What the bar­man heard

The se­crets strangers share

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents -

‘Pas­sen­gers treat me like a tem­po­rary psy­chother­a­pist’ Sacha, black- cab driver, 50

Most con­ver­sa­tions I have in my black cab are very sim­ple: how’s your day, how’s the weather, how’s the traf­fic, that sort of thing. But oc­ca­sion­ally I’ll have an in­ter­ac­tion that stays with me. The most mem­o­rable one was on 26 Septem­ber 2006, which hap­pens to be my birth­day. A young woman in her late 20s got in. When I asked how her day had been, she burst into tears. She told me that her baby had died in the womb, and she was try­ing to start a char­ity to help par­ents who ex­pe­ri­ence still­births. I told her that it was my first day back at work, be­cause my wife had just mis­car­ried our twins. I pulled over and we both just sat and sobbed to­gether. The re­sult­ing con­ver­sa­tion helped me dur­ing a very dif­fi­cult time. I’m not an emo­tional per­son, but that took me by sur­prise.

It’s not un­usual for cab drivers to have very hon­est con­ver­sa­tions, be­cause peo­ple know they are not go­ing to see us again. Pas­sen­gers treat me like a tem­po­rary psy­chother­a­pist at times. They have told me about trust is­sues in their mar­riages, fail­ing busi­ness re­la­tion­ships, anx­i­ety. I keep driv­ing and keep lis­ten­ing.

I’ll ad­mit that af­ter the Brexit vote, con­ver­sa­tions have changed. I’ve got a shaved head, so peo­ple of­ten pre­sume I’m far right, when I couldn’t be far­ther to the left. The racist con­ver­sa­tions I’ve had to en­dure have been vile.

I over­hear a lot of con­ver­sa­tions, whether they’re about busi­ness, re­la­tion­ships or sex. I once had a guy talk­ing on his phone. He was say­ing, “Buy these shares, and buy four mil­lion of those shares, six mil­lion of those shares.” Then his phone rang. He went red and I burst out with laugh­ter.

I said to him: “So your phone is work­ing?” Some con­ver­sa­tions get quite em­bar­rass­ing, es­pe­cially when peo­ple start to dis­cuss their sex lives, or lack of sex lives, but that is prob­a­bly be­cause I’m a prude. →

‘She told me not one mem­ber of her fam­ily was go­ing to her wed­ding, be­cause they didn’t ap­prove’ Luke, hair­dresser, 27

Con­ver­sa­tions are the best part of my job, be­cause do­ing hair can be e quite te­dious. The main topic is love: with some of my girls, I can’t wait for or their next ap­point­ment to find out how their lat­est date went. Re­cently, one of my clients told me that she’d ar­rived at a date with some­one she had met et on­line, only to find they were 15 years older than their pro­file. She stayed for or drinks and made an ex­cuse to leave: there was no sec­ond date.

The most spe­cial con­ver­sa­tion I’ve had with a client took place very y re­cently. A So­mali woman came in to have a hair trial for her wed­ding; she’s mar­ry­ing a man who is half-English and half-French. She wanted two hair­styles, les, with an evening one that paid homage to her So­mali cul­ture. I had spent weeks re­search­ing the hair­styles and when I turned her around in the mirror ror so she could see the fi­nal look, she burst into tears. She told me not one mem­ber em­ber of her fam­ily was go­ing to at­tend be­cause they didn’t ap­prove. This hair­style airstyle was her way of in­cor­po­rat­ing So­mali cul­ture into her wed­ding, so that hat if her fam­ily saw her wed­ding pho­to­graphs, they would see that she is still ll proud of who she is. I told her that she was brave and strong and right for stand­ing nd­ing up for her be­lief in love.

Then there are some con­ver­sa­tions with clients that can be a lit­tle e more tricky. As a gay man, some can be quite awk­ward. Some clients are fine with my sex­u­al­ity and then some say things like, “Oh, you’re mar­ried? Who is the hus­band and who is the wife?” As of­fen­sive as those mo­ments can be, I will al­ways re­main pro­fes­sional and make the client feel com­fort­able. That’s hat’s just part of the job.

‘One client told me about her ho­mo­pho­bic boyfriend. She ended up pack­ing her bags’ Rachel, per­sonal trainer, 26

It is not un­com­mon that I train some­one who may be deal­ing with de­pres­sion, fam­ily is­sues or other in­se­cu­ri­ties. The weird­est con­ver­sa­tion I’ve had with a client hap­pened a few years ago. She’d taken some time off. When she said she wanted to start train­ing again, we met up to dis­cuss a new pro­gramme. I was taken aback when she said, “You have been re­placed. I am now Rachel.” It turned out she had a per­son­al­ity dis­or­der.

I of­ten have emo­tional and highly per­sonal con­ver­sa­tions with my clients – you can only have those if you build a rap­port with them, which comes from treat­ing ev­ery one as an in­di­vid­ual and giv­ing them lots of time and at­ten­tion. Most of my clients are women, and we of­ten talk about dat­ing woes. I hear it all. One client told me a shock­ing story about re­al­is­ing her boyfriend was ho­mo­pho­bic. She ended up pack­ing her bags and leav­ing. I heard the whole story while she was do­ing squats and lift­ing weights.

