"From bullets whizzing through the front windows of an Italian restaurant to a tall, mysterious blond who wants to be tied up and spanked — it's life behind the bar, a carnival recorded on cocktail napkins …. "
Drinks … maybe as many as one-hundred-thousand and counting. “How do you do it?” a young coed asks as I frantically work behind the bar. “How do you remember all the drinks?” With the place packed and me struggling to keep my head above water, she asks about knowing drinks.
I guess for customers, remembering each drink is what bartending is all about–but it’s just not true especially when the joint starts hopping. A bartender has to handle everything at once. You give someone their change as you ask the next group what they want, the waitress calls out her order, the ice is low, you need more limes, and the guy at the end is swaying back and forth on his barstool. All of this happens in an instant.
Then there are the customers. Everyone talks about dealing with the general public, and what an effort it takes . . . but in a bar, the public has been drinking. Try adding that extra difficulty to any job. Imagine driving a city bus filled with giddy passengers who stand up on their seats, and sing, and cheer. Trust me, remembering how to make drinks is only the beginning.
Besides, it’s not as difficult as it seems. Drinks fall into categories, like the vodka and juice drinks. Fill a highball glass with ice, one house pour of vodka and a changing juice. All you have to remember is which juice goes with which name.
Screwdriver = orange juice
Cape Codder = cranberry juice
Madras = orange and cranberry juice
Seabreeze = grapefruit and cranberry juice
Hawaiian Seabreeze = pineapple and cranberry juice.
A Black Russian is vodka and Kahlua, while a White Russians adds milk or cream. What about the Whiskey Sours, Vodka Sours, Amaretto Sours? Make one sour and you know how to make them all.
There are always new drinks, something the bartender hasn’t heard of before. A few years ago at Johnny D’s, bartenders Eric Pierce and Felix Gailitis invented a drink that had dark rum and Captain Morgan’s, a little coconut rum and triple sec, shaken with pineapple juice and a splash of Grenadine. (I came up with the name … we called it a “Horny Pirate.”) One day a customer complained that she’d gone to another bar and they didn’t even know what a Horny Pirate was much less how to make it. Of course not, we’d just made it up.
Which brings me to the real reason behind this post, something I finally found online … a great scene about knowing/not knowing drinks in an episode of the TV series Cheers. Some of the regulars at Cheers decided to teach a new addition to the staff a lesson. He was always bragging about his prior experience and his knowledge of bartending–so the regulars came up with a phony drink and made-up ingredients. Woody, one of the other bartenders, was in on it with them.
One by one as they pretended to be new customers, they asked the guy for a Screaming Viking, a cocktail supposedly made with a whole cucumber. Of course the snooty bartender didn’t know it–there’s no such drink as a Screaming Viking (at least not at the time).
“Would you like your cucumber bruised first?” Woody stepped in to help one conspiring regular.
“Just slightly bruised,” Norm replied, and Woody gently tapped the cucumber on the bar rail. The pompous bartender walked out, pissed and humiliated.
It’s one of my favorite bar scenes. Click on the image below to watch.
Now Johnny D’s will be closing early in 2016, and I have the inside scoop on why. I worked behind their bar for 25 years, and though I moved on, over the last year I’ve been watching something unfold. It’s about the hidden struggles when running a business, one nightspot in particular, and it’s also a human story both sad and hopeful.
Let’s start with some history.
Mr. and Mrs. Johnny D
Carla’s parents, Tina and John DeLellis, opened the club in 1969–back when Davis Square (Somerville, MA) was a different place. It was a gangster enclave and some of the old-timers still talk about the gunfight at a bar called The Rail Side across the street. One mobster leaned out the bar’s back door and fired his gun repeatedly at others shooting down from the windows of the adjacent apartment building.
When the Red Line subway put a new stop in Davis Square, digging up the ground where The Rail Side had been, everyone knew there were changes ahead.
