If you've ever worked in the service industry
, specifically in a hotel or restaurant, you will empathize with my hatred of national holidays
. The hotel never closes so duty demands that I hold down the floor whether anybody is feeding the tip jar
or not. Normal people with real jobs look forward to holidays as paid vacations but for my kind they are a lonely, penniless purgatory
Quasi-religious holidays are the worst because they hang around longer and come with their own baggage. Easter sucks because business travelers add a Thursday to Good Friday and usually bug out by Wednesday. Easter Monday sits too close to Sunday so it's shot to Hell as well.
The only lingering grudge I hold against Abraham Lincoln is for his Thanksgiving Proclamation, setting aside the last Thursday of November as a national holiday. That sucker's worse than Easter because Thursday's so close to the middle of the week that it throws a pall in both directions. As far as the hotel bartender is concerned you might just as well tear the whole week off of the calendar. I love the Great Emancipator more than most but I'll never forgive the inconsiderate ape for not commanding us to be thankful on a Saturday.
None of these minor horrors can compare with the Christmas/New Year's drought. Normal people quit showing up at the bar about halfway through December and I generally don't see them again until the second week of January. To worsen my woe, some genius attached increased financial obligation to this holiday so I bleed at thrice the normal rate while my income all but vanishes.
New Year's Eve is amateur night and it's probably just as well that I avoid the fray. I'm sure plenty of bartenders make hay but nobody in his right mind rings in the new year in a boring hotel lounge. The slow bleed that starts around mid-November runs right through the Stupid Bowl near the end of January and I'm never flush again until Valentine's day.
"Happy Fu**in' New Year to you too."
By the time Christmas Eve
rolled around, boredom and poverty had pummeled me into whimpering submission. I brought only the heaviest tunes to work that night and resigned myself to dwelling on dark matters with Leonard Cohen
in the empty tavern. I planned to watch for the taillights of my boss' car in the parking lot. I’d close the lemonade stand the minute the coast was clear.
"Why the Hell are we open on Christmas Eve anyway? It's a major religious holiday, for chrissake!"
The boss was perky and salaried and smug.
"Well, the hotel's at twelve percent occupancy and we can't very well slam the door in their faces, now can we?"
He always asked rhetorical questions that only fueled my feelings of uselessness. The manager gets paid the same amount whether there are victims in the bar or not so it's easy enough for him to be full of the holiday spirit.
"Now put on a happy face, you don't want the customers to think you're a Scrooge do you?"
I looked around the vacant scene to emphasize the fact that there weren't any live ones around to see me scowl and I was about to say "Bah Humbug," when a lone hotel guest approached the bar.
The boss puffed out his chest and gave me an "I told you so" wink, as he made a beeline for his car. On his way out the door he thumped the somber customer with his cheeriest non-sectarian assault.
Aw Christ, I thought, it was nearly ten o'clock and I had hoped to be closed by eleven. This cat was gonna get the cold-shoulder no matter what. There wasn't gonna be any food service and the God damned blender was broken if he was looking for a strawberry Margarita. If he starts chatting me up, even a little bit, I'm turning the lights up to 7-Eleven intensity and killing the tunes completely.
I growled my own greeting as Leonard Cohen groaned in the background.
"What'll ya have, bub?"
There's only one thing worse for a bartender than an empty room and that's one that's nearly empty. If the joint is completely dead I can plop down on the couch in front of the idiot box
, or crank the tunes and pretend I'm not at work. If there's even a single live one I have to stay on my toes
This guy sounded like double trouble because he told me that he was meeting a colleague who would be arriving on a later flight. In addition he explained that he didn't go to bars very often, which made him an amateur, the very bane of my existence. Novices always order stupid drinks and lean on the barman for direction and small talk and I wasn't in any mood for a high maintenance relationship.
"I'm not much of a drinker and I rarely go to bars but I've had a rare day."
"Yeah, you and me both. What'll ya have?"
"I heard that Absolut Vodka is kosher so I better stick with that...no ice please. Is that Leonard Cohen singing on the jukebox? I believe that's the first time I've heard him played in public."
This guy might not be as bad as I thought. Only one in ten thousand digs Leonard Cohen and he ordered spendy liquor in an empty glass like an old pro. His use of the word kosher hinted that he probably wouldn't burden me with a lot of Christmas cheer.
"Kosher? Is that a figure of speech?"
"No, no, I'm an Orthodox Jew...A guy on the plane told me that Scandinavian vodka is kosher and I'm taking him at his word...My name's Moshe, what's yours?"
