I took some old notebooks out of a drawer, cracked one open and dove into memories of nights and days blended and realize how desperately lost I was at that time when I worked as a bartender in LA. The notebook was a kind of journal. I wrote to document reality because I think that many of the scenes I witnessed were interesting or funny or strange in and of themselves, especially the people I served and watched, like the old Italian man drinking in a gay bar with his son on a Sunday night in West Hollywood ordering round after round of lemon drop shots and dancing by himself and when he got too drunk to sign his tab, his son said he’d sign it for him, which could have led to chargebacks or other legal issues, so I made sure the father scribbled across the signature line.
Often I wrote down songs that had gotten stuck in my head from hearing them played constantly by the DJ or on the general manager’s iPhone, hooked up to giant speakers and a bass machine. I wore ear plugs to drown out the music but the lyrics and melodies, the rise and fall of the continuous four-on-the-floor beats, invaded my ears still.
When I opened that notebook, I saw lyrics from a song I’d forgotten and suddenly I could hear the melody again so I found it on Youtube, listened and wrote.
Many of these songs became a silent mantra, a theme for my days and nights, echoed and articulated my thoughts and fears in pop-music-speak. Several days in June of 2013 I kept hearing the lyrics of “No One Knows Who We Are,” a collaboration among the American DJ Kaskade, Russian production trio Swanky Tunes and singer Lights. In the chorus I heard a yearning, desperate cry, No one knows who we are, and I don’t know why it moves me now, but it seems to speak to that time, a feeling of being lost, invisible to everyone I served and talked to and worked with, even though they thought they knew me, even though they saw me constantly. In the chorus I hear a cry at once euphoric and devastating because, I wonder, who wants to live invisible, not only to the people they serve and interact with but also invisible to themselves?
Again and again, I write in the middle of some sketch or observation in that notebook, “But isn’t there more to life than bartending?” In my mind I formed an alliance among myself and the boss I liked and got along with, who treated me well, or among myself and the people I considered friends, other bartenders, girlfriends.
The memories, as they speak to me from the page, bring me back into the head of a guy who was terrified and hopped up at the same time on nightlife’s addictive venom. I hear those lyrics as a cry for help, which is what I was doing, crying for help, but to no one, as though shouting at the top of my lungs into a void, knowing on some level it was absolutely hopeless, screaming into mayhem, utter chaos, the loudest bass and synthetic sounds, like club kids popping ecstasy on a Monday night in Vegas among people they think are their friends but are hopelessly lost in a life of All we do is party.
The scene splits open across my mind, like life, memory, raw nerves, reeling before my eyes, like Where am I going?, like riding a bus that is moving way too fast, out of control, and the music builds to the point where the beat has to drop, and it just goes on repeating, and by that point, I’d given up, succumbed to the alcohol, or whatever it was, the thrill of going home with cash, instant gratification in a cycle of failure, being on fire on a balmy night on a rooftop, popping bottles for young, well-to-do lawyers who said they’d see me succeed, and I hoped they were right but I doubted it because I figured it was the Hennessey talking.
All the while, I wanted to talk to other people, the people I considered my allies, the friends, scream at them, “NO ONE KNOWS WHO WE ARE!” but they’d probably think I’d lost it, because they seemed to know who they were, I just didn’t know who I was, or who I’d become, and looking back I doubt I ever knew who I was, I was just going along with it, “letting it ride,” as another bartender put it. I’d become a shell, a void waiting to be filled, and to put that repository into such a poisonous atmosphere is death for sure, easily filled, fast, with drugs, with alcohol, but more than that, with a hopelessness, the promise of fast cash all too practical to turn down ‘til the cycle becomes impossible to leave and the cry, No one knows who we are, becomes a mindless refrain, a twisted expression of surrender to anonymity and powerlessness. We’re not searching for a name/Or looking back the way we came…We are right now…No one gave us a mark…I wanted others to see and hear it with me, that we were alone, that we were the only ones who knew what was what, but more and more I felt I was the only one whom know one knew, and I knew nothing, knew only how to survive, and that this act of survival was killing me slowly.
In LA know one knows who you are and no one cares, I thought. The words I scrawled as I nodded off speak to a blur of shots poured, shots taken, customers who made me laugh in their posturing. When I tried to be responsible and asked a guy if he was driving, he gave me a look, like, You kidding me? Are you questioning me? Who do you think you are? Never! The song itself booms, crashes and burns. Every night behind a bar moves so fast, it makes no sense, especially when the place gets packed, three hours are like one moment and I’d look up and see it was 15 minutes to last call. But the slow nights…We are right now…the slow nights also, somehow, seem to disappear because nothing happens, and because that time is filled with nothing, it’s as though it didn’t exist.
The aftermath is particularly eerie and haunting, in the darkest hours of the night just before dawn, something feels seriously off, wrong, amiss, flipped, and it doesn’t help that a mysterious white van parks in the Fred Segal lot and the engine runs and guys get out and talk to other guys who get out of a different car and I turn off the light in the kitchen as I watch them so they won’t see me spying on them like some creep but what can I do, I’m still awake at that hour and intrigued and horrified by I-know-not-what is going in that lot just feet from my home.
