A Bartender’s Work

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On Sunday mornings, at twenty past eight, I walk to work in the dark. My good black boots with the pointed toes squeak on the hard-packed snow like pieces of styrofoam rubbed together. Outside of the bar I might pick up a few empty cigarette packages from the ground, sometimes a crushed beer can, evidence of the night before. I go inside and knock on the tavern door. The night cleaner lets me in. We chat about his evening, then he disappears to sleep. I take off my coat, turn up the lights. I count my float, take inventory of the cigarettes and the beer, wine and hard liquor we sell for offsales. I line the bottles up on the bar, the Christmas lights causing the amber coloured whiskey to glow. I load the hot dog machine, unlock the coolers, brew a pot of coffee, turn on the classic rock radio station. 9 a.m. I open the blinds, unlock the door.

Some mornings there is a rush of last night’s revelers: they belly up to the bar, order beer or coffee and Baileys. Their stories tumble out amid laughter, their eyes darting beneath heavy lids. They spend a few hours with me as they come down. Soon the stories slow, the eyes grow heavier. They wander home to bed or grab a half-sack of beer and head out to see if the party is still going.

Some mornings, for the first hour I sell only offsales. These folks move more slowly. Shaking hands pull out of coat pockets in a spill of crumpled bills and coin. I help them count out what they need, then pass the bottle across the bar to be tucked carefully inside their coats. Often I’ll see them again in the early afternoon.

There are quiet mornings when I get to chat with one or two people over coffee. Together we watch the light fill the sky, the details of the world coming into focus through the big windows in the front of the bar. We talk about the weather, or someone’s upcoming trip to Whitehorse, my kids or their grandkids. Rarely the talk forays into politics: it’s dangerous ground that we all generally try to avoid.

Always, they bring me their stories: of addiction, failed marriages, suicide, and very rarely, residential school. Stories of the old days. Of bush life, of hand-mining and shaft digging. They brag of being the best CAT operator in the territory, the best barmaid of their day. They share with me their journeys, both outside the territory, and in. Stories of last night’s party, last week’s canoe trip, Passions, heartbreak, dreams realized or not, birth, disease and death. We make our money on liquor sales but we trade in stories and I try my best to hold space for each one. To let each person tell their story as it needs to be told, whether it’s full of careful omission or gross embellishment. They all want to be heard, and that is the true work of the bartender.

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Seeing Someone

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I’ve been seeing someone in the bar where I work. He’s a big guy, broad shouldered; he wears a dull yellow jacket. Out of the corner of my eye, in the mirrors behind the bar, I see him step up as if to order a drink. When I turn, he’s gone.

I’ve seen “shadows” in the hotel before, once heard a woman in heels walk across the empty room, but I’ve never experienced something quite like this. It’s not so much seeing a solid figure as it is the impression of him. It’s like a knowing that’s been creeping up on me over the last two weeks. At first, it was just thinking I saw something–closer to the “shadows” I’ve seen in the past. It was easy to write it off as my eyes playing tricks in the low bar light, maybe a reflection in my glasses. But it continued to happen, and each time it seemed like he took shape not so much before my eyes, but in my mind. The fact that it was a he. The broad shoulders. Finally, the colour of his jacket. Stepping up to the bar, forever, to order a drink. I think it would be whiskey, neat. But then, that might be my imagination taking over.

I’m not the first to see a ghost there, nor will I be the last. Parts of The Westminster Hotel have been standing since the early 1900’s. When I swipe a cloth over the worn mahogany bar top, I can’t help but think of all the elbows that have been folded there, of fingers drumming impatiently, of palms slapped down in emphasis. Of all the stories that have been traded over that bar like currency. Of love lost and found, lives mourned, long, dark winters passed in shivering commiseration.

I don’t believe in ghosts, at least not in the sense that a dead person’s spirit haunts a place. But I do believe that all the energy we put out has to go somewhere. I think it hangs around, reverberates across decades so that on a cold, quiet January morning I catch a glimpse of a big guy in a dull yellow coat step up to the bar and step up to the bar, his rough hands opening in a gesture for a glass he never gets. It might just be a glitch, like a tape skipping: he’ll loop through the bar for a few weeks and then the tape will roll smooth. I’ll never see him again. His silence will make way for other echoes. If you listen closely, you may just hear them.