Karma Chameleon

We hospitality workers subtly shift roles to seek the same beauty guests do.

Most people—you and me and that woman making your latte and that man turning down your bed—we want the same thing. We want to taste beauty so potent it transforms us. “She wants to hear wine pouring,” writes the poet Rita Dove,“… taste change.” We pursue that beauty relentlessly, if in different ways.

Those of us working in hospitality, however, lead double lives.

I am one of you; I am not one of you. Here I am behind the bar; there I am slipping from my post to mingle with the crowd. First I pour your wine; later I sip from my own glass. We are alike, you and me—although when I pull on my work boots, tie back my hair, and roll up my sleeves, the resemblance might be hard to see.


It wasn’t purely aesthetics that first drew me to wine—I can’t make such a romantic claim. Necessity factored heavily. At the height of the Recession, I arrived in Sonoma County with a lagging freelance business and no safety net. I felt wildly lucky, then, to find a gig working with a boutique winery. I’d soon become their first full-time employee. Seven years later, I still help run the place.

No, I didn’t come to wine just for the beauty—but I stayed for it.

Prior, I’ve found beauty on the walls of museums, between typewritten pages, and rising from fine instruments. When I finally tasted it on my tongue, I craved more—and wanted to share it with others, too.

Isn’t that what hospitality is all about?

My employer introduced me to his cool-climate Syrah, which had an earthy quality that comforted and grounded me. I still turn to this wine when I need steadying. Soon after, I encountered a Grenache made by Angela Osborne that brought me to tears. How can wine affect me this way? I wondered. What a sap. Maybe—but in these and other moments, wine became more than a job. It became a love.

Sustaining love is never easy, and this was no exception. While the vineyards and pastures of Sonoma County had once seemed a practical place to take refuge from the Bay Area rental market that shifted as the Recession gave way to a burst of economic growth. Tourists flooded the place, and homeowners could soon turn a buck renting property to vacationers—bad news for the working class. I coped by moving into a 35-foot travel trailer, a wild ride you can read about elsewhere on this blog.

My gypsy wagon’s first parking spot was bucolic, amid some of the oldest Zinfandel vines in California. My abode was surrounded on all sides by grand chateaux. Daily strolls through the vines wove my reality into theirs. Privately, I tackled challenges that only a trailer dweller could know.
Ambassador of the JuiceIt’s proof of my masochism that my struggles to make a living only intensified my passion for my work. I will do this, I told myself. I will find beauty each day. When my bank account was in the red, when a botched brake job wrecked my car, when an eviction notice was pinned to my door (a result of that aforementioned foreclosure), I showed up to the winery, opening bottles.

As I filled your glasses, your smiles were contagious. I shared my beauty, and you shared yours.

Chameleons blend into their surroundings by changing the color of their skin. It’s quite a trick, really. Their skin is comprised of pigments layered with cells containing special, sparkly crystals. Chameleons actually expand the space between the crystals, so that light reflects and changes the color of their skin. It’s assumed that chameleons change colors to camouflage or hide, but more often, they do it connect with fellow chameleons.

Really–don’t we all just want to connect?

One unifying characteristic of Californians is that, regardless of social status, many of us seek a certain lifestyle. This doesn’t necessarily involve fine things–just deep, debaucherous pleasure. We are like acolytes of some unofficial church, driven by faith that beauty will prevail. When we’re lucky, it does.

Recently, it did so for me—not in Sonoma, but in Reykjavík. Visiting Iceland on a writing residency, I was led by local friends to a fish house known for fine Nordic cuisine. My plate arrived as a work of art piled with slow-cooked Arctic Char, Icelandic lobster, scallops, artichokes with dill vinaigrette.

“Your face,” my Icelandic friend laughed. “I don’t even need to eat, I could just enjoy the expression on your face.” The dish was that good. It’s also true that, because I observe and share beauty as part of my job, I appreciate it more readily.

I am on this side of the bar, then that one. First I am pushing a broom, then I am lifting a glass. Does my glass contain wine from the top shelf or the bottom? Does it really matter?

One way or another, may we all share in the beauty of the world–



David Bradley, Pueblo Feast Day

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