An Ex-Bartender’s Apology to the Addicts I Enabled

You probably think I’m talking about alcoholics. And sure, I spent twenty years pouring drinks for them. Most bars wouldn’t survive without their coterie of regulars, the folks who show up every day for happy hour, or every night with their friends. And sure, they’re coming to hang out and be in public and not have to be alone with their thoughts and their damage, or just unwind from whatever it is that stresses them out. But a solid percentage of them are addicted to alcohol by any reasonable measure, and I, like every bartender ever, share some culpability for enabling them.

But they’re not who I’m talking about. Plenty of those folks are plenty functional and I say let them have their joy, or relief, or escape, or whatever. And the ones that aren’t, or who turn mean or sad or depressed? Yeah, drinking exacerbates things. But their troubles go beyond the bottle.

No, I’m not talking about the folks putting the ‘fun’ in ‘functional’. I’m talking about customer service addicts.

I wrote about them before, when the first wave of Coronavirus shutdown protests hit, and entitled white people across the nation demonstrated for their inalienable right to get their hair and nails done, and be waited on in a restaurant. They’d gone cold turkey for a few weeks — the first time in their lives many of them had ever been deprived of a fix — and they lost their goddamned minds, same as any addict forced to quit when they aren’t ready. Worse, there are so many of them they have the clout to keep the service economy open even though it’s not safe. Not for them, or for the people who have to work those frontline, high-exposure jobs, most of whom don’t make that much money, especially the ones who rely on tips for their income.

So, who are these customer service addicts? If you’ve ever worked in food service or retail you already know who I’m talking about, even if you never thought of them as addicts or the service you gave them as their fix. They’re the ones who believe the hype, who really think the customer is king, and always right, no matter how unreasonable or abusive they’re being. They’re the ones who don’t tip, or tip grudgingly when they do, the ones for whom your earning so little money is a feature, not a bug. They get off on treating you like you’re less than them, knowing you have to play along or risk your income.

They’re like weather, and they’ll thicken your skin and tighten your game, or they’ll run you out of that line of work and into something else. Not everyone’s got the grit or the psychological agility it takes to thrive in that environment. Because let’s face it, there’s a solid chunk of people who just really get off on treating other people like shit. Weirdly, they’re thickest on Sunday during brunch, right after church gets out.

And while that sounds like a dig, it actually goes to the heart of the matter. Because the woman who wants to speak to your manager about your attitude is trapped in her own kind of hell. She may have chosen it, may think she likes it, may even be right. But the tensions and contradictions inherent in that kind of stratified worldview — never mind the psychological contortions required to participate in white christian patriarchy — tear a person apart inside, even if they don’t know it’s happening. To be inducted to the hierarchy requires a person be injured, either directly, or, in the case of those doing the injuring, indirectly, because to harm others is to harm oneself. And to live with that kind of contradiction, and keep shoving it out of the light, will, in the end, do a person great harm.

Say it this way. Early in my career, here’s how I taught myself to deal with people who believed buying whatever the establishment was selling entitled them to treat me not as the person expediting their good time but as a lesser being they were free to be as rude and abusive to as they liked: I might have to deal with this person for five minutes, or an hour, or whatever; they have to live inside their head all the time.

Cruelty begets misery. This much is obvious. But the particular fuckery of a hierarchy-based worldview is that misery also begets cruelty. I call it Shit Mountain because we all know which way shit rolls. Why do you think it’s called a pecking order?

Not everyone believes Shit Mountain, of course. For every customer service addict who gets off on being treated like they are actually, meaningfully better than me and the rest of the staff — like the game we were playing was real, which was weird, since they’re also the ones who like to break the rules at the end and tip poorly, no matter how good their service was — there were two or even three people who understood it was a kind of game we were playing, that I and the staff were people like them doing a job well or poorly but in good faith whether that good faith was returned or not. Even places where the ratio’s different still have people it’s an actual joy to serve. But, like the weather, there’s always gonna be customers who think they’re the king and always right and are gleefully watching you for the slightest misstep or slip-up, looking for an excuse to deduct from your tip or call your manager and get their ego fluffed.

So why, you might ask, am I the one doing the apologizing?

They say addiction is a disease, and it’s possible they’re right, at least metaphorically. I’ve always had mixed feelings about the metaphor given my experience as a bartender and (currently quit but nostalgic) smoker. To me, addiction is a way of dealing with pain, more particularly with the damage, psychological and physical, that causes it. There’s that dopamine rush when you fix, yeah. But there’s also that feeling of relief when you re-up your stash, or buy a new pack of cigarettes, or your favorite bar or coffee shop opens. It’s reassuring the same way having enough food in the pantry is for some people. Because like when your food runs out and you get hungry, when you run out of whatever your fix is, the damage starts hurting again. For some people it’s bad enough to drown out everything else.

For most of my career, and the first few years after, I would have cast myself as the aggrieved party when it came to customer service addicts. I mean, at least for the drunks and alcoholics I was the dealer — a fraught position to be in but at least one they had to respect. For the customer service addicts I was the fix. And while my kung fu was strong, that shit leaves bruises no matter how thick your skin gets. But now I’ve got more distance I can see how I enabled them just as surely as any alcoholic, and that just like with the alcoholics I enabled, I have some culpability to acknowledge.

The customer service addict is as damaged as anyone who lives on Shit Mountain. That they live there, where cruelty begets misery begets cruelty all the way from the top down to the bottom, is by itself damaging to them, and to everyone around them, and to the world in general. By playing along, by enabling them, I contributed to the furtherance of not only their pain and damage, but the damage and pain they cause others, and the world.

For that, I sincerely apologize.

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