FREE BEER; Part II (A moment in the sun)

Actual graph from this blog (chart of daily visitors 1/29/12 – 2/29/12)

At some point, I imagine every blogger wonders who’s out there reading.  How many unseen visitors are dropping by?  Do they glance at the first few sentences and then move on, or do they stay for a while and continue to read?

Since starting this blog, I’ve relied on site analytics to find out.  I have one graph that shows how many people visit, another that displays how many pages have been read, and so on.

Over the past year and a half, I’ve watched our readership grow by leaps and bounds (thank you, thank you!) . . . but to be honest, for the past two months, the graphs have been pretty flat.  (See the left side of the chart above.)

I’m not complaining.  I never imagined we’d reach our current rank — but it did seem that in recent months the site had pretty much . . . well, plateaued.

Then last week, out of the blue, the numbers doubled.  That line running across the chart, which had remained even for so long . . . now that line jumped up dramatically!  (Look at the right side of the chart!)

“Wow!” I thought, studying the numbers carefully.  I almost had to rub my eyes with both hands.  “Holy shit!”

I checked the next day, and there was another huge jump.  The line had spiked even higher!  Now I was getting excited.

My best friend, Colleen (She has a personal phone book with a thousand numbers.)

“You know, lately that blog is all you talk about,” Colleen said over the phone when I told her.

“I can’t help it,” I said, “My blog is on a roll!”

It was true.  Day after day the new visitors were arriving in droves.

The next day, the numbers had tripled!  Tripled!  TRIPLED!!!!!

Holy Shit!!!” I thought, “If this exponential rate continues . . . day after day, week by week . . . it won’t be long before I have the most popular blog in the world!!!  AHAHAAAA . . . HA HA!”  (Yes, I can get carried away when talking to myself.)

“What do you think it is?” Colleen asked the next time we spoke.

“I don’t know,” I told her, “I have no idea . . . I just know that every day it keeps shooting up!”  I was on the verge of babbling.  “It just keeps shooting up!”

“When did it start?” she asked.

“Last Friday,” I told her, “February 24th, something like that.”

“Friday?” she said thoughtfully, “ . . . Isn’t that the day you post new stories?

There was a pause.  “Do you think it has anything to do with your post that Friday?” she asked.

No way.  How could one post make so much difference?

I thought about it some more.  It was Feb. 24th when things started to go crazy.  It was a good post that week, but probably not a great one.  I think other posts have been better.  It was a story about giving away free beer at The Mug, in Cortland . . .

Wait a minute . . .

A crazy thought struck me and wouldn’t let go.  Wait a minute . . .

The title of that post  . . . oh, no!

The title of that post was . . . “FREE BEER!”

Oh, NO!  Suddenly I envisioned on-line folks across the web doing a Google search for things related to “Beer.”  Somewhere on that result list they’d come across my article, . . . titled “FREE BEER!”

Of course, . . . isn’t anyone interested in “beer” going to click on something called FREE BEER?”

Oh No . . . was that the only reason?

“It was the title . . . ,” I said quietly to Colleen

“What?” she asked.

“It was the title of the post,” I said, “That’s why the sudden jump in readers . . . it was only the title.”

I thought of the fellow bloggers who are kind enough to link me on their blogroll (please check my blogroll on the right sidebar.)  On some of those sites, the lists include not only the blog’s name . . . but also the current title.

Imagine someone glancing down one of the those blogrolls.  The list might read:

A Bartender’s Guide:  “How to make a Mojito”

Serving the Public:  “I got stiffed last night”

Life on a Cocktail Napkin:   “FREE  BEER!”

Of course they’re going to click on a title like that.

“That’s it,” I said to Colleen, “That’s all it was . . . people have been clicking on my blog because they wanted to know where they could find free beer.”

For the next two days, I hoped I was wrong.  Maybe the exponential rise would continue.  Maybe the charts would still sail onward and upward . . .

The sun sets suddenly on my “free beer” popularity. (Actual chart from this blog.)

