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Walking the Plank
by Scott Stavrou
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 3.1
BARTENDING MEMOIRS

You groggily stagger out of bed at the crack of 3 pm, which as Nietzsche said, is either too early or too late to do anything really great. But you don't have anything great to do, you just have to shower, eat and get ready to go to work. You set your cereal bowl on the dining room table where you left a crumpled mass of dead presidents -- your well-earned tip money from the night before. You rifle through the bills just to see if you can spy some Lincolns or Hamiltons -- maybe even a nice portrait of Andrew Jackson, if you were lucky. George was a swell president, but his face isn't the one you prefer to see staring up at you while you have your coffee. No offense, Mr. Washington, but you know he wouldn't want you to lie, right?

By the time you arrive at work at 6, there'll be a small cadre of thirsty patrons at the bar, and the daytime stiff will be very eager to change the guard, which typically means he gets to switch sides. He's spent the better part of 20 years behind a bar, and the better part of the last hour dispensing some well-aimed free drinks to his customers -- a favor on which he's now eager to cash in on.

You recognize a few faces that you diplomatically extradited last night at closing time. Many of your customers keep longer hours at the bar than you do. Everyone needs a hobby, you think. And you can't be too disdainful of your loyal regulars. Because they, and their thirst, help pay your rent and your minimum payments to MasterCard, not to mention your student loans.

As the regular night bartender, you go through most of your preparatory tasks by rote. You could do this in the throes of a stifling hangover. And you usually do. Oh, you didn't set out to tend bar. It's not a career move that people aim for. Like most of your drink-slinging peers, you just fell into it. You have other goals, aspirations, dreams. You're different, you tell yourself, and sometimes you still believe it. But in the meantime you also have bills to be paid, and you've always enjoyed drinking, talking with people, hanging out in bars. There would be plenty of time for the future later, and it seemed simple enough to bide your time strolling back and forth behind six feet of mahogany dispensing drinks. At first it was great fun, then it was good money, then it was a job and you got used to the routine… the easy regular tip money became a part of your life… your nights grew longer… your days grew shorter. Pretty soon it was your regular thing, and as with any vocation you try and do your best even if you think you're a bit above it. Like water (a liquid you have little time for at work), you find your own level.

You check in on the register and say your hellos, engage in some quick exchanges of meaningless banter. Even though nothing of interest has happened to you since you left the bar the night before, it's your job to instill a little excitement, to lend an air of festivity. You glance at the level of everybody's drinks to see who needs to be taken care of first. Then you put on some fresh coffee for yourself and cut some lemons and limes and make sure you have plenty of clean glassware -- the all-important elementary tools of this trade that you didn't really choose for yourself. You get things set up how you like them. Every bartender has little quirks, and certain things need to be rearranged to suit you. So you switch the plastic condiment container so it's not in your way, move your tip jar from the left side to the right, chill some shot glasses for the regulars at the end of the bar so they can enjoy their Jagermeister.

Once you're finished with your setup, it's time to connect yourself with the socializing, to become an integral part of the atmosphere. You take your bar rag down to the end where all the regulars sit, using the rag as an excuse to get yourself down there. You give the bar a quick wipe and check out the conversation, even though you know they're either talking about sports or politics. Little conversation of substance occurs in that corner; they didn't come here to meet new people or boast about their career conquests. They all know each other and are comfortable discussing these matters of little importance but of great interest.

Tom sits in the corner behind a bottle of Miller Genuine Draft and an empty shot glass, pontificating about a recent ill-advised sports trade.

"Set up the rail," he says. Everyone has their different systems of buying drinks. His beer is still nearly full, and you know that he means he wants another shot, and he's buying a round for any of the regular folks at the corner who wish to join him. You place shot glasses upside down in front of the people you know he wants to include and nod your head toward their benefactor saying "This one's on Tom." Then you go and retrieve the green bottle with the viscous black liquid. Several regulars see the bottle and jump on the Jagermeister bandwagon with him. Steve and Tim just want another draft. They toss back their shot or tip their beer toward him and utter a simple "thanks" while you go to the register and total what he's just invested. By the time you get back, another trivial conversation has ensued and you bide your time waiting for the right moment to tell him his total. He grabs a twenty from his pile of money on the bar and slides it forward toward you.

