Ah, Cinco de Mayo. The day every white American under 30 crowds into a Mexican restaurant to vaguely celebrate something with shots of tequila. Meanwhile, actual Mexicans are all working, serving sloppy gringos and mopping up their neon green margarita vomit.
My first serving job 20 years ago was in a Tex-Mex restaurant, considerably heavier on the Tex than the Mex. I had never celebrated Cinco de Mayo, nor had I ever even heard of it. I had enough trouble pretending to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. So when the “holiday” rolled around and the restaurant went to DEFCON 1, I was confused. Every single staff member from managers down to busboys were either working, on call, sobbing hysterically in the walk-in cooler, or chain-smoking out by the dumpster, wishing they had heroin.
I worked a double that day and it was an agave-soaked nightmare. I didn’t end up crying but I did sniffle several times. After a 13-hour shift, I dragged my dead ass home so I could consume alcohol by any means necessary. When I got there, my roommate’s girlfriend was passed out halfway across the threshold of our apartment. My roommate almost made it to bed, but he fell short by a few scant feet and lay curled-up and fully clothed on the floor. This was the final stage of Cinco de Mayo honky drunkenness.
I no longer fear Cinco de Mayo , and shit like that has tapered off since I started working in nicer restaurants. Places where patrons can usually pronounce “coq au vin” and don’t turn “quesadilla” into “kessadillya.”
But I’m a Buddhist, and that means I’m committed to ending my own suffering (at least on paper). But as a bartender, my vocation seems singularly dedicated to furthering suffering. Granted, it furthers suffering after a great night of delightfully lowered inhibitions, all-around revelry, and tacos from a sketchy truck at 3 a.m., but still. Alcohol can certainly be used wisely—enhancing a great meal or a finely-crafted cocktail. Alcohol also creates addiction, ruins evenings, friendships, romances, and generates a ton more work for paramedics, cops, ER personnel, and bouncers. And I’ve started to question the consequences of being a Buddhist bartender, not only the job itself, but the lifestyle that surrounds it.
First and foremost, I worry that being a bartender isn’t right livelihood. There are a lot of things in the Pali Canon and all the commentaries seem open to interpretation. But the Buddha was pretty clear in the Vanijja Sutta when he listed the five types of business his followers shouldn’t trade in: weapons, human beings, meat, poison, and intoxicants.
There are an awful lot of pretty intoxicants lined up on the shelf behind me when a guest sits down at the bar, and pouring them one is at the tippy-top of my very short job description. Bartenders aren’t supposed to serve people after they’re visibly drunk but we all do it. I don’t get people plastered and watch them stagger around the restaurant pissing in corners, but I do gently nudge them away from sobriety.
I don’t believe rebirth so I’m not worried I’ll come back as a banana slug for getting a lot of people shitfaced over the years, but I understand where the Buddha was coming from. Everyone is responsible for their own enlightenment and no one can do it for you. But selling people intoxicants to help them escape reality isn’t helpful or skillful.
It’s not like I’m the only bartender in town. People who are after liquor are going to get it. But that’s sort of a cop-out. If someone wants poison to slip into his wife’s Big Mac, he’ll probably get it one way or the other. But if I sell him the poison, then I’ve directly helped him perpetrate murder. If I don’t serve someone alcohol, however, I’ll get fired. Then I can’t pay rent, and my journey to become the world’s most famous bad Buddhist is cut short because my wife will take the computer when she leaves me.
In addition to serving others, I serve myself as well. In fact, I routinely destroy the fifth precept. Alcohol and drugs are part of the service industry the way concussions and assaults are part of the NFL. This job is stressful, and being nice to everyone all day long is an arduous task seldom accomplished by people below Dalai-Lama-level benevolence. But factor in a breakneck pace, the kitchen yelling at you, managers flitting about barking orders, and a small but dedicated percentage of constantly hateful customers, and you’ve got a hostile environment.
A lot of industry folks relax with a few drinks after work. And by a “few drinks,” I mean a “nearly toxic amount.” And by “after work,” I mean “before work,” “during work,” and then later, too. Weed and cocaine are like the stop and go buttons, and pretty much everyone knows where to buy them (from the person standing next to you).
We had a saying at the first restaurant where I worked: “Alcoholism isn’t a disease, it’s a way of life.” And 20 years later I’m still clouding my mind with intoxicants in the midst of this insanity.
