I’m not sure when I met Mark. Although we were the same grade at the same elementary school, we were never in the same class (that I remember) and we grew up in different neighborhoods. We were “friends of friends”, Mike being the conduit. Through Junior High and High School, our mutual friends brought us closer, but it wasn’t until we were adults that we bonded.
Then we were both professional bartenders, and we would meet up with each other to see what was new in the world. I have said throughout my career that everyone could be a good bartender, but being a great one was something you couldn’t teach; you had to have it. Mark had it, and he had it in spades at Hot Tomatoes. That bar – 3 sided, six or eight to a side – was perfect. He treated newbies like they’d been there forever and he had the regulars their drink before they’d check their coats. He brought people together and left them wanting more. He was the star of the show, the captain of the ship, the straw that stirs the drink.
But he wasn’t the life of the party.
So many people go into a bar with no expectation but hope of having a good time, and they leave with their expectations exceeded. What they don’t know is the person responsible for that is a) sober and b) working until 3 or later in the morning. It’s easy to confuse the person getting you drunk and making your night memorable as being one of your own, and sometimes it’s hard for the bartender to draw that line, but when the party moves on the bartender is there, cleaning up, counting money and watching the sunrise.
Let me be clear: I am not angry about the career choices I have made. It has paid me well, and given me great opportunities. But it doesn’t trade out the loneliness. When I worked in the sideshow there was a saying I learned: “It’s a hard way to make an easy living.” I have been paid well, and I would like to think (based on where he worked) Mark was paid well. That’s the easy. Here’s the hard.
When you are spending holidays with your family, we’re spending them with families we don’t know, or worse with people who hate their family and want to tell us all about it. When you get up on a Monday and bitch about having to go back to work, you’ve got several million people commiserating with you; bartenders work when you don’t. There’s certainly some benefit to that, but it only helps create a greater sense of isolation. In a sense, bartenders are really no different than second shift operators on a help line for your home appliance: we’re just here to do a job.
I’m envious of the friends I have who have made a “normal” life out of bartending. married, kids, the whole shooting match, and I’m sure some of that is their own personality going into it. But I’m also envious of Mark. Because he stayed.
When I graduated High School I sat in the back row of the football field and watched a thunderstorm roll up. I wished it would light the town on fire and burn it down, I was that excited to get out. Mark stayed. Mark made a life for himself, cultivating friendships while creating a career he might never have dreamt about but certainly succeeded at. Meanwhile I kept packing up Honda Accords and criss-crossing the country, the whole time winning awards and stepping up in jobs. But here’s the thing:
Mark could’ve done that.
Like I said Mark had the intangible, the unteachable. Mark was pure and forthright, and he easily could have been a “Rumologist” or a mixology teacher at a high end resort. But he stayed with who he was. Maybe that’s because it was what he wanted, maybe because he was scared to test the waters, or maybe just because he had the life he had and didn’t know what to do with it.
I’ll never know. I don’t know the last time I talked to him, and like all of us that will haunt us. And haunt is the word, because people always say “Nobody should die in vain” and “If one life is changed, it’s worth it.” Well, I don’t believe anyone dies in vain, not for any warm positive reason but rather a cold morbid truth: death is inevitable. Like the rain it comes to the just and unjust; as a part of life to say someone’s death is in vain is to say their life was in vain, and that is something I cannot accept. The least you do for anyone, you do for everyone, and each of our lives matter.
It’s tougher to negotiate the “change one life” thing. I’ll be 45 later this year, and my spots are pretty much where they will always be. And yet today I have been melancholy because I know the life a bartender leads – I know the life I have led – and I am confronted with my own mortality. I look at how I live, the choices I make, the hours I keep (not just for work but also for finding the time to socialize with others) and I recognize I could do better. The truth is though I recognize that far too often, and there are people here, people part of my life, that I want to be better, smarter, healthier, kinder, whatever for, and yet I still fail. If I can’t do it for the living, what hope do the dead have?
And still we beat on, boats against the current, trying to make sense of this thing we call life. Moments like these give us pause, and each of us find our own way to rage against the dying of the light. Some of us will look back and decide we haven’t risked enough, we haven’t lived the way we wanted to and we find ways to throw caution in the wind and cast our lines in the open sea. Others will double down on the choices they’ve made, recommit to the world they are in and bring a new depth to it. No answer is wrong, but the only right answer is the one for you.
My friend Amy, an old friend of Mark’s, texted me something without provocation on my part. She knew this was bothering me (I used the term melancholy) and before I could tell her anything about the blog I was going to write, she said “Jack, please be smiling in his honor.”
I will always remember how he smiled. I will always remember his pure happiness to see people, to be there for people. I will most certainly remember his unquestioned dedication to his friends. What I won’t remember is him ever being angry. Sure I saw him upset when he was stuck working with morons (who wouldn’t be?) but he always found a positive in everything. And I will remember the one joke he told me. With his last name, he could get away with it:
Q: Why does every Polish name end is -ski?
A: Because toboggan is too hard to spell.
I’ll miss you big fella. Rest easy, and save me a stool at your new bar.
Bonus track. Enough said.