What I’m Here For
Bartending is legal drug dealing. 88 thousand people die from alcohol related deaths every year in the U.S. alone. Still, it’s a legal and socially enforced part of adulthood that spans humanity. There’s the customer, a physical divider, the bartender (hello) and then finally, the product. If the product isn’t served quickly enough, the customer gets anxious. The anxiety can be for any number of reasons. Life is hard, and for many it’s only getting harder. People have always had drink. This might be the most sober we’ve ever been as a human society. Up until 40 years ago driving drunk was a skill. Nearly two decades into our warmest century we are straining to place more value on individual human lives.
The concept of “fun” has had a tenuous run, with a premium being placed on idle time only when bellies are full, generally 50-100 years before a society crumbles. In 1942, LaGuardia, the Mayor of New York, was called upon by a young relative who was weeping. He’d put a nickel into a pinball machine, and after three plays, the game was over, and he’d won nothing. The payment of course, was for the pleasure of playing. Now, selling experiences is at a premium, but at the time the anti pinball sentiment was mainly tied to remaining impulses of the temperance movement. Through all the advancements in human time wasting, the enduring temporary experience remains being drunk. It’s also one of the most accessible, if not the single most regulated.
Arcades are nearly fully automated experiences. Whether videogames are drugs or not, or whether certain stimuli in them does to the brain what drugs and alcohol do to the brain is the subject of many a study. AI might take my job one day, and there are already vending machines full of cold ones across the globe, but not here in the U.S. Until the ethics coding within a driverless car that decides whether to crash into the school bus or swerve and kill the little old lady crossing the street branches out, serving drinks and doling out suspect advice, I have found a job I can hang on to.
It’s your first day at your new bartending job. You walk in, and the opening trainee is playing “Bad and Boujee” at 8pm. The sun is still up, it’s abnormally warm, and there’s a group of six loud drunk people losing their shit at the bar. It’s kind of an annoying scene, but they’re having fun, it’s the weekend, and the bar exists for that kind of behavior. We are open for you to buy drinks and have fun; specifically dance, and maybe find a new sexual partner. The barback is visibly intoxicated and pissed off. Customers like the group dancing on their chairs are good news for bartenders unless the situation takes a turn. You learn early on to tolerate all sorts of dumb behavior, because you work at the place where people come to do that sort of thing. Barbacks, on the other hand, are there to clean up after everyone, and these people have already broken a glass and spilled another drink across the bar. He walks up to them and beginning yelling and cursing. It’s your first two minutes at your new job, and as the evening bartender you are technically the manager on duty, although the bar back doesn’t know that or know you. There are regulars that are friends with the owners that are watching this all happen, and they don’t know you either. Security won’t be there for another two hours, and this is 100% your problem. What do you do?
I didn’t have any idea what to do, but after 20 seconds the “oh you’re technically in charge right now” kicked in, I stepped in, and promptly got a big helping of “Who the fuck are you?” from a bar back that just found out the new bartender had stepped over them instead of them getting moved up to bartender, and they were doing so on Saturdays, further backing up the internal promotion order. I’m not one to get sworn or yelled at by a partner I love, let alone a co-worker I don’t know, but as with most yellers, the key is to stay calm until they elevate to such angry heights that they just tire themselves out, saying something so not OK it doesn’t matter if they had a good point in the first place.
Why The Bar Back Can’t Serve You
You start as a barback, and barbacking sucks. It’s hard work and you don’t make as much as the bartenders do, and because you haven’t been a bartender you don’t understand why they make more. Sometimes I’m not sure why I make more when I see one of my guys on a busy Wednesday jackknifing through a crowd to go fix a toilet, swap out garbage, pick up empty glasses full of crumpled napkins, sweep up glass, or more often than not all at the same time. Odd plot twist; people in the crowd will become aggressive with you, and you will be threatened. Often. I still can’t quite figure out why barbacks get physically threatened so much. At first I thought it was just me, because I’ve been physically threatened for most of my life, and most of the time I’ve deserved it. I think it’s just about being in the shit for that long. No one is on the floor of a club more than a bar back or busser. They have to do something I thank god every shift I don’t have to do anymore, which is leave the safety of behind the bar.
