The Bartender / The Poet / The Synthesis : An Essay in Crisis

by Darius Stewart

October-December 2015.

[The Bartender]

On the one hand, my job is pretty straightforward: I make drinks on request; I collect payments; I throw tips in a jar.

Q: How much do you make?

A: It depends on the merits of the cocktail; if I make it correctly, it should loosen one’s inhibitions but not topple one’s resolve; it should be pleasant to the palate—even if high in proof, a cocktail should always have a pleasant “mouth feel;” it should be subtly intoxicating as though in the wake of a luminous experience.

Q: Huh?

A: Ok…once, for a guest dining in the lounge with his companion, I made a “perfect” Manhattan [equal parts dry and sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters, Woodford Reserve bourbon served on the rocks with a maraschino cherry to garnish]. After a few sips, he made eye contact with me, lifted his glass to me: cheers! Before he left, he approached me at the bar, firmly shook my hand as he placed five dollars in my palm.

Q: So…?

A: I have bar guests who tip me…but when I have guests dining at tables (randomly) tipping

Q: You’re making money?

A: I’m making money.

On the other hand, lately, business has been sluggish; feels like all I do is slum it popping beer bottle caps on the floor, perusing recipes on Pinterest, stalking the restaurant like a transient wandering downtown with his brother, can you spare a dime? face because I’m trying to locate a co-worker when the restaurant is sounding cricket cricket… blowing tumbleweed tumbleweed. Inside the vacant banquet room, I find a cadre of Scarlet O’Hara’s dependent upon the kindness of strangers have given up on the possibility of making much money and decide to get a jump on their side work, polish and roll silverware, go home. I, similarly, bitch (to no one in particular) about how much I need to pay this bill or that bill, and how sad it is that dinner means nibbling on a piece of bread dipped in drawn butter because I’m too broke to afford anything more substantial to eat—even with a 40% employee discount!

When folks ask if I prefer bartending or waiting tables, these are the shifts I consider before I can respond. Fundamentally, my livelihood depends on which of these two jobs will make it possible for me to perform a miracle: take measly portions of fishes and loaves and still feed the masses—and I’m not Jesus! However, I will say that as a bartender, when business is lagging, I’ve been known to meet my income quotas by the thinnest margins. The trick is to observe one rule of thumb: charisma is as important as pouring a good drink.

I (try) always to encourage a convivial atmosphere for those who choose my service: step up to the bar and I’ll wipe a clean spot cleaner just to show you I care; when I toss a beverage napkin your way it’s to let you know I’m listening. Let the dining room guests have their tables and captain’s chairs; here, everyone shares the throne. May I suggest the filet mignon and cold-water lobster tails this evening, sir? You might hear that from me, but first I insist you peruse the menu of six-dollar appetizers while I coo you with offers of two bucks off wine by the glass and liquor by the drink, half off draft beer, a dollar off bottled—these are the happy hour specials (when generous pours and augmentations to the menu—when substitutions are frowned upon—can be exchanged for a hefty tip, and this—our mutually agreed upon quid pro quo we can initiate with a wink and a nod, a fist bump and blow it up if you have moxie—you can’t get anywhere but here).


Caveat: with respect to de-glamorizing the experience of being a bartender, it’s incumbent upon me to mention—especially at this point in the narrative—certain aspects of the job that have compelled me at one point or another to consider other employment opportunities. Be further advised that the example I’m providing here shouldn’t be taken to indicate an actual guest of mine…let’s just say that if this person does exist he would be of this ilk; we’ll call him, “[insert expletive here].”

He’s the type who leaves a pittance for a tip, demands that you wash and polish a snifter for him to slosh his cheap—that is house—bourbon. He enjoys confirming for everyone that he might not always be right, but he’s never wrong, and will pontificate that “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

The main objective is not to encourage him to expose the wounds of his [failed!] marriage, or [insert any other of life’s maladies]. At his worse, he’s prone to grab the crook of your arm as you attempt to walk away, pleading with you to listen for just a minute because he’s got something very important to tell you, and you have to know it this very instance or else “Your life will be irreparably damaged beyond repair,” he says; and you must bend low to his ear, like a heifer grazing in the bright green grass, so very low his hand rests on your shoulder to prove his motives are pure and he insists, “You’ll thank me later,” for informing you that despite what you’ve been told in the past by your mother or father [or whomever], it just isn’t true that when you’re slicing vegetables and accidentally drop your knife, you should simply let it fall to the floor. “Try and catch it! Just mind the blade,” he tells you, and you shake your head and say, “Yes, sir,” and think, why, Lord?, wondering just how full of mercy is He when, despite the paltry tip you’re going to receive, you feel you must provide this man the kindest gesture by patting him on the hand still clenched firmly around your arm, telling him that you’ll remember [this bullshit], and thank him for his “magnanimity,” all so you can afford to put something toward [insert bill here] soon to be past due.


