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5 Things I Learned from Working at a Dive Bar
Tiffy Thompson: "You must master selective deafness."

I’ve worked in a series of skeezy dive bars. Constant association with the dregs of humanity most definitely caused me to be spiritually drained and emotionally unwell. But money talks, and I preferred working in bars to the Fordian cesspool of the Call Center.

For the most part, working in a Dive Bar is easy enough and will introduce you to colourful and entertaining characters. As with any job, there are aspects that have the capacity to ruin your life. I learned a few things that helped me cope.


1)   You must master selective deafness …

You will hear the same divorce sob stories repeatedly. You will learn their jokes by heart: Guy goes to a costume party with a naked girl on his back. Everyone says; “Where’s your costume?” He goes: “I’m a snail. And this is Michelle!”  These mantras will be told and forgotten and re-told until you’re mouthing the punchlines to try and expedite the process. You must learn to tune out the inchoate babbling. You can practice by subjecting yourself to entire episodes of Full House, taking care not to let any of it into your precious brain. Think beyond Stephanie Tanner to a higher plane.

2)   …While creating the appearance of ‘caring’

It’s important to check out mentally when dealing with certain customers. But you must appear attentive and interested if you want tips. Cock your head slightly to the side and nod – slowly and somberly. Say “Is that right,” and “Mmm hmm” with grave compassion as they thoughtfully outline what a bitch their ex is. Compliment their new truck decal. Titter at appropriate points during their fishing stories. Keep this up until one of their associates show up. Sic them on each other. Their mutual bitching will (hopefully) cause them both to implode. Encourage them to go for multiple cigarette breaks.

3)   Get off your High Horse

Few things are more demoralizing than scraping other people’s gum from the underside of a table into a bucket. But those things are typically better compensated – especially if they’re filmed for the Internet.  I once naively thought my fancy education would alleviate my need to seek employment in a dive bar. On the contrary, basic economics have dictated that I work in some of the stupidest places on earth. Breathe in, breathe out, and know you aren’t above anything. Learn to accept your permanent odor of Buffalo wing grease. Feel your ego die a little more with each trip to slop out the urinal.

4)   Nascar über alles

At one place I worked, the bartenders were tasked with monitoring and tallying the NASCAR pool. A margarine container of dirty beer caps were labeled with numbers corresponding with the different Nascar drivers. We would have to draw out the caps and keep track of everyone’s winnings. This also meant you were subjected to the delightful strains of stock car racing every Sunday. Each customer had some arcane method for how you were supposed to pull the numbers out, turning the whole thing into this elaborate ritual. If you screwed up in any way you would have to re-do the draw and recording of their names, or you would be accused of ‘losing the race’ for them. Primitive superstition is alive and well and lives through Nascar. Learn each person’s system quickly and don’t deviate from it. Or you will incur a wrath tantamount to that of an angry Hebraic god.

5)   Know when to fold ‘em

Know the signs of when to GTFO. These include: weight gain/loss, needing to be drunk (from the beginning of your shift), re-telling terrible jokes at parties  because you have nothing to talk about anymore, and a creeping hatred of humanity in general. Time to cash in those chips and make way for greener pastures. Like retail.


Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator for the Toronto Standard.  Follow her on Twitter at @tiffyjthompson. 

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