Do Bartenders Actually Make Good Therapists?
I have a question. It’s about my mother. She has a new boyfriend, who has a new house, and she wants to host Thanksgiving dinner at his place. I am opposed to this because, 1) If there is one thing I look forward to every year, it’s napping in front of a fire on Thanksgiving at one of the homes I grew up in, and 2) I don’t want my father to have to endure the strangeness of eating a holiday meal in the home of the boyfriend of the mother of his children.
I want to ask advice from someone who has no vested interest in anyone -- not even me. Which sounds like a job for a therapist. The problem is, seeing a therapist costs too much. Typical rates where I live range from $75 to $200 for an hour. Even then, that's only if they’re accepting new patients and your insurance. Not that I’m dismissing therapy. I’ve done it before -- about five years ago, in college -- but the situation was much more dire. Sessions started a day after I called a suicide hotline with my mother sitting next to me on my bed. It worked, and it was worth it. But since my current problem doesn’t quite seem to rise to that level of urgency, I figure, why not go out and seek the far cheaper wisdom of one of the two other kinds of professional stranger?
Just kidding. A bartender -- the storied therapist to the common man, at least before so many became mixologists and started spending all their time discussing juniper varietals instead of talking patrons off of emotional ledges.
And so I walk into a dark, musky bar, lit with neon and red lightbulbs, away from my neighborhood. It’s a little busy, which makes me nervous. But I settle into an open seat at the far end. Before I can even put my bag down, a bartender materializes in front of me.
“What do you want?”
Thrift being a key part of my mission, I order the cheapest beer in the place: High Life. She gets it so quickly that my anxiety doesn’t catch up with me, and I suddenly say, “Hey, do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“I guess so.”
“It’s going to be a weird question.”
“Well, that already was a question.”
I smile. “OK, but I just...” I realize I need to convince her I’m worth her time. “Look, it’s just been rattling around in my head all day,” I say. “And I’m just looking for someone I don’t know -- someone who doesn’t care about me -- to give me some advice.”
A coworker interrupts to say goodbye to her. I attempt to steady myself with a slug of the High Life. It tastes like all my college regrets.
“OK,” she says when done. “Fine.”
I quickly run through the Thanksgiving quandary, and end with: “Will I be a bad son if I tell her I don’t want to go?”
She looks at me hard, not exactly with sympathy. “I think you can tell her without being a bad son,” she says. I exhale. “I don’t think it will change her mind. I also feel like you’d be a better son if you sucked it up and were happy for her.”
This makes me -- well, it makes me thankful, to be honest. I’d posed this question to my friends over the previous weekend. Each one said that I should stand up to my mom and tell her I didn’t want to go. But they all cared about my interests, my feelings. Which is nice. But it colors their advice. A bartender isn’t handcuffed like that.
“I guess I’m concerned about my dad, too, though,” I say. "It’ll be the first time he’s forced into this awkward situation on a holiday.”
Again, her answer is unvarnished. “Well, have you talked with him?” I tell her I haven’t. “I think you should talk to him. If he’s OK with it, then you definitely should be.”
I can tell she needs to actually work now, particularly for people drinking more expensive drinks. I sit, and think. I finish my beer and walk out. I try calling my dad. He doesn’t pick up. But on my way home, a little cold, a little early in the night, I start to wonder, Wait, can I keep doing this? I have more questions after all, more issues. What if I keep going? What if I embark on a full-blown therapy bar crawl?
Is this still a thing?
As it turns out, it’s not uncommon for a bartender to offer life advice, even today in the age of therapy and house-made bitters. Every bartender I survey in the week that follows tells me the tradition is still alive and well.
Often, they say, sessions happen toward the middle of the day or on quiet nights (Sundays for some; Mondays in particular). They don’t mind, as long as they’re not too busy. One veteran bartender says that he’s heard “things people wouldn’t tell their families, priests, or therapists about.” He likens the physical wood of the bar to the partition in a confessional. Another longtime pro offers a theory for why the tradition lives on: “A bartender doesn’t have a vested interest in having you keep coming back and back like a therapist does,” he says. “A bartender won’t give you bullshit. They won’t dig all the demons out either, but they’ll get you through the day or night, and that’s often all people need.”
