He Works Hard for the Money

Sunday afternoon was our first venture into downtown Dublin. The weather was quite lovely, if a bit chilly, as we strolled up Leeson Street past Trinity College, and on to Temple Bar, the historic and cultural district of Dublin for more than a millennium. The remnants of the seasons’s sun prompted us to spend much of the day outside taking in the scene and getting our bearings in a town built on a surprisingly poor grid. I found it difficult to negotiate the cobblestone past the pubs whose siren bands cast harmonious lures to the streets, one after the other in the battle of the Irish folk fiddle. There will be time for that later.

We were exploring the open area of Dublin Castle when we felt the first drop of rain. The sunny sky rolled with silver, then grey, then powerful jet. One drop became three. Then seven. Then countless. Then the shower erupted, reminding us it was really fall in the north Atlantic.

We darted across the street into the first door that opened for us, the Ivy.

“Oh I was waiting for you!” The waiter welcomed us with glee.

“Not you,” he looked at me. “You.” He winked at G. We all laughed. He explained they have drinks only, no food. As Yankees we had forgotten about this possibility, but we looked outside at the rain and said we would love to stay for a drink.

The Ivy is plush, velvet blue, with richly marbled counters. It is a lounge with class. Our waiter was divine. He flirted with absolutely everyone who walked through the door. “Oh I was waiting for you!” He called again and again as the shower poured. While a number of people turned their heels upon learning the Ivy does not serve food, just as many were delighted by the reception and found a seat.
Our waiter was quite busy, so we did not learn much about him or his local experience between jokes and jabs. He knew how to work the floor. He was either having the time of his life, or he was an incredible actor.

The folks who sat down next to us were from Toronto, also in town for a conference. They had a similar experience on their flight into Dublin, except they actually missed their connecting flight while they were looking for gate information. We exchanged our thoughts on how we each have been making use of limited time in Dublin, including what we wish they had done differently and upcoming plans.

The Ivy had filled, and the rain slowed to a few drips. The sun shone even brighter, reflecting like a mirror on the wet cobblestone and backlighting the steamed window. Our new friends returned to the conference and we went out to do more exploring. We had just decided to call it a day and wander back to Donnybrook when the sky took on its obsidian hue once again.

We slipped through the door of the Turk’s Head. The interior is beautifully decorated, covered with Gaudi inspired mosaic tile and twisted columns above the bar. The lovely ladies and spying faces overlooking guests are sisters of those who live in McMenamin’s walls. Sunday afternoon was quiet, as was the bartender, though he seemed content with the conversation.

“How long have you been working here?” I asked an easy getting-started question.

“Three years here at the Turk’s Head.”

“Did you grow up in Dublin?”

“Oh no. Malawi.”

I realized I carried some assumptions that did not match the experiences we were having. Temple Bar is a hot and heavy tourist district, which can make my skin crawl having grown up in a tourist community. In my younger experience, with the exception of a few establishments, customers were largely from elsewhere and employees were local. Nobody moved into my town to go to work in the seasonal service industry. We took those jobs because they were available. That’s just what we did. I often found the tourists . . . I guess I do not have a polite word for the sensation most left me with when I worked the register, so I’ll just say annoying.

I cannot pretend to fit in with the locals while I am about this world, though I do try to avoid reenacting the behaviors that used to leave my teeth gnashing. I try to enter other communities with the believe that there are real, whole people who live there, in a real community, some for many generations, and they are not there to serve me. They are there to live their lives, including make a living, which may or may not involve taking my money in exchange for providing me a service. Transactions are mutual, in which we both parties have agency. Interactions also have intrinsic, human value deeper than the physical items that change hands. As equals, it is in my best interest to demonstrate through intangible means that I appreciate, value, and respect those who exchange money for services to pay their bills.

Our friend behind the bar at the Turk’s Head surprised me. He had moved from a different continent to work a service job in the throbbing pulse of an international tourist market. Something kept him behind that bar. How could he stay for three years? Student, I speculated?

“My Dad wants me to come back to run the family business, but why should I?” He explained, “Here I make four times what I would make in the family business in Malawi. There is no comparison. Plus, I never really felt like I fit in there. Why should I go back?”

Nursing my Guinness I was reminded, once again, how much the almighty U.S. dollar, coupled with my U.S. birth certificate, color the lens through which I view this world. Maybe cloud is a more accurate word than color. Why would I assume that everyone employed in a tourist-laden, direct service position is just going to work to pay the bills? Getting paid to meet new people and help them to have fun could be very fulfilling, especially for extroverts. Introversion shades my world view as much as much as anything. How easily I forget that experienced bartenders in the U.S. often are skilled therapists.

I did not have the opportunity to ask our friend up the street at the Ivy if he had grown up in Dublin. He certainly put his heart and soul into serving his guests. I have no idea what might keep him twirling drinks around that floor. Does he really love putting out so much energy to pay attention to strangers? Maybe he goes home and doesn’t want anyone to touch him or talk to him? Maybe his job provides the emotional fuel he needs to spend time with friends and family? He may simply have a strong work ethic, or he may have past experiences that enable him to embrace the moment fully.

Humbled by my reflections, I am reminded how important it is that I make every effort to see the wholeness in people and communities who host me as a guest, and acknowledge there is a great deal that will never be revealed. I need to watch my tongue carefully. Despite my efforts to hide it, the power I wield is exposed every time my white, well-educated, west coast, working class mumble escapes my lips. While I can observe how others respond to me, I cannot always detect when I inadvertently propagate inequality. Would I know if a conversational partner in these situations truly felt and acted as an equal?

We chatted periodically as our friend behind the magnificent bar glided through with orders from other customers. It definitely felt satisfying to be his guest. The sun snuck out from behind the clouds. We paid our bill, along with our respects, and strolled back to our neighborhood with renewed appreciation for all that Dublin offers us.

P.S. The photo upload feature is still not functioning correctly. If a picture is worth a thousand words I cannot describe all the images with enough clarity to yield an essay of any reasonable length. Please check back later!

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