Tim Kam has been in the bar industry for 12 years, watching the scene shift through sober eyes. But being a non-drinker in a party world isn’t what’s put the Oddfellows barman in a unique position—it’s that he’s been on dialysis for the past five years. His fight against kidney failure has given him perspective and inspired compassion, turning him into a philanthropist who gives away more than the occasional shot of tequila.
Kam got his start in the bar biz doing something that seems to have gone extinct: cigarette promotion. At 22 with his face illuminated by a tablet screen, Kam passed out Camels to drinkers in exchange for fake email address. The job took him into all types of bars, exposing Kam to cultures he never experienced before.
“I’d never really been to bars. …It was actually one of those things where it opened up my eyes to different lifestyles because we’d go to gay bars, goth bars, country bars—and I wasn’t really exposed to too much of that,” he says.
The Cue Club pool hall on East Sahara particularly stuck out.
“This was like 10-years-ago. …I don’t want to age myself too much but that area was full of bums [and] prostitution,” he says. “It felt kind of dangerous but it was also fun at the same time. It was thrilling. No one felt weird in there. No one felt out of place.”
It was around this time that Kam became interested in music from an indie party called Rawkers that is still around today. DJ Johnny Roxx was playing bands Kam was just getting into—Bloc Party, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol—at Thumpers, a defunct bar near Flamingo and I-15.
“I would just kind of hang out while doing cigarette promotions and get into the music,” he says. “That’s probably one of the defining moments as far as going into a bar and being like, ‘Oh this has changed me.’”
Hawking cigs proved to be even more beneficial for Kam. It’s what got him his first job in 2006 as a barback at Art Bar (where Clay Arts Vegas is currently located), a bar, events venue and gallery hybrid that would show different artists’ work every month.
That eventually led to a job at Beauty Bar. At the time it was one of the only bars on Fremont East, before pink glitter coated its walls, catering to early twentysomething hipsters and karaoke stars. Kam started as a barback and worked his way up to manager in six years.
He says over the years he has witnessed a change in the environment Downtown. People seem happier, there are not as many vacant buildings, and now you see more than felt hats and flannel. “Ten years ago, you’d probably see the same group of people at the bar all the time. Now you just see so many different people,” he says.
Which is what Kam is trying to attract at Oddfellows, where he has been working as barman and manager since 2015. Oddfellows has been an ideal place for Kam to blend his passion for music and attraction to subcultures into one. The bar hosts various dance parties catering to different crowds each day of the week, like the New Noise indie night and the Grits and Gravy soul night. Kam wants to start incorporating live performances and music, like the recent drag show for Pride week.
“I would like to create a space for artists to enhance their own talents and network with other artists and just make Vegas more of a musically-cultured place,” he says.
Oddfellows has granted Kam the opportunity to help the Vegas community in other ways, too. He got the idea to donate his tip money to Shade Tree women’s shelter after another bar on Fremont East made a distasteful joke about domestic violence on a sidewalk chalkboard.
“I noticed a lot of people getting very personal and sharing their stories of [domestic violence], so I wanted to do something positive,” he says.
He’s continued to do mini-fundraisers ever since, which he attributes to the kidney problems he was born with. “I have a unique privilege to be able to work and still kind of be—I hate to say this word—I’m considered disabled, which I don’t feel like I am,” he says.
Kam looks like he can easily dominate in an arm wrestling match. The majority of people wouldn’t guess that the stylish, happy and in-shape bartender has health issues. At work Kam is all smiles, a little bit quiet, but always generous.
“I’ve been in a position where I was really scared of what I was going to do and how I was going to live,” he says about his kidney problems. “I didn’t know what was going to happen because you lose functions of your organs and you’re dependent on a machine.”
Three days a week, Kam goes to four-hour treatments where a dialysis machine filters waste in the body like a functioning kidney is supposed to do. “Pretty much two days out of the week I’m just holed up in my house because I’m recovering,” he says. “Luckily, Friday I can come in after I take a long nap after the treatment.”
Between treatments and work, Kam has little free time.
“I can’t donate my time, unfortunately, but I can at least donate money. There are people less fortunate than me and I have been less fortunate than I am now, so I like to try to help people.”
Kam donates his tips or a dollar from each special sold to various causes such as The Center, the ACLU, The Nevada Coalition for Suicide Prevention, Donate Life, Gender Justice and, most recently, Veterans Village for Veterans Day. He once raised money to buy a tablet for a woman around his age who is also on dialysis. He says having a tablet helps pass the time during tedious treatments.
Kam has taken two seemingly different aspects of his experience—bar life and humanitarianism—and found a simple way to get them to work with each other for the community.
“The only time I really do enjoy being at a bar is actually working at a bar. I like doing this right here,” he says about Oddfellows. And Kam doesn’t judge people who drink in excess, potentially causing damage to their kidneys. “I usually don’t know their situation. People also cope and celebrate differently.”
Kam is not currently on a donor list. He says he has to stop working in order to do so, which is one of the reasons he works so hard to save money.
“I just want to do as best of a job as I can,” he says. “I really do put a lot of work into this because it’s what I want to do.”