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The slow-motion moment of waking up with a knocking in my head and a churning in my chest was not unfamiliar, but it was still dreadful. With my eyes closed, the light would split my lids and the pendulum of nausea would swing. This morning, my black halter top was askew, like it had tried to crawl away from me. I wanted to crawl away from myself.
I’d been working the night before. I was a cocktail waitress at a windowless, damp-aired bar in the Northside of Chicago. It had been New Year’s Eve, which meant a packed house of people, dressed fancier than usual but with no intention of looking classy by close. People came for the cheapest booze and the lowest standards of behavior. By midnight on any regular night, our bathrooms would smell like vomit; a boozy, syrupy film would coat the tables; the dance floor would be littered with glass. New Year’s Eve just meant some balloons and streamers tossed around in a half-hearted attempt to make debauchery feel special.
My job was to get people drunk, and I was good at my job.
I recalled bottles of cheap champagne; serving them, then slugging them later. That’s when the familiar heat of shame spread across my face. The end of the night was fuzzy, but one moment replayed clear. “Go home, Robinson,” a manager had snapped at me. I never got in trouble at work. Why was I in trouble? “Go home and you might still have a job tomorrow.” I was arguing with him but I couldn’t remember why.
I was not the type to argue with my boss. I was good at my job.
The stress of the service industry is no secret. A 2015 study revealed that servers face a 22 percent greater risk of stroke than those with “low-stress” jobs. That study lead to the headline “Scientists Say It’s More Stressful to Be a Waiter Than a Neurosurgeon.” Seems hyperbolic, but that statement rings true to anyone who’s been drunkenly berated, worked a 12-hour shift without sitting, or was denied a tip based on circumstances outside of his or her control, which can knock a grueling hour of backbreaking work down to minimum wage. But many of us have a secret for dealing with the stress. It’s much less stressful when you’re drunk.
When I first started working at this bar — let’s just call it the Bar — I was a shy graduate student with a quiet social life. My previous job was at a coffee shop; there, my manager praised me for excellent service, but suggested that I try to let my guard down, loosen up a little. And that “advice” loomed large when I started my next job.
On my first night at the bar, I was terrified. Servers sat in closed-off circles, chatting and laughing and paying no attention to the new girl in the room, as we awaited our nightly meeting. A manager went over specials, and then said something that I would think back on throughout the years with both amusement and horror: “I want to kick people out tonight. I want people to throw up in the bathroom. It’s your job to get them that drunk.”
His eyes scanned a sheet of sales information from the night prior. He turned his attention to one waitress. “Look at Anne! She sold over 30 shots, and she probably drank half of those herself!” he raved. Anne (whose name has been changed for our purposes here) smiled smugly, her feet propped up on a bar stool, looking bored and pleased. She would be assigned to train me that night.
My first shift introduced me to the bomb shot: a sickly-sweet flavored vodka topped with Red Bull. These are a Midwest staple that I’ve never seen consumed in such large quantities anywhere else in the world.
Anne would swagger up to tables and perch close, nearly touching the guests. “What are we drinking tonight?” I watched in awe as she coyly suggested shots to every person in her section and succeeded in making most of them think it was their idea.
Every 45 minutes or so, the DJ would announce, “Twooooo for one cherry bombs for the next 15 minutes, people! Two for one!”
“How many are we having?” she’d ask.
I like to be good at my jobs. I’d worked hard to perfect my latte art, and I would do the same with the duties of a server. I would get people drunk. It helped that the shyness I experienced at the coffee shop was chipped away by that very first bomb shot, and it continued to crumble as I gained confidence and alcohol tolerance. I flirted with regulars, and when shots were two for one, I’d sell them like they were free.
Our consumption of liquor was a valuable sales tool: The shots we drank weren’t free. We charged eight dollars for bombs; four if you were buying them two-for-one. And our customers bought them for us. (Or gave us the “extra” shots if they were drinking in an odd-numbered group.) Since our customers were often regulars, this created a cycle of flirting, shots, and drunkenness where the lines between customer and server disappeared and we were all just there to party. Did I mention that the servers were all women? And that most of our regulars were men? They came to feel special. And to make us feel special.
My life became exciting. Early mornings turned into late nights. I had lots of friends and I made more money than I’d ever seen. There were moments when it all felt a little gross — making money by pushing a substance that, according to a 2014 study, kills more people yearly than heroin and painkiller overdoses combined. But once I had a sip of liquor myself each night, those concerns were easy to forget.
