On Bartending

On Bartending

Vodka Tonic

Vodka, Tonic, Fresh Lemon Juice

“Closing Time” – Tom Waits

Bartenders are the Mick Jaggers of the restaurant world. We are artists (creative), generally good looking (you certainly think that this is the case after we serve you drinks) and, if pressed, can mix you any drink you (or we) can come up with or desire. We can also read minds, tell great jokes, cook like Emeril Lagasse, sing like Janis Joplin, solve the problem of the God particle, write like motherfuckers, and fuck like, well, rock stars. We’ve generally had a lot of practice. We get more respect than any of the other restaurant workers because we serve the most important product in the place – booze! People want to be us. We don’t blame them. Because we are us and we know that we are rock stars.

I started bartending much too young. I believe my father was the culprit, having me make him gin and tonics when I was a scrawny, straggly-haired five-year old. People have children for a variety of reasons; a number of them, like my father, have children that they can mold into little bartenders, so that they don’t have to make drinks for themselves. And yes, while at five years old I could certainly fetch a beer from the fridge, I also made a mean gin and tonic. Rocks glass with ice, three fingers (or four because my fingers were tiny) of gin, fill with tonic, add lime wedge.

My real education began working as a hostess in a much loved and well-frequented restaurant in the small college town I grew up in. I began working there at the age of fifteen, and I immediately saw the power the bartenders wielded. They were admired. They were loved. They were adored. They held sway over the whole restaurant scene. Customers flocked to them. Hell, I flocked to them. I’m quite sure that my first crush was on a bartender. (“Corky” aka Dean Converse. We are friends to this day.) It was at this restaurant that I learned how to tend bar. Much. Too. Young. I would jump behind the bar when needed, make great drinks, ask the necessary questions, and woo the customers. I was an awkward, tall, skinny teenager who had flirted with attending modeling school and had come from a long line of funny people. I was not only not awful to look at I could also entertain customers AND make a drink. By the time I was eighteen I was almost always behind the bar, ignoring the fact that the drinking age in Ohio had changed (one month before my 18th birthday, mind you) to twenty-one. No one asked, and I didn’t provide details.

I soon found myself working at a country club where at six a.m. men lined up for pre-golf libations, and I was more than happy to provide them. The Heart Starter – the Bowling Green Country Club drink of choice in the wee hours of the morning – a shot of Black Velvet and a coke back. The men would drink, maybe eat, and eventually climb into their off-white golf carts, clubs in tow and drinks in hand, and head out to the course. Around eleven a.m. the men would trickle back inside, one by one, needing more sustenance that again, I was happy to provide. By mid-afternoon, they were all in the bar, this boisterous group of middle-aged, balding men to watch golf and drink. They were fun. I was fun. And funny. And charming and pretty. All of the attributes that make for a good bartender.

And then I got another bartending job. At a bar in said college town that was known to be frequented by athletes who could drink more than their weight in alcohol and were looking to get drunk, puff up their chests, brag about the week’s athletic accomplishments on the ice or the football field or the rugby field, and, most importantly, meet girls (because college females are “girls”) to take home for the night. Again, I was funny and charming and could make a good drink, or a great shot, fast and with aplomb. And at the end of the night those frat boys, athletes, and hippy-wanna-bes were wanting to take me home as well

I did mean things to the girls who came into the bar, particularly to the sorority girls that I despised because 1) they had more money than me; 2) they had better clothes than me; and 3) they didn’t have to work on Saturday night to pay for college like I was forced to do each and every weekend. So I’d punish them for these transgressions by making them the most disgusting shots I could dream up. Shots that would 1) make them puke or 2) make them completely wasted or just foolish. My favorite was “Brains,” a repulsive-looking shot consisting of peach schnapps, lime juice, and Baileys Irish Cream, which would curdle when added, looking like brains, hence the name. Add grenadine and you have Bloody Brains. It’s not easy to get down, much less keep it, down. I’ve witnessed many a sorority girl try, and I believe that there is a 98.2% failure rate. The other 1.8% keeps it down because they want to get laid by an athlete (our university had a ridiculously good hockey team, thus these boys were the prize), and puking in front of said athletes was almost universally a turn off.

