SCARIEST THING I’VE SEEN IN A BAR (and other bits and pieces)

Today’s post is about three unrelated incidents that happened years apart in different bars.  I’m not sure why each of them crossed my mind this week.

1.) A bartender’s comeback . . .

The Lark Tavern, Albany NY

The Lark Tavern was mobbed, three deep at the bar, and we were running our asses off.  The Lark was always busy on weekends — but we were used the pace, and had gotten pretty good at it.  People rarely waited more than a minute for their drinks.  Which is why one customer surprised me.

“Hey,” he yelled while leaning over the bar, waving an outstretched arm, “What does someone have to do to get a drink in this place?”

I thought, “Excuse me?”  This guy had just shown up.  Didn’t he notice we were busy?

He was in Tommy Talbor’s section.  It took Tommy a few seconds to finish the round he was working on, then he went over to man.

“I’m sorry,” Tommy said politely, “What did you say?”

“What I said . . . ”.  The man’s tone was indignant, pompous.  “What I said was . . . What do I have to do to get a drink in here?”  He pronounced each word slowly, as if to give each proper emphasis.

Tommy looked down the bar at the people jammed in, shaking shook his head in disbelief.

“What do you have to do . . . ?” Tommy repeated the guy’s question.  He smiled and folded his arms across his chest.  He was standing directly across from the guy.

“Well,” Tommy continued, smiling, “I think a blow job would be nice.  Yes, I’m sure a blow job would do it.”

The people on either side abruptly turned and looked at the guy, then at Tommy.

“Yes,” Tommy continued smiling, “A blow job would be very nice.”

“Just like last night,” Tommy said, “ . . . All of us.”  He gestured to me on the one side, and to the other bartender on his left.  Customers watching this little scene choked back their amusement.

“I’m only kidding,” Tommy now told the guy, leaning forward with his hands on the bar rail, “Seriously, what would you like?”

That man was as quiet as a church mouse for the rest of the night.

2.) Scariest thing I’ve seen in a bar . . .

She was in her late twenties/early thirties, and she was at Johnny D’s every night after work.  She drank bud light, pouring it into a glass.  She drank a lot of them.  I never saw her become really drunk, but she would get a good buzz on every single night.  She was one of those customers you suspect has — or one day will have — a drinking problem.

Sometimes, after a particularly long stay the night before, she’d come in the next day looking as though she’d been barely able to make it through work.

Then one afternoon she sat down at the bar and ordered a Coke.

“I’m going on the wagon,“ she told me very seriously.  “I know I’ve been drinking too much.”

“Happens to us all,” I said, trying to make her feel good about the decision, “Everyone needs to take a break now and then.”

“It’s not going to be now and then,” she said.  “I’m done . . . I through drinking.”

While she sipped her Coke, we talked a little about drinking, and the bar life.  We talked about reaching a point where you feel it’s probably time to rein it in.

For the next few days, she continued to come in every night, but she’d only order Cokes.  She’d go through one after the other.  I knew this wasn’t easy for her.

A week or so went by, and then she came in one afternoon looking like she was about to explode.  “I’ve just had such a fucking day!” she blurted as she sat down, “Such a horrible fucking day.”

“To hell with it,” she said, “Give me a beer.“

I stood there for a minute.

“You sure?” I asked.

“Yes, . . . give me a god damn beer,” she said.  “The hell will it.  I really need one tonight.”

She poured the beer into her glass, and took a long mouthful.  She sat there for a second, and I could see the immediate comfort spreading over her face.

I could imagine exactly how she was feeling . . . that first cold swallow of beer after a hot summer day.  Or after a long week on the wagon.

But then her face began to change, to slowly morph.  It was as if her face revealed everything that was going through her mind.

In her face, I saw the concern for a commitment she’d made — not only to herself — but one that she had told everyone about.  Then I saw worry, almost a look of fear — as though she was just beginning to realize the size of the problem.  And as her face slowly changed, I saw something like disappointment, even disgust.  Disappointment in herself.

John B, who was working with me that night later said it was a look of pure self-loathing.

It was a scary, horrifying look, made far worse by its slow (d)evolution.  We just stood there and watched, later agreeing it was something we’d never forget.

She sat there for a long time with that look, just staring into space.  I put together this short, four-second morph to give you some idea — but trust me, it isn’t nearly as painful as what we saw.

3.) When in Rome . . .

I’d started tending bar at The Cantina Italiana, and I’ll admit at first I was a little intimidated  by the neighborhood.  Boston’s North End was solidly Italian back then, with guys named Louie, Dominic, and Sal . . . and there were a lot of rumors about the Mafia.

I kept my head low.

One night a girl I used to work with at another place stopped in to say hello.  She now lived in the North End.  She sat at the bar all night as we talked about old times.

