The Glass Half Empty
There was a gentleness to the night, an odd lack of sudden movement or action in everything. The people that strolled by me tread lightly and with languor, the leaves moved almost cautiously, and the wind fluttered by without any startling occurrences. The snow under my feet muffled my footsteps, and those of the men and women, old and young, alone and in pairs, that stepped past me without meeting my eyes. The snow. It fell through the air, swirling, dancing in front of my eyes and clouding my vision; the streetlights were clear, but muddled, the holiday lights glittering and blinking wearily like stars. My mind and soul were detached, in a sense, from those around me, and the world felt like a dream. I could hardly tell if everything was at peace, or if the world had been dulled and my senses painted gray without me noticing.
As I made my way down the streets of Dublin, to the old pub, or diner, depending on what you could call a diner, that had become my regular haunt since I arrived in the city five months prior. It was a dingy place, small and crammed in between a supermarket and a barbershop. Convenient for the Dublin couples, old and young, that often roamed this portion of the city; the old man would have his look freshened up at the barber’s, while his spouse with their kids, or by herself, parsed the supermarket in search of whatever they needed at home. Many times I had seen this exact occurrence, though less of a picturesque image: couples, bidding a dour temporary farewell at the door of the pub, before they parted frowning in opposite directions and finding their own solaces in the peace of the other’s absence, though still finding occasional comfort and usual trepidation in the knowledge that they would see each other again, and the next day, and so forth.
I greeted the young bartender, whom I had befriended throughout my numerous visits, as I sat myself down at the counter. He had been a student, born to Irish immigrants in the United States, where he was raised, before attending university in England, and he returned to Ireland for a gap year to take care of his grandfather. Both his parents met their fate in the great factories of America, while he was overseas studying, and no longer having any financial support, he had little choice but to escape to the world his parents worked so hard to leave. But he was bright, charismatic, with a keen eye and sharp intuition; he had all the trappings of an excellent bartender, or waiter, both professions that require a mastery of the art to be performed elegantly. Had he continued his studies, he could have become great, in the field of medicine or the sciences, or perhaps he could have found work in the most elegant of lounges in his current profession. But here he was, a bartender of the highest potential in the lowest practice.
“The usual?” He set down his glass, and smiled at me.
“Make it a little stronger tonight. I need inspiration.”
He began to retrieve bottles from the shelves behind him. “Your deadline soon?” “Ah, to hell with deadlines. That publisher’s been running me like a pack mule. I just need ideas.”
The bartender chuckled, setting a tall glass in front of me. I took a long sip, before setting it back down and sighed. “Your old man doing alright?”
“He’s doing fine. The lumbago’s pretty much gone now, and he’s finally been able to sleep properly.”
“Did you give him the painkillers I recommended you last time? They’re quite effective.” “Oh, yes. They helped him quite a bit. Took his mind off things a bit, so to speak.” He paused. “That’s an obscure brand you found, really. Never heard of these painkillers until you introduced them.”
“Yes, I know my way around these medicines…” I took out my notebook and pencil, setting them on the counter. The bartender stepped several seats over to serve another guest, a young couple, which had just arrived.
The absence of a partner to converse with allowed me to take in my surroundings. The pub was rather empty tonight; usually, it was loud and rowdy, as expected with Irish pubs. But being the holiday season, many likely chose to drink at home. Needless to say, there were still customers, who had found an escape from their troubles in the plate and the glass.
There was a wanderer, a homeless man, passed out in one of the booths; a clean bowl and plate by his head, which rested on the grungy table. The young couple, sitting several seats down, speaking avidly with the young bartender. A young family, cheerfully discussing Christmas and New Years, sharing a single bowl of Irish stew.
The rowdiest bunch was a group of factory workers, roaring with laughter, shouting and swearing with thick accents, who had evidently gotten off the job some time ago and had been in the pub ever since. They were still smudged with soot and dirt, their boots caked in mud, and all of them still wearing the uniform characteristic of factory workers. The men in this profession had a reputation, in this part of Dublin; they were rough, made little money, but spent much of their pay in pubs and bars the day of receiving their checks. Clearly, it had been payday for these men, and it was likely that they would return home with empty pockets.
I turned my attention to my manuscript, hoping the alcohol would help me think, though knowing, through my cathectic relationship with the stuff, that it would do little for my creativity. I had yet to decide on a premise, but I picked up my pen and began to write. I wrote, wrote everything in my head, wrote down whatever crossed my mind, and slowly, a world began to take shape. My vision seemed to swim, though the page remained clear; the images of the pub faded around me, the sounds drowned out by the visions of vast landscapes, of grand, sweeping cities, clean, articulate, and organized, of a small pub, filled with festivities, with laughing and cheerful customers delving into dish after dish; of a man sitting at a bar,
pencil in hand, writing in a fervor, a frenzy, about heavens that he as the most human among man, would fain to experience but never could, for though he tried, through the advances of the most depraved of sciences, of the most violent manipulation of the mind, he could hitherto only dream of them, and in that small pub, write down only the most inchoate of fantasies in the vain hopes of producing before his eyes a true semblance of beauty.
Eventually, my senses slowly returned, and the pub settled back around me; the dim lighting and the mahogany walls, the old, cracked leather seats, the grubby tables and spotless counters, the soft music floating through the air; the laughter and shouts of the factory workers returned to my ears, and the young couple had since left the pub. The family sat, lively as ever, chatting, arguing, the bowl of soup now empty in the center of the table. The homeless man continued to sleep, as if in a drunken stupor, and my friend the bartender, now stood in front of me, folding his rag delicately with a practiced smile on his downcast face. He had refilled my glass.
