Thursday, March 19, 2020

:: life paths usually aren't straight lines ::

Submitted to the USBG National blog, but published here first due to the timely nature of things.

I remember one summer in between semesters at college, I returned home and began to look for work. I had sent out a handful of letters during spring break to apply to jobs in my field, but all of those fell through. My mom sat down with me to look at the help wanted section of the newspaper, and when she spotted an ad for a bartender position, she told me that I ought to apply. She explained that it was a good skill to have and a role that is always needed. The job was at a place called Helwig's in Milford, Connecticut, and I am surprised that my ever cautious mom would suggest that I apply there. I recall when my brother and I wanted to see a band at the Anthrax Club in Norwalk, my mom called that city's police's youth bureau to see what sort of place it was. Of course, they had nothing good to say and we were forbidden to attend the Dag Nasty show. When I argued that I did not know a thing about bartending, my mom explained that it was easy -- a Screwdriver was vodka and orange juice, a Rum & Coke was as simple as it sounded along with a Gin & Tonic. That is where she trailed off with her drink knowledge. I did go and apply in person, and the Helwig's daytime staff was rather kind in helping me fill out the application which was nothing more than a blank sheet of paper. Needless to say it was not a successful venture given that I was 19 almost 20, only there for the summer, and rather lacking in experience. Perhaps not lacking completely, for I was able to go back to my old summer job of being a camp counselor. Keeping a pack of kids in line has been a parallel situation to some bar gigs that I have held down.

With this current virus pandemic situation, I was reminded of what my mom said; however, the job of a bartender as we know it has gone away in my state of Massachusetts with the closure of all restaurants and bars save for ones doing pickup and delivery menus (which still excludes alcohol here). There is no certainty when the restaurant industry will be allowed to reopen and at what rate there will be enough jobs at the surviving establishments to allow for everyone to return back to work. It will recover and it will get better, but I have a feeling it will be at a much reduced level at first. But just like the rosebush in my front patch that I prune back every Spring, it is overgrowing its spot and attacking our front steps and porch by Fall.

During one bar shift two years ago, I listed off to one of my co-workers all of the random jobs that I have held in my life. Some of these were careers, others side gigs, and some were one-offs. This list included biochemist, wedding and band promo photographer, DJ, cabaret performer in nightclubs, dog walker, inventory taker, babysitter, writer, Tae Kwon Do instructor, airsoft and jiu-jitsu ref, and a host of other gigs and professions. Even my main career path has changed over the decades. I left for college to become a veterinarian, but I ended up getting into biology research and going to grad school for it. I pursued a career in academics, but after my post-doc was not going to score me a professor job (and I did not want to do another 3 year post-doc to try again), I began investigating new options. I considered teaching and started working at my friend's company that did after-school science classes at elementary schools. Eventually, I ended up in biotech which paid the bills but never really had me happy or comfortable about work. A few years later, I began writing about cocktails on an online journal that led into writing for the Cocktail Virgin blog. That went many years until my last biotech job ended with the final day of 2011. After that ended, I began to consider bar jobs somewhat but mostly stuck to applying to find another biotech position. A few months in, a friend's mom suggested that I write a book given all of my work on the blog. Life had some purpose and I set to work figuring out how to make it come about. By September that year, my first book Drink & Tell: A Boston Cocktail Book was released, and my life began to change. I soon had offers to give talks at Portland Cocktail Week and Barbara Lynch's Stir class; and then one day, I was asked to do a guest shift at an industry series.

After that amazing experience, I turned to my wife and said “I ought to do this as a career.” She surprised me by replying, “You should.” “But I'll never get to see you.” “Don't worry -- we'll figure it out.” With that, I found someone willing to hire me as a 41 year old bar back, and I worked my way up to bartender in a few months. I knew the mechanics of drink making, but I needed to learn how to work in a restaurant and deal with guests in that setting.

Last Fall, I was approached to work with a great brand, and I accepted the gig since it matched my love of American whiskey. I was still bartending up until the beginning of February when I decided to leave due to a change in management. For the last two months or so, I have been focusing on the brand work and I was rather enjoying it. Well, up until all of my accounts closed their doors due to this crisis. Actually, I still enjoy it, and my team has been a great source of psychological and emotional support; however, I am without structure in my day. I am working on building back that structure. As I will also figure out how to build back a way to make a living in case this brand gig does not come back soon or at all.

As the USBG Boston secretary, I just sent off a missive to my chapter with advice and with things better stated as suggestions at looking at the world. In terms of structure, I wrote, “The more difficult part is the psychological. We're all facing different challenges, so I will cover mine. I'm finding my days without structure and I find myself glued to my phone looking for joy. Facebook, Instagram, the news feed, and the like have kept me connected, but I'm overdoing it in a depressed state as the two books that I started reading are by my side untouched. My first goal is setting up structure. For me, that includes morning writing with coffee. Cooking lunch and dinner from scratch. And finding scheduled social networking events. One that I have done all week is watch USBG-superstar Jonathan Pogash's Facebook Live cocktail segments every day at 1pm and 5pm. I'm not necessarily learning much but it feels good man. The other is Dani & Jackie's Cocktail Hour at 6pm and the nightcap edition at 11pm... One important point that Jackie brought up in the first session that I attended was that our value is not linked to our productivity (which could be nil right now due to our jobs) but linked to our worth.”

I also added, “A one off Facebook Live that I watched yesterday was by Jason Littrell, ex-Death & Co. and now cocktail consultant and varied other gigs. He focused on how to make a living by figuring out the gig economy to survive. We might have to look to adapt our skill sets to other industries such as by doing social media for other industries. There are plenty of companies out there who value native English speakers and need writers. Start opening up your mind and start looking around.”

As Jackie pointed out in one of the first cocktail hours that I sat in on, most of us are bartenders who are used to dealing with difficult situations and not just getting through but thriving. Our value is our skill set to adapt, to survive, to help, and to make others feel good in the process. There are no easy answers other than we are capable of making multiple turns in our job path throughout life. Some of them might be short term but others might be new directions. Embrace the opportunities that you find or that are floated your way.


ab5000 said...

Hey, it's a fudged up situation but I love your blog. Good luck and I'm raising one to you!

6 parts St. George Chili Vodka
1 part Dolins Dry Vermouth
1 part Wegman's Organic Sweet & Sour Pickle Juice

Shake vigorously with ice... AWESOME...

John said...

I made this for you...

1/2 oz ginger syrup
1/2 oz orange juice
1/2 oz cream de cassis
2 oz Rye Whiskey

Stirred and served with an orange twist.

Thank you. And take care.