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The Bar That Showed Me Who I Could Have Been

I lied to get the job, but bartending revealed unexpected truths about who I am — and who I’ll never be

Illustration: DenPotisev/Getty Images

WWhen I was 22, I moved home to live with my parents. Needing money, I did what every red-blooded American girl does when she’s short on cash and large on desperation: I got a terrible job at a terrible bar, called Kickers.

Located out in the middle of nowhere, Kickers hunkered down on the land like an aged trailer park queen squatting to take a shit. It had a grotty parking lot and a crumbling patio housing a few dispirited tables. Inside was a huge bar and more seating, everything covered in dingy Formica or linoleum. There was a pool table, spattered with the sorts of stains found in either crime scenes or porn shoots, and along one wall were two slot machines, discreetly paid out by the bartender, sandwiching a broken jukebox.

My first morning’s customers were a baker’s dozen of construction workers rained out for the day. They proceeded to show me the ropes. Because it was 11 a.m., I served “breakfast drinks”: screwdrivers and Bloody Marys made with V8 and trench-shelf vodka. They explained how, at Kickers, one didn’t ask for another drink. One either placed one’s empty glass in the well, which indicated another beverage was required, or one placed one’s napkin atop one’s drink, to indicate no more. Money rarely changed hands, either. Instead, a large bill, usually a fifty or a hundred, would be placed on the bar, and I’d pull from that seed money as the day progressed.

And progress the day did. “Breakfast drinks” turned into beer for lunch, at which point I donned an apron to serve as Kickers’ short order cook. After lunch, the real drinking could commence, and my patrons gauged their limits by how much money they had in their ever-dwindling piles of bills and loose change.

At 8:00, when I was relieved, I waved my tutors goodbye. The same construction workers who had greeted me that morning gave me a heartfelt send-off. They hadn’t even started their night, bless their livers, while I was exhausted, reeking of smoke, and totally done with people.

AA week passed and I realized two things about my new job. The first was that most of Kickers’ regulars were serious alcoholics. And the second, to my enormous surprise, was that I actually enjoyed working at this awful bar.

You see, I lied to get the job.

“I’m moving back home,” I’d said at my interview. “I need work.” I made sad Bambi eyes and my implication was that I needed the job for the foreseeable future.

But I hadn’t moved home because I was down on my luck or returning, tail tucked between my legs, after having tried to make it in the big city. I’d moved back because, after years studying in Boston followed by living abroad in Europe, I’d been accepted into a PhD program in Scotland. I figured I should spend at least some time with my family before fucking off to another country again. I only needed work for a few months, but I’d learned from previous, unsuccessful interviews to lie.

I was who I might have been, were I not me.

What I didn’t anticipate was how that lie changed how I acted, and how people treated me. I was so guilt-ridden about my various omissions that I didn’t talk a lot. I was, instead, a girl who listened, and slung beer, and smiled all the time — a quiet young woman with no outrageous backstory. Indeed, suddenly and accidentally, I was a different Nicole: one who hadn’t read too many books, earned too many degrees, lived in too many places, nor thought too many thoughts. I wasn’t too opinionated or too strong or too independent. I’d never ridden on the back of a Vespa through Rome nor drank homemade wine in the shadow of the Parthenon. I’d never dallied with that bullfighter-in-training nor that Australian tree surgeon, nor any British paratroopers. I was just a sweet, local girl, who made a pretty great burger and was known for giving good head… on the beer I served.

In other words, I was who I might have been, were I not me.

Not that I was born fancy, as my octogenarian grandmother would have told me if she didn’t by then have dementia so bad she believed herself a young boy. My parents were both middle children from working-class families, raised in Southern Illinois. They did get college degrees, but they were the first in their families to do so. In fact, my father didn’t know college existed until he was 14, and asked a friend why their brother had suddenly disappeared.

“He went to college,” said his friend.

To which my father replied, “Where is College?”

He thought it was a city, somewhere up north.

As for my mother, her own uncle infamously told her that “only ugly girls go to college.”

University, obviously, had not been a guarantee for my parents. A combination of the G.I. Bill, subsidies for education majors, and sheer tenacity meant they were able to go where no member of their families had gone before.

It also meant they could never really go back, either — a terrible paradox I see played out in my own students, whose parents fear education may make them uncomfortable with aspects of how they were raised.

And for whom it inevitably does.

I was also the only one in my family to inherit that restless gene. My sibling and cousins took other paths. They got jobs out of high school and stayed in the area. But I always knew I wanted to roam, both physically and intellectually, even though I suspected that leaving meant I’d never return.

Until, for that summer, I did. And, to my surprise, I loved it.

Kickers was a riot, after all. Granted, I have never been around so many entirely drunk people outside of a frat party. At Kickers, it was totally normal to fall right off your barstool. When someone did, I’d use the pad of paper next to the telephone, upon which was listed virtually every patron and the number of a disgruntled son, daughter, or spouse who could come pick them up.

Not everyone burdened their relatives, however. One Kickers couple actually rode their horses to the bar because the horses “knew their way home” and the guy was pretty sure it wasn’t illegal to equestrian while drunk. That was one saving grace of the bar: everyone at Kickers was terrified of DUIs. Not because they didn’t drink and drive, but because most already had one or two and three strikes would bring terrible consequences.

