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

Sunday, June 26, 2005

I blame that stupid, stupid movie, "Sideways"

Actually, I enjoyed that movie. Very, very much. To me, it was a dark comedy about a quickly aging, miserable, socially inept wine snob who steals from his mother yet remains endearing, and his sidekick, a failing actor along for the ride, just to get laid, one more time, in advance of his wedding. A cynical buddy movie, and a great one, especially since it was about wine, and pour girls, and contemplative servers, and bad actors, and failed, verbose writers, and assholes golfers. It had Paul Giamatti, and Sandra Oh. And the amazing scenery of the wine country around Santa Barbara. It made me laugh. I loved it.

Unfortunately, the modern bar consumer didn't love it the same way I did. They decided to embrace wine snobbery, rather than see the way the film portrayed it... the last gasp of pleasure for a disillusioned writer and a part-time server who will likely move on. Maybe it's just me?

We're slammed Saturday night, getting deep at the bar, and the service printer is going off. The wait is long, but we're turning the hightops like crazy. It's a smooth, but insanely busy, evening.

The hostess approaches my bartending partner with a complaint from a newly-seated hightop couple. "They want to know if anyone is going to wait on them," she tells her. In the weeds, the bartender heads out to the unreasonably impatient hightop.

We're so busy that I don't notice her until she presents me with two balloon glasses, containing our finest and most expensive Chianti, as well as the remains of the bottle.

"What....?" I say, while pouring drinks madly.

"They want to see the manager, they're not happy with the vintage."

I sniff and examine the cork, smell the bottle, pour a tiny sip, swirl and taste. It could stand to breath a bit longer, but it's divine.

"You presented the wine, right? The glasses have been poured, he approved it, right?"

"Of course," she replies. She's all-pro and I'm going to back her up. We switch positions and I head to the hightop.

"Sir, a problem with the wine you selected?" I say. It's hard to hide that I'm weeded and pissed off, but I'm doing my best not to clench my teeth.

"It's a 2000, the list states this wine is a 1999."

"The list states that in rare occurrences, the vintages may vary, and that you should enquire with your server, also," I reply. I don't think it came off as snarky then as it does after writing it down, but maybe it did.

"A 2000 is unacceptable."

"Sir, the server presented the wine, you read the label, approved the opening, approved the cork, approved the pour, and your companion also received a pour," I state. He's sticking us with an opened bottle of our most expensive Chianti on a technicality, and I just think he's out of line.

Dammit, sometimes the customer is wrong. Flat-out dead wrong. I honestly didn't realize that the few bottles of this wine we had left were 2000, but he had his chance to object when he read the label. He appeared terribly concerned about the vintage, but when he went through all the motions, did he really grasp the purpose of them? Is it really our fault, at this point?

There's a pause, and I try my best to smile while waiting. His wife rolls her eyes, and he's clearly upset with me. "Bring us a 1999 Chianti," he commands. He's snippy as hell.

Because the bar is getting busier, and he's wearing shorts on a Saturday night, and seems like an amateur, and I'm about to explode, I say, "Immediately, sir," and make a hasty decision to fetch him a bottle of 1999 Chianti, which I now realize is easily subpar to the wine that he selected and approved. If it makes you happy...

When I return with the relatively crappy 1999 Chianti, they're gone. Vanished. Poof. After our shift was over and we were talking about work, one of the servers pointed out that the couple bailed, thirsty and hungry, at the height of the Saturday night dining hour. We agreed to pity their next server.

Happy ending: There's a delightful couple at the bar eating, drinking the $5.00 house pour Chianti, and when they order refills, I pour from the abandoned bottle of our finest.

Spill the wine
Take that pearl...
- Eric Burdon, "Spill The Wine"

Saturday, June 25, 2005

A Shot of Girl, Up, No Lime

Interesting 3-top walks into the restaurant, dangerously near to closing. No meals, just cocktails. They're tanned, well-dressed, and chatty. They throw me a 20-spot so the drinks will come faster. I'm ecstatic, and like them immediately.

They're so friendly, an absolute bartender's delight. Shots, cocktails, a bottle of fine (read: ridiculously expensive) wine. Outrageous tips on each round.

The servers are giving me the evil-eye, so I gently ask, "Are you waiting for a table?", as we're very close to our last seating.

"No, just meeting some friends to drink," they reply. Yes!!! My fave-rave customers, the ones who sit at the bar not because they're hungry and on line for a table, killing time, but because they're thirsty, and nothing more. A bartender can respect that.

They're fun, and it's slow otherwise, so I engage them in conversation. Something about being from Cleveland, in Cincinnati for just the weekend, for a big party. I listen and pour.

At this point, the woman begins negotiating "video" with the two men. The older man's cell phone rings incessantly. He mispronounces the name of our restaurant to everyone who calls him. He talks about a hotel, and a suite, and drinks, and sexual preferences, and video, and condoms.

