I’m Your Bartender

By: S.G. Lacey

4 PM: The Calm Before The Storm

The oiled rag swirls slowly across dark walnut, years of lacquer masking the dense grain of the underlying wood.  The process is soothing on many levels; the softness of the cotton cloth, the ‘swish’ across the smooth surface, the nutty smell of the oil itself.  It’s another day at the office, starting like countless evenings before.

I’ve already taken wine and liquor inventory, a process which involves counting the quantity of liquid in various colored glass bottles, with some rough estimation along the way.  My current task is verifying the beer keg levels; this necessitates reaching into the cooler beneath the bar and lifting each one up to assess its weight.  Squatting down at an awkward angle, arms outstretched and grasping blindly for the metal handle loops, this is about the least ergonomic or scientific process possible.  However, I convince myself we’ve got enough beer to at least get through the first few hours.

The bar’s owner, my boss, has never been a fan of technology so shuns the more complex pour tracking or inventory management systems.  I enjoy that freedom.  Let us experts dispense the drinks and we’ll keep you posted on how much you make each night.

Sure, I’ve met my fair share of dishonest workers, anyone employed in the bartending industry as long as me has.  There’s a delicate balance between making an especially stiff drink that keeps a regular customer coming back the next night and giving away free shots to friends who only visit the establishment because you’re working and they’re just looking to mooch.

On the far wall across from my centered position at the bar is a massive oil painting of Theodore Roosevelt astride his trusty horse Little Texas.  Though no scale can match Teddy’s larger than life persona, I like to think of this picture as a metaphor for the experience I provide as a bartender: bold, charismatic, and entertaining.

Turning around, I double check my appearance in a gap between reflected liquor bottles on the wide mirror behind the bar.  Demeanor and image are two key elements of commanding a presence as a bartender.  My base attire is per usual, tight but comfortable black slacks and a long sleeve white button shirt, cuffs folded over once to improve mobility and provide a workmanlike appearance.

While adhering to the strict attire standards of a high-class bartender, I do enjoy my own personal touch, a colorful bowtie.  This evening it is royal blue, meticulously tied as opposed to the lame clip-on version.  Taking another mirror glance to check the tidiness of my knot, I see my taunt facial features and wavy black hair.  Most noticeable are the grey streaks; clearly at 42 I’ve already lived a full life.

My outfit is completed by a pair of cushy black sneakers, with orthotic liners, which my bar mirror, and few if any patrons, will ever see.  Best to be comfortable when I’m on my feet 12 hours a night.

My scattered mind drifts back to the task at hand: fruit processing.  While not overly enamored by cooking, I take as many discounted bar meals as permissible, I enjoy the process of readying the bar for the evening.  There is something mentally soothing about this preparation; akin to planning a military strategy in advance of a key engagement.  I know the night ahead will be chaotic and demanding; better to have the necessary pawns in place before the eminent assault.

The sharp paring knife in my hand cuts swift and smooth.  Peeling fruit, chopping herbs, and trimming stems agnostically, I buzz through my preparatory tasks.  I’ve developed a special system for the citrus fruits that both helps provide mental queues on the drink mixes and offers unique visual differentiation for the thirsty clientele.

Limes are cut in standard wedge sections; slightly narrower than most other establishments due to their tartness; we have an exceptional source from Florida.

Oranges are the most time consuming as both outer peel and inner flesh are used separately for different drinks.  As I delicately separate the firm, bright orange rind from the soft, white pith, I silently curse my own obsession with precision.  Once the peels are removed, I slice the naked oranges horizontally creating juicy rings with triangular segments radiating out like spokes on a wheel.  Most great cocktails don’t have very many ingredients so using quality inputs and paying attention to the small details is critical.

The lemons are easy, this is the first unique flair I ever adopted as a bartender.  I sift through the 5-pound bag for the roundest offerings, selecting about half and sending the rest back to the kitchen for an inevitable place next to curly leaf parsley as oft-unused garnish with the fried haddock dinner special.  I roll the remaining lemons end over end, concentrating the juices, then slice the protruding yellow tips off, creating a nearly spherical ball.  These orbs are then cut into 8 symmetric wedges with three cleans slices of my knife, making sure to account for all fingers along the way.

