It’s been years since I wrote most of this. I’ve been in my childhood home in Berkeley California since early April, and stopped paying my rent in New York after June (it was June, right?). I hope they haven’t put my stuff on the curb yet, there’s some good shirts, a guitar that isn’t mine and some foamposites I feel strongly about. These days the only drinks i’m pouring are lazy dirty martinis and White Claw’s from a basement fridge. I am bored and I am depressed. I may tac on some stuff to the end about being a neighborhood restaurant bartender, since this is all from inside the snow globe of club life, or maybe I’ll write a third one of these, as we wonder if service jobs will ever look the same again. The joke of course is that things have been flaming out for a few years, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The only Customer I hate is the customer that doesn’t tip
Bartending is the absolute best job in an industry most people strive to avoid. Bartending is a tar pit for the smart and lazy because the money is decent. You bartend instead of some other menial task because you like nighttime, you like people (or did when you started), and you want to make the most money in the shortest amount of time. Each interaction behind a bar is worth one dollar, and you want to have as many interactions as humanly possible. On slower nights you have more meaningful interactions for more money. This has clear consequences for weekend shifts, as I’ve mentioned, but it’s much more noticeable on a Wednesday, when I’ve learned your names, you’ve sat for hours, had a free round, and then suddenly an unplanned rush hits, and you can’t flag me down for the life of you.
In this case, it’s my fault. I was building something with you, the 8 o’clock Wednesday happy hour customer, because there was nothing without you. I was just standing in a big industrial space in a liquor fort listening to ZZ Top and checking instagram. I put on the music you wanted, and we had a nice conversation. We shook hands, and lord knows I hate touching. But now? You’re forgotten. I’m sorry, it’s my fault. If I’d known a reasonable DJ was coming in at 10, I’d have braced myself to be a different person to you all of a sudden, but I didn’t read the email, I never do. I should, but I should also be able to add together the prices of five different drinks in my head and give you a dollar amount owed before taking your card, but if I had basic arithmetic skills, I wouldn’t be a bartender. I’d have hopes, dreams, and another life, just like you. Ditto for the email thing.
It’s not that I suddenly decided that i’d rather hang out with a bunch of people that stay up past 2AM in the middle of the week, my tender, job-having, after-work-drink customer. I need this night to stay steadily profitable. Before, when it was just us, the best way to do that was to give you free drinks, tell stories, listen, and god help me, give advice. Now, there’s another 30 people in the bar, and it’s my job to make them stay for a couple hours, if not for me, for my bar back, who’s making a fraction of what I make, except he’s the one actually picking up after you. And that’s the thing, if you don’t tip, we don’t eat. So as much as I might like you better, that doesn’t matter anymore.
Tipping is really only a thing in the U.S. It’s directly tied to slavery, as a payment model for recently freed slaves, who often only worked for tips with no base pay. Today in most states, the model is that you make something like 2.70 an hour plus tips, the assumption being that customers will make up the rest. Placing the onus of payment on the customer is a shitty corner to cut, that (nearly) every single bar and restaurant owner is willing to make because those are the rules they’re playing by, and with an absurdly high failure rate, they can hardly see beyond their own risk to appreciate what’s going on with employees.
In New York this becomes a specific kind of push and pull, since they know what kind of money you’re making. The fact that it’s nearly a living wage makes it better than most any retail or other service job which we all plainly know do not produce what anyone needs, but rather a version of life many Americans are forced to settle for, and be happy with. I work this into my “you have to tip” speech that I give to those from out of the country. Because my bar is sandwiched in between two hotels, across the street from a venue, in a once trendy now just plain money’d north Brooklyn neighborhood, I have many customers who are both young and not from here, and I cannot afford to let it go every time someone doesn’t know you’re supposed to tip here. I used to not believe that they didn’t know, but with the advent of the internet, no one reads a Fodors anymore. The speech goes like this:
“Hey, just so you know, In the US we only make money from tips. Our hourly wage is low and meant to negate the tax on credit card tips. If you don’t tip, we go home unpaid.”
This works around 80% of the time. The extension of that if they don’t listen the first time goes something like “I can’t see or hear customers that don’t tip”, which gets dropped the next time they come to the bar, after I have them wait five minutes longer than they should have, or, with an American that just doesn’t feel like it; “I don’t work for free, so find more money or I can’t help you tonight” tends to get your point across. Worst case scenario the person gets wide eyed and overtips and you wonder if you were too much of an asshole, but you don’t wonder about it longer than 30 seconds. There is no downside to mentioning tipping etiquette to you in front of your date either. I will bring it up loudly, with a blank face. This feels like garbage for both of us.