Another great shot I’d goad the sorority girls into drinking was the alcohol that had collected in the bar mat. Basically it’s “Brains” on steroids, with all of the above ingredients as well as everything else that is poured into a glass, shaker, or pint and has collected into in alcoholic pool on said mat. “Do it!” I’d urge them. “It’s a rite of passage!” I’d chide. Inevitably they’d puke. I would have puked if it were me, and I was a drinking guru.

This is the other thing you learn when you hang out with bartenders. We can drink most anyone, including men who can bench press 600+ pounds, under the table. My bar back (essentially bar gophers who change kegs, stock cases of beer, and fetch more ice, fruit, and bottles of vodka when needed) was the reigning Ohio State lifting champion. Because of his immense size, and the fact that he could easily lift two 200 lb. hockey players with one arm, also made him our in house fight deterrent. Bartenders can put away a significant amount of alcohol in a short amount of time and still, come 2am, clean, stock, play wicked Euchre or guitar, sing loudly on key, and fuck, well, like rock stars.

The bars close at 1:30am in Ohio. Closing time: you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. Seriously. People try. Generally, they want to continue drinking, but also because bartenders are rock stars and they want to hang out with us. This is when bartenders are in rare form. We pound beers, or in my case, vodka with a hint of tonic and lots of fresh lemon juice, while we stock, clean, dance, sing, gossip, and generally engage in tomfoolery. Lock the doors, turn up the music, and get ‘er done. So we can go home and continue to drink, listen to music, and fuck other bartenders, bar backs, boy/girlfriends, or leftover athletes who struck out with the sorority girls. Life as a bartender is good. It’s fun, albeit exhausting. You stay up until dawn, sleep until noon, crawl out of bed, into the shower, eat anything in the house you can find, and prepare to go back to the bar for another long night of slinging drinks, charming customers, and drinking until dawn.

While entertaining, and necessary if you’re a girl paying your own way through college, bartending is also greatly remunerative. When I took my first paying academic gig (at West Virginia University – a well known and often numbered ranking party school per Playboy Magazine) I made less money than I did bartending three days a week. But I was almost 37, and my body was screaming at me that it was time to get off the bartending train. It was time to embrace my adulthood and my newly minted Ph.D. and to impart what I had learned after ten years of graduate school.

The entertaining part of me, the bartending part of me, is what makes me an excellent professor. I’m funny and knowledgeable, and I tell a good story. This, more than anything, is what I learned in my almost twenty years behind the bar. I can combine stories about the Great Depression with what people were drinking when Prohibition ended in December of 1933. I can reference music from sixty years ago (Robert Johnson in Mississippi playing for the devil) while I discuss Bourbon and the Beat Generation. I show the documentary “Woodstock” (the Directors Cut version, of course) – Richie Havens in all his Freedom-loving glory, Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner on his electric guitar, Janis Joplin wailing “Bye, Bye Baby” – and talk about the war in Vietnam and the boys who came back and did drugs and committed suicide. I tell stories of white women living in the suburbs in the 1950s, drinking martinis and taking “Black Beauties” in an attempt to make sense of their lives living in suburban hell, while blacks protested in the streets, at the polls, on the buses for their citizenship rights. I make it reasonably understandable as well as educating and interesting. Hopefully, this is what historians – not all, but some – do regularly. I suspect not. Bartending gave me the ability to discuss the world in a way that makes students want to put down their cell phones and listen.

Bartending also gave me something else. A sense of myself in this world that is not a part of the academic elite that is so infuriating to the 99% of the country who doesn’t have a Ph.D. and to us academics that don’t aspire to be a part of that 1% academic elite. Bartending gave me a sense of self that, I believe, cannot be cultivated any other way than working in the service industry and dealing with people from all walks of life on a daily basis. Bartenders are usually, interestingly and unknowingly, invisible. We are strong (we carry cases and kegs). We are reliable (we show up for our jobs, mainly because we need the money). We are knowledgeable (about alcohol and life and jokes and many, many other interesting news items, particularly if you live inside-the-beltway, Washington, D.C. like I did for many, many years). We know if you like your job or are looking for something more meaningful. We know if you are depressed or blissful. Finally, we know relationships – probably not our own, but others. We can see them a mile away. We know if “he’s into you” or not; if you are single or taken; if you are in love, seeking love, desperate for love, or simply trying to figure love out. We can help with all of the above. I promise you, drinks and a talk with your local bartender, if you have one, is the prescription. We know all.

