Muted by Elena Nardini

Every bar has its regulars. I like to refer to them as “friends of the bar” because that’s what they eventually become. As a bartender I’m there to serve their drinks, however after they’ve had a few I elevate from being simply their server to being someone who can offer a listening ear and possibly support. Inevitably, after spending time with a person in a raw state of intoxication, assumptions can be drawn as to what kind of person they are, or at least what kind of person they appear to be.

People tend to frequent bars for any combination of reasons including that they are entering an environment where they can be themselves and be accepted, that they feel welcome and possibly even valuable, that they get along with the staff and the staff makes an effort to know them and know what they like. For these reasons, as a bartender I strive to create a space where these “friends of the bar” can feel this way and therefore come back time and time again. Regardless of how long someone has been a regular customer, however, I still cannot assume that I actually know them or know anything authentic about them.

When someone tells me personal information, I have no immediate reason to doubt the validity of it. I am simply there to listen and be conversational to the best of my ability. If someone tells me that they’re a doctor or that they’re married or that they’re multilingual, whether or not any of this information is true is irrelevant to me. If a person lies to me about who they are, it’s of no real damage to me, but there is a point where the deception can violate the unspoken bond between bartender and customer.

All walks of life come to the bars and it is my job to make everyone who comes to my bar feel at ease. I’ve dealt with customers with a range of physical disabilities, social ineptitudes and erratic behaviors but the following case remains the most extreme and unusual to date.

His name was Gordon and he was a mute. The first day he came into the bar he approached somewhat hesitantly and smiled. I greeted him and presented him with a menu. He stared at me blankly and I wasn’t sure why he seemed so unsure of himself but I politely waited for a response. He held up a finger as if to pause me and spent a moment digging in his pocket before producing a small notepad and pen. My first thought was that he was deaf and unable to speak so I waited as he wrote a message on the pad and turned it towards me. The note read, “I am muted but I have my hearing.” He held his finger up again and continued to write. “My vocal chords were permanently damaged in an accident, I’m sorry for the inconvenience.” I assured him it wasn’t a problem and asked him what he would like to drink.

From that day forward Gordon made a weekly appearance at the bar with his notepad in hand and I served him his usual series of Stellas Artois. Eventually the staff got to know him and his written banter and he became a “friend of the bar.” On occasion, when the bar was slow he would write me letter length reports on the happenings in his life and we would have conversations that spanned the pages of whole notepads. In spite of his silence he was always friendly and well behaved. We would joke that he was our favorite customer because he was the only person whose volume control we never had to monitor. He came to the bar regularly for nearly a year burning through notebook after notebook of social interactions with us and other regular customers that he came to know.

One night I went out with friends for a deserved night off to get some drinks. We entered a bar and began moving through the crowd. The bar was pretty dark but as I made my way towards the bartender to order a drink I noticed someone familiar perched on one of the stools sipping a Stella and having a conversation with a woman. It was Gordon, drinking and talking at full volume without the aid of paper and pen. I stood for a moment staring at him in shock. The sound of his deep and unfamiliar voice hitting my ears felt like the regaining of my hearing after an explosion.

I walked up and stood shell-shocked beside him. I simply looked at him and held my hands out in a questioning gesture. The woman with him probably assumed that we were somehow involved and this was an expression of jealousy, a misconception I didn’t care to correct.

Gordon smiled slightly and shrugged, apparently still at a loss for words. I couldn’t fathom a reason that someone would make the effort to carry out such an elaborate lie. Was it all just a play for sympathy? Was it one of several such lies as part of a pathological lifestyle? Was it purely for the fun of deception? Regardless of the motive, I had no desire to spend another moment conversing in any form with Gordon.

I grabbed a piece of receipt paper and a pen from the bar top and wrote him one final note, “86’d from my bar for good asshole,” and walked away.

Elena Scott Nardini is from Venice, California.