Tag Archive for 'BARTENDER'



So I’m tending bar in the newest, hippest club in the universe. Before the night is over I might even make cigarette change for a celebrity. But I’m still a scuffler who pays child support with crumpled tip money. Le jardin is dead and it looks like I’m going to get stiffed on a Saturday night.

A little after 11 o’clock a haggard dude with a gray ponytail bops out of the elevator. The word spreads– “the DJ is here–” and everybody drops to one knee like he’s Richard The Lionhearted home from the Crusades. He is followed by a hotel porter (this in the days before unpaid “interns”) pushing a hand truck loaded with .45′s and LPs.

“Gimme a Gorilla Flush,” he says.

I look to Jimmy for guidance. “OJ with Seven-up and Perrier, a shot of grenadine and about twenty cherries,” he says. “Washes down the downs.”

I stock the bar. It’s top shelf –Commemorativo Tequila, VSOP cognacs, Wyborova Vodka, which is the height of class, single malt Glens, which are very exotic. Speaking of grenadine, I see three bottles in the carton.

“In most bars one grenadine lasts ten years,” I say.

“This is Sweet Tooth City,” says Jimmy. “You’ll go through all three bottles in one night.”

Jimmy turns an ashtray upside down under the bar and lays a two lines of coke on it. In a few fluid motions he takes two pachyderm snorts, rubs the residue on his gums and lights a cigarette.

“You can give yourself a coming on board drink, man, they’re cool with that,” he says.

What the hell I’m a short timer. I pour myself a triple Martell Cordon Bleu. Jimmy is glittering. I’m glowing. We slap fives.

The DJ goes up on stage for a “sound check,” and suddenly music is blasting out of speakers all over the room. He starts out with a medley of the ’50′s oldies. Another triple and I’m getting goose pimples. With every song another episode from my yearning adolescence flashes before me.

The DJ must be the Pied Piper. People begin trickling in. This is before velvet ropes and snotty doormen take the fun out of the scene. Fifi is at the door collecting admission. Pay your ten bucks and you’re on your own. It’s an eclectic crowd. Some chorus boys from Pippin, which is playing down the street—”we can only stay for a few dances; ” a few tall, blonde foreigners, who tell Addison “you are already very famous in Amsterdam; ” three guys in leather jackets who look like off duty cops; two couples in tuxes and prom gowns–but a closer look reveals they’re all guys; a few red-faced drunks who look like bus drivers, but talk like high school music teachers; a suburban midlife crisis couple–she with the mahogany tan and the polished eyeballs, he with the floral shirt open on the Magen David glittering in the chest hair.

The DJ waits for critical dance mass to be reached and switches to disco. Motown, Stax, Chess and suddenly a Sinatra ballad or even an old tune like Earth Angel…The crowd is his instrument. They go from festive to funky to nostalgic at his command.

The bar is three deep and frantic. No beer drinkers here. Everybody wants an “innuendo”cocktail. A “Harvey Wallbanger” (vodka, OJ, a float of Galliano,) A “Sloe Comfortable Screw”(sloe gin, Southern Comfort, OJ with a splash of Grenadine.) A “Foxy Lady,” (Amaretteo, creme de cacao and heavy cream.) A “Golden Shower” (Galliano, white cream de cacao, Triple Sec, OJ and cream, grenadine optional). A “Comesicle” (vodka, rum, white mint, orange juice and cream.)

After a half hour my fingers are sticky from the grenadine and I’ve got cream all over my shorts. Ira comes back to check the register and looks at the stains. “I’m glad somebody’s having fun…”

There’s a commotion at the door. A blonde transsexual is borne through the crowd…”Candy’s gonna sing…”

“That’s Candy Darling,” Jimmy says.

The music stops and everybody quiets down. From out of the darkness comes a quavery contralto “Some day he’ll come along/The man I love…”

She gets a cheers “We love you, Candy…We won’t forget…”

“Candy’s got terminal cancer,” Jimmy says. “They give her three months, tops…”

For about two hours it’s so busy I can hardly look up.

Suddenly, I get a sane order.

“Two vodka martinis, straight up.”

They look like two kids viping cigarettes and looking wide-eyed at the crowd. But wait:

That’s Sal Mineo

It’s always a shock to see a celebrity. This is the kid from Rebel Without a Cause and Exodus… Curly hair, big nose, thick lips, baby face. It’s gotta be him.

That little skinny chick huddling next to him looks like Jill Haworth, his co star in Exodus. They were on the cover of Life Magazine together. Funny, the things you remember.

I grab Jimmy by the register. “Is that Sal Mineo?”

“Be cool,” he says. “He doesn’t like it when guys flirt…”

I get a queasy feeling. What did I do to make Jimmy think I was gay? Maybe I didn’t slap him five hard enough. I go back through my memory. Once I was running for a bus and a bunch of firemen in a passing engine truck jeered “Hurry up sweetie…” But I was wearing tight shoes that day and carrying two heavy bags of groceries.

I lay down the martinis with my eyes averted.