I know the bar I work at is overpriced. It’s exactly what you’d expect in “Prime Williamsburg”- $11 mixed well drinks, $13 basic cocktails etc. I know that’s not a workable situation for a lot of people. It’s not a workable situation for me personally. The bar manager who does the ordering knows that as well, and we’ve got your back; Budweiser is $4. Most bars and clubs in New York have something like this. Scan the room when you’re out in the City and feeling priced out. The fun broke people will all have the same beer in their hand instead of a $13 mixed drink; that’s the drink for you. I drink nice stuff behind the bar and at home. When I’m out, a highlife sounds great. This gets to a bigger point; don’t forget why you’re going out for a drink. You’re here to have fun. An $17 pour of Patron isn’t any more or less fun than the brand you haven’t heard of that’s five bucks less. Be flexible, in the end it’s all the same hangover.
Addendum: My manager pulled me to the side last night after a depressingly patient exchange with some rude Germans, who were also the type of the customer that does the “hand wave.” The dismissive wave isn’t something I love, but it doesn’t drive me nuts the way reaching across the bar and putting your hand on my shoulder does. Other people, including apparently, John the bar manager, can’t stand that shit. After a few more rounds he couldn’t take the second hand insult and pulled me aside. The talk went like this: “If groups like that stiff you, the next time they come back, tell them you can’t serve them until they tip for the last round. Explain how tipping works however you want, but you don’t have to serve them. You have the full support of me and the owners on this.” Now, I don’t think it goes down like that everywhere, but know this is the pervading honor code we all generally agree upon, and do with that what you will. Remember, you aren’t just tipping me, you’re tipping the other bartender, the barbacks and the busser, and we work for your tips, but we don’t work for you.
I’m Here To Play Defense, But
My current bar does not sell Blue Moon, Heineken, Jager, Honey Jack, Fireball, or Malibu. Or Stella. I do not know how to make a sex on the beach, and we don’t have all the stuff for it anyhow I don’t think. Some of that is reasonable, some of that is annoying, but it makes Saturday nights full of explanations where people who don’t go to bars except on Saturdays feel a little judged, or just confused. If it’s three or four people deep around the edges of the bar, and between 11pm and 2am, (and I’m counting on that to make rent), I may hand you a menu, put a pin in our interaction, and try to have another fast interaction while you decide what you and your friends are drinking. You decided it was a good idea to go to a crowded club on the weekend and talk to strangers while you get drunk. You’re in this together, buy drinks as a group, pay with one card. Use venmo. Coordinate.
I Am Stupid and Sometimes I Can’t Get Around That
I didn’t know I was working until I nervously checked my email while sitting down at the theater in midtown. It was 9:15 on a Friday, and I forgot that I work the third Friday of every month, a gift from my manager that’s also timed perfectly to be forgotten about every single month. I was sitting in my seat to see a 90 year old Brazilian Chanteuse with a few friends. The $300-500 dollars I’d make that night would usually be enough to get me out of my seat, unfortunately we’d all met up earlier at a kava bar.
Kava is a drink from the Pacific Islands that has a dopey effect. I’ve never done heroin, but it certainly feels like a facsimile of the pills that are heroin adjacent. There’s one kava bar in the east village, across from the Russian/Turkish baths. From what I’ve been told, it’s a hit in the recovery community. After two bowls of Kava, I was still feeling the uncomfortable high two hours into my swing shift, somewhere around midnight. Making and breaking eye contact is important to every busy shift. I spend a good deal of busy saturday nights staring at the well in front of me, trying to thoughtlessly follow the order I just repeated back to you and myself, while maybe taking a mental vacation to stew in whatever is going on in my life. Not with Kava.
With Kava I just stared through every customer, soullessly repeating back orders through heavy lids with a monotone voice that let you know how truly and deeply I didn’t care whether you lived or died, let alone whether your vodka cran came with two limes. This doesn’t sit with weekend customers who are grasping at their one moment of solace in a working world I haven’t been fit for in years. The fact that most people in the full room have never worked in service and hate their own lives doesn’t help.
The corner of the bar is a specific place where people who want to get served before everyone else who’s been waiting go to be ignored by bartenders who find it easiest to serve whoever is filling the empty spots directly in front of them. We can hear you calling for us, though we’re unsure what you hope to get from that. We can certainly see you waving for us, but this too will not get you what you want faster. Finally, we get to the corner. We make you wait longer than you should have, because serving the person in front us is easier, and you were being annoying.