My first bartending shift I went to go do my usual lap, then stopped in my tracks, realizing I was stuck in place. A barback is free to wander, watching what’s happening everywhere at all times, while the bartender is tethered to the booze. This makes the barback a crucial part of the nervous system in a busy bar. If something breaks and I know how to fix it, that might not matter if it means I have to abandon my post. Few things look worse than an empty bar. You can get away with it at a home base, every-night, round-the-way type spot, and in many cases that’s part of the charm, but at the club I work at, we might never see each other again. I need to be next to the well waiting for you.
The barback’s day starts before the bartenders. When you arrive they have filled the ice troughs, set up your juices and garnishes, restocked the beers, and maybe they even married the liquor bottles if you didn’t get a lot of orders that afternoon. Oftentimes that ice machine has some awkward slot you gotta throw your back out digging into, and something’s gone missing in the barman’s setup, and you’re alone, so you gotta just figure it out. God forbid if you start filling the ice buckets and notice bits of black, which means it’s time to clean out the filter on the ice machine, which you’ll learn to do then go on to pretend you don’t know how to do until your conscious kicks in when you realize no one else plans on cleaning it out. This shit is toxic and gross and way more common than you think, so good thing everyone likes the next step up from total darkness in their drinking spaces. Then there’s the kegs and cases of beer. Usually that shit’s kept in a basement. All of this goes down hours before a customer comes in.
During the shift you are replacing liquor bottles as fast as you can, chopping limes near constantly, clearing glasses and bottles as much as possible, ferrying information between bartender, floor manager, and customer, and if you’re truly out of luck, doing a little amateur plumbing. It’s in your interest to clear as many bottles and glasses as fast as possible even though you’re sometimes grabbing the dregs of someone’s drink that they’re going to raise hell over, maybe physically threatening you, maybe just calling you out to a manager. You’re clearing glasses and bottles like that because they become weapons and are used as such in barfights. Furthermore, there are creeps who put things in drinks. People get drugged in busy bars. I have never to my knowledge had this happen on a shift I’ve worked, or at a place I’ve worked at, and I want to avoid it at all costs. I pass this along to whatever barback I’m working with. Please don’t leave your drink sitting out.
When the night ends and the lights come up, you are the clean up crew as the money is totalled. You can’t let it all sit for the night porter because you know they’re getting it rougher than you are, and even if they weren’t, you’re all in this together. The money count remains vague sorcery, as you watch drunk bartenders you sort of trust do math, calculating how much you made in a night. They have a reasonable grasp on how a night is going as it’s going, but you are in too many places at once. My old trick was to try and count shot glasses. Shots are expensive and happen fast, usually in groups celebrating, which means more tips faster. Not always the cleanest math, but it’s something. Depending on the place, you get a tip out that’s a fraction of the bartenders. You are essentially bartender in training, and every terrible thing you’re learning will dictate how you move behind the bar once you’re serving customers yourself.
And so there goes the bar back, ignoring you as you raise your hand to order for the third time as he passes. They might pause if they have a moment or inclination to inform you they’re “just a barback” but the truth is, they’re fucking busy and I’ll be with you in just a second.
The Problem With Saturday Nights
It’s 3:52am and someone just tried to grab for a bottle that’s on the bar. They should be up there for too long, but it’s the best way to tell which have been scrubbed down for end of night and which haven’t. The guy didn’t get called out by an employee but rather got caught by a snitch customer. I don’t appreciate the help in these circumstances. There are no deputized customers and it’s not your problem. Tell me, but don’t just go rogue one some other drunk customer. My back is turned, I’m entering credit card tips manually, which can take about an hour on a busy night. The other bartender is distracted by another customer. I wish the security guard would be a bit more stern. Insured and bonded security companies are good for the bar as a whole, because they limit the actual owners’ liability, but they are typically not invested in the spot as a money maker in the way the rest of the employees are. Private security is great, they’re part of the family, but if they go off on a customer and it gets legal, the entire business can unravel because of one incident.