“You’ve written quite a bit,” He said, setting down his towel and turning to me. I shifted slightly, nodding. “Nothing much of worth. Just ideas that I probably won’t ever see come to fruition.”
“Do tell. What is it that you want to write about?”
The bartender gave me a piercing look. “I’m no writer, but perhaps you have nothing to say. And that’s why you have no ideas. Or perhaps you’re trying to say something, but struggle to say it.”
I looked down at my manuscript, skimming through the words I so formlessly placed on the page. “Perhaps.”
Smiling, the bartender gestured towards the table of rowdy factory workers. “I see a lot as a bartender. Those men over there? One of them lost their oldest son two days ago. Another’s wife died of dysentery just this morning. The others have their own share of problems as well. Yet they are here. And they look happy.”
I gave the rowdy table a long, sideways glance.
“You ever feel that way?”
I looked up at him. His voice sounded normal, with that smooth, charming timbre that was so characteristic of him; but his smile had faded slightly, his eyes were now duller, and he had lost some of that straight backed, mysterious energy that he usually exuded.
“Happy when I shouldn’t be?” I frowned. “Well, who wouldn’t want to believe that their life is better than it really is?”
I returned to my manuscript. “You know, when I lived in America, my stepmother would always say to keep looking up. Focus on the beautiful things, and see past the ugly. She was
always like that; never paid any attention to the problems we faced, only cared about living pretty.” I paused. “That’s a thought…”
Turning to a fresh page, I began to write again.
“Let me put it this way for you,” I said, pausing, picking up my glass and draining half of it.
“The famous question,” the bartender said, smiling. “Is the glass half full or half empty?”
“Precisely. Now, what do you say? Is the glass half empty? Or is it half full? Or is it neither?”
The bartender stared at the glass, and replied, “I am a bartender, you know. By profession, I should say it is half empty.”
I laughed. “But otherwise?”
“Then I would say the glass is half full. I do like to look at the brighter side of things.” “And why is that?”
The bartender took a deep breath, and thought for a moment. “Well, who wouldn’t choose a glass half empty over a glass half full? I mean, that would be a positive mindset, wouldn’t it? Living optimistically, you know. It keeps me sane during hard times. And really, what is the point in a half empty glass? That half, by definition, is nothing, no?”
“An interesting take. But is that a positive mindset, per se, or is it, rather, something like avoiding the truth?”
The bartender frowned. “What do you mean?”
“You know, for me, I would love to say that this glass is half full as well. I, like you, enjoy envisioning that what I have is quite enough to make me happy.” I paused, picking my pen up. “But if I say that the glass is half full, would that be ignoring the empty half? If I choose to live happily, would that be ignoring my sorrows? Is perceiving one side the willful ignorance of the other?”
The bartender tilted his head, gazing off into the distance. “Well,” he said slowly, “if you focus on your happiness, but still acknowledge your sorrows…”
“There’s a balance, right?” I gestured towards the factory workers. “But some have no moderation, and never pay any heed to their problems.”
The bartender fell into silence. He remained still, leaning on the counter, watching the men laugh, argue, drink, as I furiously scribbled down the conversation we just had. Is the glass half full or half empty? As I sat there thinking, an argument began to form in my head. If I told myself my glass was half full, was that deceiving myself, telling myself that what I was missing was truly unnecessary? If I believed the glass was half empty, would that be pessimistic, or negative, apathetic? My stepmother had chosen to only ever live with the half filled glass. The family in the pub, which had exhausted their festive tendencies,
preparing to leave, did too. And most obviously, the factory workers, which showed no sign of slowing down in their merriment, did as well.
The bartender, on the other hand, was conflicted. He preferred to live with a heartfelt passion, with light steps and a gaiety in his air. He was young, he was fresh, he was green; it was only natural. But, as I came to realize, he was locked in a life that forced him to the half empty glass. As a lowly bartender, as an orphan, as a man who had everything taken from him, he was forced to look at the empty half; he could have led a full life, with everything he wanted, but the cruel hand of fate had dealt him a hand dearth of happiness.
At this point, it had been a few hours since I found solace at the bartender’s counter, almost around one o’clock in the morning. It was late into the night; the only remaining customers in the pub were the one homeless wanderer, in his death-like sleep, and the factory workers, who had quieted down with a suddenness that I had failed to notice. They were now slumped, some of them asleep as well, and some of them gazing off into space, some of them murmuring to each other in subdued voices. The bartender, no longer compelled to maintain his display of professionalism, continued to tend to his station with a dour, somber composure. His posture had fallen, his eyes downcast and tired; for him, though he was a bartender, the night was no longer young, and its age had claimed him, steeping him in its draining weariness. Thus, I took my leave, bidding my friend farewell, and stepping out into the snowy night.
The snow. It had let up significantly, but the temperature had dropped an equal amount, and my coat no longer warmed me as it had on my way to the pub. There was still a sufficient amount of the stuff floating in the air, that my vision was not entirely clear, but I could see more than I had earlier in the night.
The few that remained out in the night stumbled past me, in drunken throes of despair and denial, and the streets were dotted with dirty, miserable men collapsed against walls and under the leafless trees. The lights, hung up for the festivities of the holiday season, which had so strikingly resembled stars in the night sky just a few hours prior, now appeared harsh, unforgiving, and arrogant in their brilliance. The world had changed around me, and I suspected the lack of snow was not entirely to blame.
But I tread on. I willed my mind to recreate the vision of happy holiday families, warm, festive lights, and young couples strolling past me, in my eyes, overwriting the scene in front of me. I sought an escape from what I saw, and the alcohol, though it had trivial effect on my creativity in the pub, now wrought its power in full force. My eyes were painted with my delusions, and my heart felt lifted immediately. Because after all, what is the point of choosing the glass half empty?