IT’S HIGH TIDE behind the bar

(We could have used this guy behind the bar that night.)

(We could have used this guy behind the bar that night.)

(A couple of weeks ago we told a story about being in the weeds while making fresh-squeezed OJ.  That got me thinking about all the difficult shifts that happen on this job.  This is another of them . . . ).

My bartending work in Harvard Square began at 22 JFK Street, at place called Jake’s.   Jake’s was run by a New York City restaurant group that had once owned the famous  Tavern on the Green.

Jake’s was a trip . . . a very loosely-run operation despite the impressive corporate credentials.

For example, at Jake’s small downstairs bar we’d never see Paul, our theoretical “night restaurant manager.”

At least not until closing time.

Then he’d pull up a stool and pound down drinks for free, and when we were done with clean-up, it was understood that we’d join him. We’d all sit there after hours while Paul just kept waving for more and more drinks for everyone.  One bartender was stuck pouring, but even that designated person was now drinking as well.

Nothing was ever rung-in  — which we felt was on his shoulders, not ours.

But today’s story is about something that happened during a shift at Jake’s — one of the strangest working experiences I’ve had.

It was raining buckets outside that night — a torrential non-stop rain.  Ordinarily you figure once you’ve made it inside you’ve found shelter.

Not at Jake’s.  There’s a high-water table in Harvard Square and the bar part of the operation was on the lower level.  I’m sure they had a sump-pump installed to keep out rising water, but this particular night it wasn’t working well enough.  During the shift we began to notice that the floor under the bar mats was getting wet.

At first we thought we might had spilled something, but now there was a definite layer of water under collecting under the mats.

In less than half an hour, there was a good inch of water — and we were sloshing back and forth as we hustled out the drinks.

Where is Paul?  Someone has to make a decision here!

The floor behind the bar was apparently the lowest part of the basement because that’s where the water was the deepest, but now pools of water were beginning to appear in other shallow areas of our downstairs club.

There were stairs leading down to the bar from the street-level restaurant, and at the very bottom of the stairs there was a pool of water that quickly turned into a small lake.

It was amazing to watch people walk down the stairs only to find that small lake waiting. We’d watch them stop for a second, think it over . . . and then every single one of them would just step into the large pool of water and splash their way to a drier spot.

Some of them would look at us behind the bar, as if to say:  “What the hell is going on here?”  Then after that short pause, they’d just wade on through.  (Gotta love the Cambridge clientele — nothing stops them.)

One guy jumped into the middle of the pool with both feet, laughing as the water splashed everywhere.  Then he stepped back up onto the last step, and jumped into the pool again.  He did it a third time, and by now customers already there began applauding and cheering . . . even though some of them had their own feet in water where they sat.

It was kind of fun, but behind the bar the tide kept rising.  Now the water level was up to our ankles.

Copy of Copy of electricty“Do you think this is really safe?” I asked my fellow bartender as we sloshed back and forth in ankle-deep water, “There’s a lot of electrical equipment back here!”

But Paul was still nowhere to be found, so we just kept serving people.

I remembered a movie where some guy tosses a plugged-in electric radio into the bath tub where an unfortunate naked female is taking a bubble bath.  In the movie, she dies — she’s electrocuted.

“Are you sure you two are OK back there?” a woman at the bar asked.

Now the water was over the bottoms of our pant legs.  The entire floor behind the bar was under four inches of water.

“I’ll quit if you will,” my co-bartender said as he waded past me, headed for the other end of the bar.

Now Paul finally did show up, and we asked him what to do.

“I’ve got a call into New York,” he said in a desperate voice, “But I haven’t heard back from them yet!”

He was completely frazzled by this sudden responsibility.  He went to the end, and put an empty high-ball glass on the bar top.  That was his usual signal to hook him up with a stiff double of scotch.  No ice, no mixer . . . he always tossed it down straight when drinking on the job.

“What about the electrical equipment?” I asked Paul as he gulped the scotch, “We’re ankle-deep here!

“You’re standing on rubber mats!” he said, and ran back to the office.  He was gone before I could point out that those rubber mats were actually below the electricity-conducting water.

And the customers during all this?

I swear . . . like that guy who had jumped back and forth into the small lake, for some reason the customers were having a better time than usual.  Everyone was in an outrageously festive mood.  They were talking more, laughing louder, and tossing drinks down like it was some kind of holiday.

“I just heard from corporate,” Paul said on a second return to the bar.  “They say to stay open . . . just let them know if the water gets any higher!”

Any higher?  We were already in over ankle-deep . . . how high did it have to get?  Up to our knees?  Waist level?  (Maybe we could wade though carrying the drinks held high.)

Copy of TheyWereExpendableBut the decision had been made, so we just kept serving.  I was thinking of an old WW II movie about soldiers being sacrificed — it was titled “They Were Expendable.”

Someone must have finally gotten the sump-pump working properly, because after a couple of hours the water stopped rising.

A while later it was actually going down . . . except behind the bar.  The club’s main floor was still slippery and wet, but the only real water out there was the large pool at the bottom of the stairs.

“How’s it going?” Paul asked the next time he passed by.

