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Bartending as Preparation for Online Innkeeping?

Young bartender gal photo

Bright red lips and all, mulling things over behind the bar in 1991.

My years as a bartender, in Yosemite Valley, and later in downtown San Francisco, serving libations along with conversation, and thinking about the ephemeral community we made together, still bring me metaphors to use in working as the Conferencing Manager at The WELL.

Working in a real bar, like most adventures, was not a lot like it looked on tv, say on "Cheers". True, there were the charming and the obnoxious, even before the second round for the house gets bought. There was always smoke, there were curious foibles and scams played out. It's a challenge to be on your feet all night, scooping ice, relentlessly washing glasses, keeping an eye on the door, on drink levels, and all the other little details. It's real work, true service (though arguably not always good for the patrons), physical, technical, interpersonal and alchemical.

The skill holds a measure of respect in our society, and usually a reasonable income. Many bartenders are lifers, if they can find a good working environment. Many have college degrees, or are refugees from positions with fancier titles where they didn't get to do any of the true work of being with people.

I started at age 21, learned cocktails first, and got the drink names, prices, glasses and call-order down, and within a few weeks was being trained to mix by coached observation. I learned free-pouring, which means you grab the bottle, lift it and turn it upside-down over the appropriate glass, count to yourself until you have poured an ounce (or an ounce and a quarter, or whatever the house pours) and then with a dramatic little circular motion, you twist your wrist and the bottle back around and replace it deftly, or pour the next drink with that ingredient. Free-pouring depends on those standard bar pour spouts, calibrated for this purpose. The act is done with as much speed, grace and flair as possible.

1974 was an odd time to learn to bartend. It turned out to be a strange kind of pioneer work, which I liked, though it got old at times. As odd as it seems today, I was a novelty! At least once a week a tourist would come in and say, "What have we here? A girl behind the bar! What do they call you honey, a bartendress? Bartendette?"

In the places where I bartended, the real stuff of the work, the stories and moments of lives, the mutual confessions and the uproariously genuine moments and breakthoughs in listening and understanding were few and far between. In that sense, mixing drinks was more like technical support in some ways. Being a virtual barkeep on the WELL gives more of those moments, despite the seeming limitation that the libations are all typed, faces unseen. I can't say how much of my understanding of hosting as bartending comes from my life experiment, and how much comes from the influence of John Coate, who wrote of the Online Innkeeper at The WELL while doing what would become my job. His wonderful style is partly responsible for pulling me into this online life.

It's an odd thing to be drunk on text, tripping out on interaction. But words have always had transformative powers. Consciousness is altered by a chant, a lullaby, a pledge, a proverb, a prayer, a slogan, a koan.

"I'll have a shot of poetry, up."
"Pour me another round of hot buttered banter, with a water back."
"A slow comfortable rant, shaken, not stirred."
"Send a round of verbiage to the gals at the corner table, don't tell 'em it was me that sent it."
"Got any pretzels?"

- Gail