I miss bartending. Some days, not all. I miss the creativity that comes with wrangling up a concoction based on how a patron looks when he/she enters the bar. I miss the freedom that comes with being able to leave work at the bar. I miss (at times) the late night camaraderie that develops over drinks and loud music and lively conversation. I miss those folks that work in the service industry, most of them, because they are real and work hard and are not trying to impress anyone. I miss being a rock star, even though to those in some academic circles, I am one. I miss the tacit understanding that exists among those of us who work in a bar/restaurant/country club that life is to be lived in the present – from one drink to the next. Yes, we nightly make judgments on the people who walk through our doors. You are not immune to this, because it’s part of what bartenders do; we gauge, make judgments, and then serve accordingly. We want everyone who walks through the door to be happy; we want to help you be happy. It is our job to make you happy, at least for a few hours. This puts an inordinate amount of pressure on us, but it goes with the territory of being in the “service” industry. You arrive, we serve.

Mindfulness needs to be cultivated and practiced in the regular world of business and academia, but not in the service industry where it’s imperative that you stay on point, in the moment, while you gauge your customers on the barstool like a psychologist gauges a patient on the couch. Success lies in the happiness your bring a customer when you make that perfect concoction that will transport them to wherever they have been wanting to reside for the past eight hours in their cubicle. Margaritas elicit the sound of waves crashing on the shore; Budweiser evokes the sound of a crackling fire and the smell of the woods and smoke that envelops your clothes and your senses; martinis recall the 1960s businessmen and their two-drink lunches. We may not be makers of dreams, but we are most certainly makers of memories past and acquaintances to come.


The First of Many

“The Perfect Margarita”

3 parts Patron Silver

1 part Cointreau

2 parts sour mix

3 parts fresh squeezed lime juice

1 part fresh squeezed orange juice

Shake and serve over ice

“Sugar Magnolia” – Grateful Dead

Before I can even unpack; before I can even get my bags in the room. Someone hands me a Corona, with a lime. Now, this is not a beer I drink regularly. In fact, it’s not even a beer I drink outside of being in view of the ocean, which is generally biannually. But, for some reason, a Corona tastes good when I have my feet in the sand and my bags unpacked in a soon to be sand-filled room, and I have a stretch of seven days ahead of me with my pot-smoking, guitar playing, fun loving, ex-Deadhead friends. Yes, they knew me back when, when I was a college student/bartender who is now a fairly accomplished academic. My book was recently published by a fairly elite university press, I’m on the Executive Board of a nationally recognized scholarly organization, I have gotten accolades for my teaching and how I mentor young students and, for the most part, I’m proud of it all. However, in the very depths of my soul, I’m still a bartender.

This, I believe, is what truly makes me a great professor. (Next blog) I haven’t internalized that I’m not more important than those “below” me; the vast majority who are not the 1% of the American population that hold a Ph.D. I haven’t gone (yet) to the dark side, although it has been within my grasp, particularly when I attend some of these horrid academic conferences where everyone is posturing in the elevators, in the lounges, talking about their latest research and what an impact it will make on the academic community and the historical profession.

“So what is your current research?” you may hear at one of these conferences. “I’m looking at the African Diaspora in Germany and the Caribbean and the impact of black culture on how those countries fomented revolution in the course of a century,” might be the response.

“How has your book been received thus far?” one may ask.

“Better than expected, but I’m waiting for a review from the Journal of Southern History.”

“Are you applying for a Fulbright this year?”

“Perhaps, but I’m waiting to see if a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities comes through so I can write this article on the plantation economy in 18th century Louisiana.”

The conversation is tedious, dry, and not interesting. At all. But it’s what academics do to prove that they belong in the “guild.”

