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?”
Pretty soon the King sidemen recognized Jerry Quarry.
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?”
She laughed and took my arm. She pressed against me as we crossed the street.
Oh yeah…I was a man again.