This is a new series in which you help me not be a dum-dum about America. I’ve been thrilled to hear from some of you, and hope to feature everyone who has expressed interest.
Jen, or as I like to think of her, “the Queen of Tumblr,” writes one of the sharpest, most honest blogs out there. She was born and raised in Michigan, and spent a decade in the suburbs of Detroit. She recently moved from Michigan to DC and was kind enough to talk to me about bartending, starting over, and so much more! I hope you enjoy her interview as much as I did.
What do you think of DC? What’s surprised you about living there?
DC is a place that stirs my soul. It’s nothing like Chicago or Detroit. People seem to talk slower, move faster, and enjoy the basics of life, like hard work, brunching on the weekends, spending time with family and friends, travel, and avoiding tourists. People work hard and play even harder here. They have a deeper sense of self here.
I was shocked at the cost of living. The traffic has no slow times. People yell a lot. There are unspoken rules and etiquette regarding public transportation that you MUST abide. But it boils down to paying attention and being courteous.
Many people here are transplanted. Everyone is quick to welcome you and give advice. It’s a little joke around here: “So…. where are you from ORIGINALLY?” Most people remember coming here with the confusion, and are pretty empathetic, until they aren’t. You only get a couple weeks leeway to blend in.
What’s it like working as a bartender in DC? How are the customers? The pace?
I work a couple blocks outside of DC, in Maryland. The lines are blurred, so it’s like a DC crowd. The bar just opened last week, and has already established itself as “very DC, ” meaning it’s loud, culturally diverse, and a place to gather. DC has hard racial boundaries, but good food and good drinks bring everyone together. Socialization has no culture limits. The pace is incredibly fast, the clientele diverse, and atmosphere high energy. I love going to work.
The lack of customer service around DC is a well-known fact. I’ve been trying to focus on making it better in my little bubble. People here are always in a hurry and feel pushed aside by life. I think it’s so important to remember people’s names and something about them to make them feel at home. Some people here are very important. Most people just think they are very important. I’m not star-struck, so everyone gets the same treatment. You never know who really is a big deal and who just wants to be a big deal.
Ha. Everything you’ve said about DC sounds like Los Angeles! You seem like you’re amazing at your job, like you’d have no problems getting hired anywhere. How have you gotten so good?
I’ve been in the restaurant industry for 15 years. I started off at an extremely well known nightclub in the Detroit suburbs…a job I wasn’t ready for, but grew to love. I worked with all females who had been doing this for a long, long time. I was so green that I thought a rum and coke was a “Roman Coke.”
I grew to love the service industry quickly. I come from old school training, before computers, where you had to bark your orders to the bartender and you were hazed severely if you didn’t do it right. I’ve been duct taped to a pillar in the middle of a shift. Called out by the DJ. Curtsied with tears in my eyes and a smile on my face when I’ve dropped a tray of drinks.
Wait. You were duct-taped to a pillar in the middle of a shift?!
Just a little hazing, mostly to keep your attitude in check. I worked at a sports bar that was always packed with regulars. The air was heavy with mischief and humor. If you were a little too mouthy with your bartenders, or a bit ego heavy…. something would be done to knock you down a few pegs. If you were good, it only happened a few times and then you could join in. There were whipped cream pies in the face, sending a girl to find a “bacon stretcher,” or asking for a bucket of steam for behind the bar.
We once told a girl that the credit card machine was voice activated and that she needed to yell her full name and driver’s license number into the screen so it would recognize her. I’ve never laughed so hard. We still tell new servers that.
Also this isn’t really a question but whenever I’ve been in a nightclub, I always wonder how the servers do it. You have to carry platters full of glass around people who can’t hear you and often don’t have the wherewithal to move out of the way.
They never really look happy, right? It’s hard to navigate when people won’t move, or frankly don’t care. We used to carry lanyard whistles. That got them moving. Now, I know how to navigate the crows and use eye contact and a stern voice. That usually works.
I’ve also made the best friends, have millions of stories, and laughed until I cried at my nights at the bars. I would love to write a book, but those stories are mine.
I still find it ridiculous that people pay me to bring them a drink and food. I have a lot of confidence in the speed and manner in which I perform my duties as a bartender. I’m organized, fast, and know what needs to be done. That says a ton to interviewers. A decade and a half of experience doesn’t hurt either.
Restaurant and bar hasn’t always been my goal. I started going to cosmetology school, and quickly hated working in a salon. I stayed waiting tables. I then went back to school to study mortuary science and funeral directing. I did work in the embalming and funeral business for a few years, but that’s a career that you emotionally invest in and it can easily consume your life. After moving to DC, I decided to stay in the restaurant world because it’s what I know and I didn’t have to transfer any licenses. My goal is teaching mortuary science in a trade school. I just don’t know if it’s something that I could financially achieve. Or, if I have the skill set to accomplish that.
