You Know What Grinds My Gears? Smoke Breaks

For five years of my life that felt like ten years of my life, I worked in pubs and bars. I am not without my grievances. I mean, if you take the shitty hours, the shittier patrons and the body clock of an over-caffeinated bat then what you have there is a bitter, God-awful cocktail. A veritable daiquiri of despair.

And that is, as it were, the job. Buttoning up your work shirt when everyone else is kicking up their boots is the job; enduring passive aggressive monologues from dead-eyed men who don’t want to go home to their wives is the job; scrubbing human poo from the walls of crime scene cubicles is, so I’ve been told, the job.

Sitting on a milk crate with a cigarette and Snapchat, on the other hand, is not the job. It is in fact the diametric opposite of the job–that job being to serve alcohol, clear table tops, and spend a fair amount of time simply existing in a standing position behind the bar. And yet, somehow, the not-so-humble ‘smoke break’ has become the most fundamental and frequently exercised right of the everyday hospitality worker.

Despite the aforementioned grievances bartending is not, as it turns out, the most stressful job in the world. You shuffle from side-to-side; you fill beer glasses up with beer, wine glasses up with wine, and wave credit cards lazily in front of Eftpos terminals. Even in its busiest moments, it’s never quite the trench warfare scenario it’s so often cracked up to be. But look for any self-entitled bartender after a big, raucous crowd’s rolled through the place and you’re sure to find at least one crouching out back, sucking on a ciggie like they’ve just survived the storming of the Bastille.

As a non-smoker myself, maybe I can’t even begin to understand. In fact, as a non-smoker–a non-smoker being paid the exact same wage as every nicotine fiend who needs to slink off once an hour to self-medicate with a ‘smoke’, like a diabetic in need of an insulin shot–I am utterly without sympathy. Nicotine addiction is real, sure, as hard to quit as heroin and all that. But here’s the thing: if I was addicted to heroin and I asked my manager if I could go out back and tie off five times a shift, I’d no doubt be told to get my arse behind the bar and hold off with the scag until my dinner break.

To use a slightly less absurd example: say I asked my manager mid-shift whether I could go out back, sit down and browse my news feed for ten minutes. Why, that’d be a sure-fire way to get my arse handed to me and shown the door. Fair deuce. But if I had a durrie behind my ear I’d be automatically protected by the unspoken First Amendment of hospitality work: namely, the right to have a smoke-o.

It’s exactly why you hear people saying stupid fucking things like “I never smoked until I started working in hospitality”, usually as they light the end of a menthol cigarette. Because smoking in hospitality is one of the most reliable work hacks there is.

What it is, in actuality, is the exploitation of one’s own self-inflicted addiction. “I need a cigarette”; “It’s been, like, two hours since I’ve had a cigarette”; “I’m literally going to rip off someone’s head and shit down their neck if you don’t let me go for a cigarette soon.” No one ever really needs a cigarette: there are only those who want a cigarette, and those who are content to go about everyday activities–such as doing their job–without one.

That job might consist of late mornings, pissy punters and brown Jackson Pollocks smeared on white bathroom walls. Nature of the beast, the industry you’re in etc etc. But if you’re the kind of drip who can’t survive five hours behind a beer tap or a coffee machine without ducking off every halfa for a smoke-o, then… I don’t know. Go fuck yourself, I guess.

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