On "How to Bartend" by Rabih Alameddine in Best American Essays 2020
29 June 2022
On “How to Bartend” by Rabih Alameddine
How come shit I write cannot be published, yet this is? No; it’s ok. I get it. Most of all, I’m convinced that people like Alameddine get published with stories like this simply because they have been previously published. Let me check the back of the book to see…hang on…yep, I’m correct. He’s a celebrated novelist, a National Book Award finalist, and a short-story weaver.
Now, that’s not to say I think Alameddine isn’t worthy of publication – or that this piece is in any way lacking or disappointing. It’s not. I don’t believe either of those things. It offers just about everything that could be wanted for a publication like this, The Best American Essays 2020. Alameddine represents multiple interest groups: Lebanese by birth, gay, HIV positive. There’s lots there to engage. Moreover, his story is written with a clarity and simplicity in its turn of phrase that delights. His point is never lost in semantics. In many ways, his writing reminds me of Stephen King’s in its style. Its tone, on the other hand, is entirely unique to Alameddine, as far as I can tell. Never before have I read a writer so capable of slinging joke after joke, only to punctuate that hilarity with a devastatingly depressing truth. It’s a gift, to be certain.
Ok, so his persona: unpresumptuous. He talks about being HIV positive with a sort of grace. He tells the story about the soccer club he started – a gay club to compete against others that might not be exclusively gay players – with humility. At first the team was small and insignificant and not terribly great at the game, but over time they improved. He tells those statistics, that reality, with ease, as though he knows it’s not his job to persuade you. He owns it.
He treats the Irish in his pub similarly. He could easily say, “Ya, they liked me from the start,” which probably isn’t entirely untrue – but he doesn’t. He paints that story as though it began through mutual tolerance, or maybe mutual harassment, and goes from there. It’s a humility I rather admire. It’s a lack of defensiveness I admire even more, though.
Another humility point he earns from me in shaping his decision-making as a young-un as – questionable, as illustrated in this excerpt:
So I asked myself, Rabih, I said, how are you going to support yourself in school now that you’re not working and you’re in credit-card-debt hell because of all the fabulous cashmere sweaters you bought?
And I said, Why, bartend, of course.
See? A most rational decision. (2)
It’s like he knows very well, as an umpty-something-year-old looking back, that his decisions in his thirties were not always completely rational – although, how could they be, when he thought he was staring down death after his recent diagnosis of being HIV+? It’s just all so very – human. Perhaps this is what I like most about this piece, the humanity of it all. Rabih never presumes to be perfect – or even really likeable. He just wants to do the minimum work possible to get paid at his job while reading books and watching soccer on satellite tv. And because he’s transparent about that, he’s not just likeable – he’s lovable and loved.
Fuck, man. Maybe that’s what it’s all about, anyway: just be authentic. Let your interests, will, motivations, desires be known, and the world will see you and accept you. After all, unless those interests trample others, there is nothing inherently wrong with them. Whoooooof that’s a load.
But what of craft? Let me think about what we learned in class:
Why is Rabih writing? I think Rabih is writing this because he feels some sense of guilt or debt to those Irishmen, and he’s frustrated with himself that he cannot even remember their names or what they looked like. There’s a grace and gratefulness to the act of writing this story; perhaps they will read it on their own, someday. In doing so, they’ll learn how Rabih felt about them. They will understand their role in his life and will feel his gratefulness.
Back Story: Gay Lebanese guy starts a gay club team for soccer; there’s a Colombian guy on a competitor team named Chavo who is quite violently homophobic – and acts that out toward Rabih during their games.
Inciting incident: He’s diagnosed with HIV, quits his corporate office job, starts a PhD in Clinical Psychology, needs to fund his schooling, and so starts bartending. Boom.
· The Irishmen take over the bar during soccer games
· They verbally spar and hit it off with Rabih
· The Irishmen begin pouring their own Guinness
· Rabih girlfiriend-kisses another gay black waiter at the bar; the Irishmen then learn he is gay but because of their aforementioned rapport, don’t really care.
· The Irishmen tell terrible gay jokes.
· Chavo shows up for the World Cup at the bar
Climactic moment (turn): Chavo outs Rabih as HIV+ in front of the Irishmen in the bar, where he’s tending. Rabih refuses to serve Chavo.
Resolution: The "Irish hello." His Irishmen scare Chavo off: “You may be a poof, but you’re our poof” (13).
Denouement: Rabih quits bartending, leaves the bar, and never seees the Irishmen who possibly saved his life ever again. He does not die of AIDS. The taproom is gone. He says he has never recovered – does he mean of AIDS? Or does he mean of Chavo? It’s unclear. Maybe both. Maybe that’s why he is writing.
Sensemaking: I guess I should look for some other aspects of craft, here. There is some sensemaking peppered throughout; most of it is in-the-moment sensemaking. For example, “A year later I was back in San Francisco, still not dead but soon to be, I was certain” (2). Then, there is some at-the-time-of-writing sensemaking, too: “You might ask, as any rational person would, why I was trying for a third useless degree. Because I was dying, that’s why. That made eminent sense to me at the time. To my mind, it was a most rational decision” (1). The entire conclusion/denouement chapter, chapter 9, is sensemaking too, I suppose.
My frustration with the sensemaking is that it contains no proscribed lesson – no overt meaning applicable universally. We have to guess, actually, at the meaning – which I presume to be that we don’t always know what is important to us until well after the moment has passed (as Alameddine felt about his Irishmen well after the fact for saving his life).
And my own frustration with this is my lesson: I need to stop preaching with my writing. The messages are there! They need to be less proscriptive, or they will fall on deaf ears. Nobody wants to be preached at. It’s demoralizing. I gotta work on that.
So ok. Thanks, Rabih! That was an excellent read! Much taken from it. :) You’re da bomb-diggity.