(This note is about working at The Lark Tavern, after nearly a year of not tending bar.)
I’ve been a bartender forever, but I’ve had other jobs. Just out of high school I was a construction worker. I stacked books at the library while in college, and one summer sold encyclopedias door to door. I’ve been a feature writer for national restaurant trade magazines. I taught at a bartending school, then worked 70 hours a week as the general manager of a nightclub in Boston.
But I always returned to simply tending bar. There’s no job quite like it, and never was that so clear to me than when I was working at The Lark tavern.
Things were different from the start of the day – I didn’t wake to the rattle of an alarm clock, struggle to get up, rush to catch the morning bus. I rolled out of bed sometime around noon, then showed up for work at 6:00 P.M.
Was it work? Stepping behind the bar at The Lark was like being ringmaster at the circus. People were here to have fun, to drink, to laugh and raise hell. There were lots of attractive women. I loved going to work.
After shutting the place down at the end of the night, we continued to party. We’d hang out at The Lark after-hours, take off to someone’s house for a party, or on a quiet night a few people might come back to my place for a beer.
That was the life. Even on nights off I’d end up in a bar, sometimes during the day if I wasn’t scheduled to work later. Most of my friends were bartenders, other restaurant workers, and the regulars. Where else would we meet, if not in bars?
After one mid-week party, I woke up the next afternoon with regulars Richie B. and Bruce S. pounding on my apartment door. They were ready to continue raising hell. Bruce had his camera with him and snapped of a photo of me half awake and hung over in the doorway. (Notice the utility meters; I lived in a basement apartment.)
We went to a bar that had a pool table and spent the rest of the afternoon playing for a buck a game, and then we stayed out all night once again, hitting the different spots. This was throwing time away, but I was having such a great time with my new buddies. Friendships at The Lark were easy, unquestioned, and the feeling of being with good pals was irresistible.
During the winter that year there was a blinding snowstorm and with the night off I went to The Lark. With the wind howling, the usual two minute walk seemed to take forever as I waded though several feet of snow on the unshoveled sidewalk. But the lights of The Lark Tavern lay ahead like a campfire in the wilderness. The place was bursting with warmth and good spirit. People were wearing layers of coats and sweatshirts, earmuffs and scarfs. Everyone was in a great mood.
We decided to hang out at The Lark all night because some of the staff and the regulars didn’t think they could make it home. A few of us stayed to keep them company. We partied til dawn.
The next morning we were all lined up at the bay window with our arms thrown over each other’s shoulders. As the first light broke over the tops of the buildings, I thought of the Beatles tune, “Here comes the Sun.” I’d read somewhere that the song is really about the thawing of relationships with other people: Little darling, it’s been a long, cold lonely winter . . . Little darling it feels like years since it’s been here.
It was more than just all right; it was absolutely perfect. I started singing the words and everybody at the window joined in the song. Here comes the Sun (do ah do ah) . . . Here comes the Sun.
Once I began working at The Lark, it was impossible to stay in that basement apartment. My ankle could have been chained to a chair leg and I still would have found a way to get out. I didn’t want to miss anything. Maybe an interesting woman was dying to meet me, or a once in a lifetime character was at the bar, an unbelievable chain of events about to unfold. All this was waiting for me. It’s like that book, The Call of the Wild. Bars have their own siren’s song.
Mostly it was the women that brought me to the bars. At The Lark, they were handing me their phone numbers. One night a girl named Nicole was with a group of coeds from Albany State and we were having a great time as I stopped down to joke with them. At closing time Nicole gave me her number. She smiled as she slipped me the folded cocktail napkin.
We went to a movie that week, then grabbed something to eat at The Lark and went back to her apartment. We were making out on the couch and she said let’s go to the bedroom. But we were out of our clothes so quickly on the bed, she was a little uncomfortable. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just can’t relax. I don’t know what’s wrong.”
I went down on her, and in a minute she was off and running. I had a tough time keeping up. I was on top, then she was on top, and then she pulled me out and without letting go, stepped onto the floor and turned around at the edge of the bed. She bent over, almost doubling up, and put me between her ass cheeks. I couldn’t believe she wanted this, but when I tried, I couldn’t get anywhere. I pushed harder.