Q: So how do you deal with him… that?

A: I think of John and Wendy.

Q [bewildered]: Who are John and Wendy?

A: John and Wendy are high school sweethearts who recently got married and honeymooned in Jamaica. While they were there, John had Wendy’s name tattooed on his penis. Of course, when he’s not erect, it only spells “WY.”

So one day John is pissing and he happens to look over at the next urinal, where there’s a Jamaican also pissing, and who, John notices, also has “WY” tattooed on his penis. John is shocked by the coincidence; so when they’re both washing their hands, John asks him about it. “Excuse me,” he says, “I noticed that you have a tattoo on your penis. I do too. I had it done here on the island, as a wedding gift for my wife, Wendy. It’s her name, but sometimes…you know…it just spells ‘WY’. I noticed tattoo spells ‘WY’ as well. If you don’t mind my asking, what does it stand for?”

The Jamaican pauses a moment to toss a crumpled paper towel into the trash bin before responding, “Well, ‘WY’ doesn’t stand for Wendy; it stands for ‘Welcome to Jamaica, Have a Nice Day’!”


Q: This has to be a joke! Is this what you tell at your bar?

A: Yes! And it’s a damn good one!

Q: And this is what helps you make money…telling jokes?

A: Yessir. And mixing good drinks.

[The Poet]

Précis: double double toil and vigilant trouble is burrowing beneath the brambles and brush; way on down, deep inside the forged nest; all this torn grass scattered about the perimeter like basket weavings gone awry is where the yellow jackets wait like valkyries, unassuming as apples concealing razor-blades in their cores; the day, otherwise, is innocuous: a fall morning still fledgling; pale light hovering over the mountains in the distance, colorless the way a palette might still retain stains of a previous effort to paint a canvas; I’m walking the dog; he’s walking me; neighbors emerge on their porches, some in bathrobes, coffee in hand; some, a newspaper; some, gathering a sense of the weather, contributing to the morning ritual on the hill of Rosedale Ave. Everyone’s all smiles and “Good morning” and “Doin’ just fine.” No one, least of all me, considers there’s menace swarming underground; that soon I’ll learn the coils of shit the dog’s laid to mark this territory as ours…it is not ours.

Exhibit A:

Look at him perpetrating a so-called oeuvre of badassitude: i.e., is this pose supposed to expose a sly sense of humor? a handsome candor? an able-bodied splendor of confidence? See also: the partial shadow of the left hand gesturing in self-congratulation. This man will be leaving the room soon; he’ll be replaced with someone who’ll learn there’s so much more he can do with his hands…like, defend himself not against shadow puppets flung upon the wall…but yellow jackets

Exhibit B:

descending upon the subcutaneous tissue of the left eye; the upper lip tenderized from bites, from stings, incessant as a mallet upon a pound of beef, this flesh made fragile; how to medicate swelling pain except with antihistamines, vodka on ice; many vodkas on ice; a cold compress; more vodka on ice until the mind is apathetic, the body anesthetized, unmoved, resting; it takes hours learning to see through one eye only; more vodka on ice

Exhibit C:

from midnight to 4 a.m.: restlessness, so many vodkas on ice; onset periorbital edema seals the left eye shut, renders it useless; mind rallies against apathy, fearful of overwhelming concerns: more vodka on ice to assuage need for more antihistamines; sleep is a dangerous commodity; seeing is a handicap when walking a straight line, hazardous as if the world is tilting off its axis

