Sometimes a sycophantic co-worker will say, “I want to learn how to bartend!” Typically, they’re dressed super cute, maybe some heels going on because their job requires delicate tasks, like seating guests or coat check. They’re young, usually having just turned legal drinking age, so bars are still novelties to them.
I’m wearing clothes that are garbage because I’m always damp, from sweat, dirty dish water covering my jeans, spilled drinks and olive juice marinating my shirt. There might be anywhere between one to five cuts on my hand from a dull fruit knife or shattered wine glass. Exhausted, my hair falling out of a shitty bun while eyeing the drunk guy at the end who I have to cut off or the couple who might run out on their tab, I say, “Yeah, it’s really fun.”
What I don’t tell them is the list of physical maladies that read like symptoms of a flu strain busting out of Asia. It’s no secret bartending can be back breaking work. The amount of physicality varies depending on where you work, but make no mistake, slinging drinks takes its toll.
General Aches and Pains
Have you ever been beaten with a sack of doorknobs? Neither have I, but I know the feeling. Waking up the morning after a busy bar shift will leave you wondering who broke into your bedroom during the night and pummeled you with a baseball bat. Once you get up and moving, the general achiness will subside, as well as other methods to reduce stiffness, but you will wonder who stuffed your sleeping self into a industrial clothes dryer.
Cacophony of Cracking
I would say this next ailment drowns out the sound of morning song birds, but you heard those when you got home at 5 a.m. Now it’s two in the afternoon, you’re stretching in bed only to hear bones clicking and snapping back into their sockets like a first year biology teacher’s classroom skeleton being assembled. Don’t worry, there’s nothing pathologically wrong, those are gas bubbles popping around joints. Some of us may have more cracking joints than others, due to genetics, but typically, the symphony of sounds emanating from your joints is from hypermobility. Now, if there’s pain associated with the cracking, that leads me to my next point.
From pinched nerves to plantar fasciitis to tendonitis, chronic pain is something we would like to ignore, like that greaseball waving frantically at you for drinks only to turn around and ask his friends what they want when you finally get to him, but we can’t. The pain is there and it’s not leaving until it’s dealt with (or served a vodka soda, an old fashioned, a Bud Light, a shot of Yaeger, and “whatever Madison wanted”). There are ways to prevent injuries, but bartending requires you to be on your feet for hours upon hours, moving – usually quickly – and lifting kegs. So, of course, stretch whenever possible, drink tons of water, wear comfy shoes and watch your posture, but injuries still might happen. Slip on a wet floor and you have a wretched knee to deal with. If injuries do happen, don’t ignore them by drinking more shift drinks than usual, deal with them immediately. Trust me, they’ll only get worse and cost you more pain and money in the long run.
Once, after suffering cold symptoms for almost two weeks, I went to a primary care physician who dismissed my symptoms as a cause of “well, you’re a bartender, so you probably go out all the time.” Or maybe there’s bacteria building a subdivision in my sinuses, Doctor. Some might assume your constant exhaustion is substance abuse, which does make people tired. However, as a bartender who rarely drinks, the fatigue that accompanies bartending, as well as anyone who works on their feet, is real and unavoidable. Standing on your feet for forty hours a week will affect anyone. You’re going to be a little sleepy. Yes, you can go to the gym to increase your physicality, drink tons of water, eat well and sleep seven hours a night, but, c’mon, still sleepy. And for introverts like myself who found their way into a lifetime of customer service, your energy will be drained. Energy vampires are real.
Constant Exposure to Illness
Speaking of doctors, good luck ever taking time off work to see one. Despite the exposure to hundreds of people and their airborne illnesses every shift, the service industry is notorious for allowing, or demanding, their employees come to work ill. Hospitality workers having paid sick days is more rare than painite and they usually can’t afford to miss a shift. We’re not exactly millionaires. If you are lucky enough to be able to afford a day off when you’re dying with the flu, calling in sick without a doctor’s note usually means you’re required to find someone to cover your shift. If not, you’re working, unless you have a merciful manager. And speaking of doctors, hospitality workers are usually paying for private health insurance. And with the rising cost of healthcare, how many workers can actually afford the steep insurance premiums?
Fungus and Cavities, Oh My!
Now, for the closers, fungus and bacteria. Ah, fungus. We love you as mushrooms, but I do not want you on my toes. Once, I had a hole in my boot while bartending in a flooded bar which rewarded me with six weeks of athlete’s foot. Hands are constantly wet from alcohol, sanitizer water and fruit juice chapping your skin raw, resulting in the cutest term, bar hands. Like Edward Scissorhands, but touching a dry cotton polishing cloth will make you scream in pain. Another fun side effect is the prevalence of cavities. While I blame the majority of my dental care on my sugar addiction, there’s a definite cause and effect in alcohol and tooth decay. Tasting cocktails that you make to ensure consistency is part of the gig, but drink water afterwards because the acids in booze will rip through your teeth enamel like a tornado.
Bartending can be a rewarding job. The money is usually great, the people are sometimes great and guests respect you because you have knives and flammable liquids within reach. But you do have to have a thick skin – both emotionally and physically.