This culinary ritual provides the foundation for my drink mixing methodology throughout the night.  Green slivers, orange rings, and yellow wedges; all clearly identifiable at distance and speed.  An efficient bartender is a rich bartender.

We are one of the few bars in the city which opens at 5 PM, late by most standards, but my wise boss insists it’s better to have a crowd pounding down the door at the start of the evening than middle along for a few hours; being perceived as empty and boring by those who pass by the large, street-facing picture window offering a full view into the bar.

As if on cue, someone knocks loudly, signaling the end of my relaxing, and hopefully the start of a profitable night.  They are 5 minutes early, but judging by the well-tailored pant suits, this group of businesswomen will have money to spend.  I don’t mind starting the night early in pursuit of higher tips and some good scenery.

I sidle over to the front door with “Generals’ Club” text engraved in gold and silver foil script backwards across the shiny glass and undo the lock.  Flanking the doorway are signed and framed pictures of two key World War II generals: Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower, both full body poses in military dress, complete with the 5 iconic stars across the breast of each man’s uniform.  I wink to each portrait as I turn tail back to my spot behind the bar.  The night has begun.

 

6 PM: Happy Hour

Monday, Wednesday, Saturday; it doesn’t matter what day of the week, there’s always someone looking for a deal on drinks.

Our bar isn’t known for affordability, but when $8 pints of beer become $6, and mixed drinks cost what they actually should, people flock in.

The happy hour menu is designed for cost savings, a management decision, and ease of execution, my personal recommendation.  New Yorkers these days ordering artisan cocktails at double digit prices per drink expect perfection, and often falsely assume the longer a drink takes to make the better it must be.  They are clearly disillusioned.

After a few years on the job at The Generals’ Club, I pushed hard and eventually convinced the owner to accept what I call the three ‘M’s’ happy hour selection: Margaritas, Manhattans, and Mojitos.  This line-up offers something for everyone; the ‘Margy’ being sweeter than most, the ‘Hattan’ strong and booze forward, and the ‘MJ’ with a tart freshness.

30 minutes into happy hour and my drink system is working perfectly as usual.  After providing quarters as change for a $20, likely to a patron headed to the pool table or the bathroom condom machine, I search out my next mark.

This comes at the corner of the bar in the form of three young ladies; none of which look older than 18.  Walking over, I open with the pre-requisite question just to see how prepared they are.

“ID’s please.”

Three pieces of rectangular plastic are sitting on the bar top almost instantaneously, clearly this is a rehearsed scheme.  I give them a cursory glance, by now in my profession I’ve seen even the most obscure states’ ID’s half a dozen times.

Julie is from Florida, Jessica from Tennessee, and Jill from Georgia, the latter being one of the easiest IDs in the country to forge.  All three credentials show birthdays over the legal drinking age limit and passably accurate photos; I like their approach thus far.  I decide to play along.

“Thank you, ladies.  What will it be.”

The tallest, blondest, of the triumvirate is first to respond, in an equally swift and efficient delivery to the ID check.

“Three Margaritas, please.”

Polite and calm, I appreciate the effort.

“Anyone want a salted rim?” I ask innocently, knowing there’s one in three that will take the bait any time.

“Yes ma’am,” chimes in Jill from Georgia, a short and slightly pudgy brunette.  With those proper manners, maybe she is from Georgia.

“That will be $21,” I say, scooping up the wrinkled five and twenty dollar bills they’ve already placed on the bar.

In another novel business decision, The Generals’ Club owner decided to factor tax into all bar prices, making my life much easier for change and tips.  Also, one of my rules is to always collect money with each order during happy hour; there are way too many commers and goers to keep track of with tabs.

Heading to the rail, I begin to pedal my trade.  1-ounce Jose Cuervo® tequila, 1-ounce Grand Marnier®, at least the bossman isn’t skimping in every respect, 1-ounce self-made agave simple syrup, and 1-ounce of my custom Meyer lemon/key lime/clementine citrus fruit juice blend.