Exhibit D:

when diagnosis is not an acute allergic reaction; another danger lurks: delirium tremens: too many vodkas on ice mixed with antihistamines; the body demanding fewer hours between sleep and waking, biding its time before circadian rhythm mobilizes limbs into tremors when more vodkas on ice are critical to sustaining the body’s craving; delirium tremens: a.k.a., “seeing pink elephants,” results in the eye blackened via seizure, the face having been wracked against the cold, hard floor sustaining collateral damage: orbital rim fracture; delirium tremens is the source of all pain

Exhibit E:

so when they ask, tell them your name, your date of birth, how many fingers are waving before you; close your eyes when you are instructed to count down from one hundred, when you are on your way down into the depths of anesthesia, to a world wherein there is neither light nor dark; nothingness is a concept yet to be theorized; everything is unnamable as before existence existed; it’s a peculiar experience to be so oblivious: surgery to repair fractured bone collected in the orbital rim like crushed eggshells may just as well be a stroll across the expanse of time and space when you are way on down in the depths of anesthesia, where, if you were never to wake up, how would you ever know?


[The Synthesis]

Everything is about survival. And what I have to say about it, some of it teeters on high sentiment open to intense scrutiny: What the hell is he talking about? some might say; or, What kind of hackneyed bullshit is he spieling? another iteration of the same. My response: bear with me; this past year could’ve been the death of me. In other words, read: Darius Antwan Stewart (1979-2015).

Q: Why?

A: Because I’m an alcoholic whose addiction problem triggered the onset of congestive heart failure.

Q: But how…you’re so young?

A: My heart condition is not a matter of age as much as the length of time I abused alcohol (and other drugs) until inevitable damage precipitated a lethal decline in the heart’s function.

Q: But…

A: I know. In situations of this magnitude, there are so many questions.

Q: Did you have a heart attack?

A: No, but I was dangerously close to suffering sudden cardiac arrest.

Q: Ok, so you could’ve had a heart attack?

A: No, you misunderstand. We’re talking about two different events.

Q: What do you mean?

A: Let me explain it this way: a heart attack is like a sink that drains too slowly and you determine it’s because the pipe is clogged, and unless you clear the obstruction, the sink will stop draining altogether. The clog is the warning sign there’s something wrong with the pipe, but there are any number of solutions to ensure the sink drains properly—a problem easily resolved; on the other hand, sudden cardiac arrest is like having your car battery suddenly die on you; the engine just won’t start, and there’s no warning sign in this case; aside from a new battery, the only other possible way to start the engine is to get a jump. So, if I were to suffer sudden cardiac arrest, my only chance at survival would be immediate defibrillation—that is, something to jump-start my heart.

Q: You mean the paddles?

A: Yes, the paddles.

Q: So you could’ve died.

A: Gone undiagnosed, yes, I could’ve died.


[The Bartender] and [The Poet] are extensions of me, critical identifiers. Respectively, one describes how I sustain myself financially; the other is what inhabits my soul. Each, however, defines me as an artist. I say “bartender” to mean “mixologist.” Poet is another way of saying I can’t help but see the world distilled into words, into captivating moments and images, a continuous ars poetica.

And now, I’m charged with attempting to (essay?) describe how each of these representations has been compromised in the wake of medical and financial crises. I find the crisis lies in how to articulate it: what has changed (or perhaps hasn’t changed) the outlook of my life before and after? It’s tough to gauge when I consider that, in 2015:

I will have to miss SEVERAL days of work (translation: no income) because: on two occasions I’m stung by a swarm of yellow jackets; I’m hospitalized after suffering a seizure due to delirium tremens in which I sustain an orbital rim fracture that requires surgical repair; I’m diagnosed with pneumonia, followed by, a month later, diagnosis of congestive heart failure, in which I’m again hospitalized, and a heart catheritization procedure shows a 23% ejection fraction, which makes me vulnerable to sudden cardiac arrest.

I will accrue approximately $100,000 in medical bills.

I will not have health insurance during this time.

I will not be able to work for six consecutive months.

I will be denied unemployment benefits.

I will be denied social security disability benefits.

I will, eventually, file Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

The inevitable questions ensue—all of them asking a variation of How are you coping? Are you writing? I think you should be writing. I hope you are writing.

The natural inclination to write, of course, crosses my mind; but, it seems too soon and thereby proves incredibly difficult trying to locate the emotional distance necessary to write with authenticity without undermining artistry.

