The Bartender’s Dilemma: Empathy in the Age of Trump

The night after the election, a man came into my bar and ordered the strongest beer we had, an imperial stout. “What a fucked-up day,” he told me. The man had tears in his eyes. He tried to talk to the sparse groups of people spread out around the bar and was mostly ignored. “I’m sorry, I’m trying to talk to my friend,” one woman told him. The man grew more upset at the obvious discomfort he caused until he found a seat at the bar and talked to a pair of black women. I overhead him say that he was a Muslim American and that he was scared. Not long after, the man finished his beer and left. I checked in on the women.

“He didn’t want to be alone,” one of them said. “And I understand why.”

While he was trying to talk to the other people, my first reaction was to ask him to leave or, at the very least, to stop bothering my customers. Thinking back on it, my need to control this man was unsettling, and I knew why. Working as a bartender for the last six years, I’ve come to learn that vulnerability and empathy are two of the most valuable tools behind the bar. This was the part of the gig where I should’ve provided him a space to talk openly about what was bothering him.

I didn’t. I wish I had.

Instead, the two women at the bar did my job for me. They provided that man the space to be upset and process, understood him in a way that I couldn’t. I couldn’t see his despair at first. However much Trump’s win depressed and terrified me, as a white man I didn’t feel it as a personal, existential threat. Nor did I recognize the direct, immediate fear felt by my Latino and queer coworkers and by the customers I’ve befriended over the years.

In the last two months, I’ve questioned my effectiveness at work. The job has always required a healthy amount of patience and understanding. The first weeks after the election, I was overwhelmed by my distraught regulars who grimaced at their phones, enumerating the daily evolving horrors that were coming to define our reality. Was I qualified to support them? How could I serve others if I can’t be vulnerable enough to be honest with myself? How would I process the emotions of so many of my customers without hopping over the bar to start drinking along with them?

I have a feeling that bars and bartenders are going to be more important than ever in the coming years, and I don’t mean just for keeping us drunk through the Trump administration. Katie, a bartender friend of mine in the West Village, recently reminded me that the original concept of the tavern was meant to be a stop for the weary traveler, a kind of home away from home.

“It’s not just running a successful business, it’s fulfilling a human need to belong to someplace,” Katie said. “To be around others, to be part of a tribe.”

The real test comes when I serve people whose views differ from my own. The easiest thing to do is to not engage with them while stewing in the silence of my outrage. It has taken years to learn how to fight my own self-righteousness, to realize its impulse takes the focus off my customers, making it about me and not them. I’m not a Zen master and do, on occasion, get into arguments.

I have customers who support Trump. Luckily, they haven’t been arrogant. Most of them are older white men who remind me of the people I grew up around in the lily-white suburbs of New Jersey. One of my regulars I’ve known the longest, who refers to me as his nephew, recently said, “I voted for Trump because I’m an old man and I remember a time when I was comfortable, and I wanted to feel comfortable again.” I responded with some offhand remark about supporting racism, sexism, and xenophobia. “I don’t think I’m any of those things,” he replied.

My regular’s statement drew a reaction from me because it felt familiar and comfortable in ways I didn’t want it to. When I was a kid, the African Americans I knew best were the Cosbys, Middle Eastern people were on screen to be machine-gunned to death by Rambo, and LGBTQ people were depicted as one-dimensional caricatures of comic relief. My childhood insulation from the wider world, from the diversity of people, feelings, and ideas that make it up, is something I will spend the rest of my life struggling with and rebelling against.

After a few of these interactions with Trump supporters, I realized I was losing my ability to do my job well. I wasn’t listening anymore; I was reacting. Once I started listening to them and what they needed to say, they became less argumentative to my views when I shared them. By being vulnerable and checking my moral outrage, I was able to hear someone else. It won’t always be a voice I want in my head and it won’t always be easy to let it go. But that’s exactly why these sorts of conversations are important. Unlike the consequence-free, one-dimensional interactions on social media, talking to someone face-to-face inspires immediate results and the opportunity for empathy. Hearing another person’s voice, watching their pantomime, it changes the way I think and feel. It adds a desperately needed polyphony to my inner monologue.

Over the last month and a half, I’ve made it a point to try and stop entering my own self-designed, internet-bound echo chamber. I don’t want to be comfortable in the sameness of it. I want to be uncomfortable with everybody else. I know that by simply putting down my phone and talking to people that I would usually hate online won’t rescue Obamacare or reverse global warming, but it’s a necessary start to promote a safe and friendly environment for the people who enter the bar.

Every shift that I work I feels a little more hopeful. My regulars are still staring down at their phones, but at least they’ve started to smile a little as they do it. I am open about my own limitations as a person and barman. I feel lucky to work in this industry, to be a minor character in the stories of so many people’s lives. I am going to keep talking about these things, to real, live human beings. I will risk the vulnerability. A bartender creates and sustains a community. If I can conduct myself with empathy toward those I serve, perhaps some will accept it and take it out into the world with them. I believe there is hope and safety in this cold and often terrible world, and some of it just might reside at your corner bar.

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