The DeLellis family added a restaurant and raised the level of music from country and western to local, regional and national acts playing the blues, jazz, folk, world beat, and rock … a mix so varied you had to check the schedule before making plans. One night you might have Brad Delp, lead singer for the band Boston, performing on stage … and the next night it would be rockabilly legend Dale Hawkins, who wrote Credence Clearwater’s well-known hit, Suzie Q.
At that point, there were only three members left in the DeLellis family. Johnny D himself had died of a heart attack so Tina and her kids Carla and Dave began running the place together. They were a team.
David, Tina and Carla (front-page photo from the LIVING/ARTS section of The Boston Sunday Globe)
Dave oversaw the bar, seated customers for the restaurant and kept a close eye on the physical maintenance of the place. Carla started a wildly popular brunch, and when she wasn’t tweaking the menu or handling advertising and promotions, she ran the booking office trying to pull in the right bands. Tina was the matriarch, watching over everything and handling the business end of the club. Tina had two separate business offices at Johnny D’s and one in her home.
They all worked long hours. Tina was at the club six nights a week while Carla sometimes worked seven days and nights in a row. Dave put in sixteen-hour-shifts, but always found time to squeeze in a day at Cape Cod. (He once had me Fed Ex the times cards to him so he could do the payroll on the beach.)
Dave died far too young. At 37, he fell to fast-moving cancer, leaving only Tina and Carla to carry on. It seemed there was always more work and fewer people to do it.
Tina DeLellis passed away in 2008. There are so many stories about this grand lady. She had grown up wearing rags in war-torn Italy, then came to America without completing high school and went on to become one of Boston’s most successful and respected club owners. (You can read more about Tina here.)
I can’t resist telling one story about Tina, something John B. and I were talking about on the phone the other day.
Booty Vortex was playing and Johnny D’s was packed. (For a short video of Booty Vortex and to see what the club is like, clock the image below.)
As the night rolled on, a young man came in with his wife to have dinner and dance. Then the wife went to the other side of the performance area and asked someone else to dance. The two of them continued to twirl on the dance floor until the woman’s husband got involved. There was a loud exchange and it looked like punches were about to be thrown when Tina stepped in. “My friend, my friend,” Tina said to the husband, “we won’t have any of that in my place.”
“It’s a misunderstanding,” Tina continued with her thick Italian accent and her country lawyer charm. She turned to the wife’s confused dance partner. “Did you know she was married?” Tina asked. After a few minutes everything settled down. “See, it was just a misunderstanding,” Tina said to the husband, “he didn’t know she was married.”
After the husband went back to his table and the young man returned to his spot on the other side, Tina turned to the trouble-making wife. “And you … you little hussy,” Tina said to the wife when the two men were gone. “YOU didn’t know you were married?”
“Don’t be starting trouble in my place,” Tina waved her finger in the woman’s face. “Or I’ll throw you out myself!”
Tina was one of a kind, and she was sorely missed … but no one felt it as much as Carla. She’d lost her mom and her business partner, an important ally in both respects.
Carla DeLellis (Boston Globe photo)
By now Carla had married and become a mom herself, but when her marriage ended (another nightclub relationship causality) Carla was suddenly trying to raise four young children AND run a successful nightspot.
Maybe that was too long on the history part, but it sets the scene for the one moment in which I knew Carla faced some hard choices.
Carla had been at the club since early that morning, and was finally ready to go home and fix dinner for her kids when I walked into her office. Already held over for an extra two hours, her shoulders slumped when I told her there was something she had to deal with immediately.
“I’ll never get out of here,” Carla said. “Give me a minute. I’ve got to call the kids to tell them I’ll be late.”
While she began speaking to her youngest daughter, who was only five-years-old, it was as though I wasn’t even in the office. This was just a mom talking to a child who didn’t understand why her mother would be late coming home again.
“I know,” Carla said softly over the phone, “I know, honey … I miss you, too.”
“I’ll be home soon,” Carla continued, “but Mommy has to work right now.”
“No,” Carla said to her daughter, “No, honey … of course, Mommy loves you. I love you honey … but there’s something I have to do first.”
As Carla spoke, her voice was soothing and even, but she had tears running down her cheeks. Sitting in the office talking on the phone with her daughter, she continued silently crying.