"Twenty-four fifty," you say. He looks up at you with minor annoyance and slides another twenty your way. You place his change in the same spot. He leaves it there. Now you know that the corner is taken care of for a bit, at least until someone else gets a hankering for another drink and will have to return the favor of buying a round. It's like the admission price for sitting in the corner. You amble away to check on the few faces at the bar you don't know, strike up some conversations, dish out some drinks, pick up some dirty glasses, deposit some tip money in your jar, pour out your cold cup of coffee and refill it with fresh. Of course you can't just stand around sipping joe all night -- there are strangers here who don't know the regulars and need someone to talk to. That's your job and they're comfortable with the fact that people at the end of the bar all hail you loudly by name. You're an insider and they get to be privy to speaking with you just by ordering a drink. These new people don't know the routine, the faces, the right jokes, so you have to engage them in meaningless banter -- the same old things you've said a million times before.

"I think I'll have a Pilsner Urquell on tap," an anonymous new customer says. You know he'll have it from the tap because that's the only way you have it. You give him his beer, take his money and listen to him tell you what a fine beer it is. You already know that because you drink it too, and you even spent a year living in the Czech Republic (where you also tended bar when you weren't a customer). But you can tell he's the type of guy who needs to show off his knowledge, so you listen with feigned interest. After some time, it's easy to tell how to deal with the different types of people. Before you go talk with the regulars again, you make a mental note that the guy in the gray suit with the loosened blue striped tie is Pilsner Urquell. You take little note of names; everyone who is new is just a drink to you.

Then Brian walks in and says hello to the regulars but sits at the other end of the bar from them. He always comes in about this time, and you always act like he's a bit later than usual: "Long commute?" you ask.

"It wasn't too bad today," he says, "an hour ten minutes."

"How about a Ramos Gin Fizz?" you ask. Of course you know that he always drinks two Heinekens, but this is your daily exchange and you know he enjoys it, so when you spy him walking in you always think up an off beat drink to offer him.

"Sounds perfect," he says. Off you go to grab his bottle of Heineken.

You have your other regulars who don't even like to be asked what they want. They just expect you to present it to them once they sit down. It's your job to know. There's Brandy and Soda in a tall glass with a twist, Bud Draft, Johnny Walker Black Label neat, Canadian Club with a splash, Jameson's Irish Whisky with a beer back.

Time passes, the way it will, night falls, and the after-work-happy-hour people depart for dinners and movies elsewhere. They have places to go. A few faces come and go amidst the regulars, but most of them are settled in for the evening, and now it's time for you to hang out with them. They've taken turns buying each other rounds, and you've been in the on-deck circle for a couple of hours. You can sense the anticipation. When you go down to the end, you place your hand on a dollar bill tip that Cathy has slid forward to you.

"All right, if Sean can guess if the first digit in this serial number is higher or lower than five, the next round's on me," you say.

They all look eagerly toward Sean, the pressure is on.

"Higher," he says, as the bevy of parched faces looks up at you.

You make a production of slowly picking up the dollar and see that the first number is a three.

"Eight," you say, "everyone's a winner. Who's drinking?"

Everyone is. That's what they came for.

You dish out a serious round of beers and shots. No one orders anything too complicated so as not to seem ungrateful for the hospitality. Of course this time you have to join them, so you pick up your shot glass and toast the people who pay your rent. The mood at the end of the bar picks up with this dispensation of a free round, and everyone settles in for awhile more, pleased at their good fortune. More drinks will be bought, more money for the bar, more dead presidents for your tip jar. You wander back down to the other end and toss out your cold, stale coffee and draw yourself a beer. Now you're really at work, one of the gang. You take an ill-advised glance at your watch. Only a few more beers, several more shots, some redundant conversations and countless trips back and forth behind the bar 'til closing.

"Who's drinking?"

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