Quality versus convenience. It is a question we ask ourselves every day. Some will argue: Status matters most to me. Others will parry: My time is what I value most.
Whenever I have to make the choice for myself I find myself reflecting on two memories, of two strangers, met in different bars, in different cities, at different times. These two memories, preserved in acute detail, often give me pause, and help me choose my place when the line is drawn in the sand between quality and convenience, lifestyle and time.
Story the First: The Man Who Wanted Top Shelf Vodka
It was a warm summer night in Nassau, the touristy tropical destination that’s part of the Bahama island chain. It was the type of summer night that was finally cooling off after a humid, 80-degree day. With sun-burnt skin radiating heat off of us like we were our own fleshy, pink-tinged space heaters, we sat at the hotel bar, The Telegraph.
Styled with a faux 1950s theme, the bar was adorned with antique mailboxes, post office boxes, and letters in bottles. It gave the sensation that perhaps Hemingway sat in this bar drinking whiskey and penning the opening verses of A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, but only if you looked at the décor with blurry, rum-influenced eyes.
With wide, clear eyes, you saw the bar for what it was: a touristy theme-bar on the ground floor of an island hotel, hoping to give patrons an extra element of escapism from their lives back home. It was not a bar for Hemingway’s whiskey. It was a place to order cheap Kalik and Sands beers, or a piña colada.
We were allowing ourselves to accept the superfluous sheen of up-scale nostalgia, but really, we were just enjoying the air conditioning, cheap island beer, and the fact that the flat panel television above the bar was airing ESPN from back home.
As we sat at The Telegraph, a young, impeccably dressed young man walked up to the bar with purpose. Button down shirt tucked into slim-fitting dark jeans, brown leather shoes, and hair slicked back, he immediately stood out from the rest of us casual tourists who were enjoying the opportunity to trade corporate days and portfolios for island nights and Rum Runners.
The primped man approached the bar determinedly and asked the underwhelmed Bahamian bar tender (without so much as a hello or any other form of pleasant greeting), “What is the best vodka you have?”
The bartender blinked once, and then turned over his shoulder to face the obvious selections. Casting his eyes up to the row of vodkas, he shrugged disinterestedly, unamused by the obvious question.
“Kettle One?” He made his reply as if it were a question, and not an answer.
I’m not much of a vodka drinker, but my understanding was that Kettle One was a pretty good option.
For the buttoned-up vacationer at a bar trying just hard enough to be classy, apparently, the Kettle One vodka was absolutely not good enough. He heaved a sigh of disappointment that could be felt rippling across the room. His shoulders slumped and his head dipped as he cast his eyes down to the sticky, shiny, wooden bar top.
The bartender made no reaction. Just blinked again and waited for his patron’s decision. I suppressed a giggle.
The vodka connoisseur picked up his head as if summoning his strength for an impossible journey. In a single, coordinated movement laced with dejection, he turned his head in the direction of his date, who, I had yet to notice, was sitting at a small table behind us.
“John! John, they only have Kettle One. Is that gonna work? Is that gonna work, John?”
The vodka connoisseur was clearly looking for someone to share in his disappointment and sheer misery at the presence of only, apparently, a middle-upper-quality vodka in the middle-upper quality Bahamian bar.
I peeked at John out of the corner of my eye. He was rapidly typing on his smartphone, creating an incessant simulated clacking sound. He peered up over his dark-rimmed glasses and shrugged, mumbling something that indicated he was even less concerned about the vodka selection than the disinterested bartender.
Resigning to suffer a drink made to a lesser quality than his liking, the bar patron accepted his two vodka sodas made with Kettle One, and huffed away to join his date.
I remember the vodka connoisseur, not just when I hear someone choose Kettle One for their drink, but every time I see someone crestfallen that they can’t have what they want in ridiculous circumstances.
It’s the co-worker who’s disappointed at the quality of the free screen printed t-shirt, but not so disappointed that he doesn’t insist on being first in line for the freebie. It’s the restaurant patron who fights for the best seat in the house, but then complains that it’s too sunny. And it’s the birthday girl, who huffs when her friends buy her a spa treatment, but forget to cover the tip.