A blind person can make this drink, equal proportions of 4 ingredients mixed, chilled, and served in a traditional margarita glass.  The kicker is the garnish, one of those easily identifiable lemon pyramids and a dash of demerara sugar; the ladies, and gay men, love it.

Carrying all three drinks in one hand by the base of the stems, a neat trick perfected over time, I slide the drinks down smooth and level onto the wooden bar.

“This one’s yours Jill,” I state quietly, pointing to the cocktail on the far right rimmed by coarse salt.  None of the ladies, not even ‘Jill’, make the lightest movement to suggest I’m talking to them.

My theory confirmed, I walk away contently to help my next customer.  I’m not interested in causing a scene for three out-of-town college students from the South trying to grab a drink in the heart of New York City.

 

8 PM: Dinner Service

The cheaper spenders being disposed of, the clientele transitions to a hungrier, richer crowd.  Our bar placement on the Upper East Side of Manhattan provides a solid mix of visitors.  Throughout my career I’ve avoided waitressing as much as possible; too slow with poor tips.  However, The Generals’ Club offers a full food menu at the bar, so I need to be proficient at taking and remembering food orders.

Over the years, I’ve identified two main types of people who chose to sit at the bar to eat when there’s a perfectly good dining room available, each segment with completely different motives.  The first camp is the extended happy hour crowd; those who’ve had one drink more than planned and gotten hungry, needed to sober up, or both.  This group is easily dissuaded with the appetizer options on the first page of our menu.

As if reading my mind, a young man at the corner of the bar raises his hand and makes a nearly inaudible swishing sound by rubbing his fingers together; the universal sign of a drunk, needy human.  He’s been in the same seat since 5:30 PM, aside from a few breaks during which I assume he visited the little boy’s room or stepped outside for a cigarette.  He arrived with two other males of similar age; I immediately pegged them as low-level employees at one of the many law firms in the area.  Three Mojitos later his friends headed out, he stays now nursing his fourth at the full $10 price.  Apparently, he’s reached the threshold where drunken hunger sets in.

“Do you have a food menu?” he queries.

Almost before the slightly slurred words have left his lips, I have a menu on the bar in front of him, my thumb holding the leather-bound book open to the front page of appetizers.

“Try the wings,” I suggest, then stroll away to leave his mind and stomach to their own devices.

The second group of barroom diners are those who enjoy the activity of the bar itself; be it a certain game on TV, closer proximity to the booze, or just some tangible excitement derived from the intimate setting most good haunts provide.  I myself am in this second camp, always choosing to dine at the bar if the opportunity presents itself, though I consider this more of a professional obligation.

My next customers fit this description to a tee, adhering to at least two, and likely all three, of these key bar dinning tenants.  They are clearly a couple based on their comfortable mannerisms; the man around 40 with above-average height, and the woman slightly older based on her wrinkled face covered with somewhat overzealous make-up.  I see them enter the front door and make a bee-line right past the hostess stand and into the bar area.

They’re not regulars, and I doubt they have ever been in the bar before, at least not on my watch.  I pride myself on remembering faces, and ideally names as well.   There’s no debating the impact of remembering a client’s name as a bartender; it makes them feel better, and inevitably tip better.

‘Wrinkles’ takes charge, angling for two open spots with a good view of the Mets game, while ‘Lanky’ follows behind at a more measured pace, surveying the entire space.  I’ve seen this narrative play out before, one party focused on getting inside and caught up on the sporting event of choice, while the partner is more deliberate in seat selection, understanding the enjoyment of the next few hours will be based on more than just a good TV viewing angle.

Regardless of their motivations, the couple eventually settles into empty stools at the end of the row, and I proceed with the formal greetings a half-empty bar requires.  Within 15 minutes, Sarah and James, as I now know them, are comfortably drinking Brooklyn Lager®, eating gourmet cheeseburgers, and swapping stories with me about Game 3 of the 2000 Subway World Series which apparently all three of us were at.  Glancing past them, I see Teddy smiling down at me proudly from his horse.

 

10 PM: Prime Time

This is why I became a bartender.  The bar is packed, 3 deep in spots where individuals on barstools are not firmly entrenched, guarding the space of shiny wood in front of them like a bar of gold.  My heart is pumping; both from the adrenaline and the Red Bull that I just drank.

