“I’ve worked in probably well over 20 different bars,” Jasmine tells me, as we walk in the cold night at Hart House Circle, the CN Tower providing a bright backdrop. “I’ve been in the business since I’ve been legally able to serve, and I’ve been in it for about four years. I’ve worked in an array of environments such as clubs, Irish bars, regular restaurants, upscale dining atmospheres — I’ve had a taste of all kinds of bar environments.
“It’s been a very rewarding experience past the point of what I thought was just a part-time job. It’s actually helped lead me to achieve others goal in my life.”
A seasoned bartender, Jasmine’s demeanour is simultaneously personable and edgy. Though she chose not to disclose her last name, Jasmine’s quickly apparent charm and magnetism makes our conversation feel like a warm chat between friends, indicative of the reason for her prolonged success in the bartending business. She laughs while recalling anecdotes about her experiences, coloured with intriguing customers and glimpses of the brief melodramas of their lives.
“Working at a bar is like witnessing a soap opera. It’s very entertaining.”
She describes the diverse crowd of people who she has met in the workplace. “Many people may think that working in a bar is just about serving customers, or you’re always just making small talk with people, or these are just one-time contacts, but I’ve met people from politicians, to business owners, to musicians. Part of the job of being a bartender is really communicating with the patrons that come in.
“A lot of the time, if you’re someone that’s very curious about other peoples’ lives, you can learn a lot about people’s successes, not just their day-to-day lives, but how their companies run… That was something that really interested me and that was why I stayed in that atmosphere, because I was learning so many different things about so many different people.”
As a bartender, Jasmine explains, much of the job consists of socializing and filling different roles for the different people who come in. In particular, people seem inclined to reveal personal information about themselves in an environment that they perceive as safe; as a result, Jasmine finds she often plays the part of a therapist at work.
“You do find people that just need someone to share their lives with,” she admits. “It’s funny because when you’re walking down the street you don’t know anything about the people you see around you… In a bar atmosphere, you learn so much about people’s lives and they open up so much… It’s like you’re the bearer of secrets, and you’re there to listen and you hear all this gossip.”
Jasmine tells me that politicians and musicians may come into the bar and divulge details not disclosed to the public. People typically, however, come in to discuss regular conversational topics like “sports, relationships, and people that are pissing them off.”
“A lot of people come in and talk about their own relationships, or want advice from a younger person or just from an outsider. A lot of times, you can give that advice. I’ve rarely had a situation where it was a risk to give advice. It comes with common sense — you know when it’s the time to bring in help, but a lot of the time they have the answers and they need someone to just listen because there just isn’t anyone to hear them, and sometimes just someone to lift up their spirits. Sometimes, we’re the jester.”
With regulars who come in a few times a day, Jasmine says her role involves more than acting as a therapist or a random person to chat with. “In bars where I’ve been able to converse with regulars, you become more than a bartender; you become a friend for some people.”
Jasmine chooses to limit that relationship, however. “A lot of other bartenders and servers make good friends with regulars and maybe share drinks or go out with them. I’ve always left work at work, but that’s my own comfort zone. There’s been maybe one or two exceptions to that, but I do find a lot of instances where regulars cross that line. It’s best to just be friends in the moment.”
Regulars don’t always, however, establish relationships with staff. “There are no rules with regulars; sometimes they come in and just always keep to themselves.”
While Jasmine often finds that she is able to get a complete picture of the lives of customers, at other times, her interaction with them is more discrete. She simply asssists them in a small episode of their lives, be it a first date, or a minor conflict. She sometimes acts as Cupid, providing couples a with discounted dessert, or a secluded corner of the bar in which to sit.
Jasmine’s cordial relationships with customers have been known to shift over the course of an evening at work, sometimes negatively, when situations have escalated as patrons became disruptive, agitated, or excessively inebriated. “The worst kind of customer is one that doesn’t have any regard for the people around them, so that puts me in the position that I have to take care of the problem myself. If I have someone being too loud, I have to tell them to keep it down. Five minutes ago, we were friends. We were chatting and laughing… Now I have to take that authoritative position and tell them that they’re going to have to leave.
“Sometimes if you’re a woman or young, it may not work in your favour, which is when I have to contact management or kitchen staff or maybe even regulars, or in extreme cases even the police.”
Jasmine does not want to be a bartender forever, but she has found the experience inspirational, and it has impacted her future plans. “This is just a part-time job since I’m still a student at the University of Toronto, and I hope to be graduating at the end of the semester. This is a great job to do in between careers, or if you need fast cash, or if you want to go traveling.
“I don’t see it as a career because I have a degree and I want to do something with my studies, but I have thought about, with all my experience, that I have a chance at opening my own restaurant, or my own bar, or something of that nature.”
It’s the conversations that she engages in at work that truly breathe life into the job, Jasmine emphasizes. “I think, no matter who you talk to, you can learn something. That’s something I really like about bartending. You can get advice, or hear cool stories. There’s always something you can learn, and there’s always something you can give back. I think the more exchanges you can have with more different kinds of people, the more you can grow from it.
“I feel like I thrive the most with a varied group of people and that keeps me coming back. I love to hear what people have gone through and what they experience with their life.”