But, nooo . . . the graphs rose once or twice more as the week ended.  Then when I posted a new story the following Friday — a story that wasn’t titled “Free Beer!” — the numbers began their inevitable slide.  Now I know how the stockbrokers felt in 1929, as they watched their market graphs plunge.  It had been my moment in the sun, and now it was over.

“I’m sorry.” Colleen said over the phone, “I’m sorry . . . but it does make sense.”

“Isn’t that insane?” she continued, “All those people just trying to find free beer.”

I didn’t say anything.  The wind had been taken from my sails.

I had been off and running.  I had imagined great things . . . millions and millions of readers who would perhaps someday place some sort of crown on my head.

“Maybe you should spend more time coming up with good titles,” Colleen said.  She was trying to be helpful.

“It’s alright,“  I told her, “It’s OK.  It really is sort of funny . . . in a way.”

(To see the original post — “Free Beer!” <– click the highlighted letters.)

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I have to thank Beta Phi Epsilon frat brother Harry Waller for reminding me of the stories posted this week, and last (Free Beer.)  He stopped into Johnny D’s a while back with his wife and brother-in-law.  Harry and I told stories for an hour about those days at Cortland, and of course we talked about The Mug.  That college joint was my first bartending job.  Here’s something else from that time . . .

It started out as a typical night, but after a brief scuffle between some unruly customers and the doorman, the whole thing turned into one big learning experience.  One educating domino toppled into the next, and I became aware of an aspect of this business I’d never considered.

It began with our doorman shoving a couple of guys out, when one of them crashed into the glass front door.  There was a loud crack, and now the glass had a circular fracture with long cracks running out in all directions.  The glass was barely holding in place — one push, and the door would be nothing but a metal frame.

“You think it will hold through the night?” Tony G. asked.  I’d called the owner to tell him what happened.

“Nope,” I said, “Anyone pushes on it, and they can walk right in.”

“Hate to call the glass guys this late,” Tony grumbled.  It was one o’clock in the morning.  “It’ll costs an arm and a leg to get them out at this hour,” he said, “Can you board it up?”

There were some sheets of plywood in the basement, and I figured one of them could be cut to size, but I didn’t know how secure it would be.

“I’ll do the best I can, Tony,” I said, “Maybe I’ll just stay here overnight, and leave a message with the glass company to show up in the morning.”

“If that’s what you want to do,” Tony replied.  I could almost hear him smiling over the phone.  It wasn’t just that he was saving money . . . I could imagine him beaming because I was such a dedicated guy.

Truth be known, it wouldn’t be the first overnight I’d spent in The Mug.  It happened now and then, although all the other times were just for fun.  Sometimes I had a female companion.  There was a room in the basement with a bed and a stereo, but believe it or not most of the time they liked the idea of doing it on the pool table, or right on top of the bar.  We were all college kids.

Other times it was just me and a bunch of guys not ready yet to call it quits.  We’d lock the front door and continue drinking in the back room.  Sometimes we wouldn’t leave until dawn.  (As I mentioned last week, Tony let me do pretty much whatever I wanted.)

“Tell you what,” Tony said, “I’ll send somebody over to keep you company.”

I didn’t mind staying by myself.  I figured I’d just watch TV and drink beer.  But I vaguely knew the guy Tony was sending . . . I’ll call him Rudy . . .  and we got along OK.

Rudy worked for Tony’s pinball company.   He had his pager with him at all times, and he was on call 24/7.  His total work week might have been less than 40 hours, but he never knew when those hours would be.

Morning, noon, or night he might be called to one of the joints where Tony had his equipment.  Rudy might repair a broken pinball machine, restock a cigarette machine, or unclog a pool table.  He’d swap out the old equipment for something new, or just collect the money from their coin bins.

“Rudy will be there in less than half an hour,” Tony said.

When Rudy arrived, we drew a pitcher of beer and went into the back room to play pool.  We played game after game, refilling the pitcher more times than I can remember.

It was during one of those games that I began to feel that something else was going on here.  I started to think that Rudy was doing more than just keep me company.

