Serious Chops

“You went to Columbia?”

“Yes.”

“What field is your MFA?”

“Fiction.”

“So you’re writing a book?”

“Kind of.”

“So what do you really want to do?”

(Look at shaker tins arrayed artillery-like in front of me) “This.”

I have this conversation at least once a week. Mostly while I’m making hand-chipped ice balls with a bread knife or simultaneously building four to six no-shortcuts cocktails behind a 34-seat bar in a 180-seat restaurant. The regular customer chit-chat loops from “How long have you been in LA?” to “Why aren’t you using that expensive master’s degree?” in no time.

I’m not sure why a near-stranger would ask this. Most of the time, I don’t think they mean to make me feel bad. There’s simply an incredulity to it, no one can believe that, with the credentials to at least get a decent desk job writing ad copy or reading slush piles, I would choose to be their bartender. There’s an even greater disbelief that I would go through all the drama and expense of a private university MFA and not be banging away at some hopeless writing project 24/7. I have a hard time believing it sometimes. But the truly surprising part, for these strangers and for me, is how little it seems to bother me these days. How, when I actually think about it, what I want to do is make drinks and talk to them about whiskey.

One of the redeeming aspects of my graduate school experience was getting to learn about books from Heidi Julavits, Deborah Eisenberg, and Stacey D’Erasmo. The other was that I started working in the hospitality industry again after an eight-year hiatus. And that, as the over-used line goes, has made all the difference.

Some of these concerned customers become very intent on introducing me to their friends who work in TV or advertising or whatever. I’m very grateful for their intentions. But unless it’s a freelance situation I can do between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m., I’m not interested. Because I really like bar tending. I like being able to concoct things and experiment with new booze. I like the prep that goes into it, the meditation that comes with tedious physical labor that you hope will result in a transcendent taste experience. I like making something heretofore unsampled for someone and seeing that look of surprise and delight. That I love this moment. I like this about writing, too. Other than calming the voices in my head, the major perk of writing is creating something that someone else might find stimulating. Trying to contribute some joy or awe to the world.

The first time I tasted a Last Word felt a lot like the first time I read Grace Paley. That experience of consuming something so simple and perfectly built that made me want to do THIS, THIS, THIS. I would have had neither of these experiences if I hadn’t gone through the period of my life when I attended Columbia. Not to be too gross about it, but those two moments were worth the work of getting the degree. It’d be nice if it had cost something more in the range of what I would earn over the entire rest of my life, but that’s a discussion for a different time.

So no, lovely, well-meaning customers, I’m not pining day after day over the time spent behind the stick and not at my computer, not thinking woe is me, if only I had a nice office job where I could finish my magnum opus. I make more money at the bar than an adjunct professor, and I like the company better. I did the sit-down job thing for eight years, and haven’t missed it since. I’m not ruminating on regrets, I’m thinking of the satisfaction I get from your enjoyment. So shut up and enjoy your drink.

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