It’s certainly what I need
So I find another bar and walk in. There is another seat at the far end, and I post up, though unlike last time, there are no buffer chairs between me and the next guy. Again, before I’ve even looked at the offerings, the bartender is ready. I scramble to order (this time, an IPA -- cheapness be damned, at least for now). When he comes back, I again force myself to pop the question quickly in order to preempt my anxiety.
“Hey, can I ask you a weird question? Do you have time?”
“Not really,” he says. He has almost shoulder-length white hair, but is well built. He seems young. “But if I get some time, I can come back to you.”
“That’d be great.”
He walks away. I look down. He’s already back.
“Is it an involved question?”
“Well, I’m looking to ask a stranger for some advice.”
He stops. “Sure! What do you need?”
“Have you ever fallen for a friend of yours a little too hard?”
“More times than I care to remember.”
“How did you get past it?”
“Well, I got drunk and said really mean things to them,” he says.
A blonde woman in a black beanie comes over with a guy in a leather jacket. The bartender exclaims, “Let’s seek the advice of the opposite gender!” Somehow this doesn’t make me turn to ash. She smiles. “He’s fallen for a friend of his and asked me what I do to get past that,” the bartender says. “I told him I get drunk and say mean things.”
“Ah,” she says. “The old push-them-on-the-playground technique. Don’t do that. But, you know, everybody says that once you’re in the ‘friend zone,’ it’s over -- but I don’t think that’s actually true. I think you should be honest.”
The guy in the leather jacket says something, but all I catch are the last three words: “Whip it out.” I take those words literally, and ask my council if I should follow his advice. Apparently, though, he had said “metaphorically” beforehand. We’re all laughing now. It’s been maybe three minutes.
The woman asks, “But are you honest with one another, you and your friend?”
“We are -- but not about, well, us,” I tell her. “Or at least I haven’t been."
“What’s the point?” she says. “What’s the point -- of life -- if you aren’t honest? So be honest.” Leather jacket agrees.
The bartender returns. “Have you figured this out yet?”
The woman replies, “Don’t listen to his advice. If you listen to his advice, you’re going to jump off a bridge.”
“That was going to be my first suggestion!” he says.
I resolve to do it -- to be honest, that is. Not the bridge idea. (I’m more of a drive-a-car-into-a-wall sort of guy.) The woman, leather jacket, and I all high-five.
When they leave, I turn to the guy next to me, who is older, balding, and has been chuckling along. “So, what do you think? Have you ever fallen for a friend before?” I ask. He takes a deep breath, turns to the bartender, and orders another.
Then he says one word: “College.”
“Who was she?”
“Um.” He lets out one “Ha!” like a bottle rocket. “She was my best friend, who I ended up having an amazing sexual relationship with… which also included one of her best girlfriends. So that actually worked out.”
“Do you remember what you said to her, though?”
“I just said to her, 'Let’s do this.'”
The man becomes my hero. Suddenly, I find myself in a half-hour conversation with him. He’s been happily married now for a couple decades (different girl). He tells me he went to drug rehab well into middle age -- something, he says, he barely tells anyone. The sudden closeness is mesmerizing. But I have more appointments tonight. I finish my beer, thank him, and go.
Time to get strange
Upon entering this dimly lit space with old chandeliers, I decide I should test the limits of this thing and ask something weird. There are four seats open in the center of the bar. I sit right down, and as soon as the bartender appears -- an older, graceful, slightly bookish man -- I get into my routine: order a beer, put down cash when he hands it to me, and tell him that I have a weird question that I could use a stranger’s opinion on. He seems dubious, but I ask anyway.
And my question is this: “Do you ever, when you’re sad, get this sensation that you just want to slice a hole across your abdomen to let that weight at the pit of your stomach just sort of ooze -- ”
“It’s medieval,” he says before I can finish what I always considered a thought unique to me. “It’s the thinking that if you get the blood out, you’ll get all the other stuff out.”
I’m stunned. I stammer, “How did you know that?” He just shrugs, and walks away. I want to ask him more. But now he seems to avoid eye contact, even when he’s right in front of me and I’ve downed my glass, which I know he’s noticed. I figure he’s avoiding me, so I force in an order, and as he passes me a fresh beer, I say to him, “Have you ever felt like --”
To my surprise, he places a piece of paper on the bar. He’s written on it: “The Humours.”
“Have you heard of those?” he says. “Before people had bodily surgery and all that stuff, we looked at the anatomy and thought certain parts of it contained love -- the heart -- and others were bilious and contained anger. Another was melancholy. So there were emotional attributes to various parts of the body.”