“Mommy loves you, honey,” she said softly to her daughter. “I’ll be home soon, I promise.”
It took another two years to happened, but I knew at that moment something at Johnny D’s would have to change. When Carla made her announcement this past weekend, people wanted to know when I first heard about it … thinking that Carla might had told me earlier. Nope, I heard last Sunday afternoon the same as everyone else.
But that night with Carla in the office, I’d already seen all I needed to know.
(Just finished a big project and will be back next week with new stories. In the meantime, here’s a repost …this issue keeps coming up.)
We’re taking a break today from our usual bar stories. Something has been bugging me lately with all the talk about who pays taxes, and how much they pay.
And while my gripe is strickly about restaurant tips and a broken tax system, I think the details might interest everyone.
All restaurant employees who make a living on tips — who make even one dollar from tips — pay federal income tax on what they receive. My complaint is . . . why do they pay at a rate twice as high as the fat cats who make millions?
How harshly would you expect the US government to tax a restaurant tip as little as a quarter — as compared to someone’s $1,000,000 bonus? The answer might surprise you.
First let’s look at what a tip actually is, and what it isn’t.
A tip is a gift under $13,000 . . .
Have you ever seen a customer buy a round of drinks and then say to the bartender — “Get one for yourself.” It happens all the time. It’s gesture of appreciation. It’s a gift.
Likewise when a customer leaves a tip (so the bartender can buy him/herself a drink later — or buy whatever they want), that’s also a gift.
It’s certainly not wages. There’s no agreement guaranteeing how much will be given, . . . in fact, the customer can decide not to leave any tip at all. (What if a tip really was wages? Would the customer be liable for state and federal employer taxes?)
Nope . . . a tip is a gift, pure and simple, and as a gift under $13,000 it’s not subject to gift tax.
But the government needs money, and I suppose they justify taxing tips because at the end of the day, at the end of the week and the year, we do have that money to spend.
So the government counts these gifts as income.
And they tax them at the same rate as wages.
Now to the fat cats . . .
Everyone knows the tax-system is set up differently for the super-rich, but lately it’s become clear how thoroughly the game is totally rigged.
Even after hiding money in exotic offshore tax shelters and taking advantage of every tax loophole — when declaring what remains the super-rich can still pay at a rate much lower than yours and mine.
Restaurant employees (like most working folks) pay at a tax rate of 25 -35%. But many of the super-rich often pay as little as 15%, 10% . . . and sometimes pay nothing whatsoever.
How is this possible?
One advantage the super-rich have is the use of clever financial terms like “carried interest,” “capital gain,” and “deferred income.” They use this high-sounding jargon to suggest that unlike other forms of “income” (such as tips) . . . THEIR income should hardly be taxed at all.
For example by using terms like “active losses” vs. “passive losses,” and “total return equity swap” — the super-rich can essentially choose their own tax rate. According to Victor Fleischer (a tax expert and law professor at the University of Colorado), these folks save:
“ . . . substantial amounts of money by pretending that regular income received as a management fee for running a private equity firm is not income, but is instead a capital gain.” (Emphasis mine. Source.)
That way they only pay only 15%, rather than 35%. (Fleischer believes thisis actually illegal even as many multi-millionaires continue to do it.)
Not only can the super-rich apparently choose their own tax rate — they can switch back and forth when it suits them, to make even more money. They simply declare their losses at a 35% rate, while paying taxes at the 15% rate. (Source — Rebecca Wilkins, senior tax policy counsel at Citizens for Tax Justice.)
Those of us stuck at a 25 – 35% rate on tips might wonder . . . . how do they get away with this?
It’s simply, really . . . just follow the money
The people wheeling and dealing with their taxes simply contribute millions and millions of dollars to influence law-makers and politicians. Using those clever financial terms, the “influenced” legislators pass tax-avoidance strategies designed only for the super-rich.
Thus the super-rich really don’t have to break any laws (in most cases) . . . because in essence they’re the ones who wrote the laws. (Or more accurately, paid to have them written.)
