Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A bartender's job

The plan was to walk in, pick up the three bottles and get home as quickly as possible. It was one of those days that quickly turns from light to emotionally fraught, but internally so that it’s a fight to make sure nobody notices.

At work someone on my team said something like “You can always look at it again tomorrow, don’t let it break you,” and I could feel myself struggling to pass off an airy smile. That was the context in which I walked to collect the three bottles of Masieri i’d ordered from my housemate at the restaurant.

Of course, I was too far inside myself to remember those are exactly the conditions for which a long counter and a bartender were designed. I had that feeling again, that “who can I call?” feeling, but it turns out ducking in and staying for a drink was the only call I needed to make. One for the road. One for February! Funny February.

My housemate brought me a glass of wine "White, Red or Orange?" and I settled in, watching her walk the room, talking wine with the couples at tables. Every table was couples at tables. It looked a bit weird actually, two by two by two by two. But amidst the self-conscious rituals of St. Valentine's, I felt I had the better deal up at the bar by myself. My housemate looked smart in her apron. Because back at home I sit on the kitchen step and listen as she tells me that 2013 is her favourite year, or gets excited about a new order of White from 2005, I felt excited to watch somebody who fucking loves her job doing it right in front of me.

Behind the bar, the tender did that specific Twenty First Century dance of iPhone disc jockeying while making the barflies feel seen. He reeled off a brewery’s backstory when one of the patrons swigged his beer, nodded and said “sublime.” I tasted the wine in my mouth, attention switching between the bartender's movements and my magazine, committing to neither. The same dance. He poured wine, and flipped lids off beers for sporadic checks from the floor. Bottles of still and sparkling drinking water refilled, but each activity lasted only as long as a cruelly short song. Two minutes and 40 seconds, say. Then he’d be back, head bowed over the iPhone, fading and lining up. The songs were great. I tapped my foot against my stool. Songs that make you want to come back: familiar-sounding but unknown so patrons are sated while tasting something new. A Hot Chocolate song that wasn’t Sexy Thing or Every 1’s a Winner. One that was really smoothing over the edges in my mood, and which I was pleased to learn was a Grace Jones song called “Bullshit.”

But it’s not really stylish, is it, the business of iPhone djing? Even the words iPhone djing lack style. (I wanted to write them differently but there’s not really another way.) Too high a value placed on one part of the room’s elemental makeup, so conversational back and forth was always curtailed a moment too soon. But the dance was familiar. A year ago I was behind a bar too. Not a bar quite as calming as this but still, I was soundtracking the room, steaming my face off the pot wash’s latest litter of hot, clean glasses, trying to recall ingredients for this cocktail, holding forth, holding a poker face with a customer who may or may not press £1 into my palm afterwards.

My housemate laid a thickly folded napkin by my elbow. A free-sized bowl of mussels and a plate of something else small and mashed. Mashed celeriac for the adult babies that need it. My neck relaxed. I felt looked-after, glad. Glad for a city that bestows treats like these beautifully smoky mussels alongside all the barging and dogshit. Glad to have these nice things. It’s so easy to slip into feeling stormy. Sometimes food is nurturing enough to calm the seas so you question what on earth got the wind up in the first place. "The harder bits always soften up in time," a septuagenarian acquaintance told me in a Facebook message this week.

"The order is reversed. The mussels are cooked on the grill first, and then in the sauce," the bartender told me when I asked what made them so bonfireish. “But I don’t know which they prefer first,” He said.

“What the mussels prefer first?” I asked and did an impression of a mussel languishing on a hot grill.