"Jack and Coke and a Seven & Seven. Do you want to open a tab? Three shots of Fireball for the table in the back. Wipe the bar top. Cut fresh lemons. Stock the coolers. Are we really out of rags again?"
Halfway through college, I took a job as a bartender, and for years my inner-monologue sounded something like this, a bit quieter or a bit louder depending on whether I was opening or closing that shift. I learned about hops and barley, wine pairings and glassware, how to pour a beer for some, mix craft cocktails for others. I had drinks spit on me, drinks spilled on me, and weighed my pockets down with napkins covered in clever drawings and scrawled phone numbers and an endless amount of loose change.
I have always been a storyteller, and working in downtown Baton Rouge provided me with an environment full of just that: endless stories. I was drawn to the quirky musicians, as well as the suave businessmen. I empathized with the heartbroken and envied the travelers just passing through. I enjoyed the conversations and the idea that at the end of the day, we were all here for the same reasons.
I was in my early twenties, taking 18 hours of college courses, and finding the balance between work and a social life was as difficult as it was necessary. Working in a bar environment allowed me an outlet to have both. I was enthralled and I was exhausted, and I was everything in between. I noticed pretty early on that there were two categories of workers. One, those that lived and breathed the service industry in all of its grungy wonder. After a while, you tend to feel more at home with the crazy hours and the neon lights, and somewhere along the way, between the slow nights and the slammed events, a family begins to form.
Then, of course, there were the others: The ones working to pay for school, working to see the world, working for something that was elsewhere. Bartending was a means to an end for them, a stopping point along the way. Quick cash, no commitments, eight hours of obligation until you were free again.
Both paths made sense in my mind depending on the lifestyle preference of the person. Yet, I found there was a stigma both in and out of the service industry, that perhaps the service industry was simply not enough. Often, I would hear the phrase: "I need to get a real job." And I couldn't help but wonder what that made this, then, as I scrubbed sludge from the beer cooler and plastered on a smile for the customer who was "certain we had met before."
Something about that mentality rubbed me the wrong way. Everything about that mentality rubbed me the wrong way. As a result, I took it upon myself to research the service industry – to question owners, managers, bartenders, servers and cashiers from across the state about what they have learned from their jobs and whether or not they considered it to be valuable.
The leading answer was intrapersonal skills, such as the ability to communicate with others effectively in any situation, teamwork and recognizing body language and social cues. This was closely followed by patience, maintaining a positive attitude and self-control, problem-solving strategies and a strong work-ethic. They emphasized that working in the customer service industry helped instill in them a "get-it-done" mindset, where they were trained to focus on the task at hand, and that it also allowed them to form lasting bonds with individuals from every walk of life. Responsibilities ranged from running establishments with numerous employees, payrolls, budgets, and marketing techniques to solving conflicts, preparing food and drinks, selling products, ensuring customer satisfaction and keeping the location clean and sanitized. These are jobs with real individuals with real responsibilities, real payments, real interactions, and real consequences for not performing adequately.
In addition, customer-service jobs often provide freedoms, opportunities, flexibility, and a sense of fulfillment that are often unavailable in many "traditional" jobs. Young graduates are finding that their debt incurred during college is insurmountable, and with a fleeting job market, the competition for these traditional careers is exponentially growing. However, they are discovering they can make significant money in the service industry without a degree, and that these jobs are, in fact, available to them and perhaps even allowing them the time to discover where their passions lie.
Many young adults report immense pressure to enter a traditional-style job simply because this is the route that is expected of them, and according to a recent popular survey, between the ages of 25-30, 86% begin facing feelings of uncertainty, depression and insecurity – mainly feeling "trapped." Most ultimately choose to change careers or alter a major part of their lives to align with their own aspirations after a period of self-reflection. This phenomenon has been termed the "quarter-life crisis," and it centers around the anxieties associated with debt, increasing obligations, and the disappointment that one has not accomplished what they would have liked to and that one has not pursued their own passions.
In hindsight, from working as a bartender, I learned how to connect socially and how to network professionally. I became skilled in stitching up hearts and opening closed minds. I learned how to multitask somewhere between juggling a tray of cocktails and fixing the printing machine for the seventh time. I learned how to ask for what I felt I deserved, and when to bite my tongue until it bled. I learned to remember the name of every person I ever met and also their drink order. I learned the most interesting people usually wore blue jeans and ragged T-shirts, and the most successful people made a point to remember my name too.
The bar is not for everyone, but it is for some of us. It can be difficult to decide which vocation is right for you, and if you feel like you are stuck, I do hope you find something to do that interests you, that motivates you, that sets your soul on fire in the most uncanny of places. I know all too well that on the hard days where everything seems to go wrong when the dream becomes disenchanting, it is imperative that you have chosen a career that makes you always come back for more. But if you are not sure where to go, just follow the footsteps before you to the nearest corner bar and ask the bartender. They have a knack for helping the lost find their way.
As for me, I'll take a margarita, on the rocks, lime.