Tuesday, October 9, 2018

:: knowing people by whom & where they haunt ::

First published on the USBG National blog in July 2018.

For a recent bartender event application, I was asked, “Tell us about one non-industry related book, article, or experience that shaped your world view.” As an avid reader, I wanted to take a literary route, but I slightly panicked since over the last decade or so, I have been reading little besides industry related books to satiate my curiosity and need for furthering my education. Therefore, I thought about the decade before that when I read a lot of fiction instead of my regular dose of nonfiction. I had a few favorite genres that I gravitated towards including Japanese post-war, Beat authors, American gothic, and punk poets. But the one that I honed in on was my affection to French surrealists. I was quite into surrealism back then ranging from reading authors like Bataille and Desnos, watching films such as by Buñuel and Man Ray, and viewing art such as by Remedios Varo and Dalí. My future-wife and I even threw a surrealist New Years Eve party in 2003 replete with parlor games like the Exquisite Corpse, bizarre decorations, and champagne flutes for the toast each with the name of a different period artist or writer emblazoned on it.

It was actually that party that began our household’s accumulation of booze that led me down the road of becoming a professional bartender, and we still have a bottle from that event in our collection, namely Ketel One Citroen, that I bought because it was gift packed with a Cobbler shaker (which has stayed true to this day). Moreover, my deep interest in surrealism bled into some of my later drink names that were dubbed after artwork or movies from Dalí, Soupault, and Buñuel. Instead of focusing in on the bizarre aspects often associated with surrealism, I went with the books on how surrealists saw their world, friends, and city. For this, I went with one of my favorites – Andre Breton’s surrealistic love story Nadja; it is one of the two books that I have gifted to more friends than I can count (the other is a counterculture work by Richard Fariña).

Breton began the tale with the question “Who am I?” and answered it by describing how everything could be learned from whom (and where) he haunts. I have frequently utilized this concept to understand hospitality where a lot of effort is spent figuring out why people go to places and more specifically why they return. While the food and/or drink might be excellent and enough to get people to visit semi-regularly on their own, it is often some combination of bartenders, servers, other guests, mood, and décor that the patrons come back for again and again. When I want to learn more about a person, I often ask where they like to go out and why they like going there. From that, I can gain a lot of insight into their concept of hospitality and even how they might be as a coworker or as my bartender. Is it the warmth of the owners, how the bartenders facilitate the guests talking to each other, or the memory recall of the staff of the last times you were in and what was going on in your life; or is it more because they give you free stuff? Sometimes the reasons are not as easy to describe other than it just feels like home. Maya Angelou said something that captures this emotional connection that makes people come back, declaring, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
The book Nadja also contains 44 plates of photos, images, and artwork as physical connections to his story. Likewise, the faces, the drinks, and bars that I have captured in my mind (and in some of my writings and photos) have strong parallels to the emotional power that people and places can have on us. As a bartender, getting the requested food or drink item is the basic labor that is expected of us to make the night acceptable. To elevate the experience into something more memorable and our establishment more haunt-worthy, we have to begin to think past the basics and channel our inner warmth, absurdity, and theatrics. Many of my favorite moments sitting at bars had little to do with what was in my cup but dealt with goofy, compassionate, or extra-social bartenders and the energized guests that they helped develop and foster.

Some of these bartenders have this magic in themselves; perhaps not every waking moment but it seems to be part of their on-switch after clocking in for the shift. Others develop a beautiful synergy and repartee with their coworkers. I have definitely noted that my bar stays full and the tips are higher when I am sharing the stick with a coworker where we bring the best out of the other. Positive energy through joking, banter, and getting the guests involved becomes contagious and promotes patrons’ desire to linger and bask in the mood. Meanwhile, shifts with some coworkers can more banal with the energy being more somber and functional, and there are pairings that have promoted variations along that spectrum. Sometimes the secret to giving the crowd a great energy is to devote energy to making your coworker laugh and feel loved. Things will flow more smoothly once that bond is set for the shift since bartenders and servers seem to do a better job when they are truly enjoying themselves. Similarly in Nadja, Breton pronounced, “Beauty will be convulsive or not at all.” Here, he meant that the wonderful things in life have a strong relationship with passion.

I will not know for a bit whether my answer (which was much shorter than this) satisfied the event’s essay readers, but I enjoyed returning to my literary past and trying to connect it to my present thinking. Not all of our bartending education can be satisfied by reading the greats like Embury, DeVoto, and Wondrich; true, without those tomes, we would be lost and out of touch with history, but there is much to be gleaned from opening up the mind to other genres and finding parallels in life.

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