The air is filled with all manner of noises; the clink of glasses, the random meanderings of the jukebox, the dull roar of countless conversations; inaudible except for the occasional outburst from an occupant who has lost most of their volume control.  The air is also thick with a complex mix of scents, these even more difficult to pinpoint than the sounds.  Boozy aromatics, sweat combined with perfume, beer; both stale and fresh, unidentifiable tobacco or weed smoke; these are just a few of the savory notes in this complex slurry.

The part of the job that I most distinctly enjoy is interacting with different types of people.  Over the years behind the bar I’ve developed a knack for reading people based on just a few seconds of interaction with them.  Be it what drink they want, how their night is going, or where they are from; my countless interactions with strangers provides an extensive, growing portfolio of experiences to reference with each new customer.

I would be lying if I said I’m not judgmental as a bartender.  A friendly order, a big tip, a cute patron; sure, they get my very best efforts.  In reality, I try to provide consistently good service, but certain actions are on my pet peeves list.  Foremost among these are customers with an attitude or sense of entitlement just because they have money; I demand respect behind the bar and try to offer the same courtesy to each person I serve.

Sliding an Old Fashioned 8 feet down bar to an expectant, and polite customer, I pivot around to survey who’s next.

I catch the eye of an older gentleman with thick white mustache and sideburns in a tweed coat who offers, “Double shot of Jameson®, neat,” before I’ve even reached him.

I like customers who are ready with their order, especially when business is hopping as it is currently.  I pull the large green glass bottle down off the lowest shelf; this is one of our most popular whiskey orders and I’m constantly updating the location of liquors to match purchasing trends.  Some alcohols rise and fall with popularity: Aftershock®, Pucker®, Fireball®, while others like Jameson® are perennial staples.

Placing the filled rocks glass in front of him gently I’m greeted with a “Much obliged,” along with a generous tip.

I smile and nod approvingly as the old man takes the glass up with both hands, soaking in the aromas deeply before taking his first sip.  Even after all these years, this Irishman enjoys a good glass of whiskey from his homeland.

I’m jolted out of this picturesque scene by a yell from down the bar.  Turning, I determine the source of this commotion to be a late-20’s guy in a dress shirt and sport coat, a brightly colored power tie now hanging loose around his neck.

“What IPAs do you have on tap?” he repeats as I move closer.

“Sam Adams® Rebel and Goose Island®,” I reply calmly.

This answer elicits a non-verbal response from the man akin to what would happen if he walked into a ripe Porta-Potty and while drinking sour milk.

We have eight taps at The Generals’ Club, always serving two U.S. domestic lagers, Guinness®, some variety of Angry Orchard® cider, and four rotating seasonal offerings.  This selection was sufficient for years but recently there has been growing demand for other, more obscure, beer offerings; apparently now is one of these times.

Fortunately, to satisfy this apparent hole in our alcohol line-up, a small fridge for more trendy beer and cider offerings was installed along the back wall last year.  This setup allows us to mix and match craft offerings without upsetting the delicate distributor relationship surrounding keg sales and the brewery tap handles at the bar.

I have the bottle and can list memorized, but glance over at the cooler just to make sure we haven’t run out of anything during the chaos of the last few hours.  Peering through the glass door of the fridge, I see over half of the remaining inventory is now in cans, but it appears we’ve still got at least one of all the beer choices.  Personally, I prefer the feel of a cold glass bottle unless I’m doing an activity around water, but it’s hard to argue with the environmental friendliness of cans.

My current customer has still not responded, apparently this news about the draft beer selection is really affecting him.  He probably could have just looked at the tap handles before asking to avoid the gag reflex.

“We’ve got Victory® Hop Devil in bottles and Harpoon® IPA in cans,” I offer.

“That’s more like it!” the young businessman replies, apparently regaining both his ability to speak and his thirst.  “I’ll take a Victory.”

I hand over a bottle in exchange for $8 for the beer plus the requisite dollar tip and the guy takes a long swing.

