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All the Love Lessons I Learned Watching Heartbreak From Behind the Bar

It doesn’t matter how much you’re slurring — there’s no problem overcommunication can’t solve

“I think 16 and 17 are breaking up.”

It was early on a Friday night. The bar was busy enough that all 29 seats were filled, but not yet so crazy busy that people were standing three or four deep around its edges. I locked eyes with my coworker who had just whispered his prediction into my ear, then flicked my gaze to the corner bar seats he was referencing. He was right — it didn’t look good. 

I hate it when people break up while I’m working. I get it, it has to happen somewhere, but I always feel complicit in the deed. And in some ways I am: I see it coming, possibly even before the dumpee. At the very least, I’m taking money from someone who either just had their heart broken or shattered someone else’s. 

I also can’t not want to know what happened. Did someone cheat? Was there a big fight that never got resolved? Did feelings just fizzle out? 

Sometimes, though, I don’t have to wonder. Sometimes the whole drama plays out right in front of me. And every one of those scenes reminds me of exactly the same thing: Too many people don’t — or don’t know how to — talk to each other.

And it’s a goddamn tragedy.

Because if there’s one thing my job has taught me that I’ll be forever grateful for, it’s the power of over-communication. In the very specific ecosystem that is a busy bar, there are at least half a dozen crucial details — more if you count your sanity and need to pee — hanging in mid-air and whose delicate balance will be destroyed by the slightest variation. Break a glass, forget a beer, run out of mint, have someone ask you about every single ingredient used in a margarita — twice — and all hope of a rush going smoothly evaporates. 

To avoid that stress and pain, we must keep up near-constant sideline chatter with our coworkers, detailing everything from our physical location (“on your left”), to what’s running low (“another case of High Life soon”), to where in the drinking/dining experience various guests find themselves (“Check’s down on 17, 34 has apps on the way”). The same goes for fixing mistakes. If I snapped at my barback mid-rush, I apologize and check in the next time we’re both behind the bar: “Hey, I’m sorry I was short with you earlier; I was stressed, but I didn’t mean to take it out on you. We okay?” In the fast-paced, high-stress spaces we work, there simply isn’t room for lingering grievances or ambiguous motives. 

I can’t help but think dating would be less of a clusterfuck if we all communicated this way. One thing’s for sure, though: People would be more readily honest with each other. Along those lines, here’s another near certainty: Dishonesty in relationships — or faking interest in a person — is nothing but self-defeating. 

To be sure, we’ve all been there: You’re on a Tinder or Bumble date, and you know you don’t want to touch this person the second you see them. Yet you still suffer through 25 minutes and not enough tequila, praying they’ll get up and go to the bathroom so you can pay the check and cut your losses. 

I’m very familiar with this look. After all, I’m usually the one being flagged down for the tab the second the other party is out of sight. My favorite memory in this vein is the girl who looked up at me and hissed, “I can’t do this, it’s awful,” the moment the guy she was with hit the head. But as she got up to leave, we both heard the click of the bathroom door unlocking. She looked at me with wide eyes, stared down the exit and ran so fast she tripped, spilling her purse Breakfast Club-style midway through the dining room. 

The guy looked like he’d been slapped. He had no idea that she wasn’t enjoying herself as much as he was. My heart broke for him. If she’d spoken up and told him how she was feeling instead of faking it, everyone’s dignity — and the pocket mirror I know she broke — could have stayed intact. 

Again, I get it: It’s so much easier to struggle through it and hope the other person takes the hint. Problem is, if you’re any good at faking it, there’s no hint to be taken. So why not just speak up? We owe it to each other to be brave enough to tell the truth — and to be strong enough to take it. Because if we aren’t honest with our partners or potential partners about being happy/unhappy, turned on/turned off, interested/uninterested, we make things worse by doing stupid shit like cheating. 

For instance, I had three horribly hungover people at the bar one Sunday brunch (a guy/girl couple and a friend), all showing signs that they’d come straight from the after-after-party to fortify themselves against the rapidly approaching comedown. About halfway through picking at their food, the front door burst open, and before I had a clear grasp of what was going on, the couple’s food was doused in Bloody Mary — breakfast potatoes drowned in ice and a straw floating on pancakes. 

Turns out the guy’s other girlfriend, the one he hadn’t spent Saturday night with, caught wind of what was going on and ended it in, frankly, the most calm, nonviolent way I can think of: Honestly, I barely saw her leave the bar she came and went so quickly. 

But come on, man. Dodging one uncomfortable conversation ruined an entire day for four people (not to mention, a perfectly good breakfast). And from the way his brunch date reacted, I guarantee he lost her, too. Not wanting to be faithful to a person you have an agreement about fidelity with sucks, and that’s a difficult conversation to have, but it’s your responsibility to start it — and to be really fucking clear about what you mean when you do. 

Finally, allow me to state the obvious: Part of bartending is knowing that, from time to time, people + alcohol = a potentially dangerous situation. Being behind the bar means that I’m constantly on the lookout for people who shouldn’t be allowed to order another drink because they’ve had one-too-many, as well as for guest interactions that might be less than positive. Basically, intervening when voices get raised, body language changes or the energy in the room shifts is part of my job. If I see something potentially hinky, I ask about it: “Hey, folks, is everything okay over here?” 

It’s often that simple. If you don’t like what you see, ask questions. Sometimes I end up getting a weird look and learn that the couple in question are actually brother and sister and they’re just goofing around; other times have ended with a sexual predator being escorted from the building. In other words, it’s really important to not make assumptions. 

Case in point: Years ago, when I was in my early 20s, I was working a mellow weeknight at a tiny bar in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. It was that empty time of day between lunch and dinner when the restaurant was open but barren. A man in his 50s — so old enough to have been my father — came in and found himself having time to kill before a date. Might as well get a drink, right?

I made him something stirred, a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned, and we did what you do in a bar when it’s just you and the bartender: We cracked jokes and shot the shit. 

He was halfway through his second drink when his date arrived. She took one look at us having a lively conversation and said something along the lines of, “So this is what happens if I’m running late? You try to pick up some kid?” 

I don’t know who was more shocked, him or me, but it didn’t matter. Before either of us could say anything, she broke up with him, screaming, “And you can go ahead and tell her all about it!” 

She clearly didn’t like what she saw, but she didn’t ask any questions either. If she had? They may not have lived happily ever after, but they’d at least have had a fair shot. 

The more I think about all of this, the more I think about my own dismal track record with relationships, and I wonder: What didn’t I say that I should have? When did the communication breakdown? What wasn’t made clear to me — or him? What did we hide from each other until it was too late? What do I want to do differently next time (if there is a next time — dating is really, really hard)? 

I think maybe the answer is to meet someone who wants to talk as much as I do.