Thursday, December 8, 2022

Advent 2022, Dec 8, Andrew Maynard on Rabih Alameddine


Reading “How to Bartend” as a Map for Avoiding Our (My) Worst Tendencies, While Thinking About Misguided Viral Videos and the Middle School Essay

Andrew Maynard

Set the occasion, tell them why we’re here 

Because I read an essay that made me pause, and I’m not sure why. 

Because as swaths of America push to abolish the police, there seems to be an uptick in civilian policing, often by the same people. 

Because it seems as if we’ve transitioned to being on constant jury duty. All the time. Everywhere. In the classroom: student to student, student to teacher, and most excessively (by far, not even close) teacher to teacher. In bars, probably (it’s been a while). People on stoops. On cable news. On non-cable news. Twitter (well before Musk bought it) has become a curated series of attempted citizens' arrests. 

And it’s bleeding into art. There’s been a lot of noise lately about what writers can’t do. 

So I’m saying that if a white person writes from the perspective of a historically marginalized group to interpret (read: mansplain) and capitalize on the struggle, that’s bad, for sure, and we should throw stones (preferably heavy and jagged) at him. And (in all caps) if a writer who went to public school writes a story about a kid who was homeschooled—that’s probably fine. 

I’m saying I think Dave Chappelle took trans jokes to a place I didn’t find funny or enjoyable, but this monologue didn’t bother me. But it’s OK if it bothers you.

I’m just saying let’s avoid absolutes unless we absolutely can’t.

But I need you to know I believe it’s important to call out harm. And I mostly hate the idea of hard and fast rules, especially the kind meant to limit art. 

Yet I teach 8th-grade English, which means I’m expected to talk about writing in ways that kept me from discovering joy in craft until my 20s. I’m expected to talk about thesis statements. About evidence in a singular, sometimes reductive, always dull way. I’m supposed to give bad advice like: tell them what you’re going to tell them and then tell them and then tell them that you told them. 

But, like, fuck a thesis statement, right? Can we hard-pass on knowing exactly what we want to say before we say it? 

If I could teach using a single sentence (run-ons and semicolons excluded), it would be: read this, tell me what you notice, and then write the thing it compels you to write. 

Anyway, last summer, on my in-laws' porch in Virginia, I read The Best American Essays 2020. I think about the opening essay, “How to Bartend,” often.   

Mentor text: Steal from the pros until you’re one of them 

In the essay “How to Bartend,” we learn quickly that Rabih Alameddine is a serial academic from Lebanon, H.I.V. positive, and, living with the assumption that he will soon die, has developed an affinity for impulsively purchasing cashmere sweaters. Oh, and he loves soccer. “I used to joke when I first moved to San Francisco that I had an easier time coming out as gay to my straight friends than telling my gay friends I loved soccer.” Alameddine is funny and sharp and doesn’t know the first thing about bartending. But he does get excited when he finds out the English bar that hires him has four TVs with access to all the soccer games. 

Alameddine does a lot that I admire, and we’ll look closely at some of those moments, but it’s getting late in this essay not to have explicitly said exactly what I am here to say. 

Your claim must be clear and arguable 

Grace is a dish best served to others; avoid cooking it for yourself. Teacher note: too vague.  

Revision: It’s easier to call people out than call them in. Who are these people? Why are we calling them? 

Revision: In the essay “How to Bartend,” Alameddine uses his art to unexpectedly deliver grace and empathy to a group of Irishmen who he could just as easily have dismissed for using insensitive language. 

Counter argument: What do the haters say? Give them a voice and dismantle them with it

There’s a video on Youtube of a woman walking around New York being catcalled. The men in the video are problematic; they’re mostly Black and Latino, except for the filmmaker, Rob Bliss, a white guy that remains off screen. It has 52 million views. 

I believe documentary at its best is a close cousin of the essay. 

I have some questions/concerns about the catcalling project. What did the filmmaker set out to prove? (Is it ever a good idea for an artist to set out to prove anything?) Was it simply that women are verbally harassed on the street? How did he choose which neighborhoods to visit and which ones to avoid?

The catcalling video was wildly popular for spotlighting a problem too often ignored. And it did. Definitely. 