I start to piece it together. They're members of "The Lifestyle." They're swingers.

It was interesting when the next couple arrived. The woman in the earlier party was nervous, and said so to her husband, but when the other couple arrived, she did a quick shot of Beam, which relaxed her a bit. The men quickly rearrange their seating, so that the two women are seated together. They make small talk. Weather, sports, celebrities. Why don't they just get to the point, I'm wondering. The men pretend to be interested in their own small talk, but watch the women with the eyes of a falcon. I begin to think that I should have explored a career in anthropology, because this is fuckin' fascinating.

A third couple arrives and I'm doing the math. Too many men, by my calculation. I do wonder how they'll sort it all out. Then I stop wondering, because it's really too much for a Friday shift I didn't want to work in the first place.

Upon leaving, they tip me again, heavily. They're close to becoming Car Payment Customers. The eldest man in the group palms me a piece of paper. "If you feel a little crazy tonight," he adds. Of course, it s his phone number, instead of the neatly-folded US currency I'd prefer. Uh-huh. After he leaves, I tape it to the main bar register, in an attempt to amuse the staff. They are amused, of course.

What drives people to arrange this, to methodically plan out a meeting at a bar, a few shots, a few glasses of wine, and then off to a random hotel room to fuck each other senseless...

My job is so goddamned interesting, I think to myself, while polishing glassware, and doing a poor job of pretending I don't know what they're all up to..

They can come back anytime they wish. Gracious, and great tippers. A bartender should, in a perfect world, be your last obstacle between good taste and morality.

And there's a rose in a fisted glove

and the eagle flies with the dove

and if you can't be with the one you love

Love the one you're with

Love the one you're with

- Stephen Stills

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

One Order of Freedom Fries, Please

It's high time liberal bloggers gave a little bandwidth to this story. I'm surprised and disappointed that we haven't thus far. The story of Walter B. Jones (R- NC) deserves so much more...

March 2003:

House cafeterias change name for "French" fries and "French" toast

June 2005:

Heartache moves Republican to to call for Iraq pullout

What a difference two years, and a shifting American mood, makes.

A toast to Walter B. Jones, a conscientious and thoughtful man, a congressman who's put his money where his mouth is in terms of this war and his own culpability. His own recounting of the letters he's written to Iraq war widows, widowers and family members moved me to tears during his segment on last week's Sunday political talk shows. This week, he introduced a bipartisan bill to Bring Them Home, standing next to Dennis fuckin' Kucinich, no less. What he's doing is so honorable, and it's what you'd expect (but rarely receive) from a member of The Hill. Finally.

If he were in my district, I'd vote for him, party lines and past grudges be damned.

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

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Down Goes Carlson!!

I've been dealing with computer glitches since last week, along with an absence of amusing bar stories (thanks for nothing, boring customers!!!). Yet I'm grateful for the small things... at least the lack of raw material and computer crash occurred at the same time.

Now that I'm back online, I've been devouring the web like a free parfait from the neighborhood Creamy Whip! It's funny, the things you miss, the things you swear you could do without, say, on a desert island, or during some other improbable scenario. I find myself so internet-starved that I'm googling things like "Regional Kentucky Bourbons", "Truman's letters to the New York Times" and "Neighborhood Creamy Whips" in one sitting. I mean, I haven't even had time to do the mundane things, like checking my email and deleting freaky sexual spam (when not sweepstakes-related).

Please enjoy one of my favorite finds during an aimless night back online, the funniest thing I've seen, since, well, Britney & Kevin's "Chaotic."

Don Imus Berates Tucker Carlson - via Crooks and Liars (.wmv)

My favorite part? Imus, referring to the bowtied-Tucker Carlson's upcoming MSNBC show, says, flatly, "You could set an egg timer to how long this thing is gonna last."

May the Gods of Amusement send me a bar story for the week! I'd hate to dig deep into the repertoire...

Friday, June 03, 2005

A Shout-Out to Bouncers and Doormen

It's been a little while since Tavern Wench tended bar in the Club World. Those days were fun.

Coming to work at 9:00 pm, waiting on club kids by 11:00 pm, chucking the quarters they'd tip me at their heads as they walked away. That was our favorite pasttime, throwing quarters at customers. It was dark, of course, and we'd laugh at them while their hands clutched their heads in the universal "what the fuck was THAT?" motion. At the end of the night, we'd sweep up the quarters from the dance floor, and they'd almost always total 50 bucks or more. Tip me a quarter, and it's going to come back to you, hopefully on the top of your head while you're chatting up some hot, drunk girl. Choad.

