Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Popping My Bartending Cherry

      After two and a half years of working at the place of lost souls, graduating college, 4 or 5 blank page love affairs, getting laid off from my first professional job, and months of worthless interviews, numerous job placement agencies, I finally am being promoted at the bar.  It’s an odd feeling to be moving up at a place that you never planned on being at for longer than college.  My post college life is supposed to be career driven, and at a place where I am using my education ideally to climb some corporate ladder in some sort of business.  I’m supposed to become the Angela Bower of the 2000’s.  I should wear expensive casual clothing that looks cheap, but my jeans would cost more than 1 month of groceries.  I am supposed to become a yuppy, someone who gets to a bar and orders a “pino-o-o” because they are too lazy to finish the sentence, assuming they are parched from all their white-collar conversations.  I should be working on an account and casually updating my facebook with witty comments that show the rest of the world that I am a success, even though a real success doesn’t need this validation.  I am supposed to be a walking, talking status symbol.  I should be the guy that left my home town and didn’t give up on their dreams at 22 because the condom broke.  In San Francisco, these yuppy-people spend a lot of money to look like they don’t care.  For those who have never worked in a bar or restaurant, those who order their wine this way are often douche bags…  These people often do not tip even though they sweat money.  When you serve them in my line of work, they often make it very obvious that they haven’t worked a hard day’s work since that summer during their freshman year when daddy cut them off.  At least pretending to be one of these peeps is what I have worked towards doing all these years.  Why, I’m not sure.  I just figure that is a way to break out of the only life I know which means knowing too well the different ways to prepare Top Roman.
       Life doesn’t always turn out how we plan.  I am making more money now at the bar than I would ever imagine making at any professional job right now.  The question that I and perhaps every other bartender in my situation ponders, is how long this will last?  Is it like being a model?  Once the goods are dried and wrinkled up, you are through?  Maybe one day, I too could open my own bar?  Or become a brand like Tyra and Heidi?  Then, I will not have to worry about an expiration date and live desperately on vanity, botox and anything that can keep my youthful disposition pickled and intact? While many questions fly through my head, one concept is certain.  I am young and will not be young forever so I’ll work it while I can.

Now, after two years of busing every nook and cranny of this place, cleaning up vomit, dealing with nasty old men playing ass-grab while I am trying to get my job done, I am no longer a barback.  I am a full-fledged bartender.  It sounds stupid to gloat about but it means something to me.  What does this all add up to?  I finally am now a part of the face of the bar industry. While this sounds simple, there are more ingredients to this position.  To do well, one must create a persona, a schtick.  This persona is what creates a bar’s atmosphere and pays my rent.  The face always has to look pleasant.  This persona is a meld of one’s actual personality but more social and outgoing.  This persona is not necessarily different than one’s true identity, but it may be.  The point is, this persona character is who we bartenders become when we want to pay our rent and sell.  Yes, the persona is what we in the field use to sell ourselves at least to a degree.  Many will argue that this isn’t true.  I will argue that in order to do well in this field, one needs to create a strong persona that is often more outgoing than their personality.  Some of my co-workers have personas of “the partier,” they are always the life of the party.  Some try to emphasize their skill and flare, while others completely rely on their looks and can’t have a conversation or make a proper drink to save their life.  My persona is one that is to be very straight-forward and not blow smoke up people’s asses.  I’m not overly nice, not afraid to tell anyone how it is and push the borders between clever and nosy.  I try to keep the scene lively and as though I won’t take shit from anyone, this hopefully shows people that I won’t be taken advantage of. 

Keeping the persona in mind, one should look happy at all times.  Always be ready for a photo opportunity.  While no one can be happy at all times, a good bartender must make it look like they are always ready be the life of the party.  Sometimes bartending is like doing stand-up for a “shitty” crowd, you just have to make it work.  If your relative just passes away or boyfriend tells you he was cheating on you right before your shift, you must clear your head, still should remain smiles because you know that makes the gimmick work better.  Not to say that we aren’t sincere, it was just a part of the game we knew we have to play to do well.  Unlike barbacking, where one can just walk away from asshole customers, we stand there at our given stations, about 3-4 feet away from another bartender and work it for our customers.  This is much like the way the hookers stand in their perspective windows of Amsterdam’s red-light district, but less alluring and you can’t legally smoke your pot here.  There is a mix of confidence and desperation of which smell. 

