The drive there, the walk up the hill on Hyperion, the door guy, the customers, the bartenders, burly, hairy-chested, stocky, the chains, pens in pint glasses, that awful afternoon moving in slow motion, like a bad dream, the early days before you descended deep into the depths – limited shifts, having to prove yourself…On edge, hungry, rushed, forcing a smile, dry granola bar…alarm!…selling your soul, a Faustian bargain – a kind of moral compromise, a reckoning, test – getting out of New York – seeking opportunities in a sunny promised land, then running into nightlife-drugs-alcohol-sex-promoters-owners-club kids-managers…seeking redemption…struggle to make money at any cost…as though you had no choice, so you chose bartending, knew no other way to live. Looking back you’ve few regrets, but still, you revel in the past, but why – as a means of establishing some kind of credibility? If you could burn the past, clean slate, start fresh…battle scars from long labor…throwback to a primal age when wiry gunslingers wore shirts that read “Primitive” ruled the rooftop daytime drinking underworld like petty kings…nightlife prison, my truest realm…how wrong you were, time and again…but outside the walls, a frightening place…fear of lost opportunities, Ivy League education, and even after you left the bar life you wondered if you could live without the money, doubting, as though zig-zagging down the street from sun to shade then back to sun…and you thought you understood the toughened, wrinkled face of a man who said he couldn’t remember his past, what he’d done – “Most of the time, I was drunk,” he said.
…top dog in an underworld, no one questions you, a position earned, and the cost: a kind of spiritual suffering…trapped inside a prison while knowing that you reign supreme within it, no one questions you (but at the same time it terrifies you for how it’s taken hold of you) and the terror of what exists outside and how you’d even begin to navigate the “other side.”
A pattern – every time I sit down to write something simple, such as, I didn’t have to struggle long before I found myself back in LA bartending pits, I circle back to the past, digress, drift, down endless rabbit holes…hole up in a cabin in the woods somewhere or a third-floor walk-up in Long Island City above a defunct pizzeria and cappuccino shop on a restaurant-lined yet quiet strip of Vernon Boulevard, industrial echoes of bygone eras…“It’s not my neighborhood anymore”…a remote, removed place…seeking character – Ivy League grad bartending in Vegas struggling to live the life his parents lived…trials in the jaws of bartending hell…stretching on the wooden floor, working out kinks in my lower back, Sunday morning before my shift…this building is old and rickety and I can smell the wood and the mold.
…it’s hard not to empathize with him, this brutal, massive, terrifying prisoner who seems to have a tenderness and depth and humanity commensurate to his strength and capacity for inflicting pain and dominating others…And I think I wrote in other memos how I struggled to prove myself before I’d monopolized the Holy Grail of Thursday-Friday-Saturday, and then Sunday, gravy, but what I’m writing to is that in LA I essentially started from scratch, was no one.
I deemed it worth my time for the freedom it gave me, sense of accomplishment, the industrious worker in me – would the need to master it put me inevitably at the throne of this chthonic kingdom, as parents tell kids that dogged, tireless, relentless sweat leads to success? Did my penchant for hustle make my descent into nightlife depths inevitable? Am I responsible for sinking? Could I have left or gotten out sooner? Or did that world pull me in and override my free will? Or was it a combination – the irresistibility, allure of night life like quicksand sucking me in and my compulsive will dominate this vile plot of the industry lubricating the path to the top or slide to the bottom, making my rise and fall inevitable?
[“…money, power, respect,” two years, deeper, deeper, ‘til I’d no choice but to leave but lacked guts to act on impulse – Watch it – a warning?]
…14th and Ninth – couldn’t someone else have beat me to it? Was my working there and everything that came after that inevitable? Was it all written, bound to happen? Or was it by chance? How much control did I actually have? Skill kept me in the nightlife prison, for the security, money, community and structure…bound to master the craft and hit bottom, at the top of an underbelly kingdom…
…never forget what it’s like inside the metaphorical prison because you’ll fall back into the same patterns, same mistakes – “prison” does not have to be an actual stone structure with bars and doors – could be anything, bartending prison, crime prison, addiction prison…a kind of confinement, isolation, a “no one knows who we are” state, silence, stillness, slow yet blindingly fast passage of time juxtaposed with mayhem, frenetic chaos, dark brightness/bright darkness of night life.