A particular corner patron on this night of Kava and dead eyed stares, wanted a long list of beers we don’t stock, and drinks I couldn’t make even if I had the time to. Sidebar: your bar manager loves you if they opt out of all flavored liquor. They really love you if they pass up the mint you need to muddle mojitos. After informing her that we didn’t have the items she wanted, I handed her a menu drink menu, and told her I’d be back for her group in a second. She said “No!” to which I flatly uttered “Yes” and turned around.
I did this because I saw a group of smokers back from their smoke break, and they were ordering Budweisers and Jamesons. In other words, a bunch of easy orders who were tipping well came back, and I would knock out their $50 group order faster than this person was going to figure out what they wanted within the parameters of what we had to offer. Smokers tip well, and are rarely fussy because half their taste buds are destroyed anyhow.
It started with “Excuse me! Excuse ME” which is pretty standard fare to hit the back left corner of your ear on the average busy night, but when a situation is escalating, the muffled yell from beyond the wooden partition slowly gets drawn into focus. I’m not sure which I heard first; the breaking of the glass, or the word “manager.” The thing is, if you’re calling for a manager, I know I’m all the way good. I don’t swear at people, and I don’t raise my voice. I serve people in order, and I make the drinks the way I’ve been taught to at whatever spot I’m at. The best thing a manager will do for you is handle you and soothe you like you’re a child. More likely though, you’re too worked up to be in a bar, and the oldest and most tired person on staff is going to tell you to go somewhere else to drink, if they’ll have you. A floor manager’s ultimate goal is to have enough downtime to do all the paperwork that goes into their job, keep things good on the floor and in the back, oftentimes coordinating with a late night kitchen and a door man, all while making less than a bartender. They are not here for your shit in any way, shape, or form. But then there was the sound of broken glass again, because the corner customer was throwing glasses at me while yelling that she’d “like to speak with a manager.”
Ever dutiful to the needs of a violent customer, I went to go find the manager on duty, until it dawned on me I should probably just cut to getting security. Thing is, in the three minutes it took for me to find our guy, he was already kicking her out, but not for throwing glasses. After I disappeared into the back, the customer took off from her bully pulpit in the far left corner by the dancefloor, cut the entire bathroom line, started a fight in the front of it, pushed the girl at the front of the line who objected to her cutting into the bathroom, and punching her repeatedly. Within five minutes of picking up a glass and throwing it at me, the young woman was in cuffs in the back of a cop car, and no one even knew half of it.
This is not the kind of customer I hate. In fact, I barely even disliked her. If you go freestyle GTA mode on your Friday night, you are not equipped with the emotional guardrails to get through life successfully and peacefully, and that I can relate to. I haven’t been asked to leave a bar since before I started drinking, but anyone with deep and aching flaws can see themselves in someone else’s car crash and know that but for the grace of god goes your ass. I woke up the next morning sad that the glass thrower had been booked on a Friday, and wouldn’t see a judge until Monday. I can’t hold a grudge, I woke up to handsome payment in cash, and I woke up in my own bed. It’s half of the most I’ve ever made in one night, but we didn’t break any records in sales either, so it’s not the customer’s fault.
I Want To Love You, And I Want You To Fall In Love
I rarely feel any sense of relief aside at the end of the night, even counting the money is joyless until the till is known to be correct. I’m not the manager but I’m the fastest with the money and my shot or two an hour drunk brain has to become a functional abacus all of a sudden at 4:30 in the morning.
Still, when I look around at the bar at the end of the night, when I’m past last call and about to play one of my five “please leave right now” songs, what I want to see are people making out. If the bars I work at serve any function, it’s to meet someone. It’s to dance to a song that’s good right now with a person that’s good right now. Some people wake up and realize the person that was yesterday’s news will still be good tomorrow. Others don’t, and live to see another weekend. When I look around the bar and it looks like people met and might leave together, it feels nice, busy nights are overwhelming and your nerves are absolutely shot, so it’s pleasant to see people being pleasant to each other. Sometimes it’s the opposite of that.