“Thanks, that’s good,” he quips walking away.  Another sobriety crisis averted.

 

12 PM: The Drunkards Are Out

Four shot glasses are lined up in a row.  The caramel liquor flows out of the bottle and into each glass in sequential order; the stream reaches the brim of each, then transitions to the next with nary a drop hitting the bar surface.

‘Boy am I good’ I think, gazing down at my handiwork.

Shots are the name of the game right now, apparently everyone in New York City has Friday off, or is calling in sick tomorrow.

I slide the shots forward to their expectant owners; in this case a party which I infer to be a proud mother and father, their happy, but somewhat embarrassed son, and a fourth heavyset female participant who I presume to be an interested friend, which only adds to the young man’s uncomfortableness with the situation.  Never a dull moment behind the bar.

I watch out of the corner of my eye as the quartet takes their shots.  The father finishes first in a single, smooth gulp, with the young lady not far behind.  The son milks his shot a little, either trying to be kind to his mother or just due to complete confusion about why he is drinking shots with his parents and this potential suitor together at a bar after midnight in the first place.

Eager to impress the lad, and likely hoping to pounce on the drunkenness of the moment, the girl approaches me.  As she gets closer, I can tell she’s had a few drinks, her eyes are glazed, and she sways unsteadily as she leans forward.  Definitely not the worst I’ve seen tonight; I decide to give her a chance.

“We’ll have four Bailey’s Comets!” she blurts out.

This order catches me completely off guard.  I’m not excited about making four of these flaming concoctions, but she’s a paying customer so I’ll give it a go.

“Sure thing,” I nod politely but with a subtle sternness and green-eyed glare to make sure she knows I’m not happy about the extra work with a full bar to manage.  It is getting too late to make these complex drinks.

With my fatigued brain, I harken back to the mental queues I often use to remember various more obscure concoctions that are infrequently ordered.  I know Bailey’s® Irish Cream is a component from the shot’s name and via alliteration recall butterscotch schnapps as well.  The fire fuel is easy; a bartender’s staple combination of Bacardi® 151 rum and ground cinnamon.

I sense there’s something missing in the recipe, a spicy addition to balance the cloying sweetness of the cream and butterscotch.  Mentally checking off the list of potential warming liquors I finally land on it, Goldschlagger®.

While going through the effort to make these silly shots, I decide to at least confirm my observations about these customers.

“How’s the night going?” I inquire innocently as I oscillate the shaker vigorously in my right hand.

“Great! I grew up near Joey,” my inebriated patron says pointing to the young man standing several feet way. “I flew in from Cleveland this afternoon with his parents to celebrate Joey’s graduation from NYU,” she continues as if I need the full life story.

Leaning in closer she whispers, “I think he’s still a virgin,” then offers a cryptic smirk.

‘Great,’ I reply in my head sarcastically.  Nothing like a few shots to promote oversharing of life details.

Placing the chilled and strained blend of the three liquors in four shot glasses along the bar, I float the 151 on top and grab a lighter.  Igniting the flammable alcohol, I sprinkle some cinnamon powders into the flame, tiny sparkles of blue and orange twinkling above the glasses.

“Enjoy your drinks.  And the rest of your night,” I offer sheepishly, trying not to take sides in the inevitable battle between neighbor girl and parents for this young college graduates attention the rest of the evening.  Or maybe there is some convoluted scheme they are all in on together to get the kid laid.  What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the seat for that cab ride home.

 

2 AM: Closing Time

The oiled rag swirls slowly across the dark walnut wood in wide, looping arcs.  Through the large picture window next to the door, framed in ornately carved chestnut, I can see a few former patrons huddled in small groups.  I’ve always found it interesting that patron has the same spelling as Patron®, the popular Mexican tequila, of which there was plenty drank off this same dirty bar surface over the past few hours.

Clearing my tired, scatterbrained mind of these random tangents, I focus back in on my cleaning tasks while monitoring the activity outside.  This pattern repeats itself nightly, lost souls milling around in confusion after being booted from the comfortable sanctuary where they’ve spent the last few hours.  The combination of inebriation, darkness, and climate all conspire against my customers as they exit the bar.  I know the thoughts inevitably turning over in each person’s mind: what bars are still open, how am I getting home, where’s the closest diner, is she coming home with me, and random other musings.