Let me just say here, I’m not a communist and I firmly believe in the America way. I’m not looking to demean someone’s success, or to redistribute any of their wealth.
I just don’t think multi-millionaires should pay at a tax rate one-half (or even lower) than that of bartenders, waiters and waitresses, and the other workers of this country.
Anyway, sorry for the rant . . . back soon week with more bar stories.
(We included the comments from the first time this was posted … please feel free to add your own.)
(One more bar post involving an Aesop’s fable . . . I can’t help it, those old scribes knew what they were talking about.)
I’ve known Jake for years. I trained him as a bartender when he was a few months away from his twenty-first birthday. It was like watching someone grow up, not as a parent watches a child, but more like a coach working with a new recruit and enjoying their progress in the game.
And to Jake, it always was a kind of sport, a game. This was his first real restaurant experience, but he had skills to burn. He was smart, coordinated and quick with his hands, and he liked to work hard. In a very short time he was cranking behind the taps, then gradually we began to run the bar together.
Jake was an easygoing, good-looking guy and the women loved him. There was one blonde girlfriend after the other. He’d bust his ass during the shift, drink hard when it was done, and at the end of the night go home with another hot babe.
Then he met someone he wanted to stick with and after a while they began living together. I could see the change coming. His girl had a serious, professional job. She worked days; he worked nights and weekends. Now he wanted to take off as soon as the shift was over, barely tossing down half a beer after work. I guess we were expecting it, but it was still disappointing when he told us he had another opportunity and would be leaving. He’d been hired as the day manager for a well-known Boston restaurant.
“You don’t know what it’s like out there, Jake,” I warned him. “We’re working for a great owner here. You might not find that where you’re going.”
It was true; we had an owner who treated us with respect, who was more than fair . . . and just as important, was willing to listen. Seriously, how often do you find that in the restaurant/bar business?
“I have to see what I can do,” Jake explained. “It’s a career move. Full benefits, better hours . . . my girl hates me working nights.”
“Just expect to be surprised,” I told him. “You’ve got it pretty sweet here. You have no idea how many insane owners and bad bosses are out there.” Over the next few months Jake called me at home now and then. He’d tell me how things were going and he’d talk about his new owner.
Then this week Jake mentioned his new owner only liked those people who unfailingly agreed with him. They were the ones the owner gathered around him, the ones he listened to. It didn’t matter what the owner said, or how ridiculous his ideas, all the owner heard–from a staff trying to get along with him–was how smart and wonderful he was.
Apparently Jake’s new owner felt like an omnipotent ruler. He thought he could just lift his finger and point, and splendid things would happen . . . often with results that were disastrous for everyone.
While listening to Jake on the phone, another Aesop’s fable came to mind. I reminded Jake of the old story about The King and The Tide. Everyone around this king told him how wonderful and powerful he was, trying to curry his favor. “You’re the most powerful king in the world,” they’d tell him, “there’s nothing you can’t do.”
One day some peasants came to the king with a complaint. Every evening, it seems, the tide would come in and wash away whatever they were working on. Surely the king, as powerful and brilliant as he was, could do something about this.
So they carried the king on his throne down to the beach. As the tide came in, the waves washed over his feet while the king sat majestically on his throne. And the king declared, “Stop! I command you!” He raised one hand as he spoke to the encroaching tide. “I command you to stop!”
Of course, the water kept rising until it was up to the king’s ankles and then up to his knees. Soon the peasants turned away and left him there. Some of them may have been snickering behind the backs of their hands.
The king’s foolishness seems exaggerated and cartoon-like–but haven’t you all seen at least a hint of this delusional attitude . . . maybe in one of the bosses you’ve worked for or have known.
I was tempted to tell Jake that he should have stayed where he was; good owners are hard to come by. Instead I said, “Well, it could be worse.”
“If you were in the military,” I told Jake, “you might still have people above you who don’t know what they’re doing . . . and their poor decisions could cost your life.”
I asked him if he’d read Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, where a squad is sent on a suicide mission by a commander who thinks he is God, and is in a pissy mood.
