(Image from www.probarserv.com)

Back when I was slinging drinks at The Lark Tavern in Albany, I also worked as an occasional bartender for the Commissioner of Education of New York State.  I served drinks at the official receptions held at the Commissioner’s residence.  It was an eye-opening experience, starting with how I landed the job, on to the blind-side twists and absolute craziness of learning this part of the business.  But what I remember most is something that happened one evening when I was talking with an attractive female guest . . .

I ended up with this private bartending gig because the guy before me had panicked and walked off the job.

Apparently at the last party, a tidal wave of guests had streamed into the function room, all waving their hands and calling out drinks — and the bartender freaked out.  He bolted from behind the serving table, leaving Commissioner Nyquist and his wife scrambling to serve the guests themselves.

Two New York State Troopers told me this story as we stood at the end the bar at The Lark Tavern.  They were friends of the night manager, Marty Sessa, and they were here to ask Marty if he had a bartender who might fare better.

The problem with these parties, the troopers explained, was that all the guests arrived at exactly the same time, . . . in busses.  

Yup, the proverbial “Hey, the bus just pulled up!”

The parties were at the end of official government tours.  Sometimes it was for high school principals from across the state, or for state senators and congressmen, or for the press.  Sometimes there were 50 to 100 guests and the function might last only an hour, other times it would continue on through the night with a lavish buffet — but the schedule was always the same.

The tours would begin at the State Capital buildings, then on to other scheduled stops . . . until they were finally bussed to the Commissioner’s home for cocktails and handshakes.

As many as three or four packed busses might arrive in the circular driveway . . . the bus doors would open . . . and all the guests would swarm in through the large double doors.  All at once, a bartender’s nightmare.

Well, the troopers warned me.

When I arrived early for the first party, Mr. and Mrs. Nyquist were very helpful.  They took me to me where everything was stored, even helped me carry it all out, and then showed me how the other bartender had set up the serving table — but when the crush hit, I had no idea what I was doing.

It was chaos.  That first party was for members of the press, and they drank like fiends.

I remember as everyone crowded into the room, one reporter remained at the end of the table even after he’d been served his first drink.  He tossed down a dry Tangueray martini in two gulps, and then held out his glass for another.

Suddenly I was surrounded by fifty people just like him, all of them thirsty.  It was complete madness.  People were waiting for drinks on the left, people were waiting in front of me, people waited on the right — I was surrounded.  Thank God I had a wall behind me.

I’d worked in busy bars — The Mug in Cortland, and The Lark Tavern in Albany would both get slammed on weekend nights.

But when you’re behind a bar, you have a carefully laid-out and separate work area.  There’s a solid wooden bar top between you and the customers.  You work in a defined space with speed racks for the bottles, permanent large-capacity ice bins, soda guns, beer coolers, and bar mats on the floor.

Everything has been worked out — you know exactly where everything is, and you reach for things without thinking.  There are so many rows of highball glasses here, and the pints are over there, and it’s all where it’s the most efficient to have them.  You know exactly how many containers of back-up lemons and limes you’ll need.  As the night begins, it’s like setting sail on a steel-hulled, combat-tested battleship.

As a function bartender, you’re trying to stay afloat in a small, rubber boat.

I was working off a large function table covered with a white cloth.  Glasses were lined up on the left, bottles of liquor and mixers on the right, and in the middle there was a tray of ice and the mixing equipment.

More importantly, it wasn’t a secure area.  People walked around the semi-circle edge of the crowd and stood right next to me, both on the left and on the right, just about breathing down my neck as they told me what drinks they wanted.

I felt completely surrounded, vulnerable, and totally unprepared.

Afterward I sat in the living room with Mr. and Mrs. Nyquist, and the staff that had run the buffet.  The Nyquists were such down-to-earth, really nice people.  They were kind enough to say that they thought everything had gone well; I thought my part was a disaster.  Maybe they were just happy to have a bartender who didn’t run away screaming.

Mrs. Nyquist would always say that this was her favorite part of the night, once everyone was gone, relaxing with the people who had worked the function.  Mr. Nyquist would pour the drinks and get the stories started, and soon we’d all be joining in, laughing.  They were really wonderful folks.

Anyway, the second function went more smoothly, and the third even better, and after that it was a cake walk.  I’d check ahead of time to find out how many guests were expected, and then maybe bring another bartender, and sometimes a waitress.  We started making batches of Smirnoff and Tangueray martinis ahead of time, since that’s what everyone seemed to drink.  All bone dry, made over ice then strained — we kept them in classy silver pitchers with lids, in a small frig that we put under the table.

After that first function, is was a pretty decent gig . . . good money, a change of pace, and the Nyquists were great.

But there was something that happened at one of these functions that struck me as just plain wrong, and after that it crossed my mind every time I was a bartender at the Nyquist’s residence.

It was a small thing, not something I’d normally pay attention to, . . . I remember it happened at a function for some state senators and their staffs.

Among this group of maybe fifty people, there was a very attractive, young brunette.  I later learned that she’d just graduated from college, and was working as an aide to one of the politicians.

She was in her early twenties, with such a pretty face and sparkling eyes.  When she’d come up for her first cocktail, I thought there had been some intentional eye contact as she smiled over her drink and said, “Thank you!”

A while later I looked over and she was standing at the end of the serving table, watching me.

“How do you keep track of the orders?” she asked innocently, apparently not realizing that conversation at this point was an additional distraction.

We chatted . . . it was a halting, back-and-forth conversation as I continued to work, interrupted by the orders and questions from other guests.

She told me a little about herself, what she had planned as a career, . . . then she asked the age-old question, “What do you do when you’re not tending bar?”  So I told her about my academic project, and we talked about Jack London and Nietzsche.

