1001: To the bartender who tends to more than just the bar

20231117 SD

1001: To the bartender who tends to more than just the bar


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

Back in graduate school, back in the day when creative writing workshops felt like gladiator battles, Matthew, McGriff, Michael, Carl, Sarah, and I all met to play pool at the Southtowne Pub. It seemed back then MFA students sought to politely maul whoever dared to present a less than stellar poem that failed, as Emily Dickinson phrased it, to take the top of our heads off.

One of those days, my poem had been torched and obliterated. At the pub, my friends and I leaned over the table’s green felt beneath the pendant cone light and knocked billiard balls into pocket holes. Each sunk ball wore away my gloominess. In between rounds, we talked trash and debated great poems.

All the while, the bartender, an older gentleman, curated our evening of friendship. With a dignified air, almost ethereally, he delivered beers. Occasionally, he’d quote a few lines of Keats then return behind the bar. It being midweek, the pub had long emptied. When the topic of jazz arose, he cued up a set of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, just for us! We joked and played until daylight, caught in the reverie of each other’s company.

Today’s poem celebrates one of the quiet purveyors of our sometimes much-needed fun, the bartender who knows our name, who listens to our lives, and brings more than just a smile to our day.

To the bartender who tends to more than just the bar
by Annie Marhefka

	     For Jenn

You think no one notices the way you remember
everyone’s orders, the Corona (no lime) for the guy with
the Zeppelin shirt, the sweet tea vodka iced tea blend
with extra fruit for the girl with the blue earrings, the
cheap wine in the plastic bottles for the woman in the
corner. You think we don’t see the way your silhouette 
dips behind the bar, that your voice is drowned out by
the clinking of the bottles and the creaks of the barstools
sliding on old hardwood slats, and the locals trilling
along to Up on Cripple Creek.

You think we don’t notice the way you tend to our
secrets, when I told you I was pregnant before I told my
friends, the way you winked and concocted a drink that
looked exactly like my regular drink but wasn’t, for all 
those weeks. The way you hugged me when no one was 
looking, the way you whispered to me that I would be a
great mom, as if you had sensed my uncertainty.

The way you tend to the band, too, clearing empty
glasses from the ledge near their mic stands, refilling
their water glasses, reminding the patrons between sets
to tip the musicians.

The way you tend to your fellow bartenders, a gentle
hand on the lower back as you scoot behind to clean up a
spill, the way you restock the cooler before it’s empty,
the way you smile.

The way it doesn’t even feel like we’re in a bar, more
like someone’s living room, like there should be a
recliner in the corner and a colorful macrame rug at our
feet. The way you make us forget what we’re escaping from. 

"To the bartender who tends to more than just the bar" by Annie Marhefka. Originally published in Door is a Jar. Used by permission of the poet.