In this case the snitch customer got racist and aggressive quickly; “Where in the world that you’ve been would it be cool to reach across the bar like that?” He keeps leaning into “world.” By the time I turn to ask him to leave, the crowd is being herded out the door, and the house lights are coming on. Ten minutes later the floor manager comes in wide eyed. “Those guys at the bar that were bickering did not know each other at all, they’re out front beating the shit out of each other.” This is a thing that happens on Saturdays. It happens on other days, but this is bar time on Saturday in New York behavior.
The Saturday shift is a coveted shift because it is the foundational shift of a rent making. If you bartend on Saturday nights in New York with regularity the odds are good you’ll have more free week days to pursue whatever it is that is going to save you from bartending for the rest of your life. You accept lonely Sunday Monday Tuesday shifts where you serve thirty people in eight hours while a nice amateur plays trance to a dance floor of no one. That being said, weekday customers are great. More often than not, they’re like you; young, keeping odd hours and off schedules, contending with a gig economy. Fridays and Saturdays are for people that don’t have to bartend. On my particular club row, the weekend customer is often the person who is driving your rent up past the heights you thought you could almost handle.
Saturdays are the neediest customers at the highest volume who generally do not and often have never worked service, and thus lack empathy, or worse, have no grasp on basic bar manners. It’s easy to ignore someone who’s being blatantly rude and keep serving other folks if there’s a throng, it’s hard to explain the “why” of a disagreement. The joke of course is that this group who generally needs the most attention comes on the night when it is impossible to do much more than hand someone their drink with kind eyes, let alone a conversation.
Cocktails, Fine OK
Coming from a year and a half at a beer cracking, vodka-soda type bar with no cocktail list at all, I resisted making anything in the mixing tins for a longer time than I’d care to admit. I will give you a wild look if it’s busy as hell and you just ordered three different four-step drinks. It’s inconsiderate to the people around you, who are also waiting. Once you chose to drink in public, part of what to consider is that you’re in public. Still, cocktails are nice, and I’m good at making them, and happy to make you whatever I have in front of me provided the spot isn’t a zoo. In this capacity more than any other what you’re paying for are my services. For beers, mixed drinks, I’m simply the mechanism legally required to get you what you want in a public place, but honestly, most people don’t even know what’s in their cocktails, or how simple most of them are. Most people don’t actually know what’s in the drink they order.
Building a cocktail is simple enough. There’s a thimble type thing sitting on my setup that I ignore, opting to eyeball it and count in my head (this is good news for you, more on that later). You start with the cheapest ingredient and “build” up, before topping with ice, then shaking or stirring. For a Margarita I’d go simple syrup, then lime juice, then tequila. I don’t put orange juice or Contreau in the Margaritas I make because I think it tastes gross. Sure, it’s the “correct” way to make it, but generally people say “Oh this is delicious! Thank you!” No one has ever commented on the shocking lack of orange zest in their Marg. Not to me anyhow. I used to get the occasional comment on my Martinis and Manhattans, two drinks that are annoying because they have to actually be made properly and proportionally. Again, most people can’t tell the difference, but those who care are even more annoying when they aren’t satisfied. I think these are the people are the kind that think condos aren’t tacky.
I will never wear a vest or artfully roll up my sleeves behind the bar. I don’t care for fernet and I think most folks of this ilk are goofballs. I only have one hill to die on in the land of cocktails. There isn’t such a thing as a vodka martini. I get that because you order it and I know what you’re talking about, and I make it for you, and you get it, and you pay for it, and drink it and you called it that, and it’s what you wanted, that it technically exists, in that way that “We’re all dying” way, but I am here to tell you that martinis are Gin with dry vermouth, and sometimes olives. Maybe a lemon. There’s no such thing as a vodka martini.
A bar manager I worked with for a time had come from a heavy cocktail background in the midwest, and was slowly weening himself off the pretense of artful drinks. One day he asked me if I wanted to hear a secret, so naturally I said “fuck no,” but he kept talking anyhow. His voice got low and giddy; “I make each cocktail a different way every since time i’m behind the bar here.” This wasn’t especially thrilling news since he made the list himself and changed it with some regularity, but it underlines an important point; most people have no idea what they’re ordering.