We were hitting it off really well, when two young men came up to the table for fresh drinks.  They were talking and laughing, but when they reached the table, they abruptly stopped.  She was very attractive; she caught their eye.

One of them was looking straight at her . . . then he turned his head to look at me . . . then back at her again.

What he was thinking was written all over his face:  “What is she doing, talking with the bartender?

They were both dressed in expensive, spanking-new suits.  I imagined that they were young up-and-comers in the local political scene.  Maybe they were aides themselves.

Now they turned to each other with that same expression — a mixture of disbelief, and class-conscious disgust.  I could almost hear their unspoken words:  “Why is she talking with the hired help?

The girl caught their expressions.  I could see it in her face.

She immediately froze, . . . as though she’d been caught doing something quite embarrassing.

She stood that way, motionless and silent, until they left with their drinks.  Then without so much as a word or a look backward, she abruptly turned and walked straight to a group gathered ten feet or fifteen away.

She quickly joined their conversation, laughing and talking a bit loudly, her gestures a little too animated to look natural.  It was as though she had clumsily spilled something on the front of her dress, but now she’d wiped it clean, and she was hoping nobody had noticed.

As the function ended, I wondered if she’d come over and say anything before she left.  We had talked for a while, it had been pleasant and personal (I told you I was young and naïve).

But as everyone moved toward the door, headed back to the busses, her head was turned so stiffly so as not to see me, that I thought she might hurt her neck.

As I said, it was a small thing — enough for me to jot it down on a paper napkin, but not big enough to dwell it on for long.

Over the next few months though, while working at The Lark, I’d think about that incident now and then.  I’d wonder about people perceptions, my role in this world, and the bartender’s life.

(More thoughts on feeling a little like a servant in next week’s post.)

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10 Responses to FEELING A LITTLE LIKE A SERVANT (Part One)

  1. Cheryl says:

    What a difference a venue makes. In one place you are looked up to as a best friend offering fun and solace for your customers, in the other, the “help”.

    Having been a function person in a past life, I can wholeheartedly relate to your description of the experience as being like “you’re trying to stay afloat in a small, rubber boat”. I had a nice visual of you being swarmed by customers in that moment.

    Loved this story Mike!

  2. Llylak says:

    An interesting and well-written post (again). I was right there serving drinks, and feeling it with you. It’s a very nice post, thank you.

  3. David says:

    It is posts like this that make me nervous that you can read my mind. It is strange that no matter what you have accomplished, when you put on the apron you go back to being just “the help”. I suppose that is part of the job, but I still wish people could take into account the things we do outside of work when attempting to measure our worth as people.

  4. DAbertini says:

    Hate little snot noses wet behind the ears all puffed up with their superior attitudes. What they need is a smack up the side of the head. Love to meet them on the streets then we’d see who’s who.

  5. Jake says:

    Your description of function bartending is right on the money. I don’t think people realize how difficult it is winging it without the usual setup of a bar. Your post made me winch at recalling it. Good story.

  6. Colleen says:

    How does the saying go? “I would rather have an inferiority complex and be pleasantly surprised than have a superiority complex and be rudely awakened”?

  7. Starbucks8294 says:

    Love to see those jerks show up at my bar and act like they’re better than everyone else. Dabertini is right when he says they’re just snot-nose kids dressed up in suits.

  8. Trisha says:

    I wonder what that young woman is doing now, and what she’d think if she happened to read your blog. You’re a good writer. I’m here every week and love your stories.

  9. scribbler50 says:

    Like Jake said, “Your description of function bartending is right on the money.”

    I’ve done it, it’s horrible (I’ve actually had dreams about it where every bottle you reach for is empty and suddenly the glasses are gone), but I especially related to the maddening part where they actually walk around the table and stand right next to you. Now THAT’S a real nightmare!

    But on the other side of the coin, I loved your poetic line about what it’s like when you’re back behind the bar. “As the night begins, it’s like setting sail on steel-hulled, combat-tested battleship.” Perfect!

    As for the class (caste) system, another version of that bullshit on display is where a guy will tell you in superiors tones in front of his date or his peers, “I also used to tend bar back when I was in college.” As if he used the gig as a trampoline and didn’t fall through the springs and get stuck like you did.

    An absolutely terrific and touching post this week, Mike.

  10. MikeQ says:

    Cheryl: You never told me you were a function bartender, Cheryl! Thanks for the positive comment. You stole a bit of this week’s upcoming post by noting that the difference in venues makes all the difference . . . whether a bartender is regarded as a good friend, or the hired help.

    Llylak: Always good to hear from you Lly. Thanks for being a loyal reader.

    David: Hopefully your sites, and your book, will begin to change peoples perception of workers in our trade, David. Anyone looking down on restaurant workers should take a look at your blog, . . . it’s pretty amazing by anyone’s standards. Tennessee Williams, Aaron Sorkin, and a host of others have all worked in this industry.

    DAbertini: I know exactly how you feel, DA.

    Jake: Looks like I struck a nerve with former function bartenders, Jake. Yours is the second of three comments on this particular part of the business.

    Colleen: I got your other email, Colleen, but when I went to rely it came back as undeliverable. Tried it twice more, same thing. I’ll call you tomorrow afternoon, but if you read this first you should check it out. Something might be wrong.

    Starbucks8294: Starbucks my good friend, . . . as always, thanks for commenting.

    Trish: Welcome aboard, Trish!

    Scribbler50: So you too were a function bartender at some point in your career, Scrib. It is amazing isn’t it, the additional difficulties. Give us the mats behind the bar anytime, right. Thanks for the kind words, Scrib. Coming from you that means a lot . . . you know your blog is one of my absolute favorites.

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