What if someone snapped and pulled out a gun or some kind of weapon in that tiny space, in the bar, and decided to kill and hurt as many people as they could? Every night feels like flinging myself in front of danger. It is, of course, a choice, and it’s far less dangerous than many, many other jobs, but everyone seems on edge, under the influence, about to lose it. Elation from having labored hard and earned money alternates with a sense of purposelessness and downward mobility, or downright plummeting, of being trapped, and the resilience necessary to get through another day and night is constantly checked and weighted down by this growing panic from the question, the refrain, that I’ve accepted as a condition of this toiling life, now, No one knows who we are, and no one ever will.
The progression of the song, of the rise and fall of the music, is as inevitable as the ocean tide, beyond my control, so I reach out desperately, searching for a name…looking back the way we came…We are right now, reaching for some understanding when I feel no one can hear me. All communication is reduced to What do you want? so I can give it to you as fast as possible and that is all that matters, satisfying an ever-present, inexhaustible demand, like a robot. There’s no room for real connection or feeling, it all comes down to maximizing the profit, machine-like labor. To be fair, that was my all-business approach, not everyone’s. I can’t speak for all bartenders, that’d be crazy. Plenty are friendly and banter, and so did I, but that’s the job and that’s the front I put up, because I knew my charge, at the end of the night, was nothing more than to sell the product.
We are shouting. We are whispering. We give it all. We have nothing…Here we sleep and here we stand. We are right now…Finally I felt I’d been cut loose, unhinged, thrown into a storm, free-falling in chaos, insanity, dull and maddening at the same time, and was losing control even over the ability to push back against it – I’d conformed, fallen into the trap that so many people warn against, of going along with something that kills the soul, giving up, giving in…Driving to work through a dirty part of K-town and chewing on a granola bar that had no taste made me extremely bitter because I no longer enjoyed food or work, always felt rushed to get to a place I dreaded going to, felt like I’d snap at any moment, wanted to scream but lacked the energy to do so, as in a nightmare, or in a dryer being tossed around and around but in a wide open space, naked and unprotected, vulnerable to whatever peril may come in the form of violent people or drunk drivers or drug dealers or even the bouncers and my coworkers who might snap, too, and all turn against me and against each other. All of us know a DUI conviction can have a dramatic impact on a life. I recall a buddy from a DUI attorney Ann Arbor MI telling me that you can be sentenced to FIVE years for a felony DUI with no aggravating conditions and up to 15 years for DUI manslaughter.
Every page from those notebooks will trigger a flood of these kinds of memories because the darkness I saw there was without limits and will continue to expand whether or not I’m there, whether or not those clubs and bars stay open or burn to the ground. That LA, that channel, was just the beginning of a long, fading path to falling off the rails.
I can go on in this vein and I’m not sure where the end is. There may be no end because that place is still there, empty, living on without me, with all its aridness and bleak brightness. I question whether I should go back and ask questions but first I have to figure out what the questions are. And even if I knew, I’d still hesitate because I fear it could easily swallow me whole and I’d never get out, like stepping into quicksand.
So, I could go on writing this way, opening pages, exploring the contents of the box, but where would it lead, what is the point, what purpose does it serve? It feels like driving on a highway that goes on forever. In my mind, LA is many things, and I’m sure it must be different for everyone who sets foot there, and it certainly doesn’t cohere to fit into a novel, as Michael said to me in an email. It’s fragmented, atomized, amorphous. I felt this. I felt like I was drifting through it as a spirit passing through an alternate universe or realm or life. As though I’d fallen onto a path or course that I hadn’t chosen but that had taken me in and flowed inevitably towards…
No one knows who we are…None of those people knew who I was. I tried to talk to them but like anyone else doing a job, I brought a persona to work, not myself. When I searched for meaning, for purpose, for connection, I couldn’t find it because there was no benchmark or point of reference. I was alone, disconnected, isolated and the music, played at ear-splitting volume in a club, reinforces that – it’s ruthless, seeks to drown out all thought, all feeling. It reduces existence to primitive terms – lust, excitement, pure drive, intention and action. People seek it, they return to that space, searching for sex and fun as I was searching for a name, but I was only there in that moment and that is all there was. So I echoed and quoted the words of different club track from the English DJ Gareth Emery, “Sanctuary,” – When there’s nowhere left to run…let this moment be a sanctuary – and for a long time, and, now, still, I take refuge in those words, but after many months in LA, the moment was all there was, that ephemeral sanctuary, and nothing beyond it existed, and that, to me, is terrifying.
I do feel there is something brewing below the surface, I’ve no idea what it is, but I feel it deep within me, and every time I revisit those pages they elicit memories that stir that feeling, that emotion, the seat of that dread, agony, desperation, devastation, terror…Many things happened, I waded through some shit there, and I haven’t worked it out yet.