Getting to work, stepping behind that bar is similar to walking into a cage.  Like being the panda at the zoo a few days a week.  It’s a place from which you can’t escape.  Instead of escaping, for hours on end you sing and dance your way to rent.  Every move you made can and will be analyzed because there is always someone in the bar watching you.  At our bar, if it’s not a customer, it’s “big brother.”  When you got the crazies at your station, you can’t just walk away.  This promotion truly is a test to my patience and social educate.

My first time bartending alone in the bar is pretty scary.  While I have been here for years now, I have never been in this place.  From this of view, it all looks different.  There is this odd freedom that comes with bartending in a busy nightclub.  Being the nerd that I am, and I guess still the boy with low-self-esteem, it feels great to be in this place.  It’s like a self-esteem booster and cheaper than the drugs that make you feel this way.  I instantly feel more attractive once I am behind the bar in my cut-off shirt, and for this reason I am beaming smiles today.  It’s a Friday night, unlike any other that I have ever known.  It is also during one of the busiest times of the year for the bar.  It starts out slow, which I am easily able to handle.  Since I have the new kid at school advantage, having barbacked there for so long, I also already know the rainbow of customers.  Since I am working next to Aaron, it makes life easier for just this night.   It’s going to be as easy as pie, unless it’s a pie made with veggies I very much dislike them in my deserts.  Just a personal preference.

I have spent the past 2 weeks memorizing every drink I could think of.    I worked through about 40 drink cards with various cocktail and shot concoctions, just so that I would be ready.   I make sure to learn not only what a Manhattan is, but that shaking it was called bruising it, and apparently a way to ruin the cocktail.  I also learn entirely too many drinks with the words orgasm in their title.  These drinks apparently died in the early 90s with grunge, but I will learn that later.  I also learned how to properly make a Singapore sling and various layered shots.

As my first thirsty patron approaches me, I try to look cool.  They don’t even make eye contact with me really.  It’s like they are looking me straight in the eyes but looking right past me at all times.  There is no small talk at all.  The guy says, “vodka cran.”
I smile as I fill up a glass with ice.  In my head I’m saying, “I’m fine thanks, how are you?”  What comes out is silence.

As I pick up the vodka with my left hand and the cranberry juice with the right the guy tosses a ten-dollar bill at me and then looks away.  I ask, “would you like a lime?”

He is not paying attention at this point.  I ask again.  Nothing.  He is staring off in the distance at one of the music videos playing.  I ask a third time a bit louder, “LIME!?”  He instantly looks at me, shakes his head, pulls his drink from my hand and walks away.

The night seems to go smoothly.  I get a few more dickheads who are just rude but not mean, nothing I can’t handle but all simple drinks.  I am ready and anticipating one of the complicated drinks I memorized mostly because I’m afraid I’ve already forgotten them.  I get my first complicated shot order.  It’s some Bachelorette party.  Twelve women who are walking advertisements of how not to behave at a bar order 12 different mixed shots from me.  Each one tries to flirt with me.  One shows a tit.  Just a tit.  Just cause I’m gay doesn’t mean you gotta skimp on me!  They don’t tip cause often Bachelorette parties don’t and leave within ten minutes. 

The shift keeps going and it looks like I have been making them for years.  The truth is, that I only know the ingredients and that’s it.  Come to think of it this will be the first alcoholic beverage that I will have made outside of a college kegger.  The man who approaches me, opens his mouth and for some reason everything seems to be coming out in slow motion.  By this point, I already have beads of sweat on my forehead since I realize that I am not an experienced bartender and a horrible liar.  He asks for a vodka cranberry.  All of a sudden, I am put at ease because he has ordered such an easy drink.  I am so confident that I will make him the best vodka cran that I try to pick up the bottle with flare.  I toss the bottle in the air just slightly, so that I can catch it upside-down to pour the booze required. The bottle is slipperier than anticipated, it of course gets into my grasp and slips from my little hands.  The bottle falls on the ground, spills on my shoe and all over the floor.  The bottle has not broken though.  While I am horrified at what is unraveling in front of my eyes, I feel a laugh coming on.  As the confused customer is now staring at me pissed off, not amused and checking their cell phone, I just start laughing really loud, smile, give a wink and tell the poor dope that he made me nervous.  He seems shocked.  The poor sap is eating it up.  This is when I realize the obvious, that this job is not as hard as I am making it.  Now one should ever take them-selves too seriously.

