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THE REGULARS

Remembering those peculiar patrons who follow their own rules at cafés, bars and restaurants.

ILLUSTRATIONS AND TEXT LINDA GABARAJEVA

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Those of us who have spent their best years working as bartenders and waiters know that bars and cafés are not just places for eating and drinking. For many clients these public spaces offer a real, or imagined, community. Someone placing an order in a restaurant might not have any other conversations that day. A bar can be a place where the lonely student can write on their laptop while checking out the hip and happy people, who all seem to have friends. And, for some, the sense of community is so appealing that they become regular guests.

Every venue has their regulars. They know the names of all the waiters and bartenders, and the staff end up knowing things about them in return. While we often don’t know their names, we know things that are a lot more personal. The unsuccessful tattoo on their wrist, the number of rum and cokes they drink a night, the different partners they have, or how they always spend their Friday evenings drinking lattes alone at a certain table. After some time, we start to say hello to them on the street, and feel like we’re almost friends. 

There’s a special subcategory of regulars. They stand apart by not really being customers, because they disobey the fundamental law of service industry – you pay, we serve. They never pay, but they somehow get what they order anyway. This is a diverse group of people who come for various reasons: some want to talk, some need a warm place away from the streets, and some have simply found an easy way to get free stuff. 

I had worked at bars and cafés so long that I forgot I could do anything else. During that time, I met people who never paid, yet bartenders and waiters treated them with more respect and warmth than the most generous tippers. Maybe it’s because a lot of workers can identify with the slightly lost, weird people who might not have anywhere else to be except for here. 

The Artist

We called him the Artist. Everyone in the café knew he was a painter because he always talked about it. I think he had this idea that being an artist set him apart from others, it elevated him. He would ask for a cup of coffee and I always gave it to him because I liked him. Although I thought he was rather self-centered, he redeemed himself with his intense gaze. He looked at me as if I was somehow special. 

When at the counter, clients usually look through waiters and bartenders. They are in their own thoughts comparing the price on the menu with what they have in their wallets, thinking about where to sit, or having a conversation with their friends. Many don’t even say hello. After all, most of them come here for food and drink, not for us. But when I had just started working, it was a shock. Suddenly I wasn’t seen as an interesting conversationalist, or a funny person. I was just someone who took orders and then delivered them. It could have been anyone. Later on, I learned that this anonymity can be nice, and I also learned that clients change if they come often enough and we form a certain kind of relationship based solely on the quantity of the unchanging ritual of exchanging goods.

But before I became a wise service industry worker, I was young and clueless, and I wanted to be seen for who I thought I was. The Artist, with his manic look, seemed to have looked inside my soul. Alas, as I can see now, he probably just thought I was pretty. 

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The Sleeping Man  

He comes to the bar every night at about 10pm and politely asks for a cup of hot water. He then sits down at a table, stirs something in the water, an instant soup or tea, slowly drinks it and falls asleep. He never drools, he sleeps peacefully without disturbing anyone. He comes even on Friday and Saturday nights, when the bar is full, and the music is loud. 

Bartenders like him because his drink is easy to make. He is a constant in the unpredictable party nights, holding the equilibrium like the meditating ascetic, providing serenity to those that are busy fighting sleep.

People claim to have seen him sleeping in many different establishments for 10 years or more. Once the owners or the staff feel like it has been too long, they ask him to leave and he finds another place to call his bedroom.

I recently heard that the customers at the bar had been complaining that they felt uncomfortable in his presence, and he was asked to leave and not come back. I guess I will see you at the next place you will choose to rest at. Until then, sweet dreams, gentle man. 

The Lady with Many Bags 

First appear the bags, then she herself enters the café with her back bent almost 90 degrees. She takes her bags with all her belongings and slowly walks to her usual table in the middle of the lunch hall. She doesn’t come to the counter, because she knows she will be served at the table. One of us goes to the kitchen immediately and orders solyanka. 

I have already forgotten what her name was. Maybe she had forgotten it too. From what we understood, she had been tricked by a distant relative into giving up her apartment. She had been wealthy and lived in a large 5-room apartment on a busy street where she could now be seen so often, slowly carrying her many bags. 