With the bar itself cleaned, I move on to tidying up the high tops and barstools with the same rinsed rag, also mopping the floor as I go.  As I travel about the barroom, the tally of left behind items grows: coats, phones, wallets, keys, etc..  Apparently, alcohol does affect one’s memory.

Just as I’ve piled up all the lost possessions on a chair in the corner and settled back into the final phase of clean-up, organizing the shelves of alcohol, I hear a knock on the now-locked door.

Perturbed by the distraction, I glance up and see a young brown-haired lass peering thought the double-paned glass upper portion of the door.  She’s wearing a yellow tank top in what I presume to be about 45°F weather outside.  Thinking back through my clientele tonight, I recall this woman sitting at a corner table with a few young men of similar age.  Most importantly, her leather jacket was visible as a beacon reserving her seat during the times when she left her stool to order drinks or presumably hit the restroom.  My photographic memory comes in handy once in a while.

Waving to acknowledge her presence, I cross to the chair where the abandoned belongings are sitting and pluck out the only leather jacket; it seems about the right size.

As I approach the door, I can already see the gleam in her eyes, as well as goosebumps from the chill forming on her neck.  Glancing though the adjacent windows to check for intruders, I satisfy myself the street is clear, and undo the deadbolt.  It never hurts to be safe as a bartender with a full till at the end of the evening.

“Much appreciated, I’m Tammy,” she says, quickly wrapping the reclaimed leather jacket around her shoulders.

“You’re welcome,” I reply noticing the growing beauty of her features without the glass door separating us.

As if reading my mind, Tammy replies.  “Thanks for an enjoyable evening.  I like your bowtie.”

Before I can offer an appreciative reply, she follows, “Look me up some time,” slipping a business card into the left breast pocket of my white button-up shirt.

I nod silently in the universal signal of unspoken gratitude, then close and lock the door as Tammy turns away in her leather coat.

Ignoring the remaining pack of lemmings standing outside, I start working on the liquor bottles behind the bar.  Using a clean, wet cloth, I wipe the metal pour spout, then seal it with a black rubber cap pulled from a cup of light blue sanitizer.  Next, I grab a different rag and wipe down the neck and sides of the bottle, inevitably wet and sticky from numerous handlings throughout the night.  Each bottle needs to be cleaned in a similar manner, so the next 15 minutes will be pretty monotonous.

I’ve already taken care of the cash register and passed off tips to the wait and kitchen staff who are undoubtably already headed home to the comfort of their beds.  As a further sign of short term memory loss induced by alcohol, there were five outstanding open bar tabs to take care of, about the average for a busy Thursday night.  I’d closed them out, plus the $20 service charge, then stashed these credit cards in our unclaimed box.  We’ll see how many of these individuals slink back in tomorrow, hungover and embarrassed, to retrieve their Visas®.

Content with the liquor bottle organization, my last working act is to text our nightly take to my boss, the sole proprietor of the Generals’ Club, who always wants to know how the evening goes but is unwilling to invest in any electronic, online sales monitoring software.  He will be pleased in the morning when he checks the numbers.

I’m always amazed by how tired I get by the end of a busy night.  Sure 12 hours standing takes a toll on the body, but it isn’t just physical fatigue.  The constant banter with customers, combined with the mental effort to remember and execute mixed drinks accurately, leaves my brain feeling sluggish as well.

Stretching my neck and back in a deep full body bend, I can hear the minute cracking of strained joints as I touch my sneakered toes.  Rising slowly, I adjust the bra strap on my shoulder, stuff the profitable night’s tips in my purse, and head for the door.  Flicking the last light switch off, MacArthur and Eisenhower fade into darkness and as I lock the front door from the outside with a key, the “Closed” placard hanging on a thin chain clangs against the logoed glass.

Another productive and entertaining night of bartending in the books, it’s time for a shower and a glass of red wine on the couch.  The Generals’ Club needs to improve their wine selection.  Maybe I’ll even send my new friend a text.

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