In my early twenties, the economy was in full stagflation, and finding a job—even after graduating cum laude, ink wet on my diploma—was simply not easy.
I walked into a mall restaurant, no experience, wearing a jacket and tie, bearing a resume, to seek a job as a waiter. The hostess brought me to Mike, one of the managers (and a very nice guy). “We don’t need any more waiters,” he told me, “but let me introduce you to the bar manager.” Yikes. I knew nothing about bartending.
Mark, the bar manager, was also a great guy, and invited me to sit down for a chat. I was up front about my lack of bartending experience. “Oh, that’s fine,” he explained. “We can teach you to mix drinks. People who present themselves professionally is another matter.” So I became a bartender—and got quite an education.
I quickly learned that most people ordered the same basic drinks, so moving up to serving customers directly happened almost immediately. Mark was cool—when someone ordered a drink, he just calmly rested his hands on the appropriate bottles, pretending his attention was elsewhere, tipping me off. I once asked about the cost of drinks—wouldn’t we earn more if the drinks weren’t so expensive? “That’s intentional,” Mark explained. “The cost keeps the kids away, and that’s how our clientele likes it.”
I learned a few other things too, like the day Mark cornered me and asked, “Those two girls—did you proof them?”
I looked at the two attractive young women I’d just served, aghast and confused. “No, I replied—they’re clearly over 18” (then the drinking age).
“Yeah,” he replied, “but don’t you want to know where they live?” Oh. Got it.
I’d been working since I was fourteen with my farm papers, but this was my first full-time job, and thankfully, all in all it was a good opportunity—in particular because I was treated so well. Yes, I contributed to this, taking my dad’s advice (for once) and showing up 15 minutes early, ready to work, and staying 15 minutes late, still working. But really much of the credit goes to the wisdom of the owners. I earned above minimum wage, even as an inexperienced worker in a slow economy. Every three months, I got a small raise.
Once, the owners had some sort of special celebration in the bar, and asked for the lead crystal wine goblets we kept on a very high shelf, a restaurant warming gift to the owners. I climbed to retrieve them—and dropped two of them, watching them shatter. I was dismayed, stunned, shocked, immobile. The principal owner did not look happy. But he said not a word about it, then or ever. Accidents happen.
Another night, the same owner and several friends were drinking far into the night. We had always been instructed to strictly follow the law, and two a.m. was legal closing time. They wanted another round. I had to tactfully (and nervously) inform the owner and his buddies that I was sorry, but we had passed last call, and they would have to drink up. I got no argument. I also got a big tip.
Conventional wisdom—and likely true—is that bartenders cheat their establishment out of untold dollars worth of liquor. Not here. And not only that—we worked as a team. The night guy working past 2 a.m. busted his butt making sure the morning guy was well stocked, including cut fruit, fresh towels, everything sparkling clean—and every one of us did this. We were proud of our bar. When we took breaks or changed shifts, we quietly filled each other in on the customers, so that when they wanted another round, they didn’t need to repeat their orders. This led to some fun incidents, too. One of our bartenders, a flashy guy named Tony, took over my shift just before two elderly ladies reordered. Tony walked over, gave each empty glass a casual sniff, nodded, and mixed new drinks, to their utter amazement—and my utter amusement (we pooled tips, so this was all to the good).
Another time, Tony playfully tossed a few tip coins over his shoulder into our tip can. Only by dumb luck, they went in. Tony played it cool, I pretended nothing was out of the ordinary, and the customers all stared with their jaws hanging wide.
I had my own luck once. One gentleman ordered vodka martini after vodka martini after vodka martini, until finally I really had to cut him off—not something that happened often in this establishment. I was as polite and tactfully as I knew to be, but he nicely thanked me for my concern and insisted. Now what? I took a chance—vodka is tasteless anyway, and he was already smashed, so I grabbed a rocks glass, stuffed it with ice, then filled it with water and plopped an olive in it. I figured he’d be too drunk to notice—but I certainly couldn’t charge him for it. I quickly moved to other customers, deliberately missing his eye, while he waited to pay, before finally going back to his seat, no doubt figuring he’d settle up later.
Several minutes later, the glass half empty, he walked back to the bar. “Excuse me,” he asked. “This is just water, isn’t it?” Nervously, I admitted it. “I like your style,” he said, shook my hand, gave me a large tip, and left the bar. Whew. It could have gone differently.
Aside from learning lots of interesting drink lore and lots of ways to mix multiple drinks quickly and well when business was brisk, I also learned some fun bar tricks—and invented a few. One of my favorite standards was the disappearing drink—you mix a drink directly in front of the customer, shake it up, and when you pour the drink into the glass from the shaker, it’s gone. Not a drop. [Like most tricks of its kind, the secret is mind-numbingly simple, but people love to overanalyze.]
We had some house specialty drinks, and I learned what naturally goes with what well enough to invent new drinks. My favorite, stunning even the talented bar manager, contained both citrus and cream—something that shouldn’t be possible, since the citrus would curdle the cream. Yet there it was. [One hint—like many fancy drinks, the order in which ingredients are mixed is crucial. In this case, it meant getting that citrus into a solution.]
I also learned a great deal about women—my Catholic upbringing and college education had left me rather sheltered. One night, for example, I was quite taken aback when, in response to watching a dancer rapidly move his hips from front to back on the bar television, the cocktail waitresses wondered if he could do that in bed. And talk about naïve—one of the cocktail waitresses, a heavily made-up, snotty Asian girl drove a very expensive car and always seemed on remarkably friendly terms with many of the wealthy older gentlemen customers. Took me months to put two and two together.
I learned a few other things too—liar’s poker, for example. This became a bit of a fad during slow periods at the bar, and I was bitten by the bug. On my break once, though, I ran into Mike (remember the nice manager?), and asked, “Hey, Mike—do you play liar’s poker?”
“Not when I’m working at the bar where gambling is illegal and could get me fired,” he answered, not unkindly. Oh. Point taken. So much for liar’s poker.
That was Mike--responsible, but always able to see things from the other side. One incredibly busy New Year's Eve, one of our kitchen prep/dishwasher people, another great guy, got stuck working by himself, then asked to stay for four hours overtime. As good hearted and cheerful as he was, at the end of a frantic twelve hours, the poor guy was exhausted. I just happended to be in the kitchen when Mike came in with two bottles of champaign and a bonus check for $100. "I know you're beat, and you've every right to go home," Mike said, "but I'm asking if you'll please stay." He stayed (and got the next few days off).
I also learned to appreciate sports on TV, something that had never really appealed to me before. In particular, I remember the Winter Olympics, when the U.S. hockey team battled to defeat the quite frankly better U.S.S.R. team. None of the ridiculous fights that have marred professional hockey, but sports as they should be. Sheer determination—will against will, skill against skill.
And perhaps a job as it should be. Certainly it was an education.