A Creative Interlude in Bartending

Weaving a tapestry of the unexpected.

At night I tend bar. A few years ago, as I was staying with friends up on the Inwood Hill in Manhattan, I realized bartending was still something I wanted to do.

The moment of clarity came as I was typing up my notes from a sustainability forum at the United Nations. I was frustrated with the dearth of paid work in the environmental field after having just finished a round of advocacy with a network of organizations focused on centering women’s rights in sustainable development initiatives. Lots of great advocacy, but not a lot of money to support the work. Go figure.

This was the precursor to becoming a bartender.

As I was preparing to return home from the forum, I knew I needed to find work that could bring fast money, and bartending seemed like it would do the trick. After many years of believing it to be a silly and unrealistic goal, I realized it wasn’t those things at all and I still wanted to make it happen. I needed to make it happen. So I did.

I reached out to a bar manager and scheduled an interview by email while traveling on a Greyhound bus from Penn Station to Detroit.

The next week I started working at a restaurant within walking distance of my apartment, serving food and picking up as many bar shifts as they would give me. Since it was primarily a beer tap room, it was only a matter of months before I started thinking about how I wanted to evolve my skills and where I might go next.

So I scoped out another neighborhood bar I had come to adore as a customer and decided it could potentially work really well for me.

[Pause approximately 1.5 years for pandemic and quarantine]

Which is how I came to tend bar five nights a week where I am now.

I work at a tavern across from a train station (many interesting travelers) that has a full bar in service to the whole restaurant (which means many interesting cocktail orders) and I love it. It appeals to my need for decision making in fast pace environments, to work with the general public, to work with my hands, to be creative every step of the way. It is satisfying work. I am grateful for the opportunity to grow and learn new things to hone my craft.

Since I approach bartending as a professional culinary art, I’m developing my own recipes and found a bartenders’ guild to join that is part of an international association. I may even pursue a master of mixology accreditation, because why not? I can marry my existing degree in sustainability with something even more interesting like the spirits industry.

But here’s the thing.

Long ago, management decided all front of house dishes were the bartenders’ responsibility to clean. So the whole setup is designed for this.

I honestly have no idea how anyone could think this was a reasonable notion.

Have you ever seen such a thing? It’s really something else. Of all the restaurants and bars across the nation, I can only imagine it is a tiny fraction that have this set up, and I managed to find one of them. All the dishes, and the service bar drinks, for a small percentage of the house tips. And if we’re lucky, a few decent turns at the bar, with tips split equitably between the two bartenders (always two bartenders, each with a service bar to tend).

A view of my bar with the smallest of clues that we wash a ton of dishes back there. Photo by author.

At the end of the night, after my co-bartender breaks down their service bar and clocks out, it’s just me, washing dishes and tending bar for late night guests. Cleaning up so that we can shut down the whole show.

It just feels a bit lonely.

When one of my other coworkers steps up and helps me dig out from under the pile of dirty dishes at the end of the night, it’s really nice. To be clear, there is a dish machine alongside the dish sink, so it’s not all handwashing, but still. If I ever own my own bar, not only will I hire a dishwasher, but they will be paid handsomely for their service.

The whole team will cheer when the dishwasher arrives.

Just like we did at the first bar I worked at. The dishwasher would walk in for his evening shift and we would all cheer, Hey, Fabio!* like it was a party. It was a very warm welcome to work. He really enjoyed the appreciation, and we all enjoyed the celebration of our respective roles as a team.

All that aside…

What is most striking to me is how much being a bartender has helped me become a stronger person in life. Bartending demands that you know how and when to set boundaries and then enforce them thoroughly. It takes work to cultivate those skills — and it is work that translates into other areas of life.

For this, I am incredibly grateful. It is a benefit I did not anticipate. Along with the fact that I make more money now than I ever have thus far in the nonprofit sector. And in the meantime, washing the dishes has a ‘wax on, wax off’ meditative appeal, at least for now.

At least for now, in between rounds of unpaid advocacy work.

Oh, the depths of my devotion as I weave a tapestry of the unexpected.

*Not his real name but yes we really did cheer when he arrived and it was awesome.

Essay 010 of the 0100 series.

© Dawn Nelson, 2022.

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Dawn Nelson

Dawn Nelson

Artist, writer, strategist ~ creative nonfiction and periodic episodic rambling and reflection ~ www.dawn.earth ~ also on substack dawnnelson.substack.com