I understand that the rank and file has to put up with bad decisions coming from the top–whether in the bar business, in office work, or at any job. “But how would you feel,” I asked Jake, “if you were being sent to your death because some desk-bound, superior officer was an idiot.”
“Johnny Walker Black, no ice, water on the side.” The guy was back again, as pompous as ever. He owned a popular bar on the outskirts of Albany, and he’d stop in The Lark now and then. I figured he came by to check the competition.
He was in his late fifties, but tonight he was accompanied by a young girl in her twenties. Later I’d learn she was a waitress at his place. She was his new girlfriend, and he made sure everyone in our bar was aware they were dating. It made you skin crawl, with the condescending way he treated her, but she just sat smiling.
Apparently she’d recently graduated from Albany State, and not sure what to do next she continued to wait tables. She was very pretty with a layered haircut and frosted lipstick, and she kept smiling and laughing when he made lame jokes.
I wanted to tell her about all the other waitresses he’d brought in over time–there was always a young chick on his arm. From the bartenders at his place, we knew he kept an unfilled spot on the waitstaff schedule in case a cute girl walked in looking for a job. He’d date the new waitress, then when things fell apart, he’d fire her and hire the next cute one.
“You didn’t see my empty glass?” he now snapped from his barstool. He never seemed embarrassed to pull the same trick, every time he was in here. He’d be busy talking when I stopped by to check, as though too occupied for me to interrupt. Then as soon as I left, he’d gulp down his drink and act as though he was getting bad service, sitting with an empty glass.
For someone who owned a bar and had a lot of money, he was one miserable fuck, with a bitterness that oozed from every pore on his greasy face.”I was just here a minute ago,” I said with a half-cocked smile, then went to pour his scotch. I could give a shit about these games or what he thought.
As I returned his change, I recalled the old parable of King Midas and his magic touch. I’d read it as a child, in a book with large watercolor drawings. Apparently a sorcerer had offered the king one wish, and his majesty foolishly requested that everything he touched would turn to gold. Soon the king was rich beyond imagining, and his days were spent reveling in his new wealth as though gold was the only thing that mattered to him.
One day the kings’ young daughter hugged him goodnight and as he put a hand on her shoulder, she turned into solid gold, too. King Midas spent the rest of his life with no living beings around him, just gold tables and chairs, and frozen people-like statues.
“That’s this guy,” I thought now looking at the man with his young waitress girlfriend. “And that’s why he’s so bitter.” All he carried about was making more money, always scheming and conniving, trying to take advantage of someone. To a large degree, other people didn’t simply exist for him. They were only there for him to cheat, so he essentially lived out his life by himself, resentful without realizing he had no one else to blame.
Kate O’Connor happened to stop at The Lark a short time later. We talked about the guy and how his miserable attitude put off everyone around him. He’d soon be sitting at the bar all alone with his date, a woman who couldn’t leave. I told Kate the story about the king with the midas touch. “Interesting,” Kate said, “if that’s what the parable really means.”
“James Baldwin said the same thing directly,” she continued, “and he said it better.” Then she quoted a line from the new Baldwin book she’d been reading. “People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.”
Everyone has done it – you’re in a bar, looking for a scrap of paper to write a woman's name and phone number on, or just want to make a note to yourself so you don’t forget something. You grab a cocktail napkin.
(In the TV series The West Wing, a political consultant decides that Jed Bartlet – played by Martin Sheen – should run for President. He takes a cocktail napkin and writes down the slogan, “Bartlet for America.”)
I work in bars. Over the years, I’ve accumulated enough of my own cocktail-napkin notes to fill six liquor bottle boxes.
Here are the people and stories that wound up in those notes -- real-life characters like Jackie Rabbit and Maude the Broad, the narcotics cops Paul and Sonny, mafia guys, some shameless tramps and one suicidal young man. You'll meet an old-time boxer who wants to take me into the gym to teach me his trade, and a woman who thinks God is on the stool next to her, urging her to have one more whiskey and ginger. It's life behind the taps.