“How many are we drinking?” I’d ask.
Sections were assigned based on how many shots we sold during our last shift. Anne had the best sections. But she didn’t work at the bar much longer, and soon enough, those sections were mine.
When the lights went down, the music went up, and the crowds poured in, the servers ran the show. We served the booze. We drank the booze. And we did so within a cycle that rewarded bad behavior. The more we served — and the more we drank — the more money we made for ourselves and for the bar; our drinking was not only tolerated, but encouraged by management. Overserving wasn’t something to look out for — it was something to achieve.
“Your trainee is locked in the bathroom,” a bouncer casually informed me one night. It was now my job to train the newbies. Management’s expectation that we sell and drink shots was funneled down through me to our newest employees.
I found her passed out on the toilet, door locked. Over the past eight hours, I’d taught her the art of subtly convincing customers to buy us drinks, but I hadn’t been able to teach her body how to process the liquor without slowly shutting down. When I crawled under the bathroom stall and shook her shoulders, she stirred.
Someone put her in a cab. I don’t know who. But she never came back to work her next training shift. I remember worrying about her briefly, but a new trainee would soon follow. Another drunken mishap would happen and we’d all shift our attention to laughing about the latest hilarious near-tragedy.
There was the one where a server was found curled up beneath the Christmas tree at the hotel next door.
And the one where a hostess passed out in the bushes down the street.
And the one where a server fell down concrete steps and broke their nose at the late-night bar next door.
One of those was me.
New Year’s Day was an even bigger deal than New Year’s Eve at the Bar. When I woke up that morning, I was already running late. I arrived sweaty and breathless, just as others were skulking in with eye circles and a shadow of shame that mirrored my own. It came back to me: Management had changed the rules the night before, and for the first time, we hadn’t been allowed to drink. (This was to account for the fact that after an inevitably late night, most of us would be working again the next morning.) But our Pavlovian response to our job was to consume alcohol — so we did.
No mention was made of this flagrant breaking of the one-night rule at our meeting, and when the doors opened at 10 a.m., a line of people poured in for unlimited mimosas. Champagne flutes were lined up and down the bar and filled with the same bubbly swill I could still smell in my hair.
Something swayed inside of me until I sucked down a car bomb with my first table. I sold thousands of dollars of booze that day.
“You killed it, Robinson,” said my manager at the end of my shift — the same one who scolded me the night prior. It felt good to be praised.
I got a lot out of that job. It helped me pay for graduate school and save enough to backpack across Southeast Asia for three months after graduation.
But later service-industry jobs under more responsible management have taught me that taking care of myself and my customers is part of the gig. I hadn’t been good at my job at the Bar: I’d been good at masking a deep discomfort with myself by hiding behind the false confidence of inebriation. We were all lucky that our drunken work stories were of the sort that we could retell, though some of them I prefer not to.
Not all of your bartenders and servers are sucking down booze. In Oregon, where I now live, it only recently became legal for bartenders to even taste the beer they’re serving. And the culture of buying your bartender a shot varies across the country.
But substance abuse in the service industry is a pervasive problem. Long, stressful shifts paired with the party atmosphere we’re tasked with upholding makes it a slippery career path — particularly when management is slicking your shifts with encouragement. According to many responses on Chefswithissues.com, a site started by food journalist Kat Kinsman that chronicles the struggles of food-industry employees, from addiction to mental illness, that culture is pervasive. “The overall state of the restaurant industry is a disaster,” wrote one anonymous contributor to the site’s mental-health survey. “Drugs and alcohol are encouraged. You are considered an outcast if you don’t engage in these things.”
I hear the Bar has a craft cocktail menu these days, and that people drink far fewer bomb shots — even in Chicago — opting for fancier concoctions that take longer to drink and are too expensive to buy for your server.
As a freelance writer whose income is distressingly inconsistent, I still go back to service-industry jobs from time to time. It’s a valuable skill set for making extra money. For some, it’s a fulfilling career. But these days I respect the bar as a line between drinkers and servers. We’re on different sides, but when alcohol is involved, it’s part of my job to keep us all safe.
Britany Robinson is a freelance travel and culture writer with endless curiosity for the people who make places unique. Vance Lump is a freelance illustrator in the Pacific Northwest.
Editor: Erin DeJesus