He was feeling me out.  With each subtle comment, he seemed to steer the conversation.  I began to think that Tony had asked him to do this.  Maybe they wanted to know more where my head was at, running a place that Tony owned, but never spent much time in.  If I saw Tony once a month, that was a lot.  Once a week, early in the morning before anyone was there, he’d come in and clear out the extra cash in the safe — that was it.

But he had his way of keeping track of things.  I remember when I first began running The Mug, Tony had recommended that I take a bartender from one of his other joints to work the day shift.  That was fine with me — all the other bartenders were my college buddies, and staffing days would have been a problem.

Tony’s choice of daytime bartender was a young woman I nicknamed “Boom-Boom.”  She was a great gal, and with her physique and style she brought in a lot of day business we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

But I knew she was also Tony’s eyes and ears.  When she first started we had a little confrontation.

My best buddy Jim Fennell and I had been working in the basement, moving around kegs in the walk-in cooler, straightening up the stacks of cases of beer.  Now we sat at the bar and asked Cindy for a pitcher of beer and some shots.

She stood there for a minute, as though expecting us to pay.

“It’s alright,” I told her, “You can call Tony and ask if you want.”

After talking with Tony, she handed me the phone — I explained that the staff would be doing a lot of work for free, but I didn’t think they should pay for drinks afterwards.  Tony agreed, and Cindy never questioned anything else I did.

Now I had the feeling that Rudy was doing something similar.  He was discretely feeling me out for Tony.  He was asking about the way things were run in the bar, and how I felt about Tony.

I didn’t mind.  I really liked Tony, and respected him.  I also had the feeling he was the wrong person to fuck with,  . . . so I always let him know exactly what I was doing.

Anyway, Rudy’s tone during this conversation was casual and relaxed, so I just enjoyed playing pool and drinking beer with him.

We played pool and drank all night after hours.  Rudy was a lot better than I was, so I never won a game.  I was happy just to make an occasional good shot, and to refill the pitcher regularly.

At one point during the night, Rudy got a buzz on his pager.  When he was at the pay phone, I heard him say something like, “I’ll take care of it in the morning.  Don’t worry about it . . . I’ll straighten it out.”

And we went back to playing pool.

The glass guys had the door fixed by 8:30 A. M., and Rudy said we should go have breakfast.  He drove us to a small diner just outside the small town of Cortland, where we had ham and eggs with home fries, and plenty of coffee.

“Got a stop to make,” he said when we were back in the car, “And then I’ll run you home.”

We drove to a small, run-down bar a little further down the road.  There was a Smith-Corona typewriter factory across the street from that bar.  I knew both the factory, and the bar.  I’d worked one of the worst summer jobs I’ve ever had in that typewriter plant, hauling buckets of greasy metal parts to the men and women bent over at the large, ominous grey machines.

It was 9:30 or 10:00 in the morning when we pulled up to the place, but every seat at the bar was taken.  I was sure these were all night-shift workers from the factory.  It might sound weird to be drinking at that hour, but to them it was just a beer after work.

Rudy motioned to the bartender — who I assumed was the owner — indicating that he wanted to talk.  We went into the hallway leading to the rest rooms.  I don’t know why I went with them . . . I guess I just didn’t know what else I was supposed to do.

There was a cigarette machine against the hallway wall.  It had one of Tony’s stickers on the glass front.  The joint also had a pool table and a jukebox, which I now assumed were Tony’s as well.

“Tony has always thought of you as a friend,” Rudy said to the man once we were in the hallway.  He was speaking in low tones.  “He hopes that friendship will continue,” Rudy said.

There was nothing ominous or threatening about the way Rudy was talking . . . but then he reached behind his back, reached under that large shirt that he never tucked in.  When his hand came out, he was holding a semi-automatic pistol.

He set the gun on top of the cigarette machine that we were standing by.  Then he continued talking in that calm but steady voice, as though nothing out of the ordinary has just happened.

I really didn’t want to be involved in this, so I turned and walked to the pool table.  As I walked away I heard Rudy tell the guy that Tony just wanted everyone he did business with to be happy.