We were still bartending ankle deep, but I could tell by his renewed confidence that there’d be no chance we’d close now.

Finally the water level dipped below the bar mats.
Me and my partner’s shoes and socks were water-logged at this point.  Our pant legs were still uncomfortably soaked, but at least we were no longer in danger of electrocution.  We kept serving drinks . . . and now we had an entirely different problem.

When rubber bar mats are wet, they become slippery as hell.  Even though we emptied more than one box of Kosher salt on the mats, we were still skidding dangerously here and there.

But we kept serving drinks.

At closing time, Paul took his usual late-night seat at the bar.  I could tell by his big smile that corporate must have congratulated him for weathering the storm.  He was beaming with the pride of a job well done.

A week later, I was called into the office.

Paul and the GM were there.  I sat in the chair opposite their desks, and they thanked me for working under adverse conditions.

“Corporate wants to compensate you,” the GM said, “They’re going to give each of you a shoe allowance . . . here’s twenty-five dollars toward buying new shoes.”  And he handed me a signed restaurant-group check.

I wanted to say:  “What about my socks?  What about my pants?  How about your ridiculous working conditions?”

I was wondering if I’d still be able to sue them.  The flooding would have been better forgotten if they’d just done nothing . . . the $25 seemed a little like an insult.

But in a sick restaurant way, the whole incident seemed like something to look back and laugh about.  Even while it was happening, it was hard not to the humor  — the flooding, Paul, the outrageous corporate decision-making . . . and now a “shoe-allowance.”

Besides, we had made outrageous money that night.  The customers were all in such a pumped-up mood that they’d been throwing us tips by the fist-full.

So I just said, “Thanks,” — and filed the whole experience under “weird bar memories.”

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15 Responses to IT’S HIGH TIDE behind the bar

  1. JT says:

    Wow! You’re a real trooper. Indeed, you could have been easily electrocuted. Socks and Pants can be washed, dried, and still usable. Footwear unless waterproof is never the same if soaked. Hopefully a pair of shoes only cost $25.00 back then. He should have bought everyone boots as I’m sure there’d be a next time based on the bar configuration. Glad tips were good. JT

  2. MikeQ says:

    JT: We weren’t sure about the electricity part, JT. Someone said all the equipment was grounded … don’t know if that really made any difference. You know where this was … where Pizzerio Uno is now in Harvard Square. (Jake’s became The Sunflower Cafe, then later Uno’s.) When Uno’s came in, they completely remodeled the downstairs, but they left in the wooden overhead glass racks I had put up when I was later beverage mgr at Jake’s. Corporate wouldn’t go for pre-made racks (too expensive), so I had a carpenter — husband of the new night manager — build them. If you look closely you can see the simple hand-made design … but with the professional wood finish, they still work fine. As always, thanks for stopping by and commenting my friend. See you Sunday at the Jam.

  3. Llylak says:

    Oh, you poor boy. 🙂 I’m glad this all didn’t dampen your sense of humor.

  4. MikeQ says:

    Llylak: Can’t lose your sense of humor in this job, Lly … you know that. : ) Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Starbucks8294 says:

    Great story, the battle from the grunts perspective. Still laughing at the visual. The manager what a classic.

  6. MikeQ says:

    Starbucks8294: The entire operation was a trip, Starbucks. At least with independent restaurants/bars they have some clue what’s going on day to day. I’ve always liked working for the independents better. Hey, you were up early yesterday … but you have to be off today. Enjoy!

  7. David Hayden says:

    I once witnessed a similar scene happen to line cooks, but what was backing up in our basement wasn’t rainwater.

    I have definitely worked through times like this and more tornado warnings than I remember. Now I just keep thinking about what happened at JJs with the gas leak and know that I wouldn’t be as patient anymore. Nowadays, how high would the water have gone before you left?

  8. MikeQ says:

    David Hayden: You’re right about that, David, … this happened on my first job in Boston, and I went along with things I’d never put up with now. At the time, the whole thing was kind of funny in that sick restaurant way, but like you say … the JJ’s explosion … you have to know when enough is enough. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting, David … you are about the busiest, and certainly one of the very best blogger/restaurtant consultants out there. (Ed. note: The link on his name is to his Hospitality Formula network of blogs, but anyone reading here should also check out his site . It’s simply the best resource … )

  9. Jamie says:

    I figure I must’ve done my restaurant time to not be surprised by such a story. You really know how to articulate life in the business Mike, what a great read!

  10. MikeQ says:

    Jamie: Good to hear from you! And thanks for the kind words. You have put your time in, Jamie … and I’ve got a few good stories about you, ya know. 🙂 (Just recently, in fact, when a good friend of ours was hitting on you at the end of the bar … that was too funny, all that happened.) It was good to see you at Carrie’s reunion. Don’t wait so long to visit us again.

  11. Colleen says:

    In today’s litigious society, that would never happen. Where are the unions when you need them?

  12. MikeQ says:

    Colleen: Hey, Colleen, you know this week starts my “reduced summer schedule.” You know what that means … more time to write … and more stuff for you to read! Aren’t you excited!!!! 🙂

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