Out of my comfort zone, in my comfort zone

The place is a little nice to have let my type of riff-raff in, no?

It’s Friday at 5:00 p.m. and, with six hours left until my work week finishes, I’m flagging a little bit. I didn’t get to bed until nearly 3:00 a.m.

I mean, I can hardly complain: the reason for my late finish was because I spent three hours in a bar last night with dozens upon dozens of college kids, many of them attractive young women.

The kicker, of course, is that I wasn’t mingling (or worse) with the future leaders of tomorrow. I was on the other side of the counter, working my ass off to enable their Thursday night buzz.

Me behind the bar. My life takes some strange turns. But it’s given me a totally new perspective and appreciation for a culture I’ve long loved about the U.S.

Everyone knows the well-worn adage about being “older and wiser,” but sometimes the knowledge comes from someone younger.

Take, for instance, my sister. Two years my junior (and about 10 years more intelligent), she came out an absolute pearl of wisdom a few weeks ago.

“Being a passenger is different to driving somewhere.”

She was talking, of course, about my brand new side venture, working behind a bar. And as the last five or so weeks have taught me, this is very much the case.

I’ve been working in my “career” field since 2007, and my last brick-and-mortar hospitality experience before that was around 2004, at a Mexican restaurant that went bust because the owner wasn’t paying his bills.

My bartending experience, or lack thereof, amounts to festival work: slopping rum and Cokes out of a keg at the 2003 Rugby World Cup, opening Narragansett cans and pouring the odd glass of wine at the Rhode Island Seafood Festival once a year since 2012.

So a few months ago, when I got to talking – drunk, of course – to Deanna, a former Liberal Cup bartender who had just opened her own place in Hallowell called The Maine House, I was absolutely out of my depth when I offered to give her a hand on Sundays. I made it clear that I lacked practical experience, but I could partially make up for it in enthusiasm, work ethic and the ability to lift heavy things and reach high shelves.

After a couple of false starts, due to my frequent absence from central Maine over the summer, we finally agreed that I’d come in the Sunday before Halloween and give it a shot to see how I did. And I wasn’t surprised to find that it’s hard as hell.

At no point have I ever thought that tending bar would be easy; not in a million years. I think my expectations of the job were a little naive, though, because I figured that once I learned how to pour a decent beer, use the point-of-sale system and know the menu, I could pick up the rest as I went along. I was very wrong.

It took me a couple of months at the KJ before I really settled into the role and didn’t feel like I was the idiot new guy who didn’t know how to do a thing on his own. But now I’ve thrown myself straight back into that position, that “I have no idea what to do” feeling of constant minor panic.

The basics are pretty easy to get a hang of. I’m not too bad at pouring a beer, I’ve got a solid handle on what all the Maine-brewed drafts we sell are, and with enough “I’m thinking” finger-clicking, I can work out the computer attached to the register. But the second part of the above quote from my sister was:

Being a good drinker is different to learning how to make drinks

This is the part that’s kicking my ass, and putting beads of sweat on my brow. My boss, Deanna, is a master mixer and has come up with an incredible cocktail list, with specialties that use Maine-made spirits and other local ingredients.

I can pour someone a rum and Coke, or a gin and tonic, because there are only two ingredients in those. When we’re shaking, straining, muddling? Hoo boy. But I know that repetition is the key to learning, as is being thrown in the deep end. I’ll get the hang of it eventually, but in the meantime I’m enjoying the ride.

When I first told my sister that I was moonlighting, she said, “Are you hurting for cash that badly?” My response was that honestly I don’t care about the money, even though it doesn’t hurt, and I just enjoy being around people. Once winter sets in for real, it’s going to be good to have a reason to get out of the house and be social on weekends rather than stay on the couch and mow through Netflix’s back catalogue of shit I’ve already watched. There’s a real feeling of community in Hallowell’s bar scene to begin with, and it’s nice to feel like a bigger part of it than just “that asshole Aussie who comes in two nights a week.”

The last six weeks has also given me one hell of an insight into a business that I’d only ever experienced from one point of view. The service industry in the U.S. is incredibly different to its counterpart down under. Back home, with a high minimum wage and no tipping culture, there’s no incentive for wait staff, bartenders and other servers to give more than the base level of service.

The difference in the U.S., of course, is that the minimum wage is minuscule. We’re talking a couple of bucks an hour here. The bulk of a server’s income comes from tips, so you can see why there’s the extra incentive to hustle your ass off and do everything possible to make the customer’s dining/drinking experience a good one.

Last night was a great example of that. Hallowell was ground zero of a three-college pub crawl that brought literally busloads of students from surrounding schools. The Maine House was wall-to-wall 21-year-olds when I arrived after work to help out, and four of us went flat-out for two hours until the kids started wandering out in search of another venue, a ride home, or a slice of pizza.

We sold out of all four of the beers we had on special and killed a handle of Fireball whiskey, the boss sustained a war wound slicing limes for margaritas, we ran out of clean beer glasses and switched to Solo cups within an hour, and the place looked like downtown Baghdad when it was all over.

And despite the fact that – as I was pre-warned – this particular group of students were notoriously bad tippers, I had a blast.

As I’ve mentioned many times in these pages, I thrive in high-pressure environments, and I guess that extends from publishing breaking news at work to making three gin and tonics in 47 seconds at the bar.

In addition to that, I just love interacting with people. My favorite part about the seafood festival has always been talking shit with the customers as they come through the beer tent, and this is really no different. I can trot out the same bullshit jokes about fake IDs, and flat-out denying drink requests in jest, and have a quick commitment-free laugh with a stranger.

I’ve certainly inherited my dad’s gift of the gab, and in the same breath I can innocently flirt with a 55-year-old woman, make a 22-year-old college girl laugh and keep the two late-20s regulars at the end of the bar happy despite the crush. The accent of course doesn’t hurt, but by the same token I wouldn’t interact with people any differently if I was working the same gig back home.

I’d like to think that people can tell that, even if I’m not very good at it and I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head what’s in a Tom Collins (I’m learning, though!), I enjoy the hell out of the gig.

And that’s the main thing, right? Or the Maine thing?

(Sorry. That was awful)


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