A few weeks ago you wrote that you had an identity crisis in your 30s, but now you’re out of it. I would love to know more about this.
My thirties have been so interesting. It’s so difficult to think about where you “should be” and to then realize where you “are.” I struggled with the idea that I’m not where I wanted to be, but I know now that I am where I need to be. I was in a very difficult marriage, laced with co-dependence, mental illness, alcohol and drug recovery issues, and later domestic assault.
I was wearing a heavy robe of Savior Complex. I tried too hard to present a perfect appearance and wore too many hats for too many people. I lost sight completely of realizing myself. Everyone else came before me and I slipped into a very dark, very bad, very harmful pattern. The one way out of the pain started to become a plan; a reality.
I was giving out so much and receiving no care in return. I woke up one day and realized death wasn’t the answer. I reached out here, and the arms of strangers grabbed me and pulled me out. People had been listening—just on my computer, instead of within proximity.
I left Michigan on January 1 and moved to Maryland. That was not coincidence. As cliche as it sounds, I really needed that day to start a new life in a new year. I let everything bad stay at the border of Michigan and Indiana. I left the emptiness, the Savior Complex, and the hurt.
I set out to find the core me and better myself. I’m trying to focus on the things that really matter now: surrounding oneself with positive people, hard work, forgiveness, and grace.
I am so fortunate to have such a tremendous support group who allowed me the ability to restart my life over here. I can’t begin to think about how much they’ve done for me, or how they literally saved my life.
I’m a work in progress. I’m doing just fine.
Good for you! I think “trying to be something I wasn’t” was a huge theme of my twenties. But how did you realize that you needed things to change? Was it a jolt or a gradual discovery? And how did you find the strength to actually do it? (Sounds like people who read your blog helped? If so, what an incredible story for the social media age!)
There comes a point when it’s so difficult to realize that you’ve lost complete control of yourself and you’re suffocating. I saw this as a gradual decline, but only after I hit rock bottom… and that came fast and hard, like a sucker punch to the face and gut. Being scared for your safety becomes your only sense and you become numb.
I felt like there was no one listening around me so I reached out to my computer. I was amazed at the kind works, support, and love that I received from Tumblr. That was my wake up call … that I did have a support group. A giant, open armed, brilliant, kind, giving, and generous support group.
Wow. The other day you wrote something pretty profound on your blog: “I used to think my family was the pillar of strength. I don’t think I believe that anymore.” Can you tell me a little more about what you were experiencing?
My mom was the glue that held the family together. She had an infinite well of patience and grace. She was the mediator to the stubbornness that runs deep in my family. After mom died last August, the family seemed to lack structure. Everyone was hurting and grieving her loss so much. We still are. Communications fell apart, sides were taken where there should have been no issue, bonds were broken, seemingly beyond repair. Harsh words were said. Hearts were stabbed. My family environment became toxic, and I couldn’t be around that. I moved.
I didn’t run from my family, I left so that I could figure out what I needed; what they needed. I don’t know what they’re feeling because we’ve had no contact, but I’m feeling ready to start a road to rebuilding our relationships. It’s going to be a long, painful one… but I believe it can be done.
I miss my nieces so much. I miss watching them grow and become who they are. I miss my dad’s sense of humor and friendship. I miss my brother and his shenanigans. I miss my mother’s unconditional optimism and faith and patience. I miss my family as a whole.
I wonder if we can ever be the same. We’ve been through so much disappointment and hard times, and I’ve always believed we came out alright. I know that Mom had so much behind the scenes input into that. I only hope that her spirit can still guide us in that direction.
I can only imagine that’s incredibly difficult. I’m so sorry to hear that. It reminds me of one of things I love about your writing: it’s always so honest. I feel like I’m connecting to you. Do you write for other outlets?
Thank you! I’ve never considered myself a writer. My form is a disgusting mess. But, it’s real talk. I write almost exactly how I speak, which doesn’t say a ton about class or form, either. I don’t believe in a million words. Or setting up the perfect backstory. I can’t begin to dissect humor or what makes something funny. I do believe that life is full of crazy and funny and pain and triumph. I think being a real person means being able to communicate so that people can nod and say, “I totally get that.”
Divine proportions are everywhere in this world. That perfect balance of pain and healing; love and hate; smiles and tears; defeat and triumph. It’s learning how to harness the awful and realize there is always an equal and opposite reaction.
Geez, I made that wordy. I don’t write anywhere else… for good reason. I’ve found my niche here. It’s nice to be understood