Early on my in my fledgling academic career I was close to being swayed by those whom I thought better than me because they went to an Ivy League school, even though I attended a Tier One institution (where professors at said institution almost invariably attended those Ivy League institutions my friends like to employ to elevate their status in the “guild”). Still, at the end of the day, in my heart, I’m a bartender who just happened to get a Ph.D. – studying, teaching, and writing about a subject I love.

And now here I am, at a beautiful beach in North Carolina. A beach that I have been coming to with my college buddies, every other year for almost two decades; a reunion of sorts, where it makes no difference if I’m an accomplished academic or a complete fuck up. They love me no matter what. And I have a Corona in hand, my toes in the sand, and a week of pure culinary and drinking bliss ahead of me. And this is where we’ll begin…

Not less than a decade ago I was slinging drinks and making more money than most in a three-day workweek. Certainly more money than I was making when I took my first academic position at West Virginia University, with free food and alcohol thrown in. And I loved it. In its own way, it was freedom. I had a community of like-minded individuals; a community of people who knew me, understood me, and didn’t think less of me because my degree was from the University of New Hampshire and not Yale or Princeton. I still have friends there in Washington, D.C., who are well known and well regarded in certain circles. They might even be thought of some of the inside-the-beltway elite. Still, they thought (and, hopefully, still think) me interesting, a bit saucy, and that I could make a damned good drink. I still can.

Today I consider myself a writer who makes a living teaching at a fairly decent liberal arts university that graduates pretty damned good teachers and critical thinkers, perhaps not in the percentage that we’d like, but all in all, a good school. I played “teacher” when I was kid.   I made up tests, taught classes to my dolls, and, when they’d permit, my two younger brothers, and I loved it. All these years later I have found myself, quite by accident, making a living at it. No more sticky red stars at the top of my dolls “papers;” no lecturing to inanimate objects about the significance of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (the first book I recall reading that had an enormous impact on me). Today its papers covered in purple or green ink (because I think that red ink on papers makes students hate you more). I lecture about the impact of the feminism on young women today. I talk about the significance of urban riots. I discuss the impact of the civil rights movement. I talk about how I slept under a bridge to insure that homelessness got noticed in the 1980s when people weren’t paying attention. Now, I get paid to read and write books.

On its worst day, being a professor is the best job out there. It is never lost on me how incredibly fortunate I am to make a living at this, particularly at a time when academics, and higher education itself, is under intense scrutiny and generally not well received by the public at large. I’m not sleeping under a bridge anymore.

We’re thought of us as the Ivory Tower elite by many Americans – lazy, overindulged professors with an inordinate amount of free time who get paid too much. I am not going to address the complete erroneous nature of these arguments. Suffice it to say that I’ve been done with my dissertation for more than ten years and since then have published said dissertation, have multiple chapters/essays in books, have completed an edited work, and am currently working on this memoir-of-sorts as well as my third academic monograph. While there are some historians who rest on their laurels (and the prominence of their first book), I have not, nor have the historians I consider to be my friends, mentors, confidents, and the best at what they do.

It was summer, years ago and I’m remembering that I was off for another month. I was sitting on one of the most beautiful beaches in North Carolina and I could actually afford to be there. No putting the groceries and numerous trips to the wine/beer store on my credit card anymore. It was all paid for. And I love that my friends didn’t ask me about work, how my book was doing, or what historical committees I’m currently serving on. All they want to know is what I’d like to eat tomorrow night, what books am I was currently reading, what songs would I like Moos to figure out before he plays guitar the next night, and most of all, if I was going to go in the ocean that year. Because, yes, I’m a “Jaws” girl and most of the times that we’ve been here, at this beach, I don’t swim, unless I see dolphins or unless I’ve had too much to drink to care. That year, I was all in. I’ve been in the ocean everyday since and I haven’t worried about it once. Even when Moos caught the jellyfish that, apparently, was harmless as the beach patrol guy picked it up. I went in. I’m all in. All day. Everyday. Feels fairly good.