…as we started to build, he said, “Wanna beer?” and handed me a Stella from a small fridge in the “den,” the beer fridge, and sometimes I’d take a beer out when I got home from work, amazing how just that apartment evolved over time and how I, how we, lived in it. He had a habit of staying up until 5 a.m. working, editing, business, drinking energy drinks and once said 5 a.m. is the best time to drive because there’s no traffic and said he’d driven to the store last night at 5 a.m. and was in awe because there was no traffic…and the next morning I got up and – still weird to not work weekends, felt as though my life was empty and lacked purpose even though I’d go back to slinging drinks just a month later, started constructing my futon, Ikea fun, adult Legos…started pounding the pavement, or, driving, going down that club and bar list in LA Weekly, which had descriptions of the places and I could choose exactly what I wanted, knew I wanted to work in a club because I had the speed, Rich told me when we met in New York over Jameson shots at our newly-reopened-in-a-new-location old place we’d worked together, knew this was my chance to shape, mold, take control of my career, to re-start, reinvent the kind of bartender I was and I was determined to be a club bartender, wanted, had a vision, a fantasy of working from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. and earning at least $250 a shift, but didn’t want to touch food, didn’t want to get on the 10 or 405 any time before 8 p.m., wanted to work late and drive during off hours as Trevor had spoken of. If in New York I’d started out and taken what I could get until I built up speed and stamina and established myself as a club bartender but had also worked dinner and happy hour shifts, now I’d be strictly a club bartender, no muddling limes, no mixology, strictly shots, champagne and bottled beers, “Jack and Cokes, all day,” this was the person I would be and this was the world I would live in, the life I would create, 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., the choicest cut, the busiest time, concentrated insanity, this was what I wanted, no food, strictly liquor, so I identified the clubs, the 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. spots that I was sure would be or at least sounded busy or “poppin’” as Angeleno club goers might say and started that afternoon, first to the Airliner, nobody there, go 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., then Akbar, left resume with Jeff, the bartender, who said they were fully staffed, check MJ’s on Hyperion, they’re hiring, drove down Hyperion to MJ’s, left resume with Tony, bar manager, who gave me his email address and cell phone number and said to follow up and around the same time must’ve started looking for jobs on Craigslist, after I’d moved into the house on Kilkea Drive, this I knew because I distinctly remember scrolling through listings on my ancient iBook G4 on that round, white, wooden table I’d borrowed from the kitchen to use as a desk and the kind of scratches or skid marks on the surface, gray or black lines on white that looked like skid marks from tires on a road and made me think of speed, which seemed fitting in LA, land of fast cars and skid marks on highway exits from drunk drivers on their way to or from clubs, skid marks I’d make, rubber I’d burn, later, once I’d descended deep into it by summer 2012, not drunk, but fatigued, yes, after a shift, wanting to get home, and the marks seemed fitting because speed defines club bartending which is exactly what I wanted, so as I perused jobs, I’d look at those symbols on the table, sun streamed in, and I applied to every club job that sounded promising…and the next morning, my bartending fate still undecided, took the bus to that interview for the job I’d get that would be my undoing, sending me past that point of no return.
…something about this, I think, as I pull wandering thoughts back to my breath, reminds me of sitting in meditation, warm Friday afternoon, close to 3 p.m., haven’t eaten, rode through Astoria and Long Island City and into Brooklyn over the Pulaski Bridge, something about this dull pain of emptiness in my stomach and sitting with my legs crossed and eyes closed on an elevated seat from a folded dirty blue, yellow and white beach towel I’m pretty sure I bought at Ross soon after I’d arrived in LA, and the end of the mat folded against it, and leaning against the white wall, floor slants down to the other side making the elevation of my hips greater so I only need one towel and one fold of the mat, takes me back to LA…and you know how it ends but not how you’ll get there.