Quarantine Thoughts: I Was a Bartender, Now I’m Unemployed

I’d always assumed my bartending experience to be a resilient failsafe.

Up until three weeks ago, I was employed to — essentially — stand in a room, tap on a screen and operate several beer faucets.

I describe my most recent bartending gig in these ungenerous terms not to indicate that I disliked it. It was actually one of the better jobs I’ve ever had. I’m sure the fact that I was paid roughly $35 an hour (with tips, after tax) to do this simple job will seem, more and more in the coming years, to be a delirious fantasy.

Already in this city, I can tell you that people are primed to accept a tiny screen in place of a bartender. Some customers would come to our service counter — air pods in, no eye-contact — and jab at the glowing credit card terminal, looking for a recalcitrant order screen. Usually, I liked to stare at the top of their head until they noticed that yes, they still had to order through a person. (There’s no better teacher of artful passive-aggression than the service industry.) But really, my job was just to jab at a different screen, a little faster than they could. I’d send the food order to the kitchen, then pour the beer from one of our thirty shiny and identical taps. Most people just wanted their beer and a perch from which to look at their phone. If you could order another IPA from an app, why wouldn’t you?

The recently expired decade was a boom time for restaurants and restaurant jobs. Back in 2017, The Atlantic reported that in smaller metros, like Cleveland and New Orleans, restaurants were “powering the entire economy.” Now, in a blink, many of these jobs are gone, and from what it sounds like, many won’t be coming back. First-time unemployment claims have skyrocketed to unprecedented levels, and James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, is forecasting a 30 percent unemployment rate — worse than what Americans saw during the Great Depression. My unemployment claim is working its way through the system, along with many other restaurant workers.

Flows of people, money and supplies are seizing up around the world. I know my tap room relied heavily on out-of-towners. We catered to tourists staying in the hotels on Union Square, and especially to the business conference crowd.

“Do you ever get sick of all the old guys in suits coming in here?” one old guy in a suit asked me once.

“No way,” I said. “Old guys in suits pay my bills.”

The spooky Silicon Valley ghost stories of automation destroying swaths of jobs are well-worn at this point. I’m no economist, but right now it’s easy for me to imagine a new restaurant paradigm emerging out of the depths of a depression. With consumer demand cratered, the decimated restaurant industry looks to wring out profit wherever they can find it. Human waiters remain for the high-end establishments, robots for everyone else.

Maybe my mind wanders too easily to dystopia while I’m trapped inside during this pandemic. As is the case with most situations, you can take the same details and kaleidoscope them to appear bleak, or beautiful. 

My job might have been simple, and definitely boring at times. When it was busy though, I’d work hard and I’d get paid. When it was slow, I’d get to bullshit with some of the best talkers in town — guests and coworkers alike. When it was busy, my shift would pass in a snap. When it was slow, I’d get to work out my neurosis while deep-cleaning the fridge, or else I’d get cut early and drink for free. 

I’d always assumed my bartending experience to be a resilient failsafe. Perennial, flexible: someone always needs a bartender somewhere. Graduating college on the heels of the Great Recession with two humanities degrees, it seemed prudent to learn a more practical trade. In between the various flare-ups of “career” I’ve experienced in the last decade, I’ve regularly retreated to convalesce in the restaurant industry. This time around, I was working part-time while applying to grad school, and hoping to keep a couple shifts a week if I got admitted. Now, who knows?

As I said, the mind can turn a situation any number of ways. All around I see a massive ongoing expansion of “emergency” state power. Surely it’s a good thing right now to not get each other sick and protect those most vulnerable to the virus, but how long will these emergency powers last? What happens when the first protest is shut down due to “public health risk?”

All around I see people helping one another. Mutual aid lists spring up and fill out absent any central authority. Neighbors who have never met start talking and sharing. In the end, all we’ll have left is each other.

Thinking about all this brought me back to my first bar job, at a mediocre, yet strangely popular, chain restaurant in Fremont. Friday nights would reliably border on total insanity, even with four bartenders on the shift. But if you ever really started to drown, you could always turn to Jon, our supremely unflappable head bartender. He always knew what to do.

When the company went bankrupt, for reasons never quite clear to me, half the stores closed and ours cycled through about five general managers in a year. Every few months a new pink-faced blowhard would show up with a different “my way or the highway” speech. They’d come behind the bar and try to rearrange it for no good reason, instituting arbitrary new rules and generally being a pain in the ass. Every shift we expected to pull up to a shuttered restaurant. It was, succinctly, a shit-show. Morale was crushed. Most of the staff already spent their shifts complaining, but now they had good reason. 

Through it all though, Jon remained his serene self. He never fought outright with management, but never gave in either. In the midst of general panic that our management seemed to only want to compound, he never lost his cool. When I asked him how he did it, he replied, “I don’t work for them. I work for you guys.” I think about that a lot.

Quarantine Thoughts is an ongoing personal essay series focused on how the coronavirus, shelter-in-place mandates and the resultant economic fallout is impacting locals. Read San Francisco musician Chuck Prophet’s thoughts here.

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