Of Bars, Booze, and Bartending - Proving "Coughlin's Law" Invalid Since Feb '05

Sunday, June 19, 2005

"May I speak to the bartender?"

It's late, closing time, two ladies at the bar and only a few tables left. I'm wrapping things up, doing my sidework, stocking the bar and looking forward to the end of a busy Saturday night. I'm beyond ready to get out of there.

The phone is on its fourth ring, and looking around and realizing that all three of our hostesses are on a smoke break (typical), I pick up. The voice on the other end of the line is soft and cracking a little. "Can you connect me with the bar, please?" she asks.

"This is the bar." I answer, while polishing wine glasses and not really concentrating on the interruption.

"Are you the bartender there? May I speak to the bartender?"

"I'm the bartender, one of them." Please go away, I'm thinking.

"Have you been there all night?"

I set the wine glass down, cuff my hand over my ear and immediately focus on the call. That last question sounded ominous.

"Yes, can I help you?" I can practically smell the trouble.

There's a silence, and then she mumbles something I can't hear over the dining room din. I ask her to repeat herself.

"I said, I think my husband's cheating on me."

Good thing I'd put down that wine glass. I cringe, and I know what's coming.

It doesn't happen often in a bartender's career, but it's bound to eventually. A spouse, calling the bar, looking for the goods on their mate. Or, worse, coming into the bar and causing a scene. I haven't taken one of these calls in awhile. I don't work at a "drama bar" anymore, thank heavens.

"I'm not certain how I can help you," I say to her, as calmly as possible. "It was a very busy night. I guess you could describe him?"

I can hear a child yelling in the background as she attempts to describe him. I'm getting nothing, so I tell her, "Look, if you could just tell me what he drinks, or what he might have ordered?"

See, you could have been coming into the bar for years, and your name might be Joe Smith, but to us you're always going to be the guy who likes Bud draft, and a shot of Jack with a Coke back, about two pints in. It's just the way a bartender remembers customers. You should be glad we remember that much about you, honestly. You always seem pleased when we do.

So, as soon as she says "He ordered a mozzarella salad to go," I recall him immediately. They sat at the end of the bar, the two of them. He had water, and she ordered a Cosmo with a cherry, which is pretty weird, and helped me to remember their faces. I remembered that as they were waiting for a table, a group of three couples came in and recognized him. He chatted them up at the other end of the bar. Cosmo-with-a-cherry abruptly paid (no tip) and left. He ordered the salad to go, I topped off his water, he paid, tipped a buck and jetted. How could I forget a couple who waited patiently at a crowded bar for a table, and then left suddenly, and separately, with a carry-out salad? And tipped a lousy buck between them?

I remember them with such intense clarity that I've now found myself in a real fix with this poor woman on the other end of the line. I imagine she knew the couples who busted him, and someone had tipped her off. Was she calling me just for confirmation? What did she want from me? I felt queasy and couldn't wait to get off the phone. I'm in a battle with my instinct to tell her that I have no idea what she's talking about.

"To be honest with you, I do remember him."

"Was he with a woman? Just the two of them?"

"There was another woman there, but I don't know if they were together. She paid separately. He ordered a salad and left, I do remember that."

She sighed, and asked me to describe the woman.

"If I may be candid, ma'am, she wasn't that attractive," I say. At least it's the truth, and I guess that in the moment I thought it would provide some small, superficial comfort to her. I'm an idiot, and as soon as I say it, I cringe.
I guess I should be happy that I refrained from bleating, "... and the homewrecker didn't even leave a tip for her stupid Cosmo-with-a-cherry!"

She's breaking my heart, and I don't even know her. Maybe it's the child screaming for her attention in the background, but I feel like I can see her, and feel her desperation, calling a restaurant bar very near to midnight, questioning some stranger about her beloved.

"So you don't think they were together?"

"I couldn't say for certain, ma'am."

She actually began sobbing, and the strained look on my face must have betrayed me to my coworkers, because a few of them are now standing around and trying to catch my eye.

"Thank you very much, I'm sorry, I'm really sorry," she manages to say.

"It's all right, not a problem," I tell her. I can't remember the last time I've felt so uncomfortable. I can still hear her trying to control her sobs on the other end of the line. She finally sets the receiver down.

I've been no comfort to her whatsoever, and although I'm nothing but a bystander in their life, I feel sad for both of them, and guilty, a little bit, that I couldn't just tell her that I hadn't seen her husband, with another (albeit mule-faced) woman, flat-out busted by his wife's friends in the middle of a crowded restaurant. I can't help but imagine her pain, and the hellish conversation those two might be having, even as I type this. I imagine he came home, or how would she have known about that mozzarella salad?

I had a really great, fun and lucrative night at work, but sometimes all it takes is a phone call, an interruption from a stranger, to make you feel just awful about something you had nothing to do with. How odd, and what a strange intersection, a husband, a wife, and a bartender.

The problem is all inside your head, she said to me
The answer is easy if you take it logically
I'd like to help you in your struggle to be free
There must be 50 ways to leave your lover
- Paul Simon