It’s not until I talk with an old friend that I consider writing for “practical reasons.” He suggests I start a GoFundMe campaign. “You’re a writer,” he says. “Just tell your story. People will support you.”And by “people” he means my friends on Facebook, where it’s suggested I “hold out my hand.” For good reason, I’m terribly apprehensive about going public, exposing my vulnerabilities, appealing to the generosity of friends and strangers alike. After careful consideration, however, I decide to veto my pride and humble myself to all who will be willing to help me, expressing just how desperately I need their help:

…everyone, my name is Darius Stewart from Knoxville, TN. I am hoping that though we may be strangers to one another, your kindness will help this ill 36-year-young man put the pieces of his life back together. My story begins in October 2015…

Very soon after, when I’ve shared my GoFundMe campaign on my Facebook page, a colleague from graduate school shares my story with her friends:

Hi, all. My friend and fellow poet Darius Stewart has suffered some major medical setbacks recently and needs some help with basic life expenses.

We are a community. We are dedicated to diverse voices, and to each other. Darius represents the best of what we hope for in our field. If you have anything to give, please add to the pot. Remind Darius, yourself and all of us that we writers look after our own.

(If you’re not a writer, donate anyway!)

Then, her friends share, and so do many others until 211 people share my story, eventually raising $6, 290, embracing me with a dozen and more sympathies: Love you D. Keep winning the fight, my brother. (Jeremy S.)… I just saw this. Bon courage, Darius! We need you. (Marilyn K.)…Wishing you godspeed, Darius. (Eileen A.)…Sending so much love, my dear friend. (Amy B.)…Peace and Blessings, Darius. You are loved. (Kristie S.)…Get well, brother poet! (Andrew D.)…

And I am well. I’ve made sure to adhere to doctors’ orders, take my medications as prescribed, eat the right foods—less salt is key—and, when I’m strong enough, I join a gym. I’ve also returned to work: bartending, serving. And it feels wonderful, as if I’ve achieved an unattainable prize, but not in the sense of a reward, per se, but of reclamation.

For instance, a few weeks ago I took a break from composing this essay because I was hungry. So I opened my refrigerator, searched around before pulling a to-go box containing a medium rare filet leftover from an early evening dinner I had on a restaurant patio with an old friend who was briefly passing through town. I warmed the filet in a skillet, fried a couple of eggs over medium (a guilty pleasure); I took this meal with a cup of coffee on the front porch of my home to enjoy the emerging stars, the immense lunar light, the cicadas inhabiting this light along with the blue-black hem of dusk, and I knew at that moment I would write these words down because I needed to record the emotional gravity of this experience, to make clear that not only had I lived a life, but that there was still life yet to be lived: I’d survived an ordeal and, consequently, inherited a new set of priorities.

I consider my life has been, and will hopefully continue to be, an accumulation of moments that, in the grand scheme, I’ve enjoyed happily, even if modestly, without expectations of an exuberant well-being. This, also, is how I’ve discovered the gist of life—the ability to look myself in the mirror and smile (without looming irony or hypocrisy) at my reflection, proud to be this ordinary citizen who became a “comeback kid” if you will, whose lofty aspirations are concerned with capitalizing on the good-natured, pedestrian spoils I might find, for example, in a good book, good food, good people, a good joke—always something good, like salt of the earth, plain vanilla good, or

floating on a boat in the middle of a lake good, with a sense of timelessness rippling outward from the small wake the boat makes, which is also good, even if it engenders naiveté, and so what! The wind’s sweeping across my body, my hands dipping in and out of the cool water inundated with driftwood and duckweed, watermeal and mosquito fern, and I’m allured by dragonflies and the halos of sunlight radiating through the trees crowding back from the banks, these gifts of spiritual permanence I want, forever, to be beholden to.

DARIUS STEWART has authored three chapbook collections: The Terribly Beautiful (2006), Sotto Voce (2008), and The Ghost the Night Becomes (2014), winner of the Gertrude Press Poetry Chapbook Competition. He has been a frequent contributor to storySouth in addition to publishing new and recent work in Appalachian HeritageCallalooMeridianChelsea Station Magazine, the Good Men Project, the Potomac ReviewVerse Daily and numerous others. He is a bartender in Knoxville, TN, where he lives somewhat comfortably with his dog, Fry.