A glass half cracked
Customers see only the glamorous side of the bar industry;
workers see the way it eats them alive
By Josh DeRose
It took five minutes and an inhuman amount of patience to force my way through the drunken horde at On The Rocks. I was overheating in my Santa suit. Once I made it outside the bar and onto Jasper Avenue, I took a deep breath. Another year, another Halloween weekend tending to the needs of our valued customers.
Meanwhile, shivering by the heater at the front entrance were Lacey Gilmour and Bailey Hodgson, a pair of off-shift servers, dressed in onesies and draped over each other.
“Ho, ho, ho,” Gilmour said. “I heard that you were writing a paper or something about OTR.”
I smiled. “Kind of. It’s more so about the industry in general.”
Gilmour looked taken aback. “Yet, you didn’t ask me for any of my input?”
At first, I thought she was joking, but her face said otherwise. I had asked her for an interview the previous Friday, and she had declined. Now she seemed to have no recollection of me approaching her. She had been that drunk. Either I had been oblivious to her drunkenness or she was a master at hiding it.
We’ll go with the latter.
Hodgson was the drunker of the two. She was even more gleeful than usual and pleading with me to take a seat beside them in the parking lot. Steam escaped from my Santa Claus hat as I took it off and shook my head. Then I took another deep breath and reluctantly started back through the superheroes and Stephen King-themed characters.
It was time to flick the switch and pretend I wasn’t hating every moment of this night. No matter how nice your coworkers, no matter how tame the regulars, this job wears on you. It’s a by-product of the atmosphere: a dark room, filled with booming, distorted sound, and the stink of sweat and booze breath. A bar is an assault on all the senses.
We have live music almost every night, but I’ve become so calloused that all I hear is white noise.
When I’m not grimacing from the pain in my knees, brought on by constant squatting and running, I’m forced to smile and feign interest through a brief interaction with a customer. The longer I’ve gone on in the business, the more difficult it has become to hide my exasperation with the rabid alcoholics, who pound the counter and whistle for attention.
It drove me to stop drinking.
August 2015 was the last time I consumed alcohol. Spooked by the debauchery and chaos that always seemed to come with booze, I knew going dry would be no challenge.
I admit that alcohol can be a tonic for work-related cynicism. Regular Josh DeRose is a jolly, approachable guy. Josh the bar-porter is an all business machine, who works at a frantic pace.
Very little of what I do involves face-to-face customer interaction. For the most part, I am running booze and ice, keeping all the back-bar items topped up, and changing kegs. I only serve drinks in a pinch, or during high-volume times. If the task involves sweating, I get to do it. This is why it’s essential to my job that I keep the pleasantries to a minimum and focus on putting out the little fires that spring up through the evening.
It’s common to hear industry people say that they have a work persona and a true self, that they’re performers first and people second.
The way veteran bartender Corey Hayes puts it, his work persona is the “Corey Hayes Brand”.
That “brand” is a marketable illusion that almost all bartenders use to promote themselves. For example, Hayes has a reputation for being a cultured book-smart guy. Others may get sloppy when they drink, but he tends to start heated philosophical debates.
Bartender Hayes is a completely different animal. His trademark grin comes out when he’s playing matchmaker with his regulars. He has been known to forge relationships between strangers and has been labelled as a reputable ladies’ man.
OTR’s bartenders are a cast of characters, and 44-year old Hayes is the most colourful of the bunch. Nathan Richards is a middle-aged barkeep, who is slowly transitioning away from pouring and now focuses on being a social media dynamo.
Dell Kronstedt is an elder statesman, in his late-30s, who bartends on top of shouldering weekday management duties and human resources responsibilities.
Brent Carcoux is another 30-something who pours at a break neck speed, bordering on reckless. The term “crashing a well” refers to breaking glass in the ice of a drink-making station, which Carcoux does more often than the other bar-keeps. On The Rocks is a bar that’s built for efficiency, but he manages to bring flair into his bartending style, while slinging drinks at Mach 2.
No one I speak to admits to it, but I’m almost certain that at least one bartender in the regular roster is the designated attractive person. There is rarely any turnover behind the bar, but, when there is, a similar archetype is brought in to replace the previous piece.
For the bar to have success, all the performers must play their roles. Seeing these people turn it on and off it like watching a dance. They immerse themselves in their roles like method actors committing so hard that they become the characters.
Hayes’s lady killer persona is well-polished. He isn’t as fast as his counterparts, but they way he makes customers feel like bar stars is unmatched. It’s all in his body language. Even when the bar gets busy, he will prop himself up with his elbows on the bar counter and casually squeezes a compliment into the conversation, making the customer feel special. If he sees an attractive woman, he will make a compliment about her intelligence, knowing that she’s probably bored with compliments about her looks. The reverse applies to women he sees as less pretty. These tactics are a staple in Hayes repertoire. Talk to him after work and you get the intellectual.