You over­hear many con­ver­sa­tions in the gym, but there’s one par­tic­u­lar chat that hap­pens ev­ery day, usu­ally be­tween men. “Bro, you are look­ing hench” (mus­cu­lar) one will say to the other. And he will al­ways re­ply with, “I’m just try­ing to be like you, bro.” There’s a never-end­ing cir­cu­lar con­ver­sa­tion of flat­tery be­tween them. If you’ve never heard that con­ver­sa­tion in the gym, then you haven’t been go­ing enough.

‘When the po­lice left, he said, “That’ll teach me for leav­ing my shot­gun on the back seat” ’ Michael, bar­man, 50

I’ve worked in pubs and bars for more than 30 years, so I’ve heard and seen most things, from de­tails of ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs to dodgy busi­ness deals. Al­though the most in­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tions are be­tween peo­ple who know each other re­ally well. Any­thing goes in the pub.

I re­mem­ber an el­derly cou­ple who used to sit at dif­fer­ent ends of the pub and shout at each other, with a sort of smoul­der­ing ha­tred that ev­ery­one found re­ally amus­ing. The hus­band would shout at his wife, “What the fuck are you do­ing here? Why aren’t you at home?” She would re­spond just as vi­ciously and call him a “bowsie”, an old Ir­ish word for some­one who doesn’t go to work. De­spite their twice-weekly shout­ing matches, I think they were happy. The pub was their theatre.

One of the most sur­real con­ver­sa­tions I had was in a pub I tem­po­rar­ily ran in Lon­don. It was home to a lot of dan­ger­ous crim­i­nals, in­volved in ev­ery­thing from drug traf­fick­ing to ex­tor­tion. One day, about 15 po­lice of­fi­cers came bar­relling through the doors. I was be­hind the bar at the time and they told ev­ery­one to stay where they were. A po­lice­man asked who owned the red pick-up truck in the car park. I told him I didn’t know – I’d only been there two weeks. But I did know: it was the leader of a group of crim­i­nals I served reg­u­larly. When the po­lice left, the owner of the car came up to me and said, “Thanks for not grass­ing me up. That will teach me for leav­ing my shot­gun on the back seat.” His cronies laughed and I just moved on to serv­ing the next cus­tomer. I fig­ured it was none of my busi­ness.

If you can’t get peo­ple to open up and trust you in a pub like that, you are in big trou­ble. When you are deal­ing with dan­ger­ous peo­ple, you have to work out which one is the sil­ver­back, the leader of the pack. You show them a tiny bit of re­spect, give them a free pint, in­tro­duce your­self and say who you are – or they can make life re­ally hard for you.

‘I didn’t re­alise how many times I’d have to talk to some­one af­ter they try to take their own life’ Dorothy, doc­tor, 28

This sum­mer, I was talk­ing to an el­derly fe­male pa­tient who was com­plain­ing about the heat, and I joked about get­ting a tan. She said, “You get a tan? Black peo­ple al­ready have amaz­ing skin, so how come you also get to tan?” I said, “I know it’s un­fair, but we all just have to love what we have.”

I of­ten have these funny ex­changes, and I over­hear all sorts be­tween the pa­tients – es­pe­cially be­tween el­derly fe­male pa­tients. Do­ing my morn­ing rounds on the care of the el­derly fe­male ward, I hear ev­ery­thing from,

“I’d like to take that doc­tor home with me” to “That nurse’s got a face like a slapped arse”.

There’s a de­tec­tive el­e­ment to the con­ver­sa­tions I have with my pa­tients – I’m al­ways try­ing to get to the root of their cur­rent health problems and what they need. I al­ways in­tro­duce my­self to ev­ery­one in the room; it’s im­por­tant to break down any bar­ri­ers and build rap­port. I treat a range of pa­tients, from peo­ple who come in with coughs to those be­ing brought in af­ter at­tempt­ing to take their own life. Be­fore I got into medicine, I didn’t re­alise how many times I would have to talk to some­one af­ter such an at­tempt. It’s dif­fer­ent ev­ery time, of course, but al­ways in­cred­i­bly emo­tion­ally charged.

Peo­ple prob­a­bly think the hardest con­ver­sa­tions come when talk­ing to a rel­a­tive af­ter a pa­tient has died; but it’s ac­tu­ally most chal­leng­ing be­fore they die, when I need to ask rel­a­tives to sign a “do not at­tempt re­sus­ci­ta­tion” agree­ment. The con­ver­sa­tion sounds so fi­nal, and pa­tients can take it as a sign that you are giv­ing up on them, when in fact we’re try­ing to make their fi­nal mo­ments more com­fort­able. I can feel quite shaken after­wards.

When rel­a­tives lose some­one I’ve been treat­ing, it is never easy. I call my­self the un­pro­fes­sional pro­fes­sional, be­cause some­times it is not just words that are needed. Rel­a­tives need to be em­braced, and for you to lis­ten. Af­ter all, you were with their loved one in their fi­nal mo­ments

Il­lus­tra­tions by Joelle Avelino

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