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.