Suddenly she let go and I slid in instantly up to the hilt. It was such an exhilarating shock, I almost came immediately. I stopped for a moment, holding still. When I remained motionless, she began rotating her behind in small, impatient circles as if to say, “Come on . . . are you going do me in the butt or not?”
We began getting together every week. She was smart, funny, and very experimental in bed. That trick with the anal sex was something she’d read in The Joy of Sex, or one of those books. She’d go through the book page by page, looking for new things she wanted to try.
One night she said that she had to stop at her parent’s house to pick up a dress. Her parents lived in the suburbs. She introduced me to her father and he looked me up and down when she told him that I was a bartender from a pub she went to sometimes. He kept looking at me.
Then out of the blue he turned to his daughter and said, “You know, Nicole, . . . Aaron called again. He wanted to know why you weren’t calling him, so he called here.”
Her father looked back at me with a patronizing smile.
“Aaron is in his third year of Law School,” he explained, with the emphasis on Law School. “Harvard Law School, in Boston, Massachusetts.”
“He’s at the top of his class,” her father told me, with that superior smirk.
“. . . You fuck!” I thought.
I wanted to say: Sure, I’m just a bartender and you’re rich, and I’m sure Nicole has a lot of promising suitors. But we’re just dating, see, and I’m not interested in marrying your daughter anyway.
And by the way, did you know that your daughter is an absolute whore?
Of course, I didn’t say any of this. Nicole was a great kid and I loved the fact that she was so wild in bed.
We never saw each other again.
I called her more than a few more times, but she always had other commitments. I blame that afternoon, and her father’s reaction. It’s a great job when you’re behind the bar, but in the outside world, I knew I wasn’t going to get much respect. Doctors and lawyers get respect, that’s understandable. Office workers have their status, off to work each day in professional attire. Even college kids get the benefit of the doubt.
But bartenders serve drinks for a living. We work in a bar. We offer counsel, give advice, but we’re not therapists. We entertain, but we’re not professional comedians. We introduce people, make their lives more lively and interesting, settle disputes, cheer them up – but it’s all done in a bar, and people don’t think that highly of bars in terms of a profession. They see us as the grasshoppers, fiddling away what we think is our endless summer, while everyone else takes life seriously, as it should be taken.
There’s an old joke about musicians and in most people’s minds it applies to bartenders as well. What’s the difference between a musician and a mutual bond? The mutual bond will eventually mature and show profit.
Maybe it’s the apparent lack of discipline that bothers people. There is a feeling of independence that comes with the job, similar I suppose to that of a musician. It’s as though all the rules apply to someone else. I remember one night walking into The Lark and Tommy Talbor wasn’t there for his normal shift, another bartender was working. Tommy had called earlier and said that he was still hung over from the night before, and I thought, “This is the only job in the world where being hung over is a legitimate excuse.”
Working in a bar is like being on the high seas, sailing under your own flag. You feel that your life is somehow different, and will continue to be different than that of your parents, or your parents’ friends. Among bartenders and waitresses you find the world’s great dreamers.
I wanted to write, one of the waitresses was in college for theater, another planned to be a professional singer, classical stuff. Each of us followed an unshakeable belief that while everyone else might be worn down by the world, somehow we were going to make it. It’s exhilarating to be around such people. Everyone full of life, optimistic.
A bunch of us were talking about this one night after work when Stacey Conway, one of the bartenders, began half-singing a popular ballad:
Once upon a time there was a tavern
Where we used to raise a glass or two.
Remember how we laughed away the hours
And dreamed of all the great things we would do . . .
“Those were the days, my friend!” one of the staff started singing, and everyone jumped into the chorus as though the song was a celebration of the bar life. But there’s a sober ending to the song. There’s a glimpse of one’s own reflection in the window. It’s a song about dreams, and about growing old.
At that moment I thought of another tune, which I neither sang nor mentioned because I didn’t want to dampen the mood. Cat Stevens sings the song in two voices, that of a young man trying to explain his rebellion, his reasons for following his own path, while his father warns that life may not turn out the way the boy thinks. I remember the father’s last line to his son: “You will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.”
But I was young and planning to be a writer, and if it meant fiddling away an endless summer in the meantime that was fine with me. Besides, wasn’t I meeting some great people?