offended – my pub is known for its bad service, and people enjoy this in a way. The rudeness corresponds to an (outdated) stereotype of east London they find appealing.
My stomach is churning and I want more than anything than to lay my head against the bar. I once described bar work as "the great love of my adult life", but the affair is beginning to sour. Bar work and I are sleeping in separate bedrooms and considering counselling.
I'm bored. Three days a week, I force myself to smile at chuckling references to being "old school" when customers want to pay with cash. I wipe tables and stack glasses, I cut lemons and limes, which sting cuts on my cuticles from chewing. I spend my life in service of people far richer and only slightly older than myself. I listen to their lame jokes, their tepid opinions, their parroting of lines from mid-2000s sitcoms. Providing bad customer service to these people is the only way I can salvage some dignity.
7.00PM: "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" by Neil Young comes on Spotify, and reflexively I look across the street, towards the flat of a person I fell in love with while working here who hurt me very badly.
I can’t overstate how horrible it is to work within direct line of vision of someone you’re trying to forget. I feel like an involuntary stalker – I can tell at a glance, from the light in their hallway, whether they’re home. I’m in a state of suspension, half hoping and half dreading the moment I run into them.
The moral of the story: never fuck a regular.
8.00PM: I have my first drink of the evening (bourbon and full-fat Coke.) It's obviously difficult to avoid alcohol when you work in a pub. When you're stressed or unhappy or just bored, there's something right there that can alleviate all that, free and in unlimited quantity. Sometimes, I make a point of not drinking on shift, but it makes the job so boring that I never last long. I used to tell myself I enjoyed bar work – I've since realised what I actually enjoy is drinking.
8.45PM: It's getting busy. My colleague Max comes up to me and says, "Do you want to play the 'let's get high at work' game?"
I've promised myself that I’m not going to do this anymore, but I'm so tired I'm not sure how I'll manage without it. I begin to list reasons why I’m justified in making this choice: I can afford it, I've worked hard this week, don’t I deserve a Saturday night too? Then I stop myself and admit that it's a bad idea, one that I will certainly regret, but that I'm going do it anyway because I want to.
"At least you're being honest," I tell myself, as if that makes it any better. Max has told me he wants to stop too. At this stage, it’s hard to tell who is enabling who. With a hollow feeling in my stomach, I tell him yes, I'm up for chipping in.
"Can you text him?" Max says.
"Why can't you do it?"
"He's stopped answering my texts."
"He says I'm always too fucked when I get in the car. He says he's worried."
I'm annoyed that we've been landed with the most conscientious dealer in London, but I agree to do it.
9PM: My manager sees me texting on the bar and says, tersely, "Can you please put your phone away."
"I'm just sorting out the coke," I say.
He looks placated and says, "Oh, OK, fine."
9.15PM: Our dealer texts me to say he's outside. No one has their money ready yet so they scramble around the card reader to get cash out, as the queue at the bar deepens. Finally, crumpling the money into my pocket, I head outside to the waiting car.
I really fancy my dealer. I hear so many stories, from both men and women, of being offered drugs in exchange for fellatio. Sadly I've never been so fortunate – what is wrong with me?
"You up to much tonight then, mate?" he says as he hands over the vials.
"Just working," I nod towards the pub.
"You're doing this at work?" he says with a note of alarm. It doesn't feel great having my life choices judged by a drug dealer.
When I get back inside, everyone clamours around me. Max takes charge of the vials, as he always does, and heads down to the cellar.
9.45PM: One line in, my heart beating too fast, I find myself in the borderland between terror and exhilaration. It’s busy now and I regret doing this. I’ve remembered that I don’t actually enjoy being fucked at work: it makes you sloppy, it makes everything more difficult, it makes you keenly aware you don’t have to the freedom to do what you want.
I'm clearing glasses at the end of the bar and knock over a bottle of water, splashing a famous former TV presenter. She does not react with good grace. In my pub, time has frozen still at 2008. I interact with lots of people I would have been excited to meet when I was 17, which is melancholy: my entry into this demi-monde of former models and indie musicians has arrived too late for it to afford any glamour.
10.30PM: The last line has worn off already. I'm on the floor collecting glasses, which is my least favourite thing to do, particularly when it's busy. I have long since tired of saying "excuse me" and being ignored, so now I just barge through the crowd. (Anytime someone in the service industry has been rude to you, it's actually been your own fault.)
I pick up a pint glass with a millimetre of beer left at the bottom. A man snatches it from my hand and slams it back down on the table. Glaring at me, he says, "I'm still drinking that." He says this as though he's caught me stealing his dregs to drink them myself or sell them on at a knock-up price.
Every shift I work, I'm reminded of Alec Baldwin's description of his own 11-year-old daughter as a "rude, thoughtless little pig". It just pops into my head.
12.00AM: I ring the last bell, louder and with more aggression than necessary. This is my favourite part of the evening, when customers make demands of me and I can finally refuse. A group of men in suits try to cajole me into serving them one last drink, but I flatly turn them down.
I take Max aside and ask him if he can cut me another line.
"Sorry, man, it’s all gone."
I'm coldly furious. "What the fuck, man? I paid £30 and only got three lines. You always do this."
He shrugs, and I don’t speak to him for the rest of the night.
12.30AM: We’re cleaning down the bar. It takes a long time to get people to leave. People don’t care how tired you are, whether you’re working the next day, they just want to keep drinking. It’s another aspect of the job I hate. I can only ask politely once and then I turn into a prim, passive-aggressive teacher, huffing and puffing and saying, "Come on, guys."
Having run out of coke, I’m drinking to dull the comedown. I put on a song from the new James Blake album that I like, but Gemma cuts it off halfway through to play “Gimme Gimme Gimme” by ABBA. I throw my broom aside and shout, "The same fucking song! Again and again and again!"
1AM: The shift is finished and I’m on the night bus home. The top deck is packed out, the atmosphere riotous. I’m one of the few people sitting alone – everyone else seems to be heading somewhere to have more fun.
I’m really pissed off at myself: I’ve spent half of the money I earned tonight, and ensured that tomorrow will be a nightmare. I’m working again in the morning and I know I’ll probably end up doing this again just to get through it. On the frayed edges of sobriety, I think, 'I can't do this anymore. I can't do this again.'
- bar work