Luckily, as mentioned earlier, I have Aaron working next to me.  He is on fire tonight and probably higher than I have ever seen him.  He is also wearing a lot of glitter which ads his look tonight.  I am amazed at how resilient he is.  Every few minutes when there is a lull he pulls me aside and tells me about the new little furry bear man he is dating for the day.  He then tells me about how he hasn’t slept in the past 3 days, has fabulous sex the night before and had just gotten back from a trip to New York where he partied with famous DJs like Cozwell.  Getting caught up in his extravaganza of a life makes it easier for me to just let go and not take myself so seriously.  Aaron has an interesting way of exaggerating in his stories that entertains and puts me at ease.  After listening to one of his stories about his cub-man lover from nights’ prior, I turn back to my bartending station to a wall of people literally.  I almost shit myself.  All of a sudden I feel like I have to pee.  I have been fine all night, but now I have to pee.   It’s a nervous tick I have always had.  Interviews, tests, long road trips, while I can make it a near day without peeing, the second I get in a pressure-filled situation, the bladder decides to hate on me.  I know that I can’t leave now, because if there is a time to pay my rent, now is the time.  I cork it.  In my head I had imagined tonight to be so simple and unravel as such.  I assume that I will have people throwing money my way simply.  I will have beautiful men fawning over and waiting for me.  I will look amazing shaking shots, doing tricks with the bottles.  That’s kind of how the night seems to be working out, minus the spilled vodka bottle and the 10 or 15 broken glasses due to my clumsiness.  It’s fine until my station is insanely packed with people.  I spill one drink on a customer.  I tried to look cool while making shots for a round of girls and then I can’t get the pint glass out of the metal shaker cause I had put it on too tight.  Then I continue to accidentally break the pint glass with little shards of glass sprinkling into the shot glasses.  The poor girls looked horrified.  Then a few minutes later I spill a pint of beer on a customer as I slip walking over to them.  After that, I made a martini and accidentally break the martini glass stem as I am filling the glass.  Essentially, the night closes with my back and arms in pain as though I just finished some aerobics class.  I am also drintched with beer, wine, and a few hints of whiskey.  The smell reminds me of the white trash memories I left behind in East County San Diego.

It has truly turned into a classy night. From cosmos to lemon drops, I make everything that night.  Most of them are made incorrectly, but that is the least of my problems.  After an hour or two I felt at ease while still clumsy, I learned that playing dumb worked in my favor.  Turning a blind eye to my mistakes I make and just try to make it look like I am having fun.  Aaron sees that I am having a stressful night, so being the big brother-type that he has to me, he hands me a cookie.  Starving and stressed out I took a bite of his magical cookie, not realizing that I will be reeling from it’s mystical powers sooner than predicted. 

Next predicament of the night to get through…  Now that I have made it through a night of drink slinggin’, I need to count my tip money.  I have piles of wet one-dollar bills, quarters and stuff to organize and then get someone else’s register counted and balanced.  I am too messed up by this point. It’s too late to save me.  I am trying to keep my magical cookie experience under wraps and focus on the job at hand.  I am counting this money now for the fifth time and still things aren’t balancing out.  Come to think of it, I have been counting this bundle of fives for the past what seem like forty-five minutes but are actually less than two.  Instead of counting my twenties I just start to stare at one twenty-dollar bill and forget where it came from.  Now Aaron looks over at me to see what’s taking me so long.  He looks like he has seen a ghost.  I look at him, his lips that are covered in lip-gloss and think to myself about how thirsty I am and how much I need chap-stick.  Dry mouth is kicking in.

Aaron quickly whispers, “that cookie has hit you hard girl…  You should go.” 

Aaron out of all people says that.  If that’s the case, then I must be messed up.  The night ends with me hopping into a cab, red-eyed, with a hagen-daz vanilla ice cream bar in one hand (half eaten before I get in) and cab fare in the other.  I ask Aaron the next day what happened, if he counted my stuff for me.

Aaron says, “gurl, I counted your stuff and it was fine.  After that I went to the gym and was there for ten hours! I met this daddy that was fuzzy and fine!”
I assume if Aaron is okay with the way the night went, so am I.

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