Night Rides

night rides

When I got an email from Professor Michael Shapiro telling me I’d been offered the longform fellowship I was shocked, honored, overwhelmed and extremely happy and I immediately said “Yes.” I thought I knew which story I wanted to delve into but I had no idea how I’d report it and write it.

Before I came to Columbia to study journalism I bartended for a decade, first in New York City and then for about five years in Los Angeles. I saved money and met all kinds of characters, but over time the work and the lifestyle, the late nights, staying up ‘til dawn, the influx of alcohol, the drugs surrounding me that felt like they were seeping into my system by osmosis, all of this got to be too much and I simply wanted to get out.

During those years, I wrote down whatever I thought was interesting or unusual that I witnessed from behind the bar, whether something someone said, the way they said it, something they did, how they interacted with other people. I filled notebooks with observations and sketches but I wanted to learn how to do this kind of work professionally: I wanted to learn the fundamentals of sound reporting and nonfiction writing, so I applied to Columbia.

I’d stowed away all those notebooks in a dresser drawer and hadn’t intended to look at them any time soon, and some part of me hoped they’d burn in a fire or be destroyed in a flood. I wanted to move on, to observe the world OUT THERE, to describe it and make sense of it. Bartending was a world, life, state of mind I’d escaped, with all its sex, drugs, shallowness, most of which, as the purveyor of alcohol amidst this bacchanalian mayhem, I hardly ever took part in, but felt nonetheless it was eating away at my soul, slowly, insidiously.

I spent most of my J-School days reporting on Staten Island’s heroin crisis, and other drug stories. It wasn’t until the spring, in Professor Dale Maharidge’s literary documentary journalism seminar, that he suggested I explore in longform my past life as a bartender. I didn’t know where to start so I bought a bottle of whiskey and called an old friend from my bartending past, a workaholic guy from London who was the general manager and part owner at the last bar I’d ever worked at in West Hollywood. We talked and between sips of rye whiskey I jotted down notes. Then I wrote. Several drafts later, everything seemed to be moving faster than I’d anticipated and the thought of delving into what all of those years meant, what happened, why it still haunts me, makes me extremely uneasy.

I’m struggling to figure out what the story is, where I want to go, whom I want to hang out with. After days of seemingly pointless jumping around on the Internet hoping to find some kind of spark, all I’ve come up with thus far are questions for which I have no real answers. Why didn’t I get out of bartending sooner? What kept me from leaving? What was it that I was so afraid might happen if I did not leave?

When I try to articulate these fears – for example, if I imagine still bartending into my 40s or 50s – they pale in comparison to the apocalyptic, ineffable thoughts I had when I cast my mind in that direction while I was still living in L.A. doing my time behind the stick. The thought of bartending for life does not seem so awful, just depressing and deeply unfulfilling. Why, then, did that prospect fill me with such dread, and why does the memory of working as a bartender still torment me? Why does the constant, primitive four-on-the-floor rhythm and bone-shaking bass of the electronic dance music that played endlessly in the bars and clubs I worked in cause me to recoil? Why do the images of the wannabe gangbangers and the blond, blue-eyed, square-jawed drug dealers and the underage women smuggled into the club by tatted-up dudes in basketball jerseys, snapback hats and heavy chains, why does all of this still haunt me?

I stumbled upon an article about what it takes to be a successful lifelong bartender, in which the writer casts the work not as a dead-end or transitional job but as an exciting, respectable career. I agree with his portrayal. I have nothing negative to say about bartending per se and I have the utmost respect for people who commit themselves to mastering the craft, ascending the ranks from bartender to mixologist to brand ambassador, become consultants and “beverage directors” for hospitality empires around the globe, and live the cocktail life forever. I enjoyed and took pride in the work itself. Nor is my aim to speak badly about the nightlife world in general. There is something below the surface, however, something that still tears at me, something very dark in my mind about those 10 years, particularly the latter half, in L.A. I think that bartending just happened to be what I committed a great amount of energy to, something I became deeply invested in, even obsessed with. It pulled me into its dark well and never let me go. Every time I stopped and then went back it felt like a kind of relapse, and once I’d fallen back in, it was a matter of time before I would boil over and have to stop again. To be clear, it was not by any means an addiction in the literal sense, but I think in a twisted way I was dependent on the work, and not just for the obvious financial reason. What I got out of it, what kept me in its grip, what made me keep going back for more punishment, as though simultaneously repelled and pulled toward a soul-killing cycle – again, that’s the question I need to answer.

I’m not sure if this story has anything to do with bartending in the literal sense. What I seek now is to write with the same freedom I found when I wrote about working for a decade in bars and clubs. Characters, how and where the story will take shape – I’m still searching for this.

Maybe the anxiety these nightlife years caused me has something to do with L.A. itself and it’s noir-tinted past and present. Maybe that darkness had not yet crept over my being when I worked in New York because I was still relatively new to the profession and hadn’t been slinging drinks long enough to become jaded and cynical. What I do know is that what I want, need, to answer, is what that fear that is so challenging to identify – what is it rooted in? Why, so many times, driving home after a shift through deserted downtown L.A. streets, past run-down houses and bullet-proof gas stations in the Crenshaw district, under mangled teddy bears hung from telephone lines and flickering yellow lights, a shoelace noose around their necks, a wad of soggy bills in my pocket, did that physical discomfort come over me, a sense that I was losing so much, going further and further in the wrong direction and feeling desperately at a loss as to how to change course or how to know what the course even looked like.

I’ve heard many people talk of demons haunting writers. I think demons also haunt bartenders. Not all bartenders. Some just call it burnout. But for me, the more I numbed my pain with alcohol and adrenaline, trained myself to execute repetitious tasks with maniacal efficiency, figured out how to fuse left-brain precision with right-brain effortlessness in a kind of drunk drink-making dance, the more sinister and insidious that existence felt, to the point where it seemed even the people I counted as friends were conspiring, if unconsciously, and probably just in my panicked, alcohol-addled mind, in some universe-driven scheme to set me on a blindingly bright speed-trip that would end with my bloody carcass laid out on the side of an L.A. freeway. These deranged thoughts kept coming back, during the rides home, in nightmares, even in the middle of the afternoon after an outdoor yoga class as I descended a hill outside the park gate and day crept into night.

I realize all of this is vague and amorphous and I think that’s because I’m still flailing for an answer, trying to grab onto something, trying to answer the question I started with and that, now that I think about it, has been on my mind for a while. What the hell happened in L.A., and why was it so bad? Once I figure this out, then, I hope, I will know where to go and who to talk to.

In grappling with this I think I’m getting a stronger sense of what the so-called demons are, what “bartending” might be a metaphor for, how L.A. came to shape me, particularly the nocturnal Los Angeles I lived in, and I hope that thoroughly elucidating all of these questions and themes will help me identify some concrete story and character and place to start reporting. I do know that when I read articles such as the ones I linked to about bartending, about bartenders, about them burning out or the many idiosyncrasies and challenges their line of work poses, while on a logical level it all speaks to much of what I experienced, it completely skirts the underlying dread that grew and consumed me more and more the longer I stayed in that life. I hope that I can find a way to write about someone, somewhere, stuck in a similar kind of spiritual trap, and inject the story with the fear and desperation that bartending engendered for me and that still lives in my gut.

In the meantime, I’ll learn as much as I can about avocados. More on that soon.