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.

Shit Mountain Blues: Anti-masking, Open Carry, and the Right to Do Harm

How many times have I heard the lament? If you won’t wear a mask to protect yourself, won’t you at least think of the innocent people you might infect? Because that’s the thing, right? Masking works best when everyone does it, because it provides some protection for the wearer from aerosolized droplets, yes. But the bulk of the protection comes from limiting the spread of those droplets in the first place, when the infectious person’s mask catches them right out of the gate. That’s just science.

The lament is rhetorical, an appeal to conscience. And if you have one, and aren’t hyper-invested in white christian supremacist patriarchy and your place at or near the top of its hierarchy, such an appeal might work. But it doesn’t, because it is exactly that perceived positioning atop that particular hierarchy that drives the anti-mask movement, along with Second Amendment fundamentalism and, let’s be honest, the conservative movement generally.

It’s a dominance thing.

Let me see if I can break it down. Say you believe that there’s a hierarchy to the world. Call it Shit Mountain, because the slopes are steep and we all know which way shit rolls. Say your mythology tells you you’re king of shit mountain, or at least a member of his court, and everyone below you doesn’t matter. You don’t have to give a shit about them or about what they think or what they want or how they feel, because they’re below you, and we all know which way shit rolls. 

Sounds pretty good, right? But it’s not, though. It’s enervating as fuck. Because you know the people you shit on are eyeing you, watching for weakness. Worse, you’ve got your own to jockey against, because the closer you are to the top the less you can afford to get shit on, because if people see shit on you, they might think you’re lower down than you are. If it happens enough, they turn right.

It’s enough to keep a man up at night. To eat at him constantly. The more invested he (or she) is in Shit Mountain, the more anxious, the more paranoid about status he (or she) gets. Seriously, just try and tell a Shit Mountain man something. Anything. He’ll fight you on it just because you said it first. Prove it’s true, and he’ll double down. Because to Shit Mountain Man everything is always about power. Shit Mountain Man believes he can bend reality to his will. So long as he can make you submit, he thinks he has.

The more anxious Shit Mountain Man is, the more likely he is to act out. To insist not only on his right to do so, but on the rightness of his doing so. To insist, furthermore, on acknowledgement of his right to do so. Because what, after all, is a greater demonstration of power than to harm others without consequence to oneself?

When white men don’t wear masks, when they march in the street open carrying long guns, when they show up to ‘protect businesses’ or counterdemonstate against police accountability protesters, when they ask to see the manager and try and get you fired from your job, it’s an assertion of power. It’s an assertion of a positive right to harm others, and a willingness — in too many cases, an eagerness — to do so. It’s an assertion about Shit Mountain, and where they are on it, and where everyone else is. And that assertion, and submission to it, is more important than anything else. 

***

I wrote not too long ago about what I call the Founding Factions, the contradiction at the heart of the American Experiment: 

“On the one hand you have ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and th pursuit of happiness’. On the other you have the Three-Fifths crowd, a burgeoning aristocracy founded on the bedrock of chattel slavery, in which some people have no rights at all.”

me

Shit Mountain Man is the cultural, intellectual, and — in plenty of cases — genealogical heir to the Three-Fifths crowd. They’ve fought against those self-evident truths since the ink on the Constitution dried. They tried to secede from the Union, and when they lost they engaged in armed insurrection, terrorism, and guerilla warfare til the Union said fuck it. They lost slavery, so they built the caste system of Jim Crow, and have done their level best ever since to keep America from fulfilling the promise that was supposed to legitimize the whole goddam thing in the first place.

The world’s oldest democracy has never lived up to its ideals. How could it, when the clearest enunciation of those ideals come from a slave-owner and serial rapist? Try and bury that kind of contradiction, shit’s gonna keep coming back around, like it is now. 

The Shit Mountain crowd is scared. They lost the argument — because, duh — and, worse for them, they’re losing the demographic battle. That’s why they’re so desperate, why they have no conscience left. After all the dirt they’ve done, what’s a few more dead, theirs or ours? Until we submit, and pretend they can bend reality to their will, they’ll keep insisting on their right to do harm. And they’ll keep doing harm, in or out of uniform.

Who am I kidding? They’ll keep doing it whether we submit or not. We all know what power does, just like we know which way shit rolls.