As I played pool by myself, I glanced over at the two of them now and then.  Neither seemed excited or agitated . . . they were just talking.  But the guy definitely had a more somber look on his face now.  All the while, that gun remained on top of the cigarette machine.

Rudy made a call on the pay phone before we left the bar.  I thought I heard him tell someone that it was all set, that the machines would be staying in the place.

We left the bar, and Rudy drove me back.  I didn’t mention anything about the bar owner, what I’d overheard of their conversation, or the gun.  On the ride back we just talked about sports, and drinking, and women.

Once back at the frat house though, I couldn’t help but think that Rudy had taken me to that joint for a reason.  Maybe Tony had asked him to do it.  Rudy was letting me know the lay of the land, now that I was running one of Tony’s bars.

(Ed. note:  we had some problems with the comment section last week . . . it’s straightened out now.  My apologies for any inconvenience.)

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One of the bartenders rings the bell, and a unanimous cheer from the crowd rattles the windows.

Eight beer taps are thrown open simultaneously as we scramble to shove plastics cups underneath them.  One hand yanks the full ones out, while with the other hand we shove the new cups down.

We’ve done this before and the pace is relentless.  The customers are experienced too, and they know what’s expected . . .

With their own beer secure, customers seated at the bar use a free hand to start the plastic cups moving.  Behind them and all around them there’s literally a sea of hands waiting.

There’s a row of hands reaching through any open space they can find, and another row reaching out above each seated customer’s head.  A third row of outstretched hands reaches over the second row — all those hands trying to grab free beer.  Everyone keeps one for themselves (some will take two), but the rest of the tilting cups are being passed all the way to the back of the room.

“Pass ’em back!” we yell, “Pass ’em back!  Pass ’em back!”

It’s free beer!  For the next hour — it’s FREE BEER!  With the jukebox blaring, the crowd is loud and raucous, and everyone is having blast.

This was my first bartending job, when I managed The Mug in Cortland, NY.  It was part celebration, part promotion, but giving out free beer is still one of my craziest bar memories.

Several key factors lead up to the free beer — it was a Perfect Storm involving the times, and a unique set of events and people.

First, there was my age, and outlook.  I was a couple of years past my 21st birthday and still thinking and acting like a college kid.

I’d dropped out of school, but I was still living at my frat house, Beta Phi Epsilon.  I was running a college bar and on nights off I’d be out at some other college bar, drinking.  I didn’t want to miss anything.

The second factor was the guy I worked for . . . a man I’ll call Tony G.

Without Tony G, there would never have been free beer.

Tony owned The Mug and several other bars in the small town of Cortland, . . . but his real business was pinballs.  He ran a company that distributed pinball machines, cigarette machines, jukeboxes, pool tables . . . anything with a coin slot that was welcome in a bar.

Tony did pretty well.

He did so well that if some owner was going out of business, Tony would buy the joint just to keep his pinball machines in action.

That’s why he’d purchased The Mug.  At The Mug, Tony had a cigarette machine against the wall when you first walked in, and on the right there were four large arcade machines where you could simulate being a race car driver, or a submarine captain trying to blow up ships.

On the side wall there was a row of six standard pinball machines.  There was a foosball machine in the middle of the front room, a jukebox between the men’s and ladies’ room doors, and a pool table in the back room.

That’s fourteen machines with coin slots, and on weekends the college kids would feed their quarters into these machines all night long.  There was never a moment that these machines were not in use, as quarter after countless quarter was dropped into them.

Yup, Tony did very well with his pinball distributorship.  And what did this mean for me, as the manager of one of his bars?

Listen to this . . .  when Tony first asked me to take over the place, he told me that all he wanted was to break even on the bar.

“I’ll make my money from the machines,“ he told me, “You just have to run the bar without costing me anything.  Pay the rent, pay the staff, buy the beer . . . everything has to come out of the registers.”

“As long as you break even on that,” he said, “I’ll be happy.”

That alone is ridiculously sweet for any manger, but when The Mug actually began to make money, . . . when there was a mound of twenties left in the safe at the end of the month, Tony was ecstatic.