So who are we at the beach, all these years later? A rag-tag group of folk that have in one way or another ended up together. Most of us live in Cleveland. I live in Pennsylvania. Some of us went to college together, at Bowling Green State University. Some of us didn’t. Since then we’ve grown up and found that we have more in common with each other than the beers I threw towards them at the bar on Saturday night or the nights we stayed up until dawn playing guitar and singing Neil Young tunes.   We not only like the same music, we think the same way about the world. We have stayed friends through marriages, divorces, deaths, and lost friendships. Most of us, anyway. And here we are, some many years later, communing on a beach in North Carolina, drinking, eating, laughing, singing, playing hacky sack, night Frisbee, stealing flags in the wee hours like we’re in our teens, and all in all, just enjoying each other’s company. I hope we do this until we’re in our eighties, and beyond. We talk about it, like it’s so beyond anything that we could ever imagine, but it’ll be here before we know it. And then we’ll be at the beach lamenting the deaths of those who have been here with us. Hell, it could very well be mine. Which is why when my friend, Kathleen, said, “Someone should write a book about us, “ I thought long and hard and thought that I could write that book, and write one about my life, and my life with these people at the beach. Because what life is really about, in one way or another, is striving for life at the beach.

Perhaps you strive for the mountains (which is where I live), or Paris, or wine country, but for us, it’s the beach. There’s nothing that stretches the mind more than being at the beach. As my friend Dave said that long ago week, “It’s so vast. It’s like the ocean is taking a big breath and then…” I agree. It gives you perspective. There’s nothing that the ocean can’t cure. Going through a bad marriage or break up? Go to the beach. Trying to ruminate on a new book or endeavor? Go to the beach. Trying to figure your life out generally? Go to the beach. Or should I say, sit in front of the ocean. It minimizes the shit in your life. There is no way you can’t sit in front of the ocean and think that something bigger than you made this. I’m not trying to be religious at all. Believe me, that ship has sailed (no ocean pun intended). But there is something to be said for looking at something so much greater than yourself that makes you realize that the life you have, or think you have, is worth trying to get through. I mean, if this big ol’ ocean can persevere and conquer, so can I. Right?

So I arrived on a Saturday afternoon as we most always do when we rent a house for a week, I unpacked, put a sheet on the bed, and the pillowcase on the pillow, drank my second Corona, and walked down to the water, with all of my friends waiting for me. Day one of Emerald Isle, number sixteen! We’re always older, wiser, and still, full of joy.   And regardless of my rather daunted demeanor, I couldn’t wait to get there to be together again with my soul mates. Todd always sends us all an mpeg of James Taylor “Going to Carolina.” I remembering listening to it everyday for a week before I left. Put it on my Facebook page, and then, as I walked out the door, quoted that fucking song, “Say nice things about me, because I’m gone…” And I was. I needed to be outta here! Anywhere but here. And I drove the ten hours it took to get there, to meet up with these people who have known me for more than twenty years and will hand me a Corona when I walk in the door. It was worth the trip.

I’ve been doing some serious introspection as of late about my place in the world and what the future might hold. I believe that most of us do this at some point in our lives – a midlife crisis of sorts – and yes I’m in my forties so the cliché rings true in this case. I’ve spent the better part of my lifetime trying to make the world a better place; politically as a lobbyist and activist in Washington, D.C., working at the largest homeless shelter in the country; through my teaching students about critical thinking and how to be good citizens in the world; and through my writing in trying to explain how past social movements and individuals have benefitted future generations through their actions, words, and ideas. Lately I’ve found myself at a crossroads of a failed relationship and having achieved tenure/promotion. Subsequently, the restlessness of my soul that has been the mainstay of the majority of my life bubbled up again and I have found myself contemplating my next move, both physically and spiritually. I started to see a therapist when at wits end I actually believed I might not survive another month. I have discovered that I am, what psychologists like to call a “highly sensitive person,” subsequently not only am I overly introspective and critical of myself, when bad things happen, either to me or in the world, it physically and psychically affects me. And finding peace in a bottle of wine is not the answer any longer. The road to bliss must be found, my therapist suggests, through some serious soul searching and better (read healthier) habits.

So this means, that my life so far, had been worth it. We all contemplate in the wee hours of the morning what we all mean in the world. Honestly, we don’t have to mean anything. We have to prove that our lives are meaningful. Meaningful. I’ll continue as I hike, go on sabbatical, go to Dublin, and live my life. Follow me. Life is always so more interesting than we think it is so.