“That’s on me.” It’s Addison in the middle of the bar. Sal Mineo raises his glass. “Thanks, John…” He holds out a bill. “Here man, thanks…” I take it, eyes averted. It’s a twenty. Jimmy watches to make sure I put it in the cup.

“Hey,” Addison calls.

A girl is waving at me. I walk right past him like a man in a trance. Slim, dark, mocking eyes. A spangled dress. Great legs…”Cinzano and soda,” she says. Very familiar. Is that Bianca Jagger? She hands me the money, grazing my wrist with her nails. Gives me the chills.

“Hey,” Addison calls.

“Are you a basketball player?” she asks.

“I played in high school.”

“You have an athlete’s body,” she says.

I try to graze her wrist in return and drop the change in the sink.

“Is that Bianca Jagger?” I ask Jimmy.

“Where?” he asks. but she has already vanished in the smoke and left me a ten dollar bill.

Addison grabs me. “What’s the matter with you?” He has his arm around a bulky little man in a blue suit. “This is my attorney. Take good care of him.”

He’s got a bulbous nose, thick lips, angry pout like a thwarted baby.

It’s Roy Cohn.

This man was the villain of my childhood. He was one of DA’s who prosecuted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Soviet spies who went to the electric chair. He was counsel to the notorious witch-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy. He was absolute anathema to my left wing family. My aunt burst into tears every time she saw him on TV.

He sees it all on my face. The contempt, the revulsion.

“Cutty on the rocks,” he rasps.

I could make a gesture now. Refuse to serve him. Remind him of how he hounded innocent people, destroyed lives…

He’s with two bodybuilders in white tee shirts, who are knocking back 151 shooters with beer chasers. He puts the change back in his wallet with a pointed look at me. No tip for you, Commie.

People are screaming for drinks.The music is non-stop. The dance floor is a blur. I decide to write a poem called “Disco Dervish…”

Bianca has brought somebody to check me out. A lanky guy in a white dinner jacket over a hairless fish-white chest. He pushes a dank blonde lock out of his eyes.

“And vot do you do?” he asks with a German accent.

“Make drinks,” I say.

He waves impatiently. “Don’t you do somesing creative?”

“I’m a writer.”

“A writer,” he says and turns to Bianca. “Pearfect,” he says. ” And now Mr. Writer make me a tequila sunrise with extra grenadine…”

Jimmy comes up from under the bar so wired he’s woozy.

I try to discreetly point over my shoulder. “Look over there. Is that her?”

His hands shake as he lights a cigarette. “No…”

I turn back. She’s gone. But there’s a twenty under the ashtray…

It’s gotta be her.


NEXT: The End Of A Perfect Evening


Summer 1973…It was a bad time to be a bartender.

The economy was in recession. Unemployment had risen from 5% to 9% in a year and a half. The prime rate was 10.2%. Inflation was at 7.4%.

Real Estate was in the toilet. You could buy a three-story brownstone in the 80′s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for $60,000, but they wanted 20% down and nobody had 60 cents worth of collateral.

You moved warily through the city like a mouse rushing from one hole to another. The subways were a no-go after 10 p.m. Mugging was a simple speedy transaction by which money was transferred in exchange for safety. But the hard core pros complicated it by slashing you on the arm or even the face to keep you from pursuing, so you had to run or yell for help or even fight back and that’s how people got killed.

The murder rate was up to 11.5 per 100,000. Blacks were eight times as likely to be murdered as whites. The police shot 54 people to death that year.

We had stopped fighting in Vietnam, but Nixon was still bombing Cambodia. The Senate ignored Kissinger’s heartfelt pleas and blocked funding for the attacks.

Oh yeah, and the whole country was mesmerized by the Watergate Hearings. Watching in astonishment as White House Counsel John Dean ratted out Nixon, saying they had discussed the break-in 35 times.

So now we knew that our President, who had won by a landslide in ’72, was a burglar, a blackmailer and a drunk.

But my big problem was glassware.

I was working at a place called “Maude’s” in the Summit Hotel on 51st. and Lexington. “A commercial caravansary,” W.C. Fields would have called it. A no-frills flop for the professional traveler. The guys with the dog-eared address books and smudged invoice pads…Suits getting shiny in the seat.

The Gay ’90′s red-light bordello theme played well with this crowd. They liked the all- you-can-eat buffets, the sullen waitresses in low-cut leotards, spangles and tights. But they didn’t like the drinks.

In line with the Art Nouveau knockoffs, the Tiffany lamps and the plush booths management had given us their version of period glassware. The rocks glasses were what were once known as “double old fashioned,” designed for a voluminous drink with whiskey, mulled sugar, and soda.They were as big and hefty as cut glass vases. if you threw them against a wall the building would crumble. I could empty a ten ounce bottle of soda into them with room to spare. No way I could make the “house pour” an ounce and a half shot look respectable in a glass that big.

Inverted shot glasses stood on a towel on the bar. We had to pour a shot into the glass right in front of the customer so he would know what he was getting, then pour it into the glass where it hardly covered the bottom. Piling the glass with ice just made the drink disappear altogether.

