Writing and bartending
Essay | Can the study of human nature in a saloon lead to proficient prose?
by John R. Erickson
Posted 3/11/17, 09:57 am
In 1967, during my second-year at Harvard Divinity School, I was heading toward a ministerial degree but also dabbling with the idea of becoming a famous novelist. I decided to apply for a spot in a two-semester course on fiction writing offered at Harvard College.
Theodore Morrison taught the class, which had quite a reputation on campus, along with courses taught by Henry Kissinger, John Kenneth Galbraith, B.F. Skinner, and David Riesman. Norman Mailer and John Updike had taken Professor Morrison’s class when they were undergraduates, and they had become big names in the publishing world.
Professor Morrison limited the class to 15 students, so getting in wasn’t easy. I found it rather intimidating to be competing for a spot against students who had gone to prep schools and had come to Harvard laboring under the weight of their academic honors. I was a small-town kid from Texas and my academic honors didn’t weigh much.
First, we had to submit a sample of our writing. I don’t remember what I submitted, but Professor Morrison must have thought it showed promise, because I got into the class.
We met twice a week on campus at Warren House, not far from Harvard’s Widener Library. We sat around a long table, surrounded by walls of rich hardwood paneling—the real thing, not a cheap veneer. We could almost sense the presence of Mailer and Updike in the room, scowling down at us and wondering if we deserved to be there.
Professor Morrison had graduated from Harvard and looked it. At 66, he was a handsome man who glowed with patrician dignity. He had a mane of white hair, alabaster skin, liquid blue eyes, and delicate hands. He came to class in a tweed sports jacket, sweater, and tie. He was quiet, gentle, and always pleasant, but reserved.
And modest. I don’t recall him talking much about his accomplishments, but when he died in 1988, The New York Times published his obituary. It said that in addition to teaching at Harvard, he had served as associate editor of The Atlantic Monthly and director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and had published five novels and several volumes of poetry.
His approach to teaching was very casual. He didn’t lecture, give tests, or assign homework. My classmates and I wrote stories and he read them aloud to the class, then we discussed them while he listened and puffed on his pipe. Sometimes he injected a comment, but mostly we were critiquing each other—the blind leading the ignorant, I thought on several occasions.
One day we were talking about where writers get their story ideas, and one of the students said, “Every aspiring novelist should work as a bartender. A bar is a great place to study human nature.” The fellow who said it had written a novel, while the rest of us were still toiling with short stories. He was the star of the class, and his comment about bartending sounded reasonable, even profound.
In 1970, I got the opportunity to test it when I went to work as an assistant bartender at a country club. I didn’t enjoy the work, but for three years it paid the bills. By that time, I had decided against a career in the church and was trying to write in a disciplined manner, four hours every morning. Then I went to a job where I observed human nature in an upscale restaurant and saloon.
When the club doors opened for business every day, the employees greeted the public with smiling faces. We appeared to be a happy team, but behind the facade, the place was seething with conspiracies, intrigue, and gossip. The bartender ruled the lounge, the cooks ruled the kitchen, the waitresses ruled the dining room, and they were always at war with one another. I tried to stay above the sniping.
The waitresses were a tight-knit group and always acted in unison, like wasps. After the lunch run, they gathered at a table to fold napkins, smoke, and talk about their diets, teenage children, and poodles. When they discussed the cooks and the bar staff, they spoke in dark whispers.
They had nothing good to say about Leroy, the head chef. He was a retired Army cook and disliked all waitresses, especially ours. I remember the time he thought they were poisoning the customers. The waitresses hated flies, and after setting tables for a banquet, two of them would walk through the room, fogging it with insecticide. Then they made a second pass, spraying two cans of room deodorant to mask the odor. They closed up the room and left it for two hours. No fly ever crawled out of there alive.
Leroy wasn’t much of a reader, but he had read the warning label on a can of bug spray (which the club bought by the case). It said, “Do not use in food service areas!” Obviously, a cloud of aerosol spray will end up on the water glasses, silverware, and plates.
He reported this to the manager and the manager called a meeting. The waitresses counterpunched, noting there were half a dozen No-Pest Strips hanging in Leroy’s kitchen, and the packaging said, in bold, black letters, “Do not use in food service areas!”
Leroy had no response. The manager urged us to get along. “Let’s go out there and have a great week.” The waitresses considered it a victory. I wondered if my health might be in danger, working in this place.
Leroy lost that one, but he had other complaints. He suspected the waitresses were sneaking into the walk-in cooler and eating shrimp cocktail (they were), and that Larry, the bartender, was helping himself to icebox pie with whipped cream. Larry had the shape and personality that made it believable.