From that point on, I could do just about anything I wanted.

The staff and I never paid for a drink, and sometimes our friends didn’t either.  “It‘s good for morale,” I told Tony.

Sometimes I‘d send free kegs of beer to the fraternity.  “It‘s good promotion,” I’d tell Tony, “They‘ll think of The Mug next time they go out drinking.”

Once, I gave everyone in the place a drink on the house just because Cortland State had won a big lacrosse game.

What did Tony say?  “Look, I told you to break even, kid,” he said while puffing a cigarette, “You’re way ahead in my book . . . if you think it’s right, just do it.”

That’s when I decided to give out free beer to everyone, starting with the clang of a bell.  I knew I could do this without costing Tony a dime.

That was the third factor in this free beer puzzle . . . the cost of the beer.  I’d switched all our taps to Pabst Blue Ribbon because our salesman, Skip Kibbee, was running a promotion.  When you bought five kegs of Pabst from Skip, you got one additional keg free.  It was called “one on five.”

I’d order 15 kegs the first week, holding off on my free ones, and then order fifteen kegs each week for the next two weeks . . .  until the fourth week when I’d collect all my bonus kegs.  By that time it was 9 free kegs of beer.  Every fourth week, the deliver was free.

Now Tony loved me, and he didn’t even blink when I told him that I’d be pouring free beer for an hour every time the Cortland State lacrosse team won.

That was the fourth factor in this Perfect Storm of circumstances — the free beer was to celebrate college victories.

(Image from State always had great lacrosse teams, and that year they were beating some of the NCAA Division I giants — teams like Penn State, Navy, Cornell, and  Syracuse.  A lot of my Beta frat buddies were on that team (like three-time NCAA All-American Paul Wehrum, Rocky Conte, and Paul Cody) — and others were guards at the games, or worked the ticket table.

The previous year, all the bars downtown were packed after each home victory, but because The Mug was at the far end of Main Street it hadn’t been as busy.  That’s why I decided to do a free beer promotion.

I made up a handwritten sign, about two feet high and five feet long, that said:

“After CORTLAND’S VICTORY there will be FREE BEER at THE MUG!!!”

I had my fraternity brothers hang the sign on the front of the table where they sold tickets to get into the game.

It was madness at the bar after Cortland won.  We waited until the crowd was whipped into a frenzy anticipating free beer, . . . and then we rang the bell.

The place went nuts.  I watched the full cups of beer, lines of eight at a time, zig-zagging their way toward the back.  The cups were held high as they were passed over everyone’s heads, sloshing and spilling as each wove its way through the sea of people.  (More than one young customer got an unexpected bath of beer as an occasional cup tipped completely over.)

“Pass ’em back!  Pass ’em back!”

I saw one kid with his eyes closed and a big smile on his face, holding his beer high in one hand.  Trapped in the crowd — spinning slowly in a circle as everyone squeezed by — he was enjoying all those young coed-bodies pressing against him.

It was madness until the bell rang again, and the hour was over.  I remember the floor shaking as the crowd stomped and cheered, applauding what had just taken place.

That year we gave away free beer after every Cortland State lacrosse victory — fifteen of them in all.

It’s something I’ll never be part of again — at this stage of the game, that’s the last thing I want to do . . . run a college bar.

And the times have changed.  Today there’s more focus on liquor liability, and most states now have laws that make “free beer” illegal.  There’s increased alcohol awareness . . . even liquor companies nowadays caution people to “drink responsibly.”

Where would I find an owner as flexible as Tony G,  . . . or a salesman’s promotion where the bar gets one free keg for every five that are purchased?

Nope, . . . for me it was a one-shot deal, an odd merging of the times with a unique set of events and people.  It’s not going to happen again, not in any bar I work at now, and that’s probably a good thing.  But I do have to say, at that time and place . . . serving free beer was a blast.

(Editorial Afterthought):   According to GoDaddy’s statistical analysis, this post drew more visitors than any I’d previously written —  readership immediately TRIPLED.  I thought this blog was going viral!

