My career in bartending started well before I was legally allowed to drink my own creations.
New Jersey State Law says you only have to be 18 to work behind the stick. So when a desperately understaffed general manager asked me if I “wanted in” at the age of 19, I went for it. It’d be nice to say, “And I never looked back,” but that wouldn’t be the truth.
I’ve left and come back to bartending at least five separate times in the past decade. There are so many seemingly justifiable reasons, mainly the appealing normalcy a nine-to-five job can offer. Things like lunch breaks; a regular, static schedule, and PTO seem so shiny to an outsider looking in.
Anyone who bartends understands the hardship that comes with the job—the late hours, the ever-changing schedule, the difficulty maintaining relationships (you know … the people who don’t understand that taking off on a Saturday for a bartender is the same as a nine-to-fiver calling out on a Monday). The abusive toll the work takes on your body over days, months, and years, constantly being on your feet, hauling ice buckets, and throwing kegs around. The job is grueling.
After working at bars throughout my early twenties, I decided it was time to grow up and get a “real” job. I had just paid my way through college using this so-called “fake” job, and something told me it was time to actually use the degree I had earned.
I did a stint working environmental science jobs in the Northeast, hauling fish out of the Hudson River in drift nets and measuring culverts in the heavily polluted tributaries of New Jersey. Shortly after, I got an office job, where I stayed for a few years. I hated it. The people were nice enough and the work was fine, but I spent the time I had on the computer weeding through passive-aggressive emails, where my only excitement was trying to decide if I should use an exclamation point in my correspondence.
It became quickly apparent that I didn’t know how to relate to the nine-to-fivers. I started to miss the frequent outbursts that came with the high-intensity, high-stress work found in the world of bartending. When something is wrong behind the bar, there’s no sugarcoating. You just don’t have the time. If you react in anger, you apologize (usually over a drink) and all is forgiven. The whole operation seems much simpler to me.
Despite my semi-dysfunctional relationship with bartending, the truth is that I really enjoy the work. I love creating and using my hands when I’m behind the bar in a fine dining restaurant, and I also enjoy the physical labor and adrenaline rush that comes with sprinting back and forth in a small space for 12 hours at busy bars where you’re forced to hustle.
Mostly, though, it’s the people that keep me coming back to my career as a bartender. I relate to the merry band of misfits found in the restaurant industry, more than I ever did with anyone in my other previous jobs.
I feel at home with restaurant workers, people who aren’t afraid of severe sleep deprivation and whose foul jokes and language would make a sailor blush. I’m proud to work in an industry where “normal” folks wouldn’t last five minutes behind a bar that’s five-deep.
And I love the customers, too. I’ve had regulars who know more about me than my husband does. I know their kids, what they did for the holidays, and all sorts of other personal information about them.
Whether the bar is in a Michelin-starred restaurant or is a back-alley dive, the work requires a certain type of grit—and that attracts me. Something about the camaraderie of it all lends a realness so often lacking in our modern, Instagram-happy world.
It’s also an admirable and, mostly, lucrative profession. As a bartender, I keep coming back to the stick because the love of being a professional bartender is strong in this love-hate relationship.