Friday, September 24, 2010

...and Make it a Stiff One.

NOTE: This piece was originally posted on THE NEW YORK HANGOVER.COM just after September 11, 2001.

So, I wasn’t going to write about you-know-what. Actually, I already have, quite a bit, in mass-e-mailed missives (frustrated writers such as myself tend to... abuse... the power of the internet), some of which have actually frayed the edges of some long time friendships. So I was just going to finish one of two different pieces I have started for this column and pretend that we’re done talking about September 11th, 2001.

But of course, we’re not. And I can’t.... not yet. So here’s one more column about What Happened. From a bartender’s perspective.
I was lucky. Nobody I know directly was killed when the terrorists drove into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But, as with most New Yorkers, there’s a mere one degree of separation, about a dozen times over.

Bartending is one of the most social of vocations; it’s part of the job requirement. You’re not just serving drinks, you’re being the customer’s pal (but NOT their “chief, ace, sport” or “yo”), even if it’s a brief and tenuous relationship. Each bartender knows dozens of familiar faces, even if names rarely go with them.

Then suddenly, after September 11th, the bartender found him or herself starting to wonder about where some of those faces were. Regulars who didn’t stop by became question marks. A sense of relief came with the reappearance of some customers that I never particularly liked, to be honest, but was nonetheless glad to see were not, in fact, dead.

Then there were the customers whose names are known, people who hover in that gray area somewhere between friend and acquaintance. The ones who walked into the bar to the question everyone was asking and being asked: “Is everyone you know okay?” The number of times the answer was “no” was staggering.

There’s a woman I know who comes into the bar where I tend. Her name’s Meg. My relationship with Meg was always friendly and flirtatious, she’s one of those customers that I thought I might like to see outside of the club sometime, but we really don’t know each other well. The Saturday night after the attack, Meg came into the bar with a friend. I asked her The Question, and she answered, with a startling numbness, “No... three relatives and one friend.”

I’m sure she’d said it a hundred times by then. And a hundred times since. And while I’d done my share of consoling, I just didn’t know what to say. I can’t even remember what I did say. I do remember wishing I would’ve known Meg a little better, if only so my condolences didn’t sound rote or hollow.

I had to work the night of September 11th. The regular bartender couldn’t get there and, living two blocks from the club, I often pull emergency duty. I didn’t want to work, but at the same time, I thought it might help. I needed to be around other people, and figured that others would feel the same. I wondered how busy we would be, though, lacking a television at the bar.

We were slammed. The need for camaraderie and escape was strong at every watering hole. Everyone needed to talk, and it was all anyone was talking about. Background music was less raucous (Miles Davis replaced the Supersuckers). Buybacks were more frequent. When people asked, “How are you?” they actually wanted you to answer. For a week or so, bartending became social work, moreso than usual.
Which brought about an odd side effect of the aftermath: A kind of Survivor’s Guilt, I guess. In stark contrast to most businesses, bars found themselves busier than usual. When things are good, people like to drink. When things are bad, people like to drink more. Sad, maybe, but a truism.

So. It’s a month later. Some pundits talk about things settling into some new sense of what’s “normal.” I don’t know. I see a difference, and it’s not entirely the heart-warming solidarity that the press is so fond of reporting. I see an underlying sadness in just about everybody that makes me feel very alone. But still, I’m glad that I work around people, trying to move on, trying to have a good time, trying to be alive.

“How are you doing? What can I do for you?”

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