Meanwhile, for someone as obsessed with stories as I am, Kickers was a veritable gold mine of the human condition. Most of the patrons were from the area, and many had known each other their entire lives. Despite, or because of, this fact, everyone had slept with everybody else, regardless of marital status. Affairs abounded, as did the type of swinging I thought of more as lurching: inebriated couples would lurch into one another and into bed, not with the predatory, sophisticated cynicism of Eyes Wide Shut but in a slapstick style more akin to tripping on a banana peel and falling on someone’s dick.

And then there was the hot tub. One of the younger regulars, a guy named Mike, worked for a local pool company. One afternoon I rolled up to find a hot tub sitting on the patio, where there had been nary a hot tub before.

I asked Mike where it had come from.

“My boss is on vacation!” replied Mike.

That didn’t seem like much of an answer until I realized that Mike planned on returning said hot tub before his boss knew it had gone missing. This explained why Mike hovered over the hot tub all night, demanding everyone be careful, and warning me not to get into it in my heels.

The hot tub was a great hit — with everyone but me. Unfortunately, only a few people actually brought swimsuits. Most went in wearing underwear. One elderly gentleman informed me he “went commando,” and then asked to borrow a chef’s apron. Reeling from his first admission, I fulfilled his request without asking any questions. After disappearing into the large back room we rented out for grim bachelor parties and even grimmer wedding receptions, he came out naked but for the apron, his wrinkled ass smirking at everyone as he walked out to the Jacuzzi.

And speaking of that back room, it was there that I discovered I’d truly been embraced by Kickers. During one bachelor party, a few of the guests kept bothering me in my kitchen, which connected the main bar and the party room. It got so bad that two of my regulars noticed their shenanigans and declared themselves “my bodyguards.” They stood on either side of me while I prepped for that evening’s dinner rush.

When the strippers finally arrived for the bachelor party, one of the guests told me — very drunkenly and very, very shortsightedly — that he wished I was dancing for them that night. While that farce played out in my head, my bodyguards got really angry. They shoved the guy back out into the party room, telling him to leave me alone because, and I quote, “Nikki’s a good girl. A real good girl.”

That made me laugh, until I realized their protective ire was real. They really did think I was a good girl, which in their world meant something. Yes, it was the sort of patriarchal bullshit claim on my modesty that I’d literally written essays against in undergrad, but they meant it with kindness and with a fucked up sort of esteem that let me know they thought I was one of them.

And that they really didn’t know me at all.

EEventually, of course, I had to fess up. My tickets were bought for Edinburgh and my belongings were in two bulging suitcases. I had to tell everyone I was leaving.

“I’m actually going back to school,” I said to my boss, a man who was always very nice, despite appearing to never be sober.

“Great,” he said, exhibiting his niceness. “Good for you. I always wanted to go back to school. Are you going to Waubonsee?”

Waubonsee is our local community college.

So I explained to him where I’d been and where I was going. It was probably the most I’d spoken inside the bar since I’d gotten the job. My boss looked confused, but he said he was happy for me and I left for the day. The following afternoon everyone knew. And they treated me differently. Not like someone who was leaving, but like someone who was foreign. They treated me like they did the only non-white person I ever saw at that bar, a Hispanic man referred to with paradoxically racist appropriation as “Kickers’ Mexican.” Like with Pedro, after everyone knew I was leaving to get my doctorate in another country, they were still friendly enough, but I was clearly no longer one of them.

They treated me differently. Not like someone who was leaving, but like someone who was foreign.

And yet they threw me a party my last night, with bottles of the finest Korbel. The free champagne made everyone extra boisterous, and a weird sort of dance party started. It was like what you might have experienced in junior high, if everyone was really drunk in junior high.

I ended up at a back table with one of my favorite regulars, a man in his forties called Stu. Stu was one of those super high-functioning alcoholics who can do just about anything even though he was always blotto. He’d helped me figure out all of the professional kitchen equipment when I’d first started the job and would give me a hand on the grill if it got too busy.

On my last night at Kickers, Stu told me his story. He’d actually grown up in Boston, not far from my undergrad. He’d been a pro skier and had lived all over the world in fancy resorts. Then he’d blown out his knee and ended up visiting his cousin here in the Midwest, just for one summer. To get back on his feet. To save some money. Just for one summer.

Of course, he’d stayed. Not because he wanted to, but because he did. Because he felt he had to, for what he called “a lot of bullshit reasons.”

He wondered if he hadn’t just gotten comfortable, and gotten afraid.

Stu took my hand that night, not in a way that was flirtatious, but in a way that was like a benediction and told me to go, to follow my dreams, to make something of myself.

I said my goodbyes shortly after that and I never went back to Kickers. To this day, it feels like a strange dream, where I was me, but not me. And every few years, usually after I’ve done something momentous and terrifying and stressful, I have this dream about a Nikki who stayed, a Nikki who moved back just for a summer but ended up working forever at Kickers, a bar where horses stick their heads through open windows to call their masters home, and hot tubs spring up overnight like malodorous, water-filled toadstools. That Nikki is a nice girl; she’s never too difficult and never too free.

I wake, very glad to be me.

Novelist and essayist. Director of the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. Find out more at

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