(Still) Fuzzy on a Thursday 9.7.17 (Another Long Weekend)
I’m not sure why I decided to go by my place of work at 1:30AM on the Sunday of Labor Day aside from the mild thought of “But I’m not done yet.” This is a terrible reason to stay out, and I hate when customers do this. I’m not sure I’d want me as a customer. After passing by the bar for a shot, I was pointed to a confrontation beginning to form into a true storm cloud in our back area. I knew one of the regulars involved, and thought if I just outstretched my arms in front of two drunk adults they’d see the error in their ways and listen to me, or, unlike me 20 minutes ago at the last bar, make the smart call and go home. I was wrong, I got clipped in the back of the head, and now i’m on day three of post concussion watch.
I thought a smart thought about a year and a half ago. I was bartending on Sundays in the East Village, overseeing an iffy emo night that never got off the ground. The host felt that his past relationship with the singer of a prominent emo band guaranteed a decent party, though his party boy days were clearly in the rearview mirror, as he would begin to point out as the room didn’t quite fill out. Iffy parties are weird because you’re catering to a specific audience but the margin of error as to whether you make any money that night are the strangers you encounter.
I heard breaking bottles, one after the other, finally leaving my post (I worked solo on Sundays with a security guard at the top of the stairs) to find two bad humans from Boston smashing glasses on the ground jeering at the crowd. Instead of going and grabbing the security guard I yelled at the dudes myself, got shoved to the ground and punked. I considered getting up and fighting two drunk strangers alone in a basement but realized it was better to be embarrassed for the night than to get the living shit kicked out of me over a bar I didn’t own.
Apparently the lesson stuck for about a year and a half, since I thought I could play peace keeper late into the night on Labor Day. I tried to work my Wednesday shift, because the tides of capitalism crash along your shore whether you got punched in the head or not, but just couldn’t keep all the thoughts in my head that I needed to. The management let me limp along until 10 (I had asked to stay on), so I could at least get half of my tips for the night.
What You’re Saying When You Say “Make it Strong”
The logic of “I don’t come to your job and tell you what to do” isn’t a fair line of defense when it comes to warding off bossy customers. I don’t actually know what a CPA *does* for instance. But to say that petty anguish isn’t entirely situational is to sidestep the human experience. When I’m driving, bicyclists are suicidal, and pedestrians are inert cows that are lucky I’m paying attention. When I’m riding a bike, drivers a slovenly murderers, killing the planet, but first, me. When I’m walking, which is now most of the time, it’s “fuck everything on wheels ‘til I die or get on/in something with wheels3.” So I get that the five minutes you’re waiting for your drink is stressing you out. “Isn’t my money green?” you think to yourself. Finally I get to you and it’s been a million minutes (read: three, prolly about three minutes) and you tell me with confidence to “Pour it strong.” I barely grimace anymore, lazily saying something like “I pour the same drink every time.” If you’re still in the mood to assert that you had to wait like everyone else, you might tell me that you “see how it is” or show that you no longer plan on tipping me that extra one dollar on the $15 brand name liquor you insisted on.
Here’s where we start to misunderstand each other. Service people, and this is a common misconception, do not work for the customer. Perhaps at the Fifedom Hills country club out there in real America, where members pay ungodly amounts to hide behind “keep out” signs amidst the man-made rolling yawns of a putting green, the service staff is indeed, service, in that classic PBS show about rich English people way. They pay membership fees in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege, and I wouldn’t work there anyhow. Unless you are at a private club, this shit is not the case. You can’t fire me, you certainly didn’t hire me.
You’re wondering what sort of order i’m going in, and you feel a flutter of panic when you realize the order of customers helped isn’t entirely fair, it’s a combination of luck and my personal convenience. Your resentment grows deeper. I can feel your eyes on my back, which is why I wore this shirt that says “NUKE THE NATION” on the back of it in big American flag filled block letters, to let you know that I know you’re looking at me, and if I feel this way about our beloved country, what chance does your infuriatingly specific cocktail order stand past midnight? You begin to tap your credit card on the bar, lifting your hand to gesture as I pass. The gestures grow more frantic, and finally you snap; “Hey we’re dying over here.” I nearly glance up but I know better. Dead people can’t order drinks, they don’t tip, and since you’re tapping a credit card I already know I’m not walking home with your money tonight. Also, it’s been three minutes since you walked up; you walked up to the beginning of Mask Off, and they just cut over to Uzi after the second verse.