So isn’t that a good thing?  

Maybe. But it’s a short compilation of a white actress being catcalled after she was filmed for 10 hours. So the fact that it is almost all Black and Latino men is an editorial choice, possibly a pre production choice, and one that seems to say two things.

1. Women can’t move in public without being harassed.
2. The problematic men making the streets unsafe are Black and Latino.

I think the filmmaker found exactly what he expected to find. What would the project look like if he made room for discovery?  

Don’t summarize your mentor text, use it to build something new 

In the 1980s, Alameddine assembled an amateur soccer team called the San Francisco Spikes that played in gay tournaments around the Bay Area. When the Spikes began registering in regular leagues—“and by regular I mean that many of the guys on the other teams were homophobic bastards, or to use the Linnaean classification, assholes”—they encountered regular bigotry in the form of cheap shots and celebratory “hand signs for fucking” most notably from a dude name Chavo. 
Chavo is an asshole, for sure, and Alameddine doesn’t have to work too hard to paint him as such. At the height of Chavo’s bullying, he digs his cleats into Alameddine’s leg, drawing blood, and ends the assault with a homophobic slur and a shitty comment about not wanting to get AIDS. 
Usually, I would not have allowed an insult without some sort of witty comeback. I was a faggot, after all. Even something like “You’re not my type, bitch!” would have made me feel better. But I was writhing on the dry grass, in such pain that what I really wanted to scream was “I want my mommy!”
And then Chavo disappears, and we meet a couple blunt, disheveled, Guinness-loving Irishmen who come into the English bar, much to Alameddine’s distaste, and force him to do something he finds horribly irritating: his job. Alameddine didn’t become a bartender because he possessed a knowledge of mixology or a customer-service disposition. He got it because he had a pulse and knew a guy. So he’s even more pissed when five Irishmen show up the next day to watch soccer. 

Only digress if you must

Sorry to dwell, but I really don’t like that viral catcalling video. And I’m not alone. If you Google search “the problem with catcalling video,” there’s no shortage of criticism about the racist editorializing. So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Bliss’s follow up viral video made a concerted effort to reveal some real cutting edge insights that can be boiled down to: white people can be the problem too; racism does indeed still exist; and Bliss sacrificed his right to white apathy to show us our sins. The video is called “Holding a Black Lives Matter Sign in America’s Most Racist Town.” And to know the title is to know the rest. It makes the same mistake as the catcalling stunt in that it opts to prove instead of wander, instead of wonder. So I won’t share the link. I won’t contribute any further to spreading a video that centers a white guy proving his courage by provoking other white guys to say the N word, before circulating the hate without nuance or thought or anything in mind but ego.

And I should probably stop thinking about this guy, but I can’t, because he’s everywhere and everything around me. He’s the bikers I hear outside my window yelling at cars for blocking the bike lane. He’s the cars I hear honking at bikers for burning through stop signs. He’s everyone being incredible at yelling the rules when someone else is breaking them. He’s me being incredible at yelling the rules when someone else is breaking them. He’s my judgment. He’s the disillusioned omniscient nonfiction narrator. He’s the middle school essay I avoid teaching. He’s the version of me I detest but can see if I squint hard enough in the mirror.  

But he is nowhere to be found in “How to Bartend.” Alameddine refuses to give him air, because he knows that to snuff a fire you cut its oxygen. 

And so it’s the Irishmen who get the bulk of the word count, not Chavo. And forgive me for breaking the form I’ve already established but I’m going to skip the bolded instructions, the white-space pauses, the separation of threads. I want to see what happens when they interact with one another. I want to change my mind mid-essay. 

I love this story because I see myself in the story in ways I find difficult and productive. And I’m realizing that I was never actually interested in looking at “How to Bartend” because it reveals something new about the essay, but rather that it’s a nice alternative to what feels like a static public discourse that prefers reactive finger-pointing to the deep breath. “How to Bartend” masks itself as instructive in its title, but chooses to model complexity rather than project moral authority. It takes its time. It’s patient. It has really really good sentences. Here are a few highlights. 
Memory is the mother’s womb we float in as we age, what sustains us in our final days.

It never occurred to me to plan against regret.