In those days, I made wheelbarrows full of money, which I didn't save. I'm an idiot, but not unlike most bartenders during the height of their club-tending, cash-cow days. I feel slightly less inadequate, knowing I'm in good company.

I only just found
this wonderful blog, written by a New York bouncer/doorman. It's fantastic, and I'm going to spend the next few hours reading it and reliving my days in club bartending.

Bouncers and Doormen deserve recognition and accolades. They've gotten me out of many a sticky situation. The most common situation is refusing service to a loud, too drunk, obnoxious under-25 male. Often, these males would climb over the bar and attempt to ring my neck. I was always able to snake out of their grasp (Sober Bartenders are quite a bit quicker than Drunken Patrons), flip the lights, and suddenly Under-25 Male would find himself lifted by his armpits and carried out of the club by a relative army of men. No questions, no comments, no strongly-worded letters to management. Problem solved, keep the party going. Bartenders Heart Bouncers!!

Check it out, bar fans! And be prepared to laugh out loud. The guy is a great writer, and funny as hell.

Clublife - an online narrative of the life of a bouncer at two of New York's most popular nightclubs

The "Car Payment" Customer

Also known as Customers Who Kick Ass, Part Two. Part One Here

Thursday night begins slow and steady, and as prime time (7:00) rolls around, one of the servers is begging to be cut. The floor manager feels a busy night ahead, denies her request, and for once in his life, his instinct proved right. Our asses were kicked moments later.

I'm feeling a little anxious at the bar, which has been busy on the service end but not on the bar "over the wood" customer end. I'm wanting in on the action! And then, Bill walks in. "Car Payment," he's known as. Need I explain why? A true gentleman, in his early 60's, a regular customer, land developer, relatively wealthy, known for his fat tipping habits. Bill walks in with a young blonde, at least 30 years his junior. She's clutching a Vuitton bag that is the object of my desire, and we immediately strike up a conversation. Now, Bill comes in with a different girl every few weeks, so the staff is careful not to offer him his "usual" or suggest the meal he enjoyed last week, so I behave as if it's the first time I've ever laid eyes on him. Car Payment orders the most expensive wine in the house, four glasses, as a second couple is expected soon.

If Car Payment knew his nickname... I'll bet he'd be pleased. He's not the kind of guy who flashes his money or acts obnoxious. He's gentle and fun and you wouldn't call him Car Payment until you saw the tip.

The servers hover a bit around him, anxious to get his table, and begin pressuring the hostess. "Would you like to be seated?" our adorable, waifish hostess asks. "No, we'll wait at the bar, we're expecting another couple." I wish it were appropriate to "high-five" myself. All Mine!!! My precious...

Second couple arrives within minutes. I don't recognize them. She's gorgeous and half-crocked. He's over-tanned and way out of his league. "Mimosa!" she cries. Her date pulls me aside, asks to share Car Payment's wine for himself, and then repeats his date's order. "Sir, we don't carry champagne by the split, so I'm not able to offer mimosas by the glass. However, if you wish to purchase a bottle of champagne, I'll serve your companion mimosas fresh-to-order." He quickly agrees, and I retrieve the champagne. His date, clearly delighted at the sight of a glistening champagne bucket and carafe of freshly-squeezed orange juice before her, squeals, "Ooooh!!! Hey, could I trouble you for a slice of orange?" "No trouble at all, madam," I reply, whipping out an orange and cutting her a slice. It's Car Payment's party. He's going to take care of me. Otherwise, I'd fulfill her demands, but I'd add a little snark. Tonight, I'm treating her like she's Angelina Jolie, and she's loving it. She's about as beautiful as Angelina, and she's doing a fine job of decorating my rapidly-filling bar.

Before taking their table, the party tipped me $70.00 on a $127.00 check. It made my night. Hell, it made my week.

Before I left for work today, I read this post on Waiterrant, about being under-tipped by a guy you helped get laid. I have no way of measuring what my hand in it was, but I'm confident both Car Payment and Friend got lucky tonight. I'm happy to contribute to the magic, and it's even nicer when you get paid a bundle for it.

While carrying a dishpan back to the kitchen, I bumped into Car Payment. He'd finished his dinner and was on his way out the door. "You made my night tonight, Bill," I said. I'm not one to grovel or over-appreciate, but it was the truth, and I wanted him to know how good he'd made all of us feel.

"You made my night," he replied.

I'm tempted to believe him. It was a night of magic at our little Taverna, there are many stories to tell, but I won't bore you with the details.

Just believe.

I walked out of work with a smile on my face tonight. When was the last time you did that?

The minute you walked in the joint
I could see you were a man of distinction
A real big spender
Good looking, so refined
Say wouldn't you like to know what's going on in my mind?
So let me get right to the point
I don't pop my cork for every guy I see
Hey big spender!
Spend a little time with me
- Big Spender, Sweet Charity (Musical)