Finally, there I am, in front of you, ready to make your drinks as quickly as possible to the best of my ability, you order simple, bless you, a gin and soda and a vodka tonic. Normal group date and the club stuff. Now, you have my attention, then the magic addendum floats out of your mouth “and make sure you make them extra strong.” It’s the sort of thing that’s unexplainably rude because I have a hard time explaining exactly why it’s rude, but let me give it a shot.
How and where the alcohol goes is my oversight but not my prerogative. What I mean is I don’t own the liquor I’m serving I’m just tasked with looking after it, and if there’s no manager on duty, that’s my job too. So while on certain nights I’m the person who decides if you have to leave because you keep bothering women at the bar, or reaching over and trying to touch me, or are just being a general jerkoff (to be fair jerkoffs are tolerated, sometimes they’re even venerated, it’s assholes that don’t last long), it’s not my call how much alcohol I put in your drink. There is a measuring cup and bigger places (sports bar emporiums and the like) employ more exacting methods. I don’t want to work at a place that doesn’t trust me to pour the right amount of alcohol, so I pour the right amount myself. Then there’s the more troubling aspect of the question.
Why do you want more alcohol? People generally want more everything, sure but why do you want more alcohol? The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism describes binge drinking at 4 drinks in two hours for women and 5 drinks in two hours for men. Why do you want to get their faster? The standard alcohol content for hard liquor hovers between 43 and 45 percent. The amount I pour will get you good, and the mixer you chose will help mask the fact that you’re drinking a poison that’s destroying your body, dig? There’s shit like Bacardi 151 and Wild Turkey 1015, but bars generally don’t stock ‘em because they want their customers functional, paying, and not aggressively drunk.
A Tough Beat
I didn’t forget my 3rd Friday of the month shift this go around (is there any shift more likely to be forgotten than one that only comes once every four weeks?), but am starting to become convinced it’s a cursed shift, with demons clawing at the staff’s backs and bank accounts, if not our sanity. While last month was a loud money shift, with glass throwing and top 40, this was a slow creepy crawl, replete with a gentle R&B DJ who’d had their successful throwback-ish Thursday party bumped up to a Friday. The problem is people will leave if they don’t know the music, and the crowd wasn’t that cool, and so we mellowed in the dim light until 1am.
The last customer of the night put a dagger in what was already a slow, dreary sort of evening. When I wasn’t a service professional, I loved Fridays. Even as a kid I liked them better than Saturdays, carrying all that pressure and relief of the school bell into the evening. I am still rooting for Friday as a day of the week. The customer was the average red cheeked mook in a 5th generation mesh backed baseball hat from some surf conglomerate. He asked if he could ask me a question, and put out his hand to shake. When I took it, he asked me “What do your parents think about what you do for a living?”
I saw pure white light for only a second too long, replying that my father was dead, before asking who had raised him to be so shockingly rude, although i’d already painted a picture for myself. I felt the elevator shaft that starts above your stomach plummet well below by groin, knowing I’d given him too much. However I feel about my job in moments like this one, it pays the bills while plenty of people are hungry. Plenty of people would be happy to have my job, and I am happy to have my job. He doesn’t get to know about my Dad, he didn’t deserve a response, and he certainly wasn’t getting served again.
I spent the next 20 minutes with my back turned while he tried to call me back over, until I went in the back to drop beers off in the kitchen. He’d touched base with them as well, signing their receipt with a slant eyed shrug face, and bowing deeply at the staff upon receiving his food. He was gone when I came out to kick him out, so we just closed and moved on. I’m due back at work again in 27 minutes, trying to have an etch a sketch mind. It’s a new night tonight with a new party and new people. Walking home from the bank earlier I saw the clean needle guy stocking up the churches along Manhattan Avenue, double parked next to all the delivery trucks rushing extra beer shipments. The sun is setting now and there’s finally a breeze in the air.