(Actual graph for daily visitors from 1/29/12 – 2/29/12. “Free Beer” was posted on 2/24/12 — exactly when readership spiked.)

I was just about jumping up and down!

Then I figured out what was behind the sudden popularity.  Read that story here –> “FREE BEER, part two (A moment in the sun”).

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 12 Comments

BEATING BARTENDER BURN-OUT (with the Dixie Chicks)

Last Sunday at Johnny D’s, the afternoon Blues Jam ended early to make room for our Grammy Awards party.  (I actually enjoy the Grammy’s — yes, it’s an awards show, but there’s a lot of great music with performers I might never see otherwise.)

So this week I decided to write about the Grammy winners we’ve had at the club . . . looking especially at the way they influence what it’s like to tend bar here.

Take the Dixie Chicks (who came to Johnny D’s every year before they won their first Grammy.)

When the Dixie Chicks played you would have thought it was New Year’s Eve — everyone was in such a wildly festive mood.  This was a chance to see one of their favorite bands, the musicians on stage only an arms length away.

(I have to digress for a moment to retell one of my favorite stories about the Dixie Chicks at the club.  Just before one particular show, I was walking downstairs to the club’s business offices on the right, when the door on the left at the bottom of the stairs opened slowly.  I expected to see Dana or Charlie, one of our scruffy-looking booking agents coming out of the band room — but as I got to the last steps, Martie Mcguire walked out.

Martie Mcguire (Photo from

I stopped in my tracks.  She’d taken me by surprise, and she was so beautiful.

“Hi,” she said smiling, “How you all doin’ . . . ?”

My mouth was open, but no words were coming out.

“Ahhh . . . Umm . . . Ahhhh,” I said.

She smiled again and walked past me up the stairs.  I felt like I was twelve years old.)

Anyway, back to my main point.

When the Dixie Chicks played (it struck me then, and again today as I’m writing), everyone was always in such a great mood at these shows, it was surreal.  When do you have 300 people in the same room so united in their enthusiasm?

I began thinking . . . it actually starts at the door, with the cover charge.  Every customer pays $10, and for national acts sometimes as much as $15 or $20 just to get in . . . who does that with a smile on their face?  Not someone with a chip on their shoulder, only looking for a place to start trouble.  Not someone who just wants to get totally fucked-up.  Not someone who wants to wallow in their misery, crying in their beer.

At Johnny D’s, the cover charge effectively filters these people out.  For shows like the Dixie Chicks, our crowd is here specifically to see that band, and 99.99% of them walk into the place in a celebratory, over-the-top mood.

I remember when Alison Krauss used to play at the club.  (We lost her, too, when she won her first Grammy; she’s up to twenty-six of them now.)

Alison Krauss made her first recording when she was fourteen, signing with Rounder Records (which was right down the street from Johnny D’s.)  The first time she played at the club, she was 19 years old, but she still looked so childlike on stage.

When she sang “I’ve Got That Old Feeling” . . . you could have heard a pin drop.  Then the place exploded with applause and cheering.

It was the same for every year for Irma Thomas.  People would come up and order their drinks as though they’d been invited to the Royal Ball.  Customers would gush, “Oh, I’ve waited all year to see her!  I LOVE her!”

(Some of you might not know that the Rolling Stones hit “Time Is On My Side” was actually a cover of the original R&B recording by Irma in 1964.)

The point I’m trying to make is that between the ticket charge acting as a filter, and the crowd’s enthusiasm for the bands performing, it’s not your typical bartending experience.

You know what it sometimes feels like working behind the bar — like you’re surrounded by tiny, swarming one-inch piranhas, and each of them wants to take a little nip out of your skin.  (Tales From A Bar recently had two nice posts on bartender burn-out.)

This is just the opposite.  Imaging working in an environment where everyone is not just in a good mood, but in a fantastic mood.  They’re so glad to be there, so happy to be enjoying the show that they treat us behind the bar like we’re their best friends.  (Which is the way it should be, isn‘t it?)