“If you don’t mind me asking: have you ever felt like that way? That stomach thing?”
“No, not me, no.”
“Have you felt anything even remotely similar?”
“Working on it. Working on it. I had a little thing over the weekend -- if you let yourself get into it you get” -- he slouches. “No value in it,” he says. “None.” He begins moving around again.
As he walks past me, I ask: “When did you learn that?”
“When I stopped drinking,” he says. “You learn a lot when you’re trying to heal the damage from that. The humours stuff, though, I learned in college.”
He walks away again. The place has become packed. I tell him I’m going to go. “Thank you for humouring me,” I say. He grins.
Interlude one: Dad
As I walk to the last bar, my dad calls me back. We talk about Thanksgiving. My mother hadn’t told him yet, so we talk it through. It is the most honest and open conversation I’ve had with him in a while. It may be because I had been drinking. But more than that, it feels like revealing myself to strangers had cleared away all the worries that were suffocating my desire to be heard. At the end, he tells me -- happily -- that he really appreciated the open conversation. “Always,” I told him.
Time to get embarrassing
At what I decide would be my final bar -- a long, narrow one with a mirror running the length of the bar -- there’s only one seat open. I have saved my most embarrassing question for last. I order a Jameson on the rocks. And as soon as I ask if I can get some advice, the bartender -- a tall man with a silver military cut -- looks at me hard and says sure.
“OK. Well, uh -- so, do you think it’s psychologically healthy to keep on jerking off to old photos of an ex-girlfriend?”
He speaks slowly, “Whatever anyone does. In their own fantasy world. Is. Fine.”
“Look, if it makes you feel better, it’s probably healthy.”
I’d like to note something here. This was not the first time I’ve asked someone this question. The other time was in a therapist’s office. It was several sessions after the suicide hotline -- the seed of which, maybe to no surprise, was being dumped by my first love. He said, almost to the word, the same thing.
In the days that follow, the thrill of the therapy crawl -- of meeting new people, of releasing questions that had swollen in me for weeks or years without the worry of seeing the person again -- stays with me. But I start to wonder if there’s a way to get even more out of it. These were just stray questions I was asking, after all. Could I get a full hour-long session? Could I open up for that long with a single bartender? May as well try.
So I set out on a Sunday afternoon in another neighborhood I don’t know. I pass bars with football playing, a bar that serves a curated meat selection and has metal blasting too loud to talk, a bar with a lone guy too obviously checking out the bartender’s ass, a bar with a damn exclamation point in its name. No luck. Forty-five minutes pass. Finding the right therapist can be tough.
Interlude two: The Pole
I spot a place that seems perfect. Dark, divey, empty. I take a seat, and the bartender, who is about my mother’s age (bonus!) comes over to take my order. I get a beer and sip it for a little while. Then I get to work. “Hey,” I say, “do you mind if I ask you a question?”
I look at her eyes, ready to unload. I see nothing there, maybe a glint of -- is that fear? I continue, stumbling, “Can I ask you for some advice, for something I need some help thinking through?” She finally speaks, with a thick accent: “What is advice?” I notice two Polish flags hanging behind her. Shit. I tell her never mind. I drink half my mug and hurry out.
Hitting the mother lode
I walk around for another hour, trying and failing to find the perfect place. But just as I’m about to call it a day, I look into a bar and make eye contact with a man inside. The glare is so strong I can barely see him, but he nods and waves me in to what I realize is a completely empty bar. Ah-ha.
The walls are very white. The bar is not wood. It does not smell at all like stale mop water. It seems -- well, like halfway between a bar and a therapist’s office. I sit down. And the bartender -- a little older than me -- bright-faced with short, dark hair -- asks me what I’d like. I order an IPA. He gets it for me quickly. I think to myself, He could be my therapist.
I start to talk. But before I can ask how his day was (in hopes that he will ask me about mine), an older gentlemen walks in, and the bartender says, “I’m actually off the clock.” I give him a look of profound disappointment not at all commensurate with the news he’s just given me. A look that may have revealed my inner thinking: But I’ve walked so far during football hours to find you. He continues, gesturing over at the older guy who is now taking off his jacket, “I was just waiting for this guy to show up. Mark is the man. He knows everything.”
