Valentine’s Day was my first day as a barback at the fancy restaurant. There was a lot to learn on Day 1, and given the nature of the establishment and the holiday, all space at the bar was reserved for the entirety of the time we were open. I got there a bit early so I had ample time to familiarize myself with the layout of the bar and ask some questions I had about any number of things that can come up during service at a bar.
Honestly, I’d say it went pretty well. Luckily, they were restricted to the tasting menu, so I just had to memorize the order of the menu, what silverware, plating, wine-pairing, etc. went with each course, and who was ready for what when. It certainly wasn’t a small task, but it was doable. By the end of the night, I had most of that down, and I was able to sneak away from time to time to help the folks downstairs polish glassware and silverware, then hall it back upstairs for immediate use.
It’s really just about letting yourself fall into a rhythm – check plates, check water glasses, check glassware, check faces, check bus tub, check with bartender, check with dishwashers, repeat. Stressful? Sure, but again, manageable. I mean, I only had one tiny breakdown where I had to crouch behind the bar and remind myself to breathe. Totally normal, right?
I woke up on Friday feeling ready to get back in there and kick some ass. I walked the dog, did 30 minutes of stretching and breathing meditation, and got myself ready for work. On the way to the bus, I always check the bus status on my phone to see if it’s necessary for me to run the two blocks to the bus stop, or if I can stroll leisurely. It said APPROACHING when I looked, so I put my phone in my pocket and ran. The bus did that thing where it sort of stops, then stops all the way on the other side of the street because the driver realizes there were people hoping to get on.
I ran a little faster, thanked the driver for stopping, then found my seat toward the back of the bus. I was glowing because I was going to be hugely early that day, which was good because I would get family meal and have plenty of time to fill out my new hire paperwork. I reached for my phone so I could schedule my dog’s walk for the evening, and it wasn’t in my pocket. I frantically patted all my pockets and looked all around me – nothing. I asked the people who got on after me, “Hey did you see my phone fall out of my pocket?” They said no.
I immediately pulled on the cord to request a stop (maybe four blocks from where I got on). I jogged briefly but thought, Meh, there’s no need to hurry – I’ve got plenty of time and I can just call a Lyft once I’ve got my phone.
I saw three or four people walking in the opposite direction, and I considered asking them if they saw a phone, but I thought, Meh, they wouldn’t have been looking for a phone. I’ll be there in a minute.
I retraced my steps, scanning back and forth along the sidewalk and the grass I had run through to catch the bus. No phone. I did one more back-and-forth, looking into potholes and small divots I might have overlooked the first time. Nothing. Well fuck. My phone was gone. I didn’t have time to brood – I needed to get to work. So I got on the next bus thinking, It’s just a phone. The most important thing is that I call Wag customer service and schedule Max’s walk when I get there.
I got to work on time for family meal, I ate, I filled out paperwork, then I got right to work cutting limes and lemons. I looked at my watch and realized it was already about the time I should be clocking in normally, so I rushed to the phone to call Wag. I sat on hold for eight minutes, tapping my foot impatiently, sighing heavily, and putting all my effort into not throwing the phone across the room every time the woman’s voice said, “Thank you for your patience.”
At the eight minute mark, I pressed 2 so that they’d call me back when a customer service rep was available, and ran back to the bar to help with setup. When I got there, the bartender said, “I just had to do all of the prep work by myself. I’m only going to say this once – that wasn’t cool.” I made a weak attempt to explain the situation, but it was too late – I had already fouled up the start of Day 2. I had a small panic attack right as the first customers of the day walked through the door, and the bartender sent me away so I wouldn’t be seen breaking composure.
I went out of sight and collected myself. It took fifty breaths, but I got my head back in the game. I went back in with a smile on my face, but I still got a talking to from the restaurant manager about how important it is to keep your cool. I assured him I could, then went behind the bar to get to work.
The rest of the night went pretty smoothly. I did hit my back twice on the metal cover over the entrance to the bar, which makes a loud metal-on-metal noise that you can hear across the whole restaurant. And at some point, I asked a question with too many Um’s and Uh’s in it, and got reprimanded for not being concise.
A married couple (Cory and Lorie [you can’t make that kind of shit up]) who were regulars came in, and engaged me a little, which was my saving grace for the night. Rapport is my fucking wheelhouse – I can charm the shit out of just about anyone. I did, and it redeemed some of my mishaps.
The manager and the bartender were nice enough to let me go right at close because Wag never called back, so my dog was just stuck in my room the whole shift. I asked for notes on Day 2 before leaving, and initially the bartender just said, “Oof. I’m not ready for that, yet.” Finally he said, “My two main points are that you need to work on decisiveness and conciseness. Be confident in yourself. You’re a smart guy – we wouldn’t have hired you if you weren’t.”
That felt encouraging. I felt better. I got home as quickly as public transit would allow to clean up the urine and feces that were largely a result of how much time Max was in that room by himself.
Here I am a few days later, though, and I find myself questioning the value of my employment there. Can I learn a lot from those folks? Absolutely. Do I really need that information? I’m not sure. Given that I’m not planning on making bartending my lifelong career, I don’t know how good at this I really need to be. I can learn a fair amount from the folks at the rooftop bar about bartending, and I have the greatest potential for actually becoming a bartender there. I can learn a lot about bar management from the folks at the honkytonk pub, and I feel like I really fit in with those people.
I talked it out with a close friend, and she encouraged me to read my own blog – I’m overwhelmed by how quickly my life is changing. I’m not going to reread anything because writing it is hard enough, but thank goodness she’s reading it because I needed her insights. I’m stressed the fuck out a lot of the time as it is. Do I really need to add to that considerably just so I can say I’ve worked in fine dining for a bit? I can do this job, but should I? Maybe not.
Especially considering that none of this post was decisive or concise, and after rereading it, I have no edits.
But I do have an addendum (I added this bit a few days after the original post): I was offered more hours and thereby more money at my other job, and given my plans to move to Europe in less than a year, the money really is important to me. After spending another two days at the fancy place, I really started developing a rhythm, and once I fell into it, things ran very smoothly. I worked there a grand total of 4 days, and in retrospect, I loved all of them (stress included). I was pushed to be better, to work harder, and to think faster. I enjoyed the patrons, and I enjoyed providing them with excellent service and a warm smile. I was fulfilled there.
When I told my manager that I had to take the better monetary offer, I could tell he was hurt. He had gone out on a limb for me because I was passionate in my emails to him – both about the restaurant itself and the industry. I sat down with him after my last shift and it felt like a breakup. I hope I was able to communicate clearly enough that I love him and his staff and the masterpiece of a restaurant he helped create. I am ultimately sad to go, and sorry to have let him down.