So many of my friends died while the world remained aggressively apathetic. 

Why did assholes always drink Heineken?

I did not die and I did not recover.
Alameddine eventually makes friends with the Irishmen. Not immediately. There’s some character building first. The Irishmen give him shit for being a terrible bartender and not knowing how to pour a Guinness. When they find out he’s gay, they could’ve been better. Their language could’ve been better, just as most things said multiple decades ago regarding inclusion will fall into the category of could have been better as long as words are spoken. But they gradually come to an understanding. Like all successful relationships, Alameddine and Irishmen improve through compromise, which in this case is simple: the Irishmen pour their own beer. And their relationship simplifies and gains depth. But it’s still limited. They banter and talk about soccer. They take shots at each other and themselves. And though they never talk in any serious way about gayness or H.I.V., we’re told it isn’t due to fear but rather they just don’t quite know how to broach the subject. Not yet.  
The truth was that I was rude to them because I felt safe from the beginning. I felt at home with them. I had gone to high school in England, and my closest friend at the time was Irish. These men were older than me, but we actually had a lot in common, which was obvious from the first soccer game we watched together. They had a sense of humor that matched mine. They could, and would, make fun of everything. Nothing was sacred, and I couldn’t tell you what a relief that was, living in the ever-earnest state of California, which had more sacred cows than all of the Indian subcontinent. They made fun of Americans, the French, the English, you name it. Boy, did they make fun of the English. They mocked Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims. No joke was out of bounds. They were ever self-deprecating. They tore into each other ruthlessly. And most of all, they made sure to insult me. I dished it right back, of course. I felt as if I were back with my family.
And I appreciate this progression because it feels refreshingly honest and optimistic. It feels like being able to look back at the movies from my childhood not simply to point out what didn’t age well but also to remember the value. Alameddine isn’t going to ignore the Irishmen’s flaws or his own, but he’d rather exhaust his energy seeking connection as opposed to recounting division. And Chavo doesn’t come back until later when he unexpectedly shows up at the English bar and says some cruel, idiotic shit to Alameddine about how he doesn’t belong and the possibility of getting AIDS from a beer on tap, but it’s not done because we need to know people like Chavo exist. Because we don’t. Of course we know Chavos exist. Chavos are abundant. And if we’re being honest, we might see more of ourselves (past or current versions) in Chavo than we’d like to admit. I think about my best friend who eventually told me he was gay in a bar in San Francisco in our 20s, and how we used to play “smear the queer” in middle school in Arizona with teacher supervision. We loved each other then and we love each other now. And I feel ashamed. But we absolutely need to know that the Irish guys do in fact love Alameddine despite their flaws and are waiting in the wings of the English bar, ready to fuck up Chavo’s world and body beyond repair if he so much as a lays a finger on their friend. We need to know they exist, so Alameddine breathes oxygen into their stories almost twenty-five years later, centers them instead of himself, even though he hasn’t seen them in decades and can no longer remember their names. But he doesn’t need their names to show that goodness is not simply measured in the things we’ve said but is rather a container we fill and spill and stain and consume as we go. I think about my first years in San Francisco and all the Irish bars on Clement Street I used to frequent. I made friends with the bartenders who would later ask me to bounce from time to time when they were in a pinch. And they’d give me 50 dollars and as many draft beers as I could drink and I’d check IDs and collect the cover charge and, on occasion, have to tell a drunk guy to leave. And the drunk guy never wanted to go quietly, so I’d have to remind him the thing he did wrong as if it defined him, sometimes stand him up and shove him away from the one place he wanted to be. And I never wanted to kick someone out but I always felt a gross type of power when it was over. But this was before I taught middle school and learned that if a kid is being shitty and you want to chip away at the shitty behavior you wait for them to do something good and then give them the love they seek. You pull them closer. It was before I read “How to Bartend” and learned that I was pushing a man who might’ve been the hero in my story had I let him. 


Andrew Maynard is a writer and teacher based in San Francisco. His essays have appeared in Bending Genres, DIAGRAM, True Story, Mud Season Review, and other venues. His essay "Take Your Son to Work Day" has been optioned for film. He's strongly considering ditching social media in the near future, but here's a half-baked website that might grow into something more. 

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