She refused to go to a homeless shelter, because she didn’t consider herself to be homeless. Although her apartment had been taken from her, she insisted that she had a home and regarded herself as an owner of property, refusing to depend on others for help. I think she was either too proud to ask for help or didn’t have a clear understanding of her situation. She treated her daily free soup as rightfully hers, as if she had only forgotten to pay. She had clean, neat clothes and good manners. Her long grey hair was always braided. She used our bathroom to wash herself. 

I regret that I didn’t try to help her. When I left the job at the café, I forgot about her. I had my own problems – figuring out where to study, how to be less depressed, and what to do with all the free time I had. I saw her a few more times in other places and on the street. That was about 5 years ago; I haven’t seen her since. 

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Ivan the Guru 

Ivan always has advice for you. He seems to be respectful of other people’s boundaries, but he is not. He will find little ways to demonstrate his superior knowledge of your life and the path it must take if you ever want to get out of this place and be happy. 

Ivan was always meeting with miserable young men and women and would spend hours talking to them, but I never heard what they were talking about. Later, I met three separate people who didn’t know each other, but they'd all used Ivan’s services.

From what they said, he mixed esotery and positive psychology to guide young people towards happiness. In return, he asked for a meal or money. Not in a straight manner, of course, but he let you feel that there was a law of exchanging energy – I provide you with deep wisdom and you give me something in return.

It didn’t seem to him that he too should follow this law. Instead, he would always ask us for a free coffee, “... and make it extra strong please.” His smart-casual appearance reinforced the business-like relationship he had with his – followers? Apprentices? Clients? 

There were not many details we knew about him. In fact, he most likely knew us way better than we knew him. A barista had a theory that Ivan had been a Soviet spy because he seemed to be rather wealthy and he walked very silently; he could creep up on you and scare you with his sudden presence. To be honest, he scared me with his presence, even without being sudden.

Everest

I first met him outside the bar. He asked for a cigarette in a cocky manner and I felt a bit intimidated, as if he had more of a right to be here than me. He looked hip, with long hair, stylish sneakers, and clothes in pastel colors. He reminded me of a street musician or a traveler. Maybe that is why we called him Everest – it could be that he hitchhiked through Asia, climbed the Everest and returned to tell about his adventures. He never smiled. He kept cool. He mingled well with the frequent crowd; he chatted with people, smoked cigarettes, roamed around the house. He came early in the day and left late at night.

One day, I noticed him washing his shoes in the sink, then he asked for scissors to cut his nails. I began to notice that although he never paid for his drinks, he always had one. He was very good at making new friends – gathering around himself a crowd of tourists he would order craft beers for everyone, himself included.  The tourists were glad about being so warmly welcomed and would always be happy to pay.  

Stories came in that he was homeless by choice. That he was ‘against the system.’ He was an anarchist. He was free – freer than all of us free-spirited liberals, free not only in thought, but also in his actions. 

I wonder, was he really free? Was his life determined by his chosen ideals? Or was his way of getting free stuff just another system, just another type of job? What does he himself think of that? I don’t know. He was always so cool that I was scared to ask. 

The Glass Man 

I liked working weekend mornings because I could walk around the bar and stay in my head while everyone else was still in bed. Well, almost everyone. He came to the door every Saturday before the bar opened to collect the glass bottles we didn’t recycle. He smiled, said thanks and walked away carrying multiple heavy bags. I liked this little intrusion, I liked how he was so polite and almost invisible. 

I only noticed that he hadn’t been coming to collect the bottles when I saw him a year later. He had changed. Although he had already been elderly before, he had always looked strong. Now I noticed how he had suddenly aged, his skin had gotten wrinkly, his hair had gone from grey to white and most strikingly, he now walked with his back bent, looking at the pavement. 

This time he came to the bar during the day and didn’t collect bottles. He came to enjoy a terrace concert, to eat a snack and just to sit and watch people. Maybe he thought he had worked enough. It was time to rest.