The habit is deep. I seldom drink till I’m drunk enough to make weird decisions but I imbibe smaller amounts frequently. Where I work, we’re allowed one free cocktail at the end of our shift, so I’ll have that while I’m cleaning up. It’s damn near muscle memory, and I’ll occasionally sneak two drinks. There’s always alcohol in the house so I sometimes end up having another drink (or two) out of sheer habit.
Drinking definitely affects my practice. My wife and I frequently go to our favorite bar Saturday night after work. Sometimes we have one pitcher and go home. But sometimes we have three pitchers, some Jägermeister, and the strangely powerful shots friendly bartenders concoct at 2:30 a.m. when only the well-tipping regulars are still there. That pretty much nixes Sunday morning meditation since I’ll lay in bed moaning until Sunday afternoon. And drinks after a day shift are lethal to sitting, too. It always sucks when 10 p.m. rolls around and I realize I’ve had just too much for a productive sit. Then I go to bed with a little buzz and skip the morning sit so I can sleep in.
Believe me, I really have tried to back off on the sauce and practice harder. Meditation would doubtlessly help alleviate all the awful side effects of serving and bartending much better than alcohol does. Many times, I’ve vowed to myself that I was going to get up early and sit before work. Skip the free drink after my shift. Skip trivia night at our favorite pub. Skip the friend’s band playing because they don’t go on until almost midnight. I’ve vowed to sit at least once every day, no matter what. I’ve vowed to read something dharma-related every day and spend more time studying. No matter what.
But it’s so easy to slide right out of those vows one at a time. My insomnia keeps me up all night so I’m too groggy to sit in the morning. All the employees are relaxing at the bar after work having a drink. I feel left out of the camaraderie and still tense from the shift so I have one with them. Friends stop inviting me to things because I never go so why bother?
It takes time to build a meditation practice that begins to have tangible results. And sacrifices. And loneliness. Eventually, I’ve always caved and gone back to the easy way.
In addition, working with the public every day for 20 years has crippled my compassion. The percentage of spiteful, troglodyte customers is low, but they really leave an impression. I can pour drinks for 99 lovely, pleasant people but if that 100th guy is an asshole, I forget about everyone but him. It’s not even so much the casual anger that some people dump on the service staff. It’s the degradation that comes with it. They make you feel like less of a person, like what you’re doing is contemptible and beneath them. And it happens often enough that, unconsciously, you start to sort of accept it.
It’s obvious that I need is a serious injection of compassion, patience, and practice, and my lack of positivity is hilariously apparent. I tend to confuse people around me because they know I’m a Buddhist and yet I’m grouchy as hell. I spend a lot of time at work, and everywhere in general, stomping around and muttering like a serial killer at the full moon.
A good deal of that venom comes from still being a bartender at 42. I didn’t exactly choose to be a bartender; it wasn’t my goal since I was little. It’s something I fell into because I never really wanted to be anything, like a fireman, or doctor, or astronaut ninja. The closest thing was writer and hey, look! I’m a professional writer! So far, it pays about two of my bills per month but I love it. I want to do it for a living and storm out of the service industry with both middle fingers held high.
It’s a slow process, and I’m grumpy because I’m not doing what I want, and extra grumpy because now I have something to aim for. Every drink I pour, all I can think about is the elegant paragraph I could be crafting at home in my underwear. Well, maybe elegant isn’t the right word for my prose.
So instead I snarl and growl behind the bar until finally someone asks “Why are you always in such a bad mood? I thought Buddhists were all peaceful and serene.”
“Not this one, obviously,” I’ll reply.
“Maybe you’re doing it wrong.”
And so on. Not just at work, either. Every one of my friends has pointed out the fact that I’m a terrible goddamn Buddhist. By far the most frequent comment I hear after one of my curmudgeonly little tantrums is, “That’s not very Buddhist of you.”
Since none of these people are Buddhist, I usually find myself almost replying, “How the fuck would you know?” But that feels like it would aggravate the situation so I don’t. Mostly.
Truthfully, not much of what I do is very Buddhist, including my actual Buddhist practice. Maybe it’s finally time to make a serious change and a real commitment. Shit. It’s Cinco de Mayo, though. Tequila, anyone?
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