mind

I Could Tell Who Had Drinking Problems. I Had to Serve Them Anyway

As a bartender, you either accept the gnawing feeling that you are putting your customers in danger – or you choose to ruin the party.
27 February 2020, 8:00am
Woman pours a drink
Andrew Cebulka / Stocksy

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Ashley* broke her ankle after tripping down a three-inch step outside the bar. She had drunk around two bottles of wine—maybe. It’s hard to say exactly how much she'd had, because she always ordered bottles of wine that were also on our “By The Glass” menu, so I could top off her cup when the bottle was done; filling it before it ever reached empty—a symbol of my hospitality.

I remember thinking it was my "hospitality" that broke her ankle. Ashley regularly drank herself into the kind of stupor that made keeping her eyes open and her body upright difficult. Whether she had two bottles that night or three, I had poured every drop.

I was a bartender in New York City for almost ten years. I started at 18, before I could legally drink myself.

The first time I made a martini, I had no idea what went into it. I was working a weekday lunch shift, when my manager thought the demand for cocktails wouldn't be high. As I chatted with my customer, I googled "ingredients in a dirty martini" on my phone underneath the cover of the bar. Vodka, vermouth, olive juice. I proudly put a pale pink drink in front of him—I had used sweet vermouth instead of dry. He kindly told me my mistake, but kept the botched drink anyway. "You don’t waste good liquor," he winked.

Drinking is a part of the service industry, on both sides of the bar. At first, it was the only way I could drink, since I was underage. Every night was like a raucous, exclusive party. Shifts could be long and stressful, and nothing felt better than having a drink (or five) with your coworkers at the end of a busy night. As drinking became a bigger part of my life, I never thought twice about my customer’s drinking habits.

I am not a person with alcohol addiction. My relationship with booze has waxed and waned; I have used substances to cover up mental health issues that were too difficult for me to deal with at the time. The alcohol itself was more of a means to an end: numbness. When I finally started therapy and confronting my anxiety, I quit drinking for nearly a year—while still bartending.

I started to work at places that weren’t as rowdy. No more 4 am last calls, no more coke in the bathrooms, no more people getting sick outside. With the calm, I gained regulars: people who come to drink five to six nights a week. This put people's drinking habits on center stage.

When you see someone every single day, you know they’ll never say no to one more. You hear them say: I’ve got to take a little break, but then see them again the next night, and the next, and the next. It becomes hard not to examine your role in their endless cycle.

You might think this is rare. It’s not. At every establishment I’ve ever worked at, I’ve served people who put away bottles and bottles of booze daily and keep coming back for more. Every bartender I’ve ever known serves people who drink like this.

When you see someone every single day, you know they’ll never say no to one more.

You can always find someone to drink with, they say. People are self-conscious sitting at home alone, drinking half a bottle of scotch. Drinking the same amount with a buddy while in an active social atmosphere feels different. When you’re alone, you have to pour yourself every drink. When my regulars came in, I did it for them. For the regulars, it was also an unofficial rule that I would buy several of their drinks. Sometimes, the only thing that stops someone's drinking is the price. They cannot have another because their bill is getting too high. But when the drink is free, people go past their limits.


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When I first started bartending, I believed it wasn’t my problem. It wasn’t in my job description to monitor how much people drank as long as they didn’t become belligerent or sick. And even now, I find myself annoyed at the idea of a bartender lecturing their patrons about how much they're drinking. That’s not why people go to bars, right?

One of the hardest parts about serving people who drink this way is not actually the guilt of doing so, but the doubt you reflect onto yourself. Who am I, you think, to decide if they’re drinking too much? Where do I get off deciding their behavior is problematic, that I know what they’re feeling?

But the truth is, we do know. Bartenders can tell who has a problem, and we are put in the situation of ruining the party by bringing it up, or having that growing, gnawing feeling that we are contributing to their disease, or putting them in imminent danger.

Maybe none of my regulars drank when I didn’t see them, and none of them were struggling with an addiction that forced them to come into my bar instead of going home. The larger point is that when I served them, I didn’t know for sure. But I had to serve them anyway.

When someone close to the restaurant died, all the thoughts I had—about whether I had poured him too much, whether I was observing and participating in problematic behavior—went from abstract to sharp relief. His death was related to too much libation, too many refills, too many late nights—even if those nights were filled with laughter and friends.