“I went through a fundamentalist Christian phase during my mid-30s where, except for the occasional glass of wine, I quit drinking,” he says. “-I discovered I had little in common with my party friends when alcohol and women weren’t on the menu. A friend said I was deemed ‘too cool for school.’”
Since then, Hayes merged the two sides of his personality – a result of being so long in the bar industry. The worldly, academic side now represents him as much as his performance Corey Hayes.
“I’m a creature of the night,” he says. “- I’ve never fully adapted to a day schedule, whether working for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, teaching English in Seoul, or selling restaurant equipment in Sydney.”
“Clearly, closing five nights a week isn’t conducive to a healthy romantic relationship. But I’m a dirty old man with a boner for 20-year-olds. So, like, whatever.”
He prides himself on being a guy in his mid-forties who can pick up 20-somethings. It’s a part of his allure as a bartender: the hot shot, pouring drinks for those he deems worthy of the attention.
As Gilmour says, the customer always wants to make a connection with the superstars at the bar. So, the bartender-customer dynamic is a mind game.
“These people, they want to reach with you. They want to connect with you…That’s why bartenders have such big egos.”
Relationships are brittle. Friendships among coworkers are often dependent on the inclusion of booze and rarely extends outside the bar atmosphere.
Gilmour says that, in her adult life, all romantic relationships have been with people she has met, or worked with, at On The Rocks.
For the first time ever, Gilmour and I meet outside of work hours, on a Sunday night at OTR. She had lost her wallet the night before and was surprisingly calm. We settle into a corner of the room, beside the stage, as far as possible from the distractions of the bar.
I pressed her on her relationships and what she feels she might be missing.
“I look at couples who wake up together at 6 a.m. Make dinner together. I just appreciate that type of relationship.”
Then, she back peddles, and points out that the members of the “white picket fence” crowd are still miserable enough to come spend their weekends ordering drinks from her.
Gilmour is 31 and has been a server since she was 16. In that time, she has been out of the bar industry for three years collectively. Her whole life has been defined by her work. She talks being in a grocery store a week earlier and feeling isolated.
“There was a guy in front of me, and, just based on his groceries, I really wanted to be his friend,” she says. “-I was, like, yearning to connect with this person. I feel like we’d be good friends. But I just sat there…”
“If I meet somebody, it’s either through or at work … If someone tried to hit on me at Starbucks, I would just snarl at them.”
Then, she abruptly shifts her ground and changes the subject to OTR’s most sensitive subject—Rob “Smoky” Krock, who committed suicide last year.
Her eyes glaze over and her face goes vacant.
“He was so exuberant,” she says. “- His personality was so large. And, when he was drinking, it was even bigger. That’s why it was such a tragedy for everybody.”
“I’ve talked him off the ledge three times.
Krock and Gilmour had been inseparable. When they worked together, management had to separate them for talking too much. They were equally close away from work.
“I’ve wanted to kill myself,” Gilmour says. “-I tried when I was younger … There has been many times where I’d drink, or I’ve been on a bender and … I’d want to die …. Like nobody would care.”
“At the end of the day, it would blow over. The only time it changed for me is when he did that, and I realized the magnitude, the fucking hurricane that you leave behind you for everyone else.”
She uses the term “drinking depression” to describe the pattern they fell into. The practice involves drinking heavily to relieve depression. The problem is, the next day, depression sets in again. Krock and Gilmour bonded through discussing their depression over drinks.
“When I lost that crutch, I actually struggled, “she says. “I quit drinking when he killed himself. I didn’t drink for a whole, entire month.”
In bar time, one month without alcohol feels like a year. On occasion, staff members go through short dry stints, which usually last a couple days.
“I was drinking almost everyday when I was working full time,” Hodgson says. “Now, that I’m back with my Alberta Health Services job, I drink on the weekends.”
Hodgson’s full-time stint as an OTR server was originally supposed to be a stopgap, but she stuck around for seven months. Now she just moonlights as a server.
“I definitely don’t share a lot of my part-time job stories with my work friends,” she says. “I work with very different people. It’s kind of more of a business … I wouldn’t tell them half the stuff I do.”
“It also affected me deciding what I wanted to do. The money was so good. I was having fun. I was drinking with my friends all the time and it kind of made me put my goals and my life on the back burner.
“It’s kind of a black hole, in a sense, because you don’t have a grasp on reality.”