On the Rocks 

Keeper of booze and secrets

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People go out drinking to celebrate, to cure boredom, to check out new hot spots – or to wallow, forget or grieve when they're upset. We bartenders see and hear about it all. We're often held captive, listening to a distressed drinker spill his or her guts to anyone who'll listen. Though bartenders often get the reputation of always being willing to lend a sympathetic ear, I think most would agree that being included in a celebration or hearing about someone's comical antics is far better than having to act as someone's alternative to therapy.

I've spent more than five years behind the bar, so these days I feel like I've heard it all. Yet it still surprises me the things people are willing to divulge. Like the night a customer told me he was going home to do drugs. "At 29 years old, I'm trying to watch my gut," he said and explained all about the shipment of mushrooms his neighbor was waiting on. He claimed that 'shrooms had fewer calories than alcohol, so eating them helped him keep his figure, whereas drinking just downright destroyed it. I asked, but he didn't think vodka was a viable alternative.

Breakups are also a common topic. Though lots of people often go out to paint the town red, just as many (maybe more) go out to drink away their relationship woes. Nobody likes watching a breakup take place, not even a bartender. Especially not when one half of that broken relationship is staring you in the face with sad puppy-dog eyes, hoping for reassurance that there are, in fact, plenty of fish still available in the sea. It's painful. Almost as painful as the hangover they're going to feel the day after drowning their sorrows with half a bottle of Jäger.

Then there are the secrets you're always being asked to keep hidden safely away in the bar's underground vault. You try so hard to remain neutral and to stay out of customers' personal lives (smiling and nodding goes a long way), but it's impossible not to feel bad for the girl whose fiance just told you – in complete confidence, naturally, two nights before the wedding – that he doesn't love her.

"I'm going to marry her anyway," he assures you. "But it feels so good to get that off my chest."

Ugh. "Why did you have to tell me that?"

"Because I know you won't say anything," he says. "My friends will." For good reason, I might add.

But nothing makes you cringe quite like hearing about someone's recent STD.

"My girlfriend cheated on me with some dirtbag and gave me chlamydia," you're so nonchalantly told. The only appropriate response (besides "TMI, dude!") is probably "At least it's not herpes." Until, of course, he tells you, "Oh, she gave me that, too." Doh.

As long as bars continue serving alcohol, customers will continue sharing their worries with their bartenders. After all, it's the booze that makes people feel confident and lose their inhibitions, even among strangers. And though I find it uncomfortable and at times shocking, if broadcasting these details to an outsider provides the relief your friends can't offer, who I am to judge? The unloving fiance was right. Your bartender won't say anything. We can't. Unless you're a regular, we don't know your friends, your girlfriend or your wife-to-be. But be forewarned: We may have to unload your stories with our co-workers and fellow bartenders. It's only fair. Plus, they're good listeners.

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