Marking time

[I wrote and performed this for the Ray’s Tap Reading Series at Chicago’s Prop Thtr on March 16, 2013, and at Story Sessions at City Winery on May 21, 2014.]


You know what this means right? The coaster over your drink?

It’s a marker. Visual shorthand for:

I’ve stepped out for a smoke. I’m taking a piss. I’ll be right back.

Barroom semiotics include a host of nonverbal markers like this.

There’s its close relative, the bottleneck carnation —also known as the napkin-stuffed-in-the-beer-bottle. Want to back up your drink? Turn over a shot glass. Short on cash? A piece of plastic in a rocks glass marks you as good for the bill.

An entire gestural language has risen up around the ritual of doing a shot alone. Raise the glass high, for the toast, acknowledging the moment of communion you and your fellow drinkers are about to share.

Tap the glass once on the bar before you raise it to your lips – a gesture of respect for the bar.

Toss it back in one swift move – signifying your inner fortitude, showing the world that you’re not a pussy, then clap the empty glass back on to the bar, upside down, visual proof that it’s truly empty.

If you’re a bartender, you quickly learn to decrypt this code.

Because you yourself are a marker, a stand-in for a friend, a therapist, an encyclopedia. A DJ. A babysitter. And when you spend enough time watching from behind the safety of your polished oak barricade you see the signifiers all around, embodied. This woman is a stand-in for security. That man is a marker for love. The last round, just one more — really — is a easily cracked cryptogram whose meaning is plain: I’m lonely and I don’t want to go home.

Collective understanding of the basics of this code – a rudimentary fluency in its grammar and vocabulary – is critical. Ignore the unspoken language of a bar as a patron and at best you’re marked as an ignorant outsider; at worst you are rude and ill mannered – and if you persist long enough, push it far enough, you will find yourself a literal outsider, in that you will be physically removed from the premises.

The regulars know this. Expert linguists, they respect the fundamental paradox of barroom manners – that the social contract that respects the coaster and the carnation is what keeps a bar running smoothly even as its patrons’ capacity for understanding their own behavior, for acting rationally, for following rules, is diminished, pint by pint and shot by shot. Because while Emily Post offers suggestions for the cocktail party hostess dealing with a drunken guest (get him black coffee; give him a ride home) her bottom line – don’t invite them to the party in the first place – isn’t an option in a bar. Bars are in the business of inviting inebriation, and then managing it.

At it’s best – when everyone’s speaking the same unspoken language — a bar can be an expansive third space, one that allows all present to, for a glowing moment, be our best selves, or at least see ourselves as such. We are raconteurs and rebels; seekers and seeirs. We are generous, seductive, loving – and we are lovable in return.

But then, of course, this expansiveness can contract in the time it takes to drain a shot glass. The raconteur becomes a boor; the rebel a plain old bully. Generous slides into sloppy and lovable tips sideways into a bundle of raw hope and need to which cab fare and a gentle nudge homeward is the only decent gesture.

As a bartender I struggle sometimes with the ethics of all this. It’s usually clear when it’s time to cut someone off and take away his keys. But there’s a world of bad decisions out there for which the bartender bears no legal liability. And in those late-night moments, when you watch an excitable man, so many shots in the bag, work himself into a fit of souped-up aggression, or see a pretty woman, too stupefied to think straight, become an opportunist’s prey – it’s confusing. You see the signs of trouble and you want to step in and save them from the consequences of their impaired sense of self.

But they’re adults. This is why they came to the bar – and your relationship to them is temporary at best. It’s your job to be polite, to make conversation, and to make sure they don’t kill themselves, or anyone else.

This is the deal.


I had a regular for years. I’ll call him Jack. That wasn’t his name, but it sounds appropriately rugged and adventurous as a pseudonym, and I think he’d like that.

Jack was an artist and a gentleman, and literally the first person I met when I started bartending six years ago. My first day on the job I kicked him out because he showed up before I was ready to open. I didn’t know then that he essentially had free run of the place, but he just smiled and nodded and slipped away without a word. When he came back 45 minutes later, it was a fresh start.

Jack was a man of mystery. He had been tangled up with the CIA, he said. Or maybe it was the Foreign Legion. He was friends with the feds – and possibly with the mob. He was making a movie. He was moving to New Zealand. He had endless stories, each with its own shaky relationship to reality. But then just when you thought he was yanking your chain, along would come some politician or local celebrity to slap him on the back and claim him as their own.

He was handsome, charming, mildly nuts, and quite possibly full of shit. He was also a drinker, but he had impeccable manners. He was gracious to women and kind to small children. He said please and thank you and he overtipped like crazy. In fact, he was generous to a fault. In the short time I knew him he gifted me with art books and small sculptures, endless quantities of spring rolls and takeout sushi, a preposterously engineered magnetic flashlight, an expensive German kitchen knife, a jar of Icy-Hot Extra-Strength Pain Relieving Balm, and, once, 12 pounds of frozen shrimp.

Jack would sit at the south end of the bar in the late afternoon and often on into the night, drinking pints of beer and shots of John Powers, unless he was in a red wine mood, or seeking the kick of an Irish coffee. Occasionally he’d meet up with friends – or with one of several female companions who returned in cycles, the new taking up the slack when the old had had enough for a while. He was an eager conversationalist  – if at times repetitive or mystifying – and for newcomers unfamiliar with the code of the bar he was an endless source of discovery, schooling them in its folkways and its characters, which included us, the staff.

This bartender, he’d say, pointing, was a brilliant composer; that one was a visionary artist. Me, I was “one of the greatest writers in Chicago.”

“Jack saw us as all our best selves,” said my friend Jessica, and it was true.  He was of us, and yet not of us. A part of our daily routine and a representation – a stand-in, a placeholder, a marker – for every patron who passed through the door, both a witness to and facilitator of all that transpired, night after night after night.

And then, he died.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise. He’d lost a lot of weight. He was gaunt, and his behavior had become increasingly erratic. Like many late-stage alcoholics he got drunker faster, zooming from zero to incoherent in what seemed just a few drinks. If he’d had a car, many nights we would have relieved him of his keys, but he lived just round the corner so we let him be. But we worried about him, the other bartenders and I, steering him toward coffee if we could; taking our time refilling his glass. He never complained.

Still. It was shocking. It happened so fast – we still don’t know exactly why, or how. He was there, every day, and then he was gone.

In the days immediately after his death I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had killed him – if not on my own, then in concert with other bartenders across the city, over the course of years. We saw the signs but, cowards all, we denied their meaning. My respect for the barroom code was shot. I wasn’t feeling polite. I didn’t give a shit about the rituals of mating and camaraderie. I just didn’t want to be party to the destruction of one more person.

“You’re all in fucking denial,” I wanted to scream, as the shots were raised and the pints were poured and the voices were raised. “You think you’re not going to die?”

The first few days after Jack died I kept expecting him to walk through the door with his typical crooked grin, aviator glasses askew. We all did. But he didn’t, and, confused, we didn’t know what to do.

Collectively, the bar had seen babies and birthdays and weddings, but to my knowledge, no death. So, cribbing from Shinto tradition, or the Day of the Dead, or … something, after those first few confounding days we enshrined him in his corner. For three months, every day, we lit a candle, and set a fresh pint and a shot of John Powers in his spot at the end of the bar.

And as the days wore on the urgency of my anger and guilt burned away. As it usually does as a crisis passes. I made an uneasy peace with my small role in Jack’s life, and death. And I regained some small bit of respect for the code. Because no matter how deep the crowd at the bar, there was a new marker in place, and it was universally respected.

Even without a coaster, you didn’t drink the dead man’s beer.