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“To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early or be respectable.” — Oscar Wilde

I find that folks in their 20s work pretty hard in this mountain town. One of my colleagues, who works the door at the pub on Friday and Saturday nights, also works Monday through Friday during the day for 40 solid hours every week doing skilled and handy handyman type of work. He’s in his early 20s and puts his shoulder to that wheel. He’s just one example; there’s a half-dozen folks I work with like this. And there are numerous folks I serve pints to, usually during the afternoon and on the overall less busy shifts, that fit this model. After 50 to 55 hours of work, they’re in for a quick pint, maybe a shot of some Irish whiskey, as they plan what to do with their sparse hours off.

I was the age of many of these folks back in the 1990s. When mobile phones were huge and only for sleazy Wall Street junk bond traders. When the Berlin Wall fell. When the biggest armed revolt since the Civil War took place in Los Angeles. When a brown bearded Wolf Blitzer bounced around in the back of a tank selling the first Gulf War. When cameras were scarce. When everyone smoked in bars. Different days, but I too worked a couple of jobs, and I worked hard. I did not work smart. Typically, I had a full-time job that paid poorly. Usually that was at a university teaching Freshman Comp or Intro to Lit or Poetry classes as a graduate student, or on a one-year contract with no benefits, no chance for full time, and tenure was a funny joke where no one laughed. To keep the lights on in my shabby home wherever it happened to be, I’d work in bars a few shifts here and there. Whether I was a bartender, bouncer or janitor, the odd hours of the bar kept me afloat.

My parents’ generation, by definition, I only know by secondhand accounts. I know my dad was drafted and fought in Vietnam. He didn’t come back until I was somewhere around six months old. His struggle through whatever horrors he survived over there is unfathomable to me even as an adult. That generation saw a president murdered in broad daylight in Dallas. Citizens were beaten, blasted with fire hoses, attacked by dogs during protests on the streets, and the nightly news—all three channels worth—aired the attacks into living rooms. The smaller battles, the more personal ones, are too far away for me to understand much about.

On social media or sometimes at a pub during happy hour, I hear this complaint: This generation just doesn’t know what work is. Or, The kids now got it easy, back in my day … Etc. These complainers are, of course, wrong. It’s tough to be a person in their 20s. The thing is that it was tough to be a person in their 20s back in the ’90s. In the 1970s it was rough. Almost always, the person complaining is projecting sloppily their own short comings onto someone else. Some things are better now. Some things are worse now. For me, in my 20s, I sincerely thought I could make the universe better. I wrote to President Clinton asking him to free Leonard Peltier. I joined organizations to help the Tibetans. I went to IRA and Sinn Fein meetings. I wrote a long scrolling letter to my hero poet Allen Ginsberg who wrote me back. I don’t think I ever slept, and I don’t recall ever being tired.

Yet, there was always a certain confusion to my efforts. Something missing I could never comprehend. I drank way too much whiskey. I spent my money like I found it in the road. It was strange, confusing and wonderful, and I don’t miss it at all. I, too, might be projecting, but the batch of folks in their 20s now are a hoot. And I hope they’re having fun with their endless energy, optimism, and poor planning. Working at the pub, I’m in a young person’s game for certain, but I still very much enjoy what I do. And I particularly like seeing the next generation work in the pub. I work with good people. If I didn’t, then I wouldn’t stick around. Here’s to what comes next. Slainte.

For more than 20 years, James Jay has worked in the bar business from dishwasher, bouncer, bartender, bar manager to pub owner. He is the author of two critically acclaimed books of poetry and his poems have been selected for the New Poets of the American West anthology. 


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