Maximum Effort. Minimal Knowhow.
Hi, my name is Sean, and I work in a bar. I like it a lot. A lot of my job is mindless - polishing glassware, bussing dishes, making sure everything is stocked, grabbing bottles - you get it. The pace is fast and there’s an internal rhythm that emerges. The music swells, you move with purpose, sweat a little, it feels good. That’s not my favorite part, though.
My favorite part is the interactions that I get to have each night. Not all of them are “good”, obviously. Drunk people are as much of a mixed bag as the rest of the world, just taken up a notch (or twelve).
A few weeks back I had a guest that went from cool and congenial (he bought the whole bar a round) to kind of a shit show (he burst into the kitchen, cigarette in mouth, eyes wild). Hey, it happens. Occupational hazard. In his defense, he had a hell of a week. I know this because he had just told me about it moments before as we clinked glasses (thanks for the Miller High Life, Paul- it truly is the champagne of beers). Due to the continuously escalating nature of the situation, I offered to order my new friend an Uber, which he graciously accepted. As we were waiting outside sharing a cigarette, he asked me something that completely took me off guard.
“Am I blowing it?”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Am I blowing it, man? I just don’t want to blow it.”
Paul’s question hit me in the gut like a sucker punch. There are two things that stick out to me about this - first, that fear is embedded so deeply in my subconscious that I genuinely don’t know when I did something that wasn’t in some way motivated by it. I think a lot of people feel that way - maybe not all the time, but I think it’s human and it’s natural and it’s inescapable. It looks different for everyone, but the sentiment is the same.
Am I doing enough? Am I where I ought to be? Am I someone I can be proud of? Are the things I’m giving my time to worthwhile? Will my life matter when it’s over? Am I taking care of the people around me? Am I enough? Am I blowing it?
The second thing that struck me is that we are way, way more connected than we think we are. We need each other. Sometimes just for the reassurance that things are going to be ok.
I had another conversation with a bartender a week or two after Paul and I shared that cigarette. This bartender had just been offered a great opportunity on a neighboring island (oh yeah, I live in Hawai’i), and I was congratulating him on his next chapter. I told him I was looking to leave the island within the next year as well. Being a good friend and a good bartender, he pushed in for more info.
“That’s rad! Where are you going? Why are you leaving? What does that mean for you?”
My answer was... awkward? Shaky at best, for sure.
“Oh, uh, California? I guess LA area. Probably Orange County. I mean, I just never planned on settling down out here. I don’t know. I’m pushing 30, man. I’m not really doing anything - or not enough, more specifically.”
He pushed in more.
“What do you mean, not doing enough?”
I’ll tell you the same things I told him. I haven’t been good at a lot of things in my life. It took me 5 years to graduate from college. Actually, I still have 3 units outstanding, So yeah, I walked, but I am currently (not) paying back a bunch of student loans on a degree I don’t have/don’t use. I recently left the career path I was on for a decade because it was unfulfilling and I kinda wasn’t great at it anyway.
When I get honest with myself, the only thing I really want to do with my time is invest in people. This is a desire as strong as it is vague. I want people to know and experience that they are cared for, valuable, unique, necessary, capable of greatness. I want people to know that the world needs them, specifically. That the things that they care about are important - and the work that they do as a result is work that nobody else could do. I want to show people that for as much as we all want to feel like we are “in” and are part of something meaningful and larger - there doesn’t need to be any anxiety around that. We are all “in” - inextricably intertwined with one another, and that embracing our sameness is work worth doing.
But I work in a bar, and I polish glasses. I ask people, “can I grab you another drink?” A lot of the time, I feel like all I am doing is working to pay my bills and live. A lot of the time, I am trying to forget about how insignificant I feel. A lot of the time, I am just trying to distract myself from the thoughts.
“Am I where I ought to be? Am I making a positive impact? Am I giving more than I take? ...Am I blowing it?”
A few weeks ago, I had lunch with my girlfriend. There’s a vegan place in Chinatown that we love a lot (shoutout to Loving Hut - thanks for the tasty grinds), and we went in on more food than either of us could finish. After, we cruised to WalMart because I needed to buy a coffee grinder (thanks for the coffee, Nick). We were carrying our leftovers through the store when a lady came up to us, seemingly out of nowhere. She looked pretty normal. Not especially disheveled, though not really put together. Just a person -but she was so earnest.
“Hi, is that food you were planning on giving away?”
My girlfriend and I looked at each other, I think more startled than anything else.
“Oh, uh, actually - yeah. This is all you. Please take it.”
In case it’s not already immediately apparent, I had no plans of giving my food away. Any plans for my leftovers that I had made involved Netflix and my couch, respectively. Looking back, I sincerely doubt she thought I was planning on giving it away, though. I think she was banking on something more than what my plans may have been. I think she was banking on the fact that we are way, way more connected than we acknowledge most of the time. And her earnestness reminded me - yeah, we are.
My bartender buddy went on to tell me that part of what he wants to do after he gets settled is to donate a percentage of his cushy new salary to a particular charity. He also told me that his wife left her upper management job (with an annual income pushing six figures) to care for those who are elderly and often alone. My bartender friend and his wife get that we are all connected.
I still don’t know what I’m gonna do with myself - most of my future is wrapped up in uncertainties. I don’t know much about what my life will look like in the next 5 years. I’m not good at most things, really. But I can’t shake this feeling that people are worthwhile, that we’re in this together. I can’t shake the hope that even small acts of kindness and vulnerability are important - that they remind us of who we are, what matters, and what doesn’t.