Where Everybody Knows Your Name

by Tyler Sjostrom

On the first shift of my first bar job, I made the mistake of wearing a collared shirt and gelling my hair. The regulars, a merry band of misfits and pranksters, taught me almost immediately that I was not in the domain of collars or primping or anything approaching agreed-upon social mores; I was in a bar, dangit. And after constant ribbing for the entirety of my six-hour shift and — this actually happened — the ceremonial removal of my collar by scissor, I knew with certainty that I was among friends.

The unofficial mayor of this motley crew introduced himself as “Bil, with one L.’” Taking account of my appearance as I found my bearings behind the rail, he christened me “Skippy,” which he still calls me on the rare occasion when our paths cross. (Whether this nickname was drawn from my upbeat nature or some vague similarity to pasty peanut butter has never been clarified.) Bil always took a Miller Lite can with a dent in it, was known to don a Batman cape and cowl when riding ATVs, and I brought him as my date to our staff Christmas party. I haven’t seen him in ages, but I’ll never forget him.

There were a solid dozen years where bartending was my primary income, and it was eccentrics such as Bil who kept it interesting. I can still be found behind the bar on occasion, and I know how acutely my friends in the service industry are feeling the sting to their security during the ongoing pandemic. But I also feel for the ancillary cast of characters — bar regulars such as Bil — who have experienced a pretty seismic shift to their little communities as well.

Every bar worth visiting has its own assortment of regular patrons who have a way of becoming part of the fabric of the bar itself. They always show up at the same time on the same days; they order the same drinks; they tell the same jokes and stories, most of which are of questionable taste. And just as on Cheers, the undisputed urtext of bar culture for this or any generation, they usually even sit in the same chairs. After all, they’re called “regulars” for a reason.

We can debate the merit of a community whose organizing principle is drinking at a remove from familial concerns, and where the line between a conversation and an argument is a pretty blurry one. This cheapens the relationships not only between the regulars themselves, but also between the regulars and the bar staff who serve them.

Truly, some of my most memorable friendships have been with bar regulars, almost all of whom are at least twice as old as I am. This has allowed me to get to know people whose worldview is diametrically different from my own, and to challenge any assumptions I might have about those worldviews. It’s the single thing I miss most about frequent bar work.

At a time when so much is missing from the bar scene — ordinary hours, ordinary capacities, ordinary anything — it isn’t only the regulars who miss, for lack of a better term, the regularity. The relationship is a symbiotic one; bartenders miss their regulars just as much.

It’s bar regulars who essentially train newbies in the ways of the bar. It’s regulars who add a little color to long, slow happy hour shifts. And sometimes, it’s regulars who take one look at your shirt, with its preppy, pointless collar, and say, “Hey, Skippy, hand me a scissor.”