But Larry had gripes too. He worked the night shift and didn’t come in until 4 in the afternoon, and he was sure that, in his absence, Leroy was slipping into the bar and pulling corks. His years in the food and drink business had convinced him that “chef” and “alcoholic” went together like “sheep” and “wool.”
He suspected that the waitresses were up to the same tricks, turning their trips to the restroom into raids on the liquor closet, and he devised an ingenious kind of revenge. He rigged up a speaker beneath a toilet tank in the ladies bathroom. When one of the waitresses named Dotty went inside, he activated a taped message: “Excuse me, honey, but could you wait a minute and let me climb out of here?”
He thought it was hilarious. Dotty didn’t think so, and neither did the other waitresses. They stepped up their plots against Larry, and several months later, he got fired. I don’t think their intrigues had much to do with the firing (he was playing naughty games on the side), but the waitresses considered it a targeted hit and became almost unbearable, intoxicated with their power.
With Larry gone, I had to fill in as the head bartender and worked with Sherry, the cocktail waitress. She was about 40 and reminded me of a tall skinny waterbird. She wore wigs, sometimes blond and sometimes jet-black, and her eyes were a bit off-center. Sherry was a tireless, exuberant worker, and often hummed as she scooted around the lounge.
Her life had rolled out as an endless soap opera, and when business was slow, I heard the stories, whispered behind her hand.
She had worked with Larry and knew all the dirt on him. She claimed to have dirt on Leroy too, and the broiler cook, the salad lady, the waitresses, everybody. She was waiting for the right moment to expose them.
Sherry had just made her last payment to the dentist who pulled her teeth and fitted her with dentures. To celebrate, she bought a new wig and put a pantsuit on layaway.
She had switched to another type of birth control pills. The previous ones were too expensive.
For a while Sherry thought her husband was playing around with another woman. She was so angry, she talked to a lawyer and changed her brand of cigarettes from Raleigh to Virginia Slims. But she and Donnie had made up and were crazy in love again.
Sherry had cockroaches in her trailer house but didn’t want to pay an exterminator, so she sprayed propane into the crawl space beneath the floor. When she lit up a smoke, the house went off like a bomb. Sherry escaped injury, but her wig got fried. So did the house.
During long nights in a crowded, noisy, smoky bar, Sherry kept a cigarette going in an ashtray while she delivered drinks. Sometimes it ignited the other 20 butts in the ashtray, creating a small bonfire. I had to breathe the smoke. To cope with that, and the noise of The Jackson 5 on the jukebox and the numbing effects of boredom, I tried reading Gone with the Wind, but one night her smoke overpowered Scarlett O’Hara.
What I did might seem petty … all right, it was petty, but the woman was driving me nuts. I pushed the tip of a wooden kitchen match into the end of one of her Virginia Slims. In her next spare moment, she reached for the pack. She had just put a wad of gum into her mouth. When she lit up, the match head hissed and fumed.
I figured she would squeal and we would laugh about it, easing some of the tension of working together. Then I would ask her not to leave cigarettes burning at my workstation.
To my amazement, she didn’t notice until she took a drag and inhaled the sulfur. She coughed, made an angry face, stubbed it out, and muttered about how the lousy cigarette had ruined the taste of her gum.
She reached into her mouth to throw away the gum, but it stuck to her teeth and both gum and dentures went into the trash.
It was one of the funniest spectacles I had ever witnessed, but I had to maintain a monkish solemnity while she retrieved her teeth. Later, I stepped outside the building and shrieked with laughter, sending months of frustration streaming toward the silent stars.
I spent approximately 6,240 hours of my life working at the club. During that time, I filled notebooks with observations and character sketches. I tried many times to incorporate them into novels, but my writing was always shrill and angry. It has taken me four decades to scrape together enough poise to write even this little piece. At last, some of it seems funny.
What a bartender observes, night after night, is not the stuff from which great novels are made. The truth is that most human beings are not at their best in a saloon. They become petty, selfish, overbearing, and ultimately sad. In another setting, the employees would have been solid citizens, but the club seemed to amplify their bad qualities. It had the same effect on the customers, and on me too.
I doubt that the student in Professor Morrison’s class knew this. I doubt he had ever tended bar for more than a Saturday night gig, and that explains the gap in his education: A bar is not a great place to study human nature.
Also see Marvin Olasky’s interview with John R. Erickson from the current issue of WORLD Magazine. Erickson’s Texas Panhandle home and office burned down in a prairie fire on Monday. John and his wife Kris made it out safely. He is insured, neighbors are helping, and his cattle survived, but one horse and a wonderful dog apparently did not. The upcoming issue of WORLD Magazine that goes online and is mailed out March 16 will have an article about the tragedy, which in other parts of the Panhandle claimed four human lives.