Editor’s Note: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed or apathetic when faced with the sheer volume of need in our world. Writing a check or volunteering with a local organization are important steps in the walk of justice, but they’re not the only steps. This article is the latest in our Alternate Routes series, which explores imaginative ways of cultivating empathy and restoring the cracked pieces of the world.
I blame Anthony Bourdain for my first stint as a bartender. This was just after the dot-com bubble had burst. I was in my mid-twenties, back on the East Coast, wild, free, and fully equipped with a generic bachelor’s degree. I had no idea what to do with my life. When I read Bourdain’s first book, Kitchen Confidential, I caught a vision—a smoky, beer-blurry vision—of myself with mad knife skills and chef pants, grinding it out with some rough and tumble back-of-the-house crew.
One of the manifestations of our Lord’s grace to me is my distinct lack of all the essential skills one needs to be a solid chef or kitchen employee. I mean it when I say that Jesus saved me from being a chef. I also mean it when I say that Jesus did not save me from being a bartender. The steakhouse where I was soon hired put me on the floor serving and within a few months offered me the chance to get behind the bar. Bartending agreed with my big, gabby mouth. It was a natural fit for my sixty thousand dollar degree in Communication.
One of the manifestations of our Lord’s grace to me is my distinct lack of all the essential skills one needs to be a solid chef or kitchen employee.
A couple of years later, my first stint as a bartender came to a dramatic, hazy, radically irresponsible close. I woke up to find myself in painful circumstances I had no hope of being able to control. This made knowing I needed Jesus to save me, at least from my own self, so much easier, but I didn’t really want to imitate or follow Jesus. Hoping to live, love and serve the way he did were desires that wouldn’t bud in me for a long time.
My second stint as a bartender came almost 15 years later. I had continued to dabble in restaurant work through those intervening years, but always waiting tables, mostly on weekends, mostly for extra cash. When I hired on for a full-time bartending position in my late thirties I had just left a solid job at a university, moved for the sixteenth time, and was daydreaming about graduate school. I continued to have no idea what to do with my life.
The mystique and allure that Bourdain had depicted and implanted in me had mostly worn off. Not completely, but it was tempered by my experience working in eight different restaurants and overshadowed by a new, earnest by-product of trying to follow Jesus’ way. I wanted to follow Jesus because I was finally curious about who he really was, and because I adored what I saw of him in others. I realized I knew a lot about serving food—probably more than I knew about anything else—but I still didn’t feel like I knew what it meant to serve people. Not the way that I imagined and suspected Jesus meant for us to serve one another.
I was also enthralled with the promise of the eternal wedding feast to come. John glimpsed a vision of it and recorded in Revelation. I couldn’t stop daydreaming about it. The idea rooted in me that I wanted to someday be a part of serving the greatest meal in history. I wanted to learn something about the beauty and dignity and privilege of helping others enjoy themselves at the table now, in the hope that this would somehow help me savor my longing and excitement for the feast to come.
I was enthralled with the promise of the eternal wedding feast to come.
For three years I prayed each morning for patience, graciousness, kindness and various kinds of help in my quest to happily serve meals to strangers who, I was beginning to suspect, really did not see me or care about me very much. Touché, Lord. For three years I found myself cranky, entitled, needful of praise and thanks I so rarely got, but smiling with my hand out when the customer cashed out. The moments of real service felt small and so infrequent. I found I really could not serve both the God of the Bible and money and that my little experiment was a very difficult way to cultivate a spirit of servanthood. The money was good, but so far as I could tell, I didn’t love serving anymore than I had when I started.
If we are talking about gratitude, bonafide-prime-rib-grade thanks, then tending bar is just about as thankless as broiling chickens in the restaurant ecosystem. Customers—and I say customers precisely because of the way the service industry has tried to lay claim to the ancient, sacred, human, homely word guests—occasionally tip because the bartender has done them some small, exceptional piece of work. They just as often tip as a way of making themselves feel beneficent. Or because they are attracted to the bartender and are too shy to say so. Or they feel they got special attention or heavy pours. Or because they automatically add something like a dollar on their bill for each drink they have. We may sometimes call it gratuity, but tips aren’t about gratitude—not real gratitude, not really.
If we are talking about gratitude, bonafide-prime-rib-grade thanks, then tending bar is just about as thankless as broiling chickens in the restaurant ecosystem.
There were other important things I noticed the second time around as a bartender. I began to see how much of the dialogue between servers and customers is rote, emotionless, and shamelessly transactional. Worse, I began to notice the ways these scripts and roles encourage the real people on either side of the bar to treat the other like less than a human being: customers interact with employees as if they are machines they give voice commands to, and employees interact with customers as if they are things to manipulate that will adjust the number on the receipt tip line.
I began to notice the toll that repetitive work takes on a body. I began to notice how deep and racial the divide between the front of the house staff and the kitchen staff is in almost every restaurant, as well as the fundamental inequality of pay. I began to notice how many people work in service positions outside of restaurants, and I began to notice the scripts we have with cashiers, customer service representatives, retail associates, and the stream of people delivering things to our homes. I began to wonder about the cumulative effect of treating someone and being treated by someone as less than a human being in almost every sphere of life. I began to wonder about our capacity to avoid engaging with the deep realities and questions and issues when we smile and tip automatically.
For three years I prayed for and worked at cultivating the spirit of service I believe Jesus has: caring for others simply because he cares for others and wants their good. What I got, in part, were questions about work and dignity, new concerns about justice, deepening wonder over Jesus’ character and capacity to serve others, and—once—a glimpse of the great feast to come.
What I got, in part, were questions about work and dignity, new concerns about justice, and deepening wonder over Jesus’ capacity to serve others.
Friday night, the fever pitch of the rush. I worked double shifts straight through on Fridays, which meant I’d already been working without a break or sitting down for a little over 10 hours that day. The restaurant seating was one open rectangle of 28 tables in four rows, an open kitchen on the west wall and a little bar with 12 seats on the north wall. I was serving all the customers seated at the bar and the ones two people deep around it waiting for tables. In the middle of it all I had to run out to the opposite side of the restaurant to deliver something to a guest, a credit card they had left, or a drink they ordered and I needed to personally deliver for some reason, I can’t remember.
What I do remember is rounding the corner to walk back to the bar and coming up short. The buzz of 150 voices and the house music and the kitchen chatter hit me like a wall even though I’d been in it, hearing it, all day, all night. Three years running. Eight restaurants over 25 years. I saw individual faces: people talking, people laughing, people listening, people eating, people raising glasses. I saw a little wriggling knot of humanity jammed up together, mostly enjoying themselves, sharing food and an evening with one another. They were all so beautiful.
If I have ever been given eyes to see others with Jesus’ love, or apprehended the Kingdom of God being in our midst, it was in that moment, between the corner of Table 36 and the place we stacked the highchairs outside the men’s room.
If I have ever been given eyes to see others with Jesus’ love, or apprehended the Kingdom of God being in our midst, it was in that moment, between the corner of Table 36 and the place we stacked the highchairs outside the men’s room. We were just unselfconsciously, normally, passing a Friday night together, but I knew I never wanted it to end. I stopped running and stood there. A breath, two breaths, three breaths. The real, hot, deep tears out of the hidden well came up. There was no question of lingering. A breath or two later, I was in motion again, running back to my post, more behind than ever, but really smiling now, because I saw what I saw, and I see it, still.