Maybe you’re the problem

“I’ll have another one,” she said, tapping the edge of her empty glass.

I had just walked in the door and past her sitting at the bar. I was still putting my cash drawer down. It was literally 10 seconds into my workday. But stepping behind the bar is stepping behind the bar.

“Another?” I asked.

“The same thing,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know what that was.”

She rolled her eyes, but she told me, which in the greater scheme of things is all that was necessary. If you’re going to be successful as a bartender, you have to learn to let things slide off your back.

“Vodka, shaken with fresh basil,” she said.

“Just basil?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, rolling her eyes again. “Why does everyone question that?”

“Probably just to be sure,” I said.

But boy was that the wrong thing to say.

She took it as a challenge and then went on a several-minute rant about how she can never get what she wants anywhere. And how service is declining, and how many service people are just plain stupid. She didn’t say any of this to me directly. She said it to her nodding friend sitting right in front of me.

“Coming in hot” is what we call it. In the customer service business, one of the hardest people to deal with is the one with a chip on their shoulder, because they’re never going to look at it that way.

“Can we at least get some water?”

At least?

Yes, I heard it. I know what that means. It’s meant to suggest that something hasn’t happened as they believe it should have. It doesn’t matter if the menu says “water on request” or if there’s a gigantic sign that says it, they have been slighted, and they want you to know it.

“Do you think you could clean this up?” will also be said.

And it will be said while jabbing a finger at a crumb on the bar. If you ever want to see hyper-focused, sit at a bar long enough and you’ll see someone intently pointing at something only they can see.

I did have a towel in my hand and that other person had just left 15 seconds ago, and you have been there for all of five seconds, but sure, I think I can.

“Maybe you have some bread?”

Sure. Maybe. But I’m still cleaning up the dirty spot that you sat at — the only dirty spot at the bar, I might add. You had other choices but you made this one. And you did it on purpose.

Recognizing the problem is not the same as preventing the problem. And some problems cannot be prevented.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius once said, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way,” or as author Ryan Holiday summarized in the title of his 2014 book: “The Obstacle is the Way.” And many people believe this means that you should head towards your problems, not away from them. But any food server or bartender will tell you, sometimes it means that the problem itself is the goal.

Because the problems kept coming.

“Do you think you could help him?” she said, pointing at a man she didn’t know who had just walked up to the bar.

“I’m just looking at the woodwork,” he said, not really understanding why she was pointing at him.

“OK, well, never mind. But I could use some more water,” she said, tapping a glass three-fourths full of water.

Eventually, she waved her arm vigorously in the air.

“Hello? Hello?”

“Let me just finish taking this order,” I said, leaning closer so I could hear what the other person was ordering.

“Hello? Can I order? Hello?”

“Yes,” I said, turning to her.

It was then and only then that she opened up her menu.

I stood there with my pad and paper ready. And I stood there. And I stood there. I knew better than to say anything.

Her friend, however, did not.

“He’s waiting,” she said finally.

And boy was that the wrong thing to say. Because now instead of me being the problem, her friend became the problem.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

• Sometimes there is no such thing as “heading them off at the pass.”

• The Western Roman Republic lasted longer than the Western Roman Empire, so why don’t we ever talk about that?

• “If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your troubles, you wouldn’t sit for a month,” once quipped President Theodore Roosevelt.

• If your friend insists everyone else is the problem, how long will it be until you, too, are also part of the problem? Asking for a friend, not about one.