By the time of its arrival in the Boston area, Hurricane Irene had diminished in strength. For us, the worst was over by noon on Sunday. Inside Johnny D’s, a trimmed-down crew of two waitstaff and two bartenders served just over two hundred brunch patrons, down from the usual six hundred.
That’s still a decent number for a limited staff, and when I arrived for my shift the brunch bartenders were ready for shots and beers.
It’s always interesting to watch the veterans after the crunch is over. The newbies remain frazzled, but the veterans assume the quiet air of someone who has faced wave after wave coming over the top at them . . . and still the fort survived. Or maybe it was just the shots and the cold beer that now gave them a calm, satisfied look.
I was on my own in the front of the house after the floor manager, Marie, left. The bands had been cancelled; the club was in storm mode — one bartender, a neighborhood bar kind of thing. At least the kitchen was open and we were serving food.
It’s been years since I’ve waited on tables. There are two six-tops, two four-tops, and four deuces in the front bar area (aside from the bar itself), and at one point just about all of the tables were seated for dinner — but it was a chance to try out some things I’d read in David Hayden’s new book on profitable service. I tried his “Don’t be The Server” approach and actually had a lot of fun at the tables.
Then the pub crawl walked in.
I had heard them planning this crawl back on Friday, when it looked as though Irene might remain a Category Four storm. These folks will party at a drop of the hat, but they usually don’t plan . . . they just go out and do it. This was different. As they talked about a Hurricane Crawl, there was something defiant in their tone.
Big storm, the environment threatens — to hell with that, they were going to party even harder. Yup, the ones I knew in this group were exactly the type to thumb their noses at catastrophic weather, as though they’d been personally challenged and wouldn’t back down.
By the time the crawl crew hit Johnny D’s Sunday night, they were already on their second pass through the club. They’d been here earlier for brunch, then had gone down the line to seven or eight other bars, and were now working their way back. They didn’t look any worse for the wear. These were experience partygoers; they knew how to pace themselves.
Once they had their pitchers of beer (only a couple of mixed drinks), I was able to step back and enjoy the scene. Most of them were wearing some type of Hurricane Crawl gear. Jeremy wore a scuba snorkel, and when he came in, Craig was wearing a thick yellow slicker that made him look like the guy from Gorton Fish Sticks. Someone carried a beach ball, which was immediately tossed up and down the bar.
I felt like the old dog, watching with nostalgia and affection as the young pups frolicked.
I remembered a blizzard in Albany, NY that “forced” us to stay overnight at The Lark Tavern. There was another debilitating blizzard when I worked at The Sunflower Café in Harvard Square. For three days there were snow drifts that sometimes reached up to the telephone wires, and many people had no electricity. Half of the staff from The Sunflower Café spent their nights on my living room floor because I lived only a five minute walk away. The Sunflower remained open, and that’s still one of my favorite restaurant memories. Nice to take something positive from catastrophic conditions.
People’s attitude and behavior change when a storm hits. As the wind howls and even walking is treacherous, people who might otherwise never say a word to each other now exchange a — we’re-all-in-this-together — type greeting as their paths cross.
I remember walking to The Sunflower during the continuing storm, and there were two or three passers-by helping someone push a car out of a snow bank. I joined them. When we finally freed the car, everyone was in an especially congenial mood. Afterward we all shook hands and talked about the storm, all of us strangers. One of the guys helping out was wearing a business suit under his winter trench coat.
There’s a human instinct triggered by the threat of nature that snaps us out of our usual self-centeredness. It returns us to the strength of the group, whatever that group might be . . . close friends, neighbors, or simply other human beings. Jack London called it the “community of survival.”
Maybe I’m becoming too philosophical here, but I swear that someday scientists will identify a “community” gene. A gene which triggers our instinct to form these survival groups. I swear that we all have that gene in us, and it may have been the single most important factor in the evolution of our fragile species. Still today, we feel good when we follow it, perhaps even better than if the outside treats weren’t there . . . now if we could just follow that instinct in everyday life.
Anyway, as the crew from the Hurricane Crawl nursed their beers, Johnny D’s bartender-off-duty Jeremy Newcomer ordered two large plates of fries — one of French fries, and one of sweet potato fries. He shared with everyone.
Another guy from our bar staff order a burger with fries, and I saw several in the group help themselves from Craig’s plate. You might think that would be risky; Craig’s nickname is “Chombo” . . . but he’s a mellow guy despite his size.
Nate Boucher, a weekend bar back at the club, penciled this tongue-in-cheek impression of Craig on a cocktail napkin. (Nate is an art student.) Craig’s reaction to the drawing: “Hey guys, it’s a not a caricature, it’s a portrait . . . and a fine one at that.”
The Hurricane Crawl had started in the early afternoon, and by now they’d hit every bar in Davis Square at least once, some of them twice. It was still raining hard, the wind was knocking the sign boards around out front, and a passerby came in to tell us that some of Johnny D’s lights had been blown loose and were flapping against the building. (Alone behind the bar I couldn’t leave so our chef, Luis Alvarado, went outside to secure them.)
All of these folk had to get up early for their Monday morning jobs, even Craig who’s only at Johnny D’s on the weekends. (During the week he delivers for Boston Wine Company.)
They all had to get up early . . . everyone except Jeremy. As a bartender, he wouldn’t go in for his shift until late Monday afternoon.
But the elements and early alarm clocks couldn’t deter their odyssey. On to Orleans, where Tony Auivalasit was working. (Tony got his start as a bartender at Johnny D’s, and although he works up the street now he and Jeremy got the crawl started. Tony left early to go to work, but the rest of the crew would stop at Orleans three times over the 12-hour marathon.)
As everyone headed for Orleans, I expressed admiration for their efforts and wished them well in their journey. “Neither snow, nor rain,” I thought as they left, “ . . . Nor heat, nor gloom of night will keep these guys from their duly appointed rounds.”