I have a soft spot for bars, and for the people who like to go to them.
For one thing, bars put me through law school. When I was 21, I took a step up from serving “coffee and,” which had helped me get through college, to serving and making cocktails.
My first bar job was in a glitzy, Mob-run nightclub that only looked glitzy in the dark. The required outfit was green pants, a white halter top and high-heeled sandals. I learned to balance a tray with a tip jar, thread dollars through my hands and dance with myself if we had no customers – all for 99 cents an hour plus tips. I got fired for suggesting that we could all get together and work fewer nights and make less money.
It was at my second bar, Mahoney’s 499 Lounge in Somerville, MA, where I understood a bar is also a community. I started out as a waitress and quickly ascended to being a bartender and night manager when a guy was caught stealing from the register.
The bar was a hangout for the younger members of the Winter Hill gang, made notorious by Whitey Bulger but then run by a guy named Howie Winter. They were the guys who offered to kill the man who raped me [I will never forget them telling me that Howie said to do it for free because I was family], and when they couldn’t do that [he was a stranger], they took turns staying every night when I locked up and – I kid you not – following me back to my parking lot in Cambridge and then escorting me, armed, to the door of my dorm – at Harvard Law School. They got me through my first year of law school, not just safely but with my feet on the ground and my nose not in the air.
So I understand how important community can be in a person’s life.
But “Bar Lives Matter” may be the most objectionable of all the slogans that detract from the central issue of race, specifically, race and policing, the killing of black men that has prompted this time of reckoning.
That’s the slogan of a woman who is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit – the sixth now – challenging Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to close bars in Texas. She’s posing for pictures in the news, enjoying the publicity, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it’s her customers’ lives that are at stake. And everyone else’s, of course.
People do not wear masks and sit six feet apart in bars. Some people go to bars to drink alone with people around. But most of the people who go to bars to drink, rather than doing it more safely and cheaply at home, want to be with other people; to socialize; to have a few, see who’s there, cheer on the Red Sox. And however resolute you may have be when you walk in, two drinks will almost certainly do it. As the doctors will tell you, inhibitions are loosened by alcohol. Any bartender in America knows it, which is why people tell us things they shouldn’t. You can’t drink with a mask; give someone two drinks and they won’t even try.
Abbott has been roundly criticized by some for reopening the state too soon. With the encouragement of the president, he allowed bars to open, what he now says is probably the biggest mistake he made. They were flooded. Spiking cases led him to close them again, provoking the latest lawsuit. His own supporters are turning against him.
Opening bars is a matter of life and death, but not for the bar owners who are suing. For them, it’s about money, pure and simple. Staying closed is costing them money. Opening up costs lives. It’s not just about the drinkers who need to be protected from themselves; it’s about every person outside that bar who will be infected as a result of their night out, the bartenders and waitresses whose lives are also at risk, all to bring dollars to the bar owner.