Help Wanted read the sign in the window — an unusual and welcome sight during the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001. I took a deep breath, tugged at the bottom of my blouse to smooth the sweat wrinkles, and walked into the hotel lobby. I needed this job.
In my twenty-first year of life, I had finished college, watched from a distance as two airplanes smashed into the World Trade Center, undergone an emergency tonsillectomy, and shipped my long-distance boyfriend his Nickelback CDs after finding out he’d been cheating on me. It was not exactly the gap year I’d dreamed of. With a newly minted journalism degree, living out of a suitcase in the spare bedroom of my parents’ house in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I had no money, no job, no tonsils, and no plans. It was time to start knocking on doors.
“I’m sorry, we’ve already filled the front desk position,” said the manager. His name was Paul, and he was tall and wiry and smelled of a recent smoke break. My heart sank.
“But we do have an opening for a bartender and cocktail waitress,” he offered, sliding my one-page job application back across the table at me, uninterested in its formality. “Have you ever bartended before?”
“No,” I answered honestly.
“Do you drink?”
I mean, I had just graduated from Ohio University — which was, at the time, on national news for violent riots because the bars had closed early for daylight savings time. I was no expert, but I could certainly navigate my way around an amaretto sour.
“Of course,” I said.
“Great. When can you start?”
I walked out brandishing an oversized polo shirt and a direct-deposit form. And into the beginning of a very strange year.
Close your eyes and picture a hotel lobby bar. You’ll likely envision something open-concept, fishbowl-like, modern, with white furniture and glittering martini glasses. It’s positioned somewhere in between the bellman’s stand and a bank of elevators, right where the drinkers get hit with a burst of chilly Midwest air every time a new guest walks in the automatic door.
Now picture the complete opposite. Turn left, walk down a hall and a flight of stairs, where you’ll find dark-paneled walls, no windows, and low lights with half the bulbs burnt out and the other half intermittently flickering. A popcorn machine and a jukebox. Formica tabletops and counters. Stale smoke in the air. Think classic dive bar, but not on a bustling downtown corner. Think watering hole below the lobby of a mid-range hotel, and across from a suburban shopping mall. It was awful and wonderful at the same time, and for about 35 hours a week, it was my home.
Our guests were an odd mix of out-of-town travelers and locals. The out-of-towners came from everywhere: England, Japan, Ohio. Although not quite as cosmopolitan as the townies thought it to be, Ann Arbor was a hub for auto engineers and biomedical researchers. It was also a college town and, by way of association, a college football town. During the year I worked at the bar, I served airline pilots, wedding parties, athletes, intellectuals, a well-known musician who drank discreetly and tipped generously, and one famous sportscaster who was cruel and arrogant and flashed hundred-dollar bills at me every time he ordered another Miller Lite. I never watched his channel again.
At 22, I was not unattractive, but I was also not beautiful. I had short legs, frizzy hair and stress-bitten nails. I didn’t know how to wear makeup and my polo shirt was easily two sizes too big. My young-looking face, athletic style, and decided lack of self-confidence left me far from emulating the mysterious, sexy facade I admired in some of my coworkers.
This, however, deterred few. During my year as a bartender, I was grabbed, kissed, harassed, propositioned with words and tipped with hotel room keys. And that was what I endured from customers; the employees were worse. In the back of the house, I was screamed at for mistakes made by the cooks. I was called a bitch, and then asked out for drinks, by the same person on the same day. One night, after post-shift beverages with the kitchen staff, I drove home a drunk coworker who forced my hand down his jeans in an apartment parking lot. I never told anyone what happened, and the next morning, instead of being angry at him, I was furious at myself. I shouldn’t have been driving, I thought.
I drank heavily for the next three nights. To forget.
Still, my memories of that year are unblemished by time. I can still tell you how to make a perfect margarita on the rocks with a salted rim. How to carry 20-pound trays of food with one hand. How not to panic when an entire semi-pro hockey team walks in, angry and thirsty, after a tough playoff loss. How to treat shin splints when you’re on your feet for eight hours straight. What to do if a pregnant woman, or an underage kid, or a falling-down drunk orders a beer. How to light someone’s cigarette across a countertop. How to sense danger. These skills were all key to survival, and they’re skills that never leave you.
But what I remember the most vividly isn’t the recipe for peanut butter and jelly shots (Bailey’s, Frangelico, Chambord, and just a touch of cream), or the meanest customers, or even the night the power went out and we served free drinks by candlelight because, fuck it, the world was ending. I remember the locals. The regulars. I still see them so clearly, can say their names and picture the faded wallet photos of their kids, and can practically recount the last conversation I had with each of them.
Most hotel bars are full of transients, but ours was different. Because we were so secluded and so off-the-radar, we had a parade of Ann Arbor townies who came in, night after night, to blow off steam from the workday, eventually melding into the crowd as the lights got dimmer and the conversation got fuzzier. They came in to be with people, and they came in to hide from people.
It was those regulars who walked in for happy hour and stayed well past dinner. They drank freely and tipped liberally, and it was because of them I was able to move out of my parents’ house and get a tiny apartment in neighboring Ypsilanti.
