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What I’ve Learned About Love From Bartending

On Valentine’s Day, people who would never normally go out to dinner — i.e., people who hate going out — feel obligated to parade their couple-ness around for everyone to see. It’s not happy couples who are secure in their relationship and have nothing to prove that get all dressed up in the middle of February for a quasi-fancy meal to demonstrate just how in love they are. It’s the ones who are barely hanging on — or worse, the ones pretending everything is great when absolutely nothing is.

Ergo, I see more people get into fights at the bar on Valentine’s Day than I do on any other day of the year. And they’re not just tiffs, they’re all out wars: She’s cold and cranky, because Valentine’s Day = dress, and it’s freezing outside. He’s annoyed because she’s cranky, so he gets a stiff drink to start. But because everyone is taking three times as long as normal to eat, the kitchen is backed up, meaning he’s two or three Old Fashioneds in before their appetizers hit the bar, and now, he’s super shitfaced. Then she gets mad that he’s so drunk, but being drunk, he doesn’t care.

They’re mostly silent by the time the main courses arrive.

Silence is bad.

I do my best to not hover too closely when it’s clear guests are having, shall we say, a difficult conversation (or no conversation at all). But a misstep is inevitable: At some point, I’ll ask if they’d like another round at just the wrong moment. And when one of them meets my gaze and smiles, the other takes it personally. Down goes their napkin, a bomb of linen dropped on a barely touched plate, and out the door they go. The other one simply puts their face in their hands and mutters, “All I wanted to do tonight was have sex and watch Netflix.”

But that’s just Valentine’s Day, when love is decidedly not in the air. There are plenty of other days in the year, and there have been plenty of other times when I’ve witnessed the exact opposite — two people who can’t see anything but each other (or two people trying to figure out if they only want to see each other). Here then is everything I’ve learned about love from my perch behind the bar…

Skip the small talk. It’s useless.

I see a lot, I mean a lot, of Tinder dates. And that’s fine, no one should be ashamed of meeting a total stranger for a drink with the hope that they hit it off.

But I can spot such a date from across the restaurant. Whichever party arrives first will wait to order a drink until the other one shows up — no matter how late they might be. There will be an awkward hug once they do. There will be an uncomfortable amount of attempts at avoiding eye contact while they look over the menu. And they will both take forever to finish a drink.

More than anything else, though, what gives them away is the stunted conversation:

Oh, so, you took the train here, huh? How was that?
I mean, you know, it took forever.
Oh, yeah, traffic’s been insane…

I love fall, fall is so great.
Oh, I know! Fall is the best!

Oh, so you went to NYU? What did you study?
Well, I was a sociology major but…
Wow! So what do you do for work?
I work for Amazon…?

Look, I get it. We all need small talk to break the ice. I mean, fuck, I make small talk with strangers for a living.

But small talk doesn’t allow for the kind of conversation people go on dates to have. Meeting up with someone for drinks — meeting them in person at all, really — is meant to establish whether you’re compatible enough to want to spend more time together (possibly naked).

No one can do that by talking about the weather, commuting or rehashing undergraduate coursework.

Obviously, this puts you in treacherous territory: What if you disagree with them about something? What if you accidentally waver into “serious conversation”?

That’s sorta the point.

Being afraid to connect over something that matters almost guarantees you’re not going to connect at all.

‘Can I buy you a drink?’ is the worst line ever.

Sending someone a drink from across the bar works in movies, but in the real world (or at least the bars I’ve worked in), it usually ends in an awkward nod and nothing more. If you do hope to catch someone’s attention by buying them a round, pay attention to what they’re drinking and don’t just send them a drink: Ask the bartender if you can pick up their next round, if they get one.

Moreover, I don’t let men send women drinks without first checking in with the women: Are they having a good time? Are they interested in another round? Are they interested in you being the one to pick up the tab for the next round?

I’m fine playing the middleman, but you bet your ass I’m going to make sure all parties are interested in playing this game.

Some people like being miserable.

This isn’t the same as saying some people want to be alone. In my experience, personal and professional, no one wants to be alone. I mean more that people who are miserable in their relationships sometimes like it that way. I’ve talked to far too many people at the bar — men and women, gay and straight — who complain about their neverending relationship problems to believe otherwise.

Now, complaining about your relationship to a bartender is totally reasonable. Shit, if it’s a slow night and I’m bored out of my mind, please tell me your drama. But when those same people come in week after week after week and vent about the same exact problems

For example, I have a regular, let’s call her Amanda, who loves to show me the text conversations she’s been having with the guys she’s dating. She basically wants to get my input about whether he’s out of line, if she’s overreacting, what she should say next, etc.

My advice usually falls along the lines of Cut him loose, he sounds like an asshole.

But she never does. Invariably, the next time I see her, she tells me about the date she went on with one of these guys and guess what?

He was an asshole.

But they’re totally going out again next week.

Trust yourself.

The list of comparisons between psychologist and bartender is long and fairly accurate: I talk to a lot of people about their days, their lives and their personal problems. I also hear, “What do you think I should do?” on a pretty regular basis.

But that’s not what people really want to know. No, they’re just looking for permission to do something they already know they want to do. “Should I get another drink?” isn’t something a person asks if they’re truly not sure they want another cocktail — they want someone other than themselves to tell them it’s okay to get another round. “I should probably get going, shouldn’t I?” is purely rhetorical — and everyone sitting around a bar when the lights are up and the music is off knows it.

The same goes for dating. If you ask me if you think you should give someone your number, you’re not asking me if you should, you’re asking me to tell you to do it. The flip side is true, too: If you feel the need to ask someone (a friend, a sibling, a coworker, or yes, your bartender) if you should break up with the person you’re dating, the answer is yes, yes you should.

Love at first sight totally exists.

You know it, I know it, but what’s more: I get to see it. Two people lock eyes from their seats at the bar, no matter who else is between them, and something in the room just… shifts.

Maybe it’s not love, maybe it’s just, Yes, I’m totally going home with you tonight, but you know what? It’s all the same. Love doesn’t have to be forever, it just has to be real, however fleeting that reality might be. And for me, nothing is more real — or telling, touching and illuminating — than watching people make that kind of connection (whether it’s momentary or not) in my presence.

On second thought, maybe working Valentine’s Day isn’t so terrible after all.