by Robert Lanz, LCSW
I used to be a bartender. It was a brief affair, even though I owned the bar, a seventy-seat place with a high-beamed roof often covered in massive amounts of snow. With it’s roaring fire, the oversized riverbed rock fireplace was the perfect adjunct to the after-ski experience. My business partner, who had set the whole thing up, ran the equally cool seventy-seat restaurant in the split-level lodge. Very ski-resort perfect –a long way from jail, where I had just done six years as a family therapist. But not so far from social work.
In the ER, we realize that most really bad traumas take place in cars, bars and homes. Not a surprising statistic since that’s where people tend to spend most of their time, especially men. Cars and bars. Maybe that’s why one of my basic rules of life is never drink beer and shoot pool in the same place. Too easy for things to go wrong. Fragile egos. High blood alcohol count. Pool balls are perfect for throwing, or if you are really quick you could remove a shoe and sock and put the ball in the sock. In jail they did that with bars of soap. Just a warning guys: if you ever….naw, that wouldn’t happen. You’ve read too many stories to do something lame enough to go to jail for. And then there are pool cues. Instant weapons.
We didn’t have a pool table in our bar, of course, but we did have a foosball table. Foosballing to my knowledge hasn’t been documented, even anecdotally, as a contributor to violence.
Going to bars, even bars that serve Utah’s-legally mandated 3.2% alcohol content beer, can get a person inebriated, especially at 7,000 feet, which was the altitude where my bar was located. In Colorado, kids can legally drink that watery 3.2 stuff at age eighteen, perfect for the college crowd until they have matured enough in their senior year to start going to different bars where they can drink real beer. But this isn’t a story about altitude, its about attitude.
Running a bar in a ski resort, at least to me, required some basic social work skills such as active listening, community organization and, of course, limit-setting. Those were skills I had picked up in juvenile hall during that family therapy stint.
During those years I learned never to back down. In jail, the residents considered backing down to be weakness, something to be exploited. Some guys in a bar might feel the same way, so it was important to set the right tone early on. There was an occasional challenge, but my steadfastness was generally received with a sense of security people felt while winding down from a day on the slopes. Our bar was a warm and safe place. Never had a fight and only once did I have to threaten violence. The bad actor sensed my commitment and backed down. I bought him a beer and that was it.
That’s a real guy thing. If someone makes an obvious threat towards you and you don’t back down, that guy often becomes frightened himself. All he knows about me is that I’m not afraid of him-and he’s just threatened me. He’s afraid because I’m not. If you use good social work/people skills and don’t make the only graceful exit be the one over your chest, then the person who threatens you will be able to take the other exit. That’s the exit you set up by being a good social worker and might include buying the dude a beer.
When I was young, growing up in the fifties in what is now called middle school, our dances were held in the gymnasium. Because of the precious wood floors, we had to take our shoes off before dancing. That’s why those dances were called sock hops. Google it if you must.
Before dancing you also had to cross the emotional no-man’s land that separated the boys from the girls. We lined up on one side of the gym and they lined up on the other. The crossing, for an insecure adolescent, was torture. Absolute torture. All the girls could see you coming and gave off some almost unknowable yet obvious body language that screamed out, “Not me. Don’t ask me to dance.”
I might be exaggerating, but that’s how it felt to me at that insecure developmental juncture in life. If any of the other guys felt any empathy, they sure didn’t extend that feeling into any empathetic behaviors. Instead it was all cat calls, put downs and ball busting, sort of the anti-empathy mode of communication. Looking back, I can see that their behavior was just a cover-up for their own fears. Of course, I was too insecure to know it then.
In jail, insecurities were more obvious. In the bar, they were too. I’m of the opinion that the ‘crossing-the-dance-floor humiliation’ in its many forms is one that all men experience, and for many it becomes the driving-force in the way they act. For good or bad. Extrapolating that to the bar, I think, was a real social work intervention opportunity.
A ski resort has basically two groups of clients. One group is made up of locals, who seem to know every other local and who are comfortable just sliding into the room and buddying-up with one another. The other clients are the non-locals: they most likely don’t know anyone except the people they are with, if they are, in fact, with other people. Unless they are famous or the best skiers in the room, it is natural for them to show a little discomfort. You may have heard the expression somewhere, maybe the beach or in the mountains: Everybody wants to be a local. Everybody also wants to be in the VIP room. Everybody also wants to have a backstage pass at the rock concert. The locals always seemed to be at ease. The locals weren’t anxious. The locals always found someone there for them. Hell. No wonder everybody wants to be a local.
Being a bar owner meant that I both opened and closed the bar. Noon to midnight. And despite being able to see the slopes from the bar, I rarely skied them the way I fantasized I would when I left jail and moved to Utah. Later, I figured out that I actually skied more when I was a probation officer in Los Angeles than I did when I was a bartender at a ski resort.
But I was a social worker when I worked in jail in LA and I was a social worker when I tended bar in Utah. Social work situations are everywhere. Its just context that is different. Jail. The ER. A bar. All the same in many ways. A non-local entering the bar alone isn’t a lot different from a kid coming into the day room in juvenile hall for the first time, not sure of what he is getting into as the heavily-locked door clanks behind him. Nor is he much different from the fearful adolescent crossing the planked-floor gym in his socks. They all present issues that need tending to.
At noon there wasn’t a lot of bar traffic except for the lunch crowd who needed a place to hang out. We were a hip joint in a small resort. A cool bar in a lame state. We had some of the best powder snow in the world but hardly anyone knew it. That could make it a little lonely if you weren’t a local.
Every day, the first customer through the door ended up sitting at the bar. My job as a bartending social worker was to make that a comfortable seat. Almost nobody likes to drink alone, so one way or another I’d intervene and get that customer right there in front of me. Pretty cool. Almost like a local.
The second guy, or girl, no matter where they sat when they came in, also ended up seated at the bar. When I chatted them up it didn’t take long for me to figure out what Person #2 had in common with Person #1. I’d bridge that connection and pretty soon the three of us would be engaged in a relevant conversation. By the time #3, #4 and #5 came in, I’d practically be doing group therapy, telling them to go take a table, I need this space for some singles, and they would laugh. And then they would all take a table and have a few drinks together, almost like locals.
I’d do that all night. Bar social work. By the time the sun set, everyone was well-mingled. Outsiders started feeling like locals and often ended up drinking with the locals. Sometimes they even made plans to go to the best spots with the best snow with their new local buddies. Once, my business partner noticed that I gave shout-outs to just about everybody who came through the door. He said he was going to make a sign that read, “Everyone’s A Star At Flacos.
And that’s how it went, every day, at Flaco’s Cantina and Social Work Bar.
Masters Degree in Social Work program offered by Frenso State:
The master’s degree in social work offered by our department is designed to educate advanced social work practitioners who can meet complex client needs within a diversity of public and private human service settings and who can perform in a variety of roles using multiple social work practice methodologies. This course of study prepares the student learner for autonomous social work practice at multiple levels of intervention as well as for doctoral study in social work and related human service arenas.
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distinguished graduate- Robert Lanz LCSW, class of 1972