On some nights, the bar felt like a scene from Billy Joel’s Piano Man. We didn’t have a piano or a real-estate novelist — but we did have Brandon, an HVAC technician who came in every day at 4:30 with dirt under his fingernails and a craving for Coors Light, which he took down like water until close.
We had Adam, a nouveau-riche 30-something who liked to brag about his latest sports-car lease and routinely bought rounds of top-shelf shots for the entire bar. He always settled up in cash and once asked me how much I paid in rent. “I can get you in a three-bedroom colonial tomorrow for less than that,” he once told me. Adam was a mortgage lender. Five years later, I heard his company went belly-up with subprime foreclosures.
Many of the regulars had relationship struggles, which should come as a shock to nobody. Charles was a middle-aged man with three teen daughters whose wife had moved out, and he was trying — not hard enough, clearly — to win her back. Lydia was a married 35-year-old mother whose adulterous trysts with a local cop took place on Tuesdays and Thursdays, starting at the bar and consummating in a hotel room. Brandon, the HVAC guy with the dirty hands, wore a wedding ring but never spoke of a spouse.
And then there was the strangest regular of all. I called him O’Doul’s guy. He would come in several times a week — sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. He’d order a dusty back-of-the-fridge bottle of non-alcoholic beer and sit at a table in the corner. He’d talk, or read, or people watch. He always had one drink, no food, and left a two-dollar tip. Though I was surrounded by addiction and financial hardship and broken marriages, O’Doul’s guy was the one who made my chest feel heaviest with sadness. What fun was life, I wondered, if you couldn’t use alcohol to take the edge off your day, to blur the lines between fun and peril?
The regulars were a real shitshow. But they were also strangely wonderful. They were fiercely loyal, they kept me entertained, and they protected me from the drunk fraternity alumni who drove in from Chicago for Saturday football games. I loved popping the caps off my customers’ bottles, lighting their menthols, and listening to their war stories. That spring, when Steve Yzerman and the Detroit Red Wings bested the Carolina Hurricanes for the Stanley Cup, the bar stayed open late for overtime. I’d pour free drinks for my favorite patrons after every goal. We cheered together and prayed together. It was the first hockey game I’d ever watched.
I loved the regulars so much that in retrospect, it’s easy to forget I also swathed them in judgement. Behind their backs, I shook my head at their heavy drinking, their frequent absence from their families. I judged them while I poured them booze, made them free popcorn, and encouraged them to stay for “just one more.” They were adults with spouses, partners, kids, grandkids, mortgages — and yet their true pleasure seemed to be drinking. I loved drinking too, but me? I was a young kid with a future.
What I didn’t see was that someday, I would become one of them.
In September, almost a year after I walked into that hotel lobby for the first time, my phone rang at the start of my shift. A recruiter at a large pharmaceutical company offered me the communications role I’d been interviewing for. The salary was only marginally better than my paycheck at the bar, but the schedule was 9 to 5, with weekends off. I accepted the job immediately and put in my notice. It was time to move on, and the regulars were crushed. I promised them I’d come back to say hi.
I never did. Instead, I started a life — a life of relative privilege, with a good job, a family, and a fixed-rate mortgage. And a life of drinking.
I drank expensive single-malt scotch and bourbon-barrel-aged beer. Occasionally at first, then almost every night. To socialize, and then to numb. I drank to celebrate, and eventually when pressures of work and grad school and parenting and family crushed me, to hide. I refused to ask for help. I fucked a lot of things up. I looked healthy on the outside, a far cry from that 22-year-old frizzy-haired bartender who didn’t know how to apply eyeliner. Nobody knew that my insides were a bottomless pit of despair.
I may not have been chain-smoking and eating popcorn for dinner in a hotel basement, but not unlike Brandon and Adam and Lydia, alcohol had become my calm, my company, my comfort. One day I finally had enough, and at age 39, I would make the decision to quit drinking for good.
Today, I’ve been alcohol-free for 18 months, and that bar from 2001 is long gone. Recently, I had to stop by the hotel to rent a car, and it felt like walking into my childhood home after it had been renovated with Pergo floors and a subway tile backsplash. They’d demolished the dank room and replaced it with a bright, sterile lobby lounge. The new joint has a laminated cocktail menu that includes ceviche and steak tartare. It’s a place to meet coworkers for a quick glass of wine before dinner — not a place to trade dark secrets.
The regulars, of course, are also long gone. Occasionally, I wonder about them. Did Lydia ever leave her husband for the cop? Did Charles win his ex-wife back? Did Adam lose his McMansion? But today, when I ask those questions of the universe, I do it without that judgement I so harshly imparted upon that crowd for so many years. I know why I loved those people so much. I was lost, and they were, too. We all needed human connection, and we found it in that dark and mysterious hotel bar.
These days, as my mental polaroids begin to crack and fade, I think most of the O’Doul’s guy. I wonder about him often, curious about his story. Why did he drink non-alcoholic beer? Was he in recovery, a regular at Alcoholics Anonymous? Or did he just not like the way booze obscured the world in front of him?
Once upon a time, my heart ached for that man. Now, his memory makes me smile. I hope he’s found a new place to people-watch. He had it figured it out long before the rest of us.