“What’s the cheapest thing here?”
Don’t do it, I plead with myself. Don’t say “you are.” He doesn’t know any better.
“I have Bud Light bottles for seven dollars.”
DO NOT DO IT. DO NOT REMIND HIM THAT HE IS IN AN UPSCALE MIDTOWN MANHATTAN BAR AND INFLATION IS TO BE EXPECTED.
“Sorry, love. I don’t have any control over the prices here.”
“Fine. I’ll just take one.”
He puts down $7 exactly. The last dollar is in quarters.
Now, before I continue, this is not just another “bartender pet peeves” piece. I’ll try not to bore you with my minuscule gripes against the generally ignorant middle-aged white guys of the finance and business spheres. When I left the bar business, I was in the midst of an angst-filled rampage, and I’ve been over all of my industry qualms already with my boyfriend, my other industry friends, and my coworkers from the toxic job I walked out of mid-shift in January.
I try not to quit things, and I had never before left a position before without giving a proper two weeks notice or on negative terms. This behavior was new to me. I dramatically bid farewell to the industry that had provided me a primary source of income over the course of ten years after a last-straw altercation and only after locking down a minimum wage-paying internship; a nine-to-five, a “real” job.
A Story of Joy and Frustration: The Bartender’s Lament
The Code of Conduct
I loved tending bar. I even considered it as a lifetime career path after the stark realization that my college degree in the arts was useless in just about every field. It paid the bills, offered me endless entertainment, and introduced me to countless friends. And yes, it always feels good to be a part of someone’s night of celebration, regardless of that someone’s relationship to you (or lack thereof). Even on an evening with difficult customers, there was always a light at the end of the tunnel when we’d punch out and go drown ourselves at one of our favorite after-hours industry watering holes.
Of course, there are shifts that you just can’t shake; a customer that sticks with you, having completely violated the basic rules of consumer/vendor interaction.
The starting point of this interaction always begins with service and an agreement that I make to you: to cater to YOUR hopes and dreams for a spirited evening, not based at all on any prior transaction that I have made in my day. I am essentially employed by you for the time that you are at my bar, as the service that I’m providing is one that you are unable or unwilling to provide for yourself.
Heck, if I’m not busy, I’ll likely be interested in making friends. Traditionally, a bartender is just as much a mixer of cocktails as they are a listener. If I’m not serving other customers at the peak of happy hour, one is welcome to monopolize my mind since I could probably use a break anyway. Rest assured that very few of us got into bartending for the hustle. We have a passion for sharing the cocktails and stories we love with you. The latter occurs in appropriate circumstances.
Busy or otherwise, there are many naturally obnoxious bar tropes that I’m sure will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever stepped foot into a house of brews. These include:
“Make me something good/special/sweet/strong.”
“What do you like?”
“Can I get something with olives? I’m hungry.”
And then there are the ones that have nothing to do with the service that I’m actually employed to provide you:
“Does anyone tell you that you look like…”
“How many people give you their numbers every night?”
And, my favorite, “You should smile more!”
Allow me to hold on flirting and personal relations for a moment. If I’m attracted to you, I’ll probably throw you a drink on my buyback or start off the conversation. But I’m probably not, and entitling yourself to my assumed interest is really uncomfortable. It all goes back to the mutual respect outlined in our initial agreement. The examples above are most definitely abominable, but they are not what pushed me to my breaking point with the hospitality industry.
The Change in Spirit
I walked out of my last midtown bar at 7:00 p.m. on a Thursday evening. For happy hour, we had been catering primarily to a large group of firefighters who had just attended a memorial at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral for one of their fallen fellow servicemen. For the most part, the group was respectful and were honorable gentlemen. And then there was the one fellow who got way too drunk.
When I asked my manager for permission to “cut him off,” I was instructed to give him a food menu. He wasn’t interested and had persuaded his friends to continue ordering beers and shots of Jameson for him to drink since I was actively avoiding serving him anything but water. In his drunken frustration, he reached over the bar and forcefully grabbed me. I pushed him away, grabbed my purse, and was gone.
The following week, I sat in an office on 41st Street mechanically responding to e-mails and sorting papers. And I LOVED it. I was on the other side of the bar for happy hour gently coaching my new co-workers on the etiquette of ordering drinks from my friends, who loved hooking us up with free shots after a long day of dealing with difficult people on both fronts. My career as a member of corporate America lasted three months before I could no longer afford it. The 23-year-old intern with no prior office experience had a difficult time surviving on minimum wage and couldn’t wait for a promotion. Furthermore, I missed the joys of tending bar – my regulars, my family of mix-smiths, and the characters that were interspersed in the hustle – and started feeling used by my new coworkers for my connections to that world.
The day after I submitted my two weeks notice at my new “real” job, I found myself back in the sports bar where I had once worked in the financial district. I’m still there months later, balancing my passions for sports and bartending while I compose articles on the New York Giants for this very site.
The Joy of Bartending
This time bartending is different. I’m more quick to express myself when one is in violation of our customer/vendor code of conduct. And while bartending has once again become my primary source of income, it is understood, on all fronts, that it will hopefully not be for long. It is a job, and it is fun, and it is temporary—just like my dealings in corporate America—until the right gig comes along.
So while I’m here, and joyfully so, please remember a few simple things. When you shake your paper at me, it makes me feel like a cheap servant. When you criticize my pour as being too light, trust me, that says a lot more about you than me. When you reach into my garnishes to indulge in whatever fruit you’re craving, you’re diminishing the bar experience for all of the guests in the room. When I give you a nod from the opposite side of the bar, or free my hands of an index finger to hold up at you because I’m busy at the moment, I’m acknowledging you so that you know that I will get to you as soon as I can, as opposed to ignoring you and making you feel unwelcome in my bar. I want you to stay—you’ve already come so far to get here! Take that moment to organize your group and your order, and not only will you have a happy party, but a happy bartender!
In Heaven, there is a special VIP lounge with a top-shelf open bar reserved for those angels of consumerism who understand how a good bartender should be treated. I hope to see all of you there someday.
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