I was there to see Pete. I sat on a bar stool in the heart of West Brooklyn, New York. To my left, were bowling lanes with glossy wood floors, which reflected the dancing neon lights from above the pins. One of the lanes, about a quarter of the way down, was occupied by a jovial group of 30-somethings wearing birthday hats. The bowling alley was otherwise empty, except for a woman quietly cleaning rental shoes by the door, and the bartender, Pete, in front of me. It was a Wednesday night in the fall of 2019.
Have you ever visited someone you’ve only seen in a movie? The movie is a 12-minute documentary called Magnitudinous Illuminous, a biopic of a bartender at a bowling alley in Brooklyn. The bowling alley, Melody Lanes, neighbors pawn shops, gas stations, and unlit parking lots. Pete Napolitano, who’s probably 68 by now, has worked behind the bar there for over 30 years.
The film interviews Pete about his life’s path to Melody Lanes. His time as drummer in the 60s and 70s taught him that he was a night person, at his best and most energetic late in the evenings. More importantly, he learned that he finds meaning in affecting change for people in his audience. He says that, as a bartender, he still has an audience, although now it is one-to-one and instead of music, he has words.
A couple of years ago a friend of mine shared some words delivered by John Gardner. Then, I had left my full-time job at Facebook to pursue a self-guided curriculum before deciding what to do next. Gardner was the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson and had a distinguished career in public service and in the private sector. His insights on leadership are legendary.
In the speech, with the heading “The Road to Self Renewal,” Gardner describes self-limitation and the life-long pursuit for learning and meaning. Gardner offers an alternative to being narrowly ambitious.
“Be Interested. Everyone wants to be interesting but the vitalizing thing is to be interested. Keep a sense of curiosity. Discover new things. Care. Risk failure, Reach out.”
While an emphasis on curiosity isn’t new, distinguishing between being interested and being interesting suggests a cycle. It’s like ‘being interested’ contributes to some law of attraction between ideas and people. The desire to learn is a fuel that’s stronger and lasts longer than pure ambition. It’s one thing to feel inspired by words on paper but an entirely different experience when you see someone living lessons in person.
Enter Pete, and my evening listening to him in person. Pete has been called a bartender-philosopher because, as the documentary shows, he has composed a “grand theory of existence.” It’s been crafted, tested, and archived on cocktail napkins and loose paper from behind the bar. Pete is well-read, even to the 3rd or 4th reference. He’s inquisitive with reflections on everything from why we watch sports, to sparking creativity, to addiction. As Pete explains his theories and frameworks, it quickly becomes clear that he’s not someone you move away from at the bar, you want to lean in. To me, he’s one of the purest examples of the notion “be interested” that Gardner suggests. Being interested makes you interesting.
Everyone that comes to Pete’s bar is immediately greeted by “I’m Pete.” He quickly discerns whether someone is a participant or an observer of what he has to share. While he takes care of his bar with precision, Pete has a commitment that’s bigger. Pete wears a crisp, white shirt. It’s tucked into black slacks that are held up by black suspenders and his shirt is punctuated by a red bowtie. “This is an illusion…See these? These are just props…” he says, gesturing to his oversized glasses. Pete isn’t just a bartender who submits to the tasks of the job, as others may do in other occupations. In between pours, he serves up inspiration for living a creative life and the makeup of meaningful relationships between people. One of the biggest things that drew me to Pete at Melody Lanes is the meaning he’s built for himself and creates for others from this unexpected place.
Gardner emphasizes that “Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in the treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life…You build it through your commitments… Your identity is what you’ve committed yourself to.”
I wanted to meet Pete myself; Pull up a stool, order a drink, and ask him firsthand for his take on the world today. As a patron, I was struck most not by what Pete said but how he made me feel. Pete says, “I talk…you pick up some pieces here and there… I’ve done my job.”
One of the guys from the birthday party walked over to the end of the bar. They exchanged banter about the game on TV. He handed Pete a slice of cake, they shook hands and pulled each other in to touch foreheads in a brief but sincere bow. Without skipping a beat, Pete walked back to the middle of the bar to refill my beer and pick up where we left off.
When we look around for models of leadership in today’s environment or even how each of us can lead ourselves, it’s worth considering that we might find inspiration in unexpected places. While it’s likely you’d get to know Pete Napolitano as “Pete” and John Gardner as Mr. Gardner, these characters have more in common than their places-of-work might suggest. You don’t need to be at the top, or the end, of your life to have a self-evolved philosophy to share with strangers. Regardless of your ‘stage,’ sharing a philosophy as it’s evolving creates the possibility of connecting with and inspiring people that happen to pull up a stool next to you.