It’s the constant chatter that rises above the music, leaving your ears ringing and your nerves rattled as you enter in the credit card receipts into the iPad, wipe down the well bottles, and count the banks. To me this time sounds like “ Ice Dance” by Danny Elfman. A bar back put it on a playlist at Elvis, and I found it to be the most disorienting thing one could play for a drunk that might make them feel weird, and self aware. Partnered with turning the house lights up, the only step further is no music at all, but where’s the sport in that? Recently I’ve been playing “Guitar Town” by Steve Earle at close, which might work at happy hour at another spot, but contrasts frighteningly in an airplane hanger-sized club bar that serves cold brew by day.
There were two placeholder sentences about the food carts here, how I liked the smaller one, and hoped he was there past four, which meant the money was steady on his end too. The corner of 11th and Wythe was absolutely crawling and shameful at last call, as a service person desperate for food I’d want to feel as much like a ghost as possible. None of us need to talk to each other, this meal isn’t about sustenance, it’s all delicious sport food that your digestion will turn to diarrhea, except for me, hood up, who last ate real food 12 hours ago. It’s worth noting a lot of you were in your 30s, I saw you. The feeling wasn’t so desperate leaving the east village, the activity wasn’t so manufactured that you felt like a cog emerging from the basement on avenue A. I also never had a weekend shift there, so what do I know.
I hear everyone is drinking from brown bags in New York and the summer has been fun, cops snitches and scolds be damned. I hear different, less positive things from the people I know out there who are working and or have children, but they aren’t doing what I’d be doing.
The club that opened after two years of effort to fill the void the downstairs spot on A left in lower manhattan was open for maybe two months before the investors pulled the plug on management, before 2019 was even over. A key owner had told me early on in the development stage that there was going to be a private room for “Justin Bieber types.” He said Justin Bieber a couple times, and it dawned on me that this was ingrained in the sales pitch to people that weren’t me, but as a potential employee, that was fine. The Bieber room in actuality was not for celebrities at all, but people I (you?) know in real life, a Hood By Air adjacent afterparty where someone tried to climb a tree, a birthday party for a DJ that isn’t a bad person, with other indie music milieu in attendance, et cetera. What it wasn’t was a playpen for investors who toss around their father’s shipping magnate money, which is the only nightlife that was truly sustaining itself in Manhattan before the pandemic hit.
I guess Tinder played its part. In years before dating apps, you get together with three or four of your friends and go from place to place in search of other groups of friends. A couple rounds at each place, if it’s a good spot you hold there, five rounds for 4 people that turns into 9 people (if the bartender’s lucky). Now you just meet one person at a bar, and if it works out you guys prolly leave after two or three rounds. If you’re not hitting it off you probably leave after two or three rounds. So 25-30 drinks (counting shots) turns to six drinks and a shorter stay. You need bodies in the bar to attract more bodies, if your bar is turning over that’s cool, but it’s hard to get customers to stay if it’s quiet when they walk in at Nine. Healthier? Definitely, but not good for bar numbers in cities where corporations and holding companies own the lease on most buildings, and are happy to hold an empty street level space for years instead of charging cheaper rent.
The last time I heard from the owner selling the Bieber line was in 2017, around writing the first “Hangover Forever” column. It was 4pm and I had my hand down my pants scratching myself, smoking weed, lookin’ out the window at the snow falling, listening to Chopin, hoping there would still be a crowd at the bar that night. The phone rang.
“Do you ever think about Larry Livermore?” Larry Livermore is the sometimes disgraced owner of what was Lookout Records, he was also the frontman of a pop punk band called the Lookouts. Lookout records put out Green Day, and went out of business spending money on the Donnas in a way that didn’t make sense for a business of its size and shape. It is discussed in anachronistic circles that he liked men that were too young. I had just recorded a demo of wannabe Lookout Records type music.
Owner X was in Bangkok. I had not heard the stories yet, but could use my imagination. He was trying to confess something to me, it was prime “Me Too” shitty guys in media list time. Harvey Weinstein had just gotten wrapped up and next were wealthy people with no boundaries who worked with people less powerful than them. He kept trying to tell me what had happened but his partner kept yelling over him. It was kind of incredible, she sounded like prime 3rd act Scorsese, when they should have flushed the coke 15 minutes ago. “You’re innocent baby!, you don’t need to justify yourself!”
The phone call never really finished, but I wonder if the bar would’ve worked with him still selling to people from his tax bracket, if that’s the only way it ever got done anyhow. I don’t remember how much I made that night or what happened. I probably drank mezcal and bitched about clearing $400 (the nerve, honestly.) All I know for sure is that I’d spent every last dime of my earnings before the next weekend shift.