A man who knows everything -- even better.
Soon, Mark stops over, says “How’s it going?” and immediately turns to the cash register. Then he goes to the back someplace for 10 minutes. Since I didn’t need to order, we didn’t need to talk. When he reappears, he tells the waitress he can’t find any limes. This is a first for me, being less important to my therapist than limes. Mark walks past me, and notices my glass is empty. I order a glass of Macallan, thinking if I’m going to suffer through this again, I might as well have something good to drink. He talks to me for a little about how he used to drink Scotch, that it used to be his “fave.” This is also a first for me, a therapist that says “fave.” He gives me a food menu, and walks away, and I realize I’ve been sitting at the bar for a half-hour. I begin to deliberately not use my phone -- in order to show that I am not waiting for anyone, that I am not contented. It works. Mark comes over. “So, how’s your day?”
I take a breath. I need to draw him in. “Not great,” I say. It’s an exaggeration. But to receive therapy from someone not expecting to offer it, you need to give cause immediately.
“Oh? That’s a shame,” Mark says. He narrows his eyes. “Why?”
I start with a broad stroke: “So, well, I have this job. I’m not happy there. I don’t know what to do. Do you think you can give me some advice?”
He brightens. “As a matter of fact, I can,” he says. “I’m a part-time career coach. I give free half-hour consultations.” He reaches in his pocket and gives me his card.
My stomach sinks. Shit. If there is one type of person I cannot possibly put any faith in, it’s a part-time career coach with a business card. I consider downing my Macallan and going home.
Yet, there is something that keeps me there. Mark, partly bald, with thin-rim glasses, doesn’t not look away. He believes. And while I become skeptical when he espouses the importance of LinkedIn, he comes across as honest, not a huckster. And so I go on and tell him about this job I have. I had long dreamed of having this job, but lately my excitement has curdled into resentment and a sort of low-grade despair. And then, for reasons I don’t quite understand, after a good windup, I dig in and ask him the central question that touches on every part of my life: work, women, family, friends. Something I’ve never asked anyone: “Have you ever felt like you were a low priority to almost everyone who is important to you?”
I can tell this surprises him. But I can see it’s struck something. He stays quiet for a while, doesn’t move, keeps his eyes locked on me.
“You know,” he says. “I stopped seeking approval a long time ago.”
Just like that. The statement hits me. It’s so clean and simple, and yet it reframes my concern in a way that suddenly reveals a new way forward. It isn’t draped in any unnecessary nuance. It just captures what I had been helplessly, stupidly grasping for: approval.
This proves a talent of Mark’s. We meander for a while as we talk -- about work, art, women -- but we find our way back to my job dissatisfaction again. I think of my father and my college friends, how impressed they are of what I do. I say to Mark, “I can’t figure out why I’m not proud of where I am.”
“That sounds like someone else’s beliefs,” he says, “from when you were younger.”
Goddamn. Again. He’s right, without saying it. I realize: I don’t want to still hold myself to the standards I had for me when I was in college.
By the time I finally look at my phone I realize we’ve talked for an hour. I’ve had another Macallan, I’ve asked Mark many questions, I’ve learned about his life -- how his interests and third side career, which he does on his own (something I’ve long considered) so neatly overlap with mine -- and he has for me recast two fundamental worries of mine into newly manageable ways.
And I believe him with as much weight as I did with my old therapist -- though not because of any diplomas on the walls, but because he has already lived a life I’d wondered if I could live, and I respect him, and I fear becoming him, and I have faith in him, all at once.
I feel warm, comfortable and happy. I find myself thanking him. When he says, “Talking to someone else about everything can be therapeutic,” I know it’s time to leave. I’ve gotten a full hour. That was my intent. And while I think we could’ve talked for many hours still, that would mean we were becoming friends. While he told me to keep in touch -- and I still have his card -- that’s not what I’m looking for. I still need a stranger.
On my way home, I regret two things. First is not going to the bathroom before I left. The second is that I did not pay him more. With a 10-dollar tip, my total for the hour came to $45. I realize I got off cheap. It was, after all, happy hour.
Afterward: The Bill
Total hours of therapy: 2
Combined bar tab: $75
Prognosis: Not cured, but certainly better
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Mike Farawell is a person living in a major American city. It’s also a pseudonym. While the author doesn’t mind unloading on some strangers, he prefers not to unload on all of them.