When I became a bartender, the job presented several firsts.
I was never a drinker. For my 21st birthday, I visited my parents in Coppell, Texas. We went to a restaurant where I had a top shelf margarita and a Corona, and was drunk.
I had never entertained guests or hosted a party. I’d never had customers.
I’d never sold a product in my life, other than Girl Scout cookies, and that was mostly me blinking big eyes at my aunts and uncles, sister and brother.
I had very little experience with drunk people.
I had very little experience with strangers.
Red Star was a hole in the wall. If you walked outside you could see the Mississippi River and the top of Baton Rouge’s Capitol building. Inside, there were two wooden beams that kept the concrete floor and the beer-stained ceiling apart, and it was in this space that we drank, danced and became family.
The doors were big and wooden. We kept them closed in the summer in an attempt to corral the air conditioning, but after 3:00 p.m. they were always open.
There I was, my first day, with no experience and no idea that in a matter of hours I would put a check in the boxes next to all those things I hadn’t done.
The first lesson was as it is at any job: where everything goes.
There were two ice wells behind the bar, each with two speed racks attached. There were three coolers. The glasses were in rows beneath two large hanging shelves that held liquor bottles. There was a triple sink (no dishwasher) and there was a computer.
The back room was home to a big sink, a refrigerator and more shelves. These held beer, back up bottles of unopened juices and liquors and boxes of glasses.
Out the back door was a wasteland of kegs, both empty and full.
(I had also never even seen a keg before).
Ahead of that first shift, I was less excited and more nervous the closer it got. Walking up to the doors, I thought, I’ve barely even been inside a bar before. What am I doing here?
Inside were orders waiting to be put away. Boxes full of beer, citrus fruit, beverage napkins and coasters. The manager stood at one end of the bar writing a check for the most recent delivery. He and the delivery driver both turned and looked at me when I walked in.
A woman appeared from the back room. She zipped around behind that bar. She would become my “bar mom.” She showed me where to put my purse and we began. We put the entire order away. I watched her as she slugged a keg onto a dolly and hauled it outside, following her in a daze. She showed me what beer went where, how to clean the glasses in the triple sink, how to put the straw caddies and napkins out on the bar just so. She had me upend a liquor bottle filled with water and count over and over – one, two, three – until she was happy with my pour.
We juiced lemons and limes, we took inventory of the coolers, we went over how to pour beer from a tap. We chopped more fruit than I had ever touched at one time. She went briefly over the computer and then my stomach dropped as 3:00 rolled around and we opened the door.
This was when the real lesson started. This was when I became a bartender, when the man who would become my first regular walked into the bar, sat down on his stool, ordered a shot of banana rum, looked at me and said, “Who are you?”
I was a child. As far as the world was concerned, I was barely even real. I was in school studying writing, spending hours pouring over literature, learning to think for myself. I daydreamed about how the world was, but I didn’t really know.
Behind that bar, I began to materialize.
The first drink I learned to make was a gin and tonic. At the time, I thought this was a cocktail.
Over the next ten years I would learn how to measure, mix, shake and pour. I’d dunk thousands of glasses into thousands of sugar or salt dishes, curl thousands of citrus rinds, light thousands of sugar cubes on fire. One million dashes of bitters. More ice cubes than I could ever imagine.
Some of my peers have gone on to become incredible managers, brand ambassadors, artists and leaders in their craft. Some of them are the best bartenders I’ll ever know. Some are bar owners. Some travel the world, teaching classes. For them, it is art.
For me, bartending has always been about people. The job was a safe place for me to sit back (when I wasn’t weeded to the gills) and watch people. They’d come in after work, settle into a bar stool, order a drink and slowly unfurl.
They cried, they sang, they asked me questions about myself. I saw a few fights in those early years. I deposited drunk friends in my car to sleep it off from time to time. I once had a pint glass thrown at me.
They’d speculate, talk about their mothers, their siblings, their cousins.
They’d argue over politics and religion.
And they always drank.
When I think about Red Star, I think about those quiet early afternoon shifts. The light pouring in through a frosted garage door window. I cleaned, listened to music and made juice until 3:00 p.m. rolled around and it was time to see the family. The regulars.
The manager usually propped a boot up on the side cooler at the end of the bar and read the paper while they trickled in one by one. White wine, Crown-and seven, Stella and American Spirits. There was a man with Marlboro Reds who drank scotch or vodka, straight.
One with a white ponytail who only ever drank Pabst Blue Ribbon.
They sat in front of me while I leaned back against the counter, listening. I listened to their stories. I heard them give each other hell, learned the term “bird dogging,” listened to elaborate lies, saw their faces change as they went through millions of emotions. Storms of heartbreak, joy or torrential anger broke over them all at one point or another, but they were always there.
Those were my first days bartending. I fell in love with it. I was a fly on the wall. I was at work, and the only thing separating me from everyone else’s playground was a 15-foot bar.
Slowly, I became aware of a world outside the one I always lived in. People traveled, and traveled often. They believed things or didn’t believe things. They liked their jobs, they hated their jobs. They were floating along or they were driven to change something about their lives. They were in love, they were heartbroken, they were drunk, sober, high, bleeding, sweating or happy just to be sitting, drinking.
My first year behind the bar was my last year of college. It seemed a fitting transition, trading classes and books for a different kind of education.
In college, I learned how to be a better writer, to create characters, to build screenplays and poems.
At the bar, I learned how to be in public. How to talk to people about anything, how to listen, how to change the subject. I learned how to say no.
I learned how to be a character.
I made a lot of mistakes. I had a lot of uncomfortable moments.
On October 1, it will have been exactly 10 years since that first day. In that time, I’ve rounded out some sharp edges. I’ve had other jobs doing other things.
The things I learned behind that bar have shown their value in everything I’ve done.
Red Star, you are permanently in my heart.