The Bar Has Risen

It began with the fast food chains. Once the technology caught up with the CEO’s, nearly all low paying fast food jobs became robots. Now, instead of a building with a staff of twenty busy bodies running between fryers and ice-cream dispensers, it was a hundred square foot box you walked or drove up to and fed money for sandwiches. Instead of a person you had to tell “No onions, extra pickle” and hope they relayed that detail to the cooks in back correctly, you just pressed a few keys and it showed up on a tray. It couldn’t be the robots fault if it was wrong because now you were doing the job of that pimple faced teen or depressed grandmother with a failing stock portfolio.

All because people wanted to have jobs with wages that were higher than their CEO’s new jet plane as it roamed the sky, landing at a new conference to brag about a 3% increase in profit that quarter. So now, I’m sitting in a bar that houses no visible staff. My seat is slightly warm from the previous patron and the bar itself lacks the traditional stickiness of a human ran bar. One where the head of a beer might spill over the mug on it’s way to the drinker. Here, every glass is poured perfectly, in a correct glass, with correct blending and mixing and foam. There cant be any errors, and my old fashioned feels a lot less old when there’s never a mistake made by the computer doing the mixing.

That’s the thing about a human element. There’s mistakes that are subtle, accidental, but impactful. Maybe my first glass has 2% less sugar and 5% more bourbon. Than the one after that it’s 10% more water and 5% more sugar because the bartender was forced to use a spoon instead of a pick to get the cherry out of it’s jar. Each glass always has a chance to be unique, never dull, and always human. Here, at this bar, we don’t have that. Glancing around I try my best to avoid the lingering eyes on the ceiling. Each camera is linked to a powerful computer system that monitors the face of each guest. At first, it was a suspicious technology, and even now some aren’t too fond of it.

One or two of the people here are in the darker corners, with striped and patterned hats reminiscent of World War II navy ships camouflage in an attempt to avoid the popular databases. Basically, they wear a hat that makes them look like a headless horsemen to the cameras. An interesting approach, if not all that practical. The reason they even have the cameras is to identify potential abusers and remove them from the location by subtle intimidation. Imagine being a few too deep in and as you press the button for your favorite brew, the screen tells you to “Try a refreshing glass of cold iced water!” Every station will do this to you, even though it serves the customer before and after you. Eventually, you get the hint and slouch off to walk home or get a cab.

I can remember the legal teams fight about allowing the ID scanner at the door quite clearly too. Basically, you have a dual-authorization to get into this bar. An app on your cell phone and your drivers license. First, you scan your license and the scanner pings the state that issued it to check for authenticity. If you pass, than you double verify with your app by tapping in the four digit code that will pop up. If you can’t do both, the door wont open. If you try to sneak by the scanner you’ll get stuck in the “air lock” or as the news outlets have taken to calling it, “Kindergarten”. That booth only lets you leave or order snacks and virgin drinks. Since everyone’s face is constantly scanned, there’s a database of abusers who never get a chance to enter.

I assume that the mask wearers trick the system by just allowing the masks image to be what the computer sees and stores. So, if they get in trouble, it would be easy enough to just make a new one. I shrug off the thought of them gunning down everyone in here and never getting caught due to the masks and finish my drink. Just as the cherry hits my tongue, I catch a pair of guys to my right getting a little rough over a dart game. I stay still and try to only use my peripheral vision to observe how the bar handles this type of interaction. Bound to happen, these two boys are fighting over the rights to play darts. Naturally, the larger one is holding his ground, but the smaller one wants to play a match with his date. I chuckle, a punch thrown here, another there, and now they are both on the ground.

To my left, a click as the doors lock and the machines shut down. We are in lockdown so… I’m stuck without a drink until the cops get here in about five minutes. Just long enough for them to cool down, or hopefully not kill each other. Personally, I’m not sure how else to handle this type of thing without a person around. Normally, a bouncer would have broken them up and kicked them to the curb, but in this situation we’ve become a small prison. No one in or out aside from the ‘proper’ authorities. In a way, if I can be in a bar with no workers, I wonder how much longer before the police are replaced too.

My time on that thought is cut short as they haul the two boys out and the bar reactivates again. The app on my phone suggesting that I should take advantage of the “short delay in service” by using a 50% current tabs coupon. “Sure,” I whisper out loud to myself tapping on the screen and ordering another drink. I’ll give the designers of this place enough credit, that was a pretty seamless interaction. The climate controller in here even accounts for the door usage. I’ve never noticed a breeze or cold spot in this place, let alone worried about “pitting out”.

The worst bit about this place has to be the unnerving sense of perfection in all it’s details. That was one of my favorite parts of the old bars in town. The names and slogans carved into walls. The uneven tables and wonky lighting in the corner no one sits in. The rips on the faux leather stools and cigarette burns on pool tables. None of that happens here. Every night they close and every morning it’s back and proper. Nothing is ever out of place, nothing ever incorrect. I slide my hands across the silky smooth bar to stretch and remember that there’s no spilled beer. I could eat off this thing and that fact alone is irritating.