Alex* was middle aged, and perhaps biologically unlucky that the liquor affected his body more than others who drank the same amount. Ultimately he dealt his own hand. Or did I?

Alex quit drinking when it became clear how serious his situation was. But he continued to haunt the bar, becoming more and more gaunt, a ghost of who he once was.

After he died, everyone got super drunk at his memorial service. Even me. Those who were just like him, who started and ended the day with a drink in hand, guzzled the night away. There was no recognition that we were partaking in the very activity that had killed our friend, or maybe there was deep down—and we were in too much pain to care. But there's always a reason to have another drink at the bar if you look for one.

That evening the alcohol was free, and I poured out more wine and liquor than any other in my bartending career. When I got home, I was sick the whole night.

No one in my family has alcoholism, but for people in the service industry who do have relatives who struggle with addiction, watching regulars drink can be a torturous reminder. I worked with a woman whose dad had an alcohol addiction, and she remained a waitress—even when she could make more money at the bar—because serving alcohol to drunks was too difficult for her. She knew how alcoholism had kept her from knowing her father, kept him from jobs, relationships with his children and wife, and filled his life with tumultuous highs and lows all related to the bottom of a glass.

My partner’s father has alcoholism, and he’s been a bartender since 1999. He eventually became an event bartender, serving upwards of 2,000 people per night who he’ll never see again. I imagine it’s the repetitive nature of serving people you know that can cause the guilt to latch on and grow. Even if he’s served someone with alcohol addiction, he doesn't know them or their story.

By serving you, we are co-conspirators, without consent, in the choices you make for yourself.

Though I have never been addicted to alcohol, I know how good it feels to be drunk and cover up whatever nasty things are lurking in the recesses of my mind. During my year-long sobriety I had to experience every emotion with complete clarity, which often pushed me to the point of having a panic attack. Life when drunk is soft at the edges, sobriety is jagged. It’s also less fun. People aren’t quite as interesting, ten-hour shifts stretch on rather than breeze by, and I missed the socializing that came with going out after work.

Even now, as a moderate drinker, if I imbibe more than a couple days in a row, I can feel old habits start to kick in. I want to stay in the land of the buzzed, where anxiety and depression are muzzled, like animals you desperately hope to control.

I have seen people get better. Alex’s friend Michael,* who used to drink half a bottle of vodka a night plus a bottle of wine, went dry the first few months after Alex's death. Now, I don’t see him drink anywhere near what he used to. During the day, he’s switched from white wine to orange juice. At night, he’ll leave an unfinished glass with his dinner.

I’ve also seen people get worse. A young woman who had one or two drinks on her breaks from work is now rarely absent from the bar, and rarely without a tab listing 6 to 8 rounds (with several more bought for her).

There’s a lot of power in bartending, one of the reasons it can be addicting in itself, and lack a kind of introspection. You hold control over this magical liquid that everyone is there to consume. You control, literally, how much fun and happiness people experience. At a certain point, I had to relinquish control, or at least the illusion of how much control I had. I had to forgive myself for all of the drinks that I poured Alex, and tell myself that if I hadn’t done it, someone else would have. It sounds like an excuse, but it's the only consolation I have.

But there's a voice in my head that asks what if—what if you had sat him down and told him: "I think you’re drinking too much." What if I were to tell Ashley, before it’s too late: "I’m limiting you to one bottle of wine per night." Would she listen, or would she disappear, only for me to never see her again, only for her to become a regular somewhere else?

Bartenders can be shoulders to cry on after a breakup, people to bitch about your boss to, friends to celebrate holidays and promotions with—but we are not your equals. By serving you, we are co-conspirators, without consent, in the choices you make for yourself.

In my last year bartending, I would try to wait as long as I could to fill Ashley’s glass when it was empty. I would avoid the end of the bar where she was sitting, where the few drops at the bottom of her cup would turn into a dry red stain. She let it drag out too. It’s like we were in on it together, with a mutual goal of prolonging the inevitable, what we both knew was coming after that second bottle. But by the end of the night, it still happened anyway. She stopped waiting, and I had to keep on pouring. Only one person was drinking, but two of us made it happen.

*Names have been changed, and in a few cases, identifying details have been slightly altered to protect people’s privacy.

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