The Cantina closed soon after we stopped serving food, but she was still sitting at the bar, so we went back to her place just down the street.  I stayed until around 4:00 in the morning.

I’d reached the bottom of the stairs and exited the front door, but just as the door closed behind me, I heard, “Pop!  Pop!  Pop, Pop, Pop!”


I jumped back into the entrance way, my back against the closed door.  I just stood there, not moving an inch.

Then I saw the lights of a car moving slowly down the street — with them, flashing lights but no siren.

I waited until the cop car was passing my friend’s apartment building before I stuck my head out of the doorway.  The police car stopped, and the officer on the passenger side rolled down his window.  “Did you hear anything?” he asked, looking right at me.

I nodded my head, “Yes”.

He seemed surprised for a second, then he appeared irritated.  He shook his head.  He glanced over at his partner with a look that said, “Who is this guy?  Doesn’t he know anything?”

Then he turned back to me; his words were patronizing.

“Do you think . . . ?” he asked.  (His tone said:  What are you, a dummy?)  “Do you think it might have been firecrackers?”

Now I understood.  I was in the North End, and he was letting me know what I was supposed to say.

I wasn’t supposed to say anything.  I wasn’t supposed to see, or hear anything.  These two cops just wanted a quite shift.

Maybe it was someone shooting off a few rounds, drunk.  Maybe there was a body lying in a ditch somewhere up the street.  It was definitely gunfire, no doubt in my mind.  But if these cops didn’t want to know about it, neither did I.

“Yea,” I told the cop, “Yea, I think it was firecrackers.”

That cop gave me one more combined look of disgust and disbelief, then the two of them drove off.

I learned at lot while working in the North End, . . . but that night it was the cops who taught me a thing or two.

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13 Responses to SCARIEST THING I’VE SEEN IN A BAR (and other bits and pieces)

  1. Starbucks8294 says:

    Damn wish I had that line for all the times I heard a jerk asking what he had to do to get a drink in here. They think they’re being funny. Good story about the cops.

  2. Colleen says:

    Isn’t that something when the police couldn’t be bothered with a crime that was possibly committed?

  3. Llylak says:

    What a depressing story about that poor woman. You’ve given us a look at the dark side with this post. There is fine line between all the night life and fun, and the risk of what Joan Didion called “staying too long at the fair”. You’re to be commended for including this among your many tales.

  4. DAbertini says:

    I probably know those cops. I probably know the shooter.

  5. Mike Q says:

    Starbucks8294: At times Tommy could be tough to work with, Starbucks. He sure had a quick wit and sharp tongue, and the results weren’t always so funny. Sometimes being a smart ass behind the bar gets you in trouble. He wasn’t my favorite pouring partner (especially later on), but that particular moment with the asshole was priceless. You were up early for a Saturday, more overtime? 🙂

    Colleen: Hopefully it was someone firing off a few rounds for the fun of it, Colleen, and nobody was hurt. With that cop’s attitude though, I wasn’t going to be the one to tell them to look into it.

    Llylak: There’s that danger in everything, isn’t there Lly? Too much drinking, over-eating, too much chasing women (or men), extreme politics … extreme anything.

    DAbertini: I always figured you were a North End kind of guy, DA. Fascinating people, no?

  6. Joel says:

    Two cops who wanted to skate that shift. What a surprise.

  7. Sarah T says:

    You read so much into that one change of expression. Do all bartenders “read” their customers so carefully? Once it sank in I think you were most likely right. I could see all that running through her mind. What an awful moment that must have been for her. Painful to watch, and painful just reading about it.

  8. Mike Q says:

    Joel: I think the North End had its own set of rules, at least back then Joel. In another neighborhood, hopefully, the response would have been different.

    Sarah: It has to do with self-preservation, Sarah. You do have to be hyper-aware when it comes to customers … where they’re at, what’s going on with them. Most of the time, you’re simply serving drinks, but when any one of a hundred red flags pop up … yes, we watch very closely.

  9. Case says:

    Very interesting read as always.

  10. Rob says:

    Never challenge a bartender to a battle of words. You’ll lose every time because they’ve been doing it for years. Three great stories this week.

  11. Mike Q says:

    Case: Thanks Case, and thanks for being a regular reader.

    Rob: It’s not an equal battle, Rob, because we have the upper hand … we can always shut them off and show them the door. 🙂

  12. JT says:

    Always entertaining! Nowadays cops can just type in a report on there laptop in the cruiser so they are less likely to let things slip by because of paperwork. It is always good to take a break from alcohol since we have only one liver.

  13. MikeQ says:

    JT: Thanks for commenting, JT. Talk with you this week about that plan to have the inmates run the asylum.

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