My phone lights up again with a message from the bar, my tab is closing because they know I wont be able to afford another. I remember the days of taking cash to bars. Handing over green and blue bills with long dead faces upon them of men much wiser than I. Remember when you used to say, “keep the change” and it meant something? Another one of those exact details this bar removes. There’s no tipping in our culture any more, for better or worse. All these people with passion and drive in their lives for a night of fun and making people laugh are gone.

Well, not all of them. There’s about two or three bars left in this town that offer real service. VIP bars, ones with entrance fees, cash only, underground brewers and mixers. It’s like we took a history book and blended the 1920’s and 1970’s to create this crazy new lifestyle for ourselves. If I was allowed to pull cash out of my account I would probably try it out. Sadly, my bank abandoned physical money and charge an enormous fee to leave them. So, I’m here in a clean, bright, hospital-like bar with nothing but my thoughts and an app to keep me company. Hell, at least the cash bars have whores in their back rooms. This place is so sterile that I imagine a mouse would turn it’s nose up.

“Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but notice that your tab is in the red. Mind if I buy you a round?”

Opening my eyes, I realize I’ve been resting my head on the bar and not paying attention around me. “Absolu-” my mouth fails me and my words are just as drunk as my brain. Long black dress, longer porcelain legs, and a smile that obviously kills brain cells, I regain my sense of being and try speaking again after sitting up straight. “Yes, I’d definitely appreciate it.”

“Good. I used to work here you know, back before the ‘bots took it over. Once in awhile I enjoy coming back and pretending I still run the place,” she remarks, as if she’s read my mind before giving me a chance to ask what draws her to this bar. My courage back in the form of cold liquid, I dare to pry, “That would have been… at least six years ago. How’d you take the news of ‘new employees’?”

She laughs, a sound reminiscent of lighthouses guiding the unlucky shipmen home. Clear, threatening, and room filling. “I took it much like everyone else. I was mad, furious even. Imagine, everything you loved doing, everything you wake up for taken from you because you dare to ask for a day off!”

“Amen to that,” tinkling our glasses in cheers, we think on that for a moment. My mouth still trying to sort out what my brain wants it to do.

“I used to repair things like this. A few years back. I would go from gas station to gas station all over the state and fix ice cream makers, blenders, all sorts of things. Once all the manufacturing was done by machines, I expected my career in servicing them to last a little longer.”

“You’re telling me! I thought my career in serving people was going to last longer! Anymore I just use my BI check to help forget that I used to do something for a living.”

“I mean,” and I try to be polite, but hell, I’m drunk and she’s a stranger, “I never considered my job to be my life. I worked to live, not lived to work. I might not appreciate the loss of jobs and lower BI checks from the state, but at least I know I can sit on my patio and paint or read without worry of losing my house because I didn’t repair enough soda machines that week,”

“Oh, I mean, you have a point. I should be looking to that enjoyment of free time, but really, what even is free time? You’re just making things for yourself or others and working anyway, don’t you enjoy being compensated for that?”

She had a point. I do enjoy getting something out of what I know and have experienced. I take a slow drink and let that settle a moment. Here I am in a bar ran by robots, in a country that used to praise it’s workers above all, and I’m stuck asking for drinks from someone else because I’ve spent too much of my earni-, no, hand outs, to buy my own.

“What do you think of those BI checks, by the way?” I toss over to her after a quiet moment.

“What do you mean?”

“Well… when I was young my parents always drilled into me that I shouldn’t be relying on handouts. I should work on my own and make my own life from that.”

“Oh, hm. I’d say that the checks prove you’ve earned something. Haven’t you spent all this time working on those machines just to be replaced by one? The machine doesn’t have a family, or a lover. It doesn’t care that it isn’t making any money to gain goods or status.”

“So, it’s not a handout so much as a pension?”

“Exactly.” She takes a long drink from her stemmed glass, her long, delicate fingers reminding me of something.

“Have I met you before?” I dare myself to ask.

She pauses, and grins, gathering her things. “Yes, I believe we have met. I met you several years ago while you were still married.”

“I am still married,” a little course from her suggestion.

“To someone who loves you, but is no longer with us.”

My brow wrinkled as I try to place her name, but my memory fails to bring up anything at all. I turn and face her while I struggle to gain something of meaning behind her coded remarks. She offers a handshake and I oblige.

“Whoa, you are frozen! How do you stand being so cold?!” A shiver runs through my spine as she retreats to the door.

“I’ve always been a bit cold hearted. We will meet again in a few years I imagine.”

With that, she was gone through automated doors. Not even a breeze to tell you she was even there at all. I shake off the embarrassment of being called out like that. My wife had been gone for a long time by now. She decided that living off a system promoting pay for nothing wasn’t a life worth living. I guess I still hold some anger with where our government had to turn. As the final gulp of my drink is finished the iron gates begin to close around the dispensary. Bars closing and the stragglers all file out together, still looking for that glimpse of meaning.