The Lesson I Learned: When we lose the ability to be grateful for what we have, to be present in the moment, and to choose to enjoy a situation, even if slightly less than ideal, we can only ever live in a state of constant fear and expectation of disappointment.
Story the Second: The Man Who Wanted the Cheapest Beer
My mind has catalogued the vodka connoisseur juxtaposed next to an excited, fun-loving bar patron I observed in Minneapolis. It was another hot summer day, and on this evening, Minnesotans and tourists alike were seeking shade inside a hotel bar with an Irish pub theme. Unlike the bar in the Bahamas, this pub was not trying to be anything it wasn’t.
It was as authentically American-Irish a pub as one would hope for. Mahogany railings and spindled end posts lined the walkways and stairs. The tall bar was full of so many taps that one could barely see to get the bartender’s attention. Framed photos of Celtic coats of arms, and historical photos of Dublin, and old Guinness advertisements from the forties and fifties covered as much of the wall-papered walls as possible.
Earlier in the day, we had noticed a large party of groomsmen eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Followed by a cameraman, documenting the day for posterity, they ate their omelets and smacked each other on their backs, and laughed boisterously as they prepared for, what for one man, would hopefully be the best day of his life.
When we saw the same party of groomsmen descend from the elevators and enter the lobby outside the bar’s doors, all dressed up in neat gray suits and brightly colored ties, we could only assume that they were on their way to the rehearsal dinner. Watching from inside the bar, they were just as boisterous and fun-loving as they had been that morning. Before they left the hotel, one of the young groomsmen ran into barroom and up to the bar, wildly working to capture the bartender’s attention.
“Hey man,” the groomsman greeted cheerily, his cheeks already rosy from some possible hotel room pre-gaming.
The bartender, a big burly man, and the type of bartender who wasn’t overly-friendly to you until you’d earned it by proving you were a polite and affable patron and not a rude, pushy tourist, gave the perky groomsman a nod with his chin by way of response.
Hurriedly, the groomsman asked, “How cheap is your cheapest beer, and how late are you open?”
Without hesitation, or even the slightest show of emotion, the bartender answered flatly, “Five dollars, and one a.m.”
“Perfect. That’s all I needed to know.” With that, the satisfied groomsman jogged out of the bar to join the rest of his party.”
This exchange made us laugh audibly, and I noticed even the stoic bartender betrayed the slightest hint of a smile, just at the corners of his mouth.
The groomsman’s blithe attitude had been infectious. He didn’t need anything fancy. He wasn’t looking for a deal. He just wanted a comfortable place where he could celebrate with his friends, without breaking his budget. For the groomsman, time with friends was of paramount importance, not status, brand loyalty, or product quality.
I remember the groomsman not only when I hear someone choose the least expensive option, without even asking what it is, but every time I see someone happy just to be where they are with the people they love.
It’s the mom stuck in an airport waiting for a delayed flight playing games with her kids as if they’re having an adventure. It’s the restaurant patron who shrugs it off when the waiter tells him they’re out of the special, smiling at his date as if to say, “As long as she’s here, I don’t care what you bring me.” It’s the best friends who show-up to the sold-out movie they waited weeks to see, and leave the ticket counter arm-in-arm, deciding to get manicures instead.
The Lesson I Learned: The ability to be grateful for what you have, and the people you have in your life, is powerful. It can allow you to overcome disappointments, hardships, challenges, and frustrations. We all need someone in our life who makes it better when disappointment crashes against us like a relentless wave, and we all need to have the ability to be that catalyst for someone else.
I often see in my mind the vodka connoisseur from the Bahamas, standing haughtily next to the jolly groomsman from Minneapolis. I think about their different expectations and wonder if I observed them in a singular moment, in which they made a singular choice based on specific, determining circumstances, or if they approach every choice they make from the same perspective.
“What is the best I can get?”
“How much can I fit into the time I have?”
Top shelf versus well.
Status versus companionship.
Instant gratification versus lasting memories.
If a line were drawn in the sand between the very best vodka and the cheapest beer, where would you stand?