The waitresses complained bitterly. I was killing their tips. They thought I was short-pouring them to make up for my own larceny. Any hopes of a romantic interlude were dashed.

I actually felt for the customers. They would belly up, bright-eyed and expectant. But even veteran tipplers could be thrown by faulty glassware. If a drink didn’t sparkle or look generous their moods would quickly sour. It was the same volume of alcohol they got everywhere else, but it looked like a squirt in the big glass and they took it as a personal affront.

The cocktail glasses were 8 ounce “double martinis” with thick braided stems. They had a line bisecting the bowl at the four ounce mark. It was the high water mark for cocktails—we surpassed it on pain of dismissal. All the cocktails looked incomplete as if the bartender hadn’t made them properly, when in fact much skill had been employed toeing the line.

The customers would squint pointedly at their glasses while I stood there with a hapless smile, all hopes of a gratuity cruelly dashed.

It was killing the business. Hotel guests were going down the block to Kenny’s Steak Pub where the bartenders free-poured into conventional glassware, making the same ounce and a half look like the Johnstown Flood.

I complained to the the General Manager, a Cornell Hotel Management grad, but he was besotted with the design scheme.

“If we put in standard glassware it’ll ruin the look,” he said.

The bartenders were dying, too. Sure, we were the High Priests of the Sacred Fount, dispensing good cheer, sage advice and the occasional condign chastisement. But we made less money than a plumber’s apprentice.

Shift pay was $30 a night. The union deducted dues for a pension which vested after ten years, (effectively meaning never for an itinerant bartender) and health insurance which gave you the right to spend the whole day in a clinic while screeching children and croaking oldsters were triaged ahead of you.

The servers who we called “the floor” made more money than we did. So did the cooks who we called “the help.” Only the porters made less. But they had the hereditary right to plunder lost wallets and loose change on the floor. Once in a while you’d hear a shriek of glee as a porter reaped a bonanza from a dropped purse.

The bartenders huddled. There were four of us, each with a pressing need for money. I had to make my alimony. Danny had to pay his bookie. Freddie’s daughter was at Iona College. Jack was a cross-dresser and his hosiery bills were enormous. We couldn’t complain to the union, couldn’t go on strike.

The glassware issue had risen from my pocket to my psyche. I was going through life with my head down. Cashiers were short changing me. I was saying “excuse me,” and “sorry” more than I ever had in my life.

I dreamt I was in my high school locker room. The other guys on the basketball team were pointing at me and laughing. I looked down and saw that my penis had shrunk to a nub.

That night the place was dead. I stepped behind the bar, ready for another $20 shift, if I was lucky.

“Hey pal, can we get a cocktail?”

I looked up. “Irish” Jerry Quarry, the “Bellflower Bomber,”who had fought Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship, was at the end of the bar with his brother Mike, another ranked boxer and two knockaround pals. Big smiles, twenties up on the bar, getting a head start on the evening.

Jameson on the rocks, VO and Coke and two vodka tonics.

Was I going to short pour these guys?

No way. Let ‘em fire me.

Their eyes sparkled as I filled their glasses to the brim.

“Can I get a whiskey sour?”

I knew that clucking voice from commercials. Standing in the middle of the bar was Frank Perdue, of Perdue Farms, the largest chicken producer in the country. With his pointy head, beak nose and bobbing Adam’s Apple he looked like the world’s largest chicken.

I reversed the recipe. Three ounces of booze to an ounce and a half of lemon juice.

“How ya doin’?”

Two substantial black guys flashing gold from wrist to tooth, slid in. They were members of B.B. King’s Blues Band, I had seen them in the lobby the night before.

“Beefeater and Coke…Wild Turkey with a splash of Seven Up…Just a splash…”

“Just a splash, sir, don’t worry.”

They had never highballs like these, even when they made them for themselves.

The waitresses came up with their table orders. Their eyes widened as I made them huge drinks.

“Is that okay?”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Make money my children.”

I hadn’t heard laughter at the bar in months. Everybody was all smiles. I was making people happy.

“Can we get another round?”

“You bet.”

Pretty soon the King sidemen recognized Jerry Quarry.

“Hey champ…”

Perdue looked up from his second sour and squawked:

“Jerry Quarry. I thought that was you…”

Now they were all clustered together, laughing and telling war stories.

“It’s my turn…”

“No, this one’s on me.”

Jerry Quarry leaned over the bar.

“Hey, is it against the rules to buy the bartender a drink?”

“It is strictly verboten,”I said in a burlesque German accent, while pouring myself a triple Hennessy to general hilarity.

At closing I had two hundred bucks in my pocket.

Quarry and Perdue were off to Toots Shor’s. The sidemen were tottering to a gig.

Olga, the Norwegian waitress followed me out into the street.

“You think you can get away with this?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care,” I said. “I’m sick and tired of those stupid glasses.”

“Well, I did really well tonight thanks to you,” she said.

“Your legs helped….”

“So I’m going to buy you a drink now. “Okay?”

“Absolutely not.”

She laughed and took my arm. She pressed against me as we crossed the street.

Oh yeah…I was a man again.