Cigarette still burning the tips of your fingers and the smell of smoke in the morning, bruised wrist, picture frames fallen from the shelf…something about the simplicity of these objects, and the apparent serenity of the people, and the routine itself, one she probably completed after every shift, like a ritual, seemed almost soothing to me, and just a day after leaving this life, after eight years of working in the industry, I felt like an outsider, as though a switch had flipped and I were on the other side, and in that moment I questioned my decision to leave, knowing at the same time there was no turning back, sure, I might bartend again, but there was no going back to that path to destruction, if I did go back, I knew it would be different, somehow, nonetheless, I wondered why I couldn’t take it and what had prompted me to leave, even though I knew the obvious answers, but if this older woman could do it and seemed at ease, still sane, if she could stand it, why couldn’t I? And I wondered how much she earned on a slow Monday night and whether she worked the weekends, which destroyed me, and if working Monday, something I would never want to go back to, even if it were way less stressful than Friday or Saturday in a nightclub, where one can earn $300 or $400 or $500 or more in a few hours, but was that why she could still stand it, less money, less stress, and had I made the right decision to leave the money and that simple but not at all simple life behind? These doubts persisted even as I told myself, you’re done, no more – as I’d wanted to believe when I arrived in LA – stay away from bartending. And days later, I took another job, my last, at the gay bar in West Hollywood.
At the end of this I’m still screaming in my mind, what am I doing, where am I going, where should I be, is this going anywhere?
Every shift I pushed myself to the limit, went over a kind of edge with a less precipitous fall but closer to the ultimate decision to leave it behind. I told myself, Faster, faster, in rhythm with the mindless, pounding music. My hands would shake at the beginning of the shift, from nervousness and excitement, and sobriety, not because I was an alcoholic, but because being sober also had my nerves, my energy so sharp and taut, I hadn’t yet relaxed into the flow that came with the first sprint, so I’d stand there tense, empty club, hypnotic, early-evening house music, bouncers standing around looking as bored as the bartenders, the metaphorical calm before the storm, waiting for the door guys to open the gates and let the masses in, letting the line get long and stretch to the end of the block and then around it, creating that aura of exclusivity when inside the club it was just us and the DJ and a few people who’d slipped past the ropes early because they knew someone or were there to see someone, and then, the first rush of the night, when the bar got slammed and I got the jitters out in banging out those first 50 or 70 or 100 drinks, and then a couple shots of whiskey, one with my bar-back, Thank goodness he wants a drink because I need one, and then with the bar manager, Thank goodness he wants a drink because it was about time, and I could exhale and just convince myself it was all good, packing bills into the tip jar, swiping credit cards, taking orders, three shots of Goose, bottle of water, $50, auto-grat, “Keep it,” too easy, flashing the falsest grin at people I pretended to know, and while I never stopped moving still felt as though I were ten orders behind, and that voice kept demanding I move faster, faster, you are falling off, you are losing it, don’t stop.
If I sit down and write, strong coffee, every day, routine, the work is less daunting. Writing from prompts or going into memory, in the five senses, following wherever it leads me. But when I step back and ask myself where it’s going, I panic…I’m trying to answer Cissi’s question, why did I leave, and, also, how did I avoid getting sucked into the death spiral of drugs, alcohol, debauchery? Personal questions I’ve never addressed or thought of and I don’t know the answers.
…parallels – what happened to you while working around alcohol…life lessons from the other side…Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis… journals – notes from the nocturnal underground…imprisonment in a way of life…nightlife extravagance – excess – grotesque…vanity, weakness, capitulation…spiritual development through years of labor and isolation in the bar life…writing, medicinal, as an act of discovery, from the depths.
…still the ever-present dread of not knowing what this is or where it’s going – but confidence, less uncertainty in the sense that I’m willing to go wherever it may take me.
Chronology slips away from me. In documenting the experience of working as a bartender in LA, I inevitably slip into the dark place to which it led me. I’ve decided to adhere to chronology while allowing myself to drift…let words float on a river of emotion…thoughts loop and jump around and chronology eludes me, leaping in time and place, forbidden, coming back to the same places, leaving them again. I’ll trust Michael’s drawings and as a kind of diagram, if not a literal map, but a guide, the spirit of the thing.
Even when I narrate the events themselves they seem to take me back to LA tropes, symbols, images, the light and the dark, the sun and the darkness, the night and the day, alcohol and avocados, a recurring duality. In that paragraph Mike said to start from – wanting to avoid bartending, falling back into it, then going for a hike the day after a shift, getting badly burned, and into the sentence about drinking in the LA daytime way of life [and then back to nighttime]…Every day sitting down to write feels like starting over…somehow speaks to the experience of working as a bartender in LA – broken, damaged, wanting it back…Red paint, chipped, building façade, dusk, industrial next to a stately, gray roof, red brick, building on the corner…
The challenge of telling this story…kiss the sky…LA bliss and LA angst…multiple threads unfurl at once so to tell one track or thread risks forgetting or omitting a parallel thread. So what I wrote yesterday about the mental check list I took with me to LA, a kind of blueprint, head shots, resume, reel, training, I must now flesh out the bartending narrative as that’s the source of the agony and the vehicle that took me to the depths of night and threatened to swallow me and that I finally escaped…moving, finally…summer nights, wet, liquor, tank tops, heat, balmy, cleaning up at the end, trapped, stuck, not stagnant but impeded, hindered, and finally moving, always needing to move, wanting to move, driven by fear of never getting out or never moving forward…must delve deep into working in Silver Lake, the drive there, the walk up the hill, the fat door guy, the customers, the bartenders, the chains, the pens in the pint glasses, that awful afternoon where you felt as though you were moving in slow motion as in a bad dream, the early days before descending deep into the depths – limited shifts, having to prove yourself…driven by opposing fears.
Struggling to find the frame or the vessel for the story – seek it in parallels or other stories – constantly reaching for inspiration, for something to grab onto…Mary Oliver, “Journey,” deeply resonant – finding your voice.
…acknowledgement that the life is lonely, an acceptance.
Joan Didion, “Goodbye to All That” – knowing when it started but not when it ended, the ambiguity, loss of innocence, not knowing when, exactly, you made that Faustian bargain and gave up forever a part of your soul to the profession, the lifestyle, and all it compels you to do…Didion wrote: “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends…ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves…” When did you lose your optimism? Where is that person who used to be me? I recognized that it could happen, had happened, would continue happening to other people, yet the experence is harrowing and riveting nonetheless, and the struggle, the angst, the desperation, the getting through it…lack of clarity – what ended it? What made you leave? What is money? How do you want to live? Lack of faith, and fear drives you…As those pursuing a creative passion need a survival job that pays bills and frees them financially to pursue their bliss, so the chronology frees me to drift and discover as I write…running away…getting through a decade of endless nights.