On New Year’s Eve when I was 21, I was tending bar at a place that served spaghetti on Tuesday nights, which were also senior nights.
On senior nights, I poured at least 50 glasses of cranberry juice mixed with orange juice. They couldn’t get enough of the stuff.
Thursday nights were karaoke. Saturday nights, we’d have live music. It was just a band playing cover songs. Monday nights were for football, and they were slow.
There was only one beer on draft: Bud Light.
I was living with my parents.
I had decided the year before that bartending was a much more glamorous and lucrative job to have as I slowly slogged through college. I had worked at Sears, at a carwash and several restaurants. A ski shop I worked at every winter couldn’t pay me enough.
This bar gave me my shot. I never met the owner. I would only talk to her on the phone. They liked me right away because I didn’t drink the alcohol (unless someone bought me a shot, which happened often) and I didn’t steal money.
It didn’t take long for me to realize bartending wasn’t very glamorous. I had traveled a little and seen real poverty, but here I had a front-row seat for a parade of the saddest conditions of my own country: poverty, disease, addiction, failure, depression, domestic violence and neglected families. The joint had it all.
The place was thick with cigarette smoke. It didn’t help that I smoked too. I get nauseous just remembering it.
The bar was a theater of drama, lust, violence and rivalries.
Once, I had to call the cops. An intra-family brawl had broken out. Step-father, adult son, mother, brother, girlfriend. It was a mess. In the frenzy, I locked a door. One of the guys ripped it from its frame.
That night, I couldn’t lock up the bar because the door literally would not close.
I thought it was the right decision to call the police but the family taunted me about it for weeks.
It wasn’t all bad. Some customers turned out to be friends – even mentors in a way. I can still hear some of their jokes. I used to share my essays for school with them. It took me years to realize their wisdom deserved some skepticism.
I met some women there, too. I dated one for a few weeks who was named after a dinosaur. She’d tell people her name and, every time, they’d say “Like the dinosaur?” and she’d say, “Yep, like the dinosaur.”
She had a child and lived with her mother.
With a group of older guys I’d play a type of poker using the serial numbers on dollar bills.
The cook was an energetic but rail-thin mother of two who made me laugh constantly. She tried to teach me to shoot pool well. But before she made much progress on that, she disappeared. Weeks later she sent me a card apologizing for not saying goodbye. She had to flee a violent boyfriend and she wouldn’t tell me where she was.
I had to learn how to fry jalapeño poppers to help cover for her for a couple weeks until we hired a replacement.
I bet a guy that the Broncos would beat the Packers in the 1998 Super Bowl. He said it was impossible. But they did. I found out later he had lost thousands in other bets on the game. He never talked to me again.
On New Year’s Eve, though, I was excited. I don’t remember what cheap food we served but I put on a bowtie and had a blast. I made what seemed like a fortune that night. At home, I would roll up the cash and stuff it into a globe. I had travel plans.
The next day, New Year’s Day, the owner called me. She wanted to thank me. She said she heard I had put on a great show and wore a bowtie.
She said I was doing great. But she asked me what my plans were.
Then she started crying. She told me I should get out of there. Soon. She said she’d seen the place ruin too many lives.
I told her she didn’t have to worry about me.
She didn’t. I didn’t know what I was doing but I knew that every year I would take a step to be better.
I soon took her advice, though, and quit, moving on to a better bar. By that summer, thanks to my collection of tips, a nasty car accident and resulting insurance payout, a supportive public university and some great parents, I flew away to Spain.
Every year since then I have taken steps to be better. I pulled away from that life and that bar slowly and deliberately like a ship leaving the dock behind.
I never tended bar again. But this week, I have been thinking about that place and that call on New Year’s Day from its owner.
I’m still not so sure I needed someone to remind me that if I stopped swimming, I might drown. I’ve always felt a drive, an angst and worry. It’s made me always change, always want to keep improving.
Recently, though, something else has been happening.
Perhaps it has come from having kids and a mortgage. Maybe I feel more vulnerable. But I feel it. Like small tremors. They are these urges to want to protect what I’ve gathered. They are flashes of desire to be (gasp!) conservative.
I can’t have that. It’s not me.
So this year I’m resolving to take more risks. I resolve to resist the urge to let it all plateau – to cruise. I want to keep building, keep dreaming and keep dancing with failure.
I have to.
At work, more donors, readers, sponsors and people than ever are investing in our service. They all say the same thing: Do more, be better, keep going.
There’s a big need for storytelling across our region, and our nation. I’m honored when people in other parts of the country ask for advice. I feel like I have to make opportunities where I can.
At home, I’m also very fortunate.
All the volunteers we have, all the employees we have, all the investors we have, all of my comfort makes me feel obligated to deliver more and better results. This year we’ll work to do more, add capacity and reach for more important stories and investigations.
I went back to that bar, years later. It had closed but I parked in the back like I used to and the door was open. Inside, it was torn apart. But the vinyl seating in the booths still had its duct tape. The dart board was still on the wall, as were many of the neon signs.
The place was dead but not yet buried. In my mind, it will always remind me that so many people are falling, fighting and struggling. And smoking.
Whether it is their own fault or not, it doesn’t matter.
It scares me. It motivates me. I simultaneously want to both fix it and flee from it.
The best I can do is to resolve to take risks. It’s how progress happens. If you think about it, it’s how the economy runs. We need families to take risks, to invest in themselves. We need businesses to invest in employees and governments to try new things to support kids and infrastructure.
We can’t let the fear of going backward keep us from going forward.
So this New Year’s, I’m going to stay home.
I need to rest. By Thursday, I’m going to start swimming again. I’ll need my energy.