"Jon's my name." No time to chat, pal. "Six bucks for the firewater, kemosabe."
"You may as well run a tab for me, my colleague won't be in for an hour or more and he'll want something when he gets here."
I started closing the bar around him and blunted Moshe's every effort at conversation with stern silence or a curt "yep" or "nope."
"Have you been a bartender long?"
"Will you take time off for the holidays?"
For a guy who didn't frequent bars Moshe was making quick work of the booze. I replenished his glass three times in the first fifteen minutes and he ordered the fourth without slurring. I began to worry less about falling into the morass of useless conversation and more about the other curse of the novice drinker, public puking.
"Hey, you might wanna go easy on that stuff, Moshe. It might be kosher but it hits your stomach like turpentine just the same."
"I'll be ok, Jon. I've drank enough to know that I'm a sleepy drunk, not a sloppy one."
"Suit yourself amigo, they're your intestines."
He knocked back the fourth Absolut in one swallow and handed me the empty glass before I had set down the bottle from pouring the third. He sounded as sober as Moses when he spoke and removed any lingering fear of small talk.
"Do you ever think about death?"
Asking a bartender in an empty bar if he ever thinks about death is like inquiring whether or not fish can screw underwater. It's sort of their job. Contemplation of the abyss
, while in the abyss is a tautology
and when Leonard Cohen is moaning
out "Tower of Song
" in the background, it's just a stupid question.
Moshe began staring off into space in such a way that I presumed it was rhetorical. It was just as well that I didn't start ranting on the subject because he was willing to carry the conversational burden solo.
"I study Buddhism and find it interesting that death is so closely attached to rebirth that the two are inseparable."
"Umm, I don't want to split hairs here, but I thought you said you were an Orthodox Jew."
"Oh, I'm observant. I have to travel with a suitcase full of kosher food because I'm not allowed to eat in most restaurants but Buddhist thought isn't prohibited. My copy of the Gita was a gift from my Rabbi and we discuss it often. Buddhism is a discipline, not a theology."
"Well, all I know is what I read in the papers but it seems to me that old Yahweh might have a problem with the whole reincarnation theme."
"You might be right but the Rabbi seems to think it's harmless enough if we steer clear of idolatry. The discipline parallels Judaism in remarkable ways."
"I'll have to take your word for it, Moshe. I don't worship anybody."
"You would make a good Buddhist. The master says that if you meet the Buddha on the road you should kill him as a false prophet. Each man must be his own Buddha so any who claim to be yours are lying."
Moshe seemed to have a superhuman immunity to the joy juice and he went on and on about Nirvana and Holy Epiphany, about Heaven and Hell. His perspective was foreign to me, and compelling. Here I was spending Christmas Eve with my first Orthodox Jewish Buddhist Leonard Cohen fan and I had forgotten all about giving him the bum's rush. He seemed to share my pathos in spite of the comfort he found in his faith and I was just growing fond of him when the liquor started to hit.
He began to falter after his seventh drink and his oratory deteriorated to short, definitive bursts.
"God must love Buddhists."
He sounded more like the novice drinker and less like a serious theologian when the hiccups kicked in.
"The Buddha...hic...must love God...hic..."
Then the light left his eyes as if someone had thrown a switch. The last of his "Johnny Walker wisdom" escaped in a drunken slur just before he passed out.
"There can be...hic...more than one right...hic...path..."
It was nearly closing time when Moshe's colleague arrived at the hotel. I had cleaned up around my sleeping patron and was turning up the lights when the man walked into the bar. He motioned toward the snoring heap next to him and spoke in a hushed tone.
"How long has he been that way?"
"Oh, not long, I'm in his debt really, for keeping me company on a dead night. You must be Moshe's colleague."
"His boss. I'll have what he's having."
"He didn't tell me he was meeting his boss or I'd have kept him sober. I hope you don't think worse of Moshe for getting shitfaced, it's mostly my fault for chatting him up. Moshe's a thoughtful cat and you're lucky to have him. He told me that he seldom goes to bars."
"Seldom? Moshe's never been in a bar in his life. He's an Orthodox Jew and a teetotaler as far as I know."
"He said that he had a rare day."
Moshe's boss threw back his glass of vodka in one gulp and signed the tab, doubling the amount with my gratuity. He moved to help his blissfully hammered employee to bed and answered me over his shoulder as they wobbled toward the door.
"You only lose your father once so it was a rare day for him."
He paused at the door, balancing his drunken employee on rubbery legs, and almost whispered his politically incorrect farewell.