With shows like that, you’d rather be working than not.  I don’t know how many times Jeremy Newcomer (one of our best bartenders) has asked to switch a shift because there’s a band playing that he wants to see anyway.  He figures if he’s going to be here, he might as well pick up some extra cash while enjoying the show.

There are some shows where I think half the staff might work for free.

I remember when Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Bruce Cockburn played at the club for a Landmine Free World benefit.  Tickets started at $50 each, and there were also $200 tickets that included a five course meal and seats right in front of the stage.  I heard that there were $1000 tickets (donations) that included some personal face-to-face time with the performers.

Some of the regulars at the club were local musicians who couldn’t otherwise afford to see the show, so they volunteered to work.

They bussed tables, carried food out, and one even ran the glass washing machine in the bar back station . . . just to be there.  (It was strange to see  local singer-songwriting icon Tim Gearan in a white shirt and bow tie, picking up glasses.)

It’s like this . . . at Johnny D’s a couple of weeks ago, Booty Vortex was playing.  In the middle of a rush I found myself caught up in the song they were performing, “Funky Town.”

“Won’t you take me to . . . Funky Town?  Won’t you take me to . . . Funky town.”

I stopped in the middle of the round of drinks I was making.

Kit Holliday

The original “Funky Town” starts out sort of techno, the vocals are light and translucent — but that night, Kit Holliday (her red hair swinging wildly) was belting out the tune with such a big, ballsy R&B style that it grabbed you by the shirt collar, lifted you up in the air with both hands, and swung you back and forth to the beat.

I stopped and listened in the middle of the rush, thinking how lucky I was to be working.

Grammy winners like Luther “Guitar JR” Johnson and Asleep at the Wheel, Maceo Parker, Lonnie Mack.  Local bands like Sarah Borges, Beatlejuice,  and of course Booty Vortex — I have to thank them not only for their great performances, but for their effect on the crowd.  Their music can soothe that otherwise sometimes savage beast.

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 13 Comments


The Lark Tavern, Albany NY

(This post comes from a bunch of notes scrawled on cocktail napkins at The Lark Tavern. 

In those days I also volunteered an overnight shift each week at Refer Switchboard, a 24-hr crisis center half a block from The Lark.  One night I’d come to work directly from a counselor’s meeting, where our resident psychiatrist Ron Kurtz had pretty much taken me over the coals.

Behind the bar, I was thinking of all the rebuttals I wish I’d thought of a few minutes earlier.  I began scribbling on cocktail napkin after cocktail napkin.  Here’s some of what I wrote down, roughly organized now . . . )

I keep thinking about what Ron said:  “You don’t trust the world . . . . you view the world as hostile place.”

“You know he’s right, don’t you?” Stacey asks as we work behind the bar, “That is the way you look at things.”

“What are you talking about?” I respond.  “It’s not the way I SEE things.  The world IS a hostile place!”

Not all the time, and that’s not all the world is, but it certainly can be . . . don‘t you agree?

Listen to the news.  Drive an ambulance and spend all day patching up victims.  Take a walk alone and late at night in a bad section of town.  Do you feel safe?

Ever hear people say how much they love winter, the quiet enchantment of a fresh snowfall?  I think winter is a hostile environment.  Stand outside for a few days in the cold and snow, . . . you’ll die.

First you have to protect yourself – with warm clothing, hot toddies, and a crackling fireplace – then it can be beautiful.

That’s how I look at the world.  It’s not a damn bed of roses.  I guess it’s something a guy thinks about more.

A man and woman walk down a dark street and a threatening figure emerges from the shadows.  Does the woman step in front of her male companion to protect him?  That’s the guy’s job.  Who wants to feel like a little boy protected by his mother?

Every young man at some point faces this part of being male – there are times when you have to take a stand, or back down, and then live with it.

I grew up with a step dad, and we didn’t get along.  I really don’t remember him ever hitting or paddling me, but he must have . . . because I have a clear memory of the last time he was about to hit me, and didn’t.

I was in the first or second grade, and I’d done something wrong.  He stood in front of me.  “I’m going to have to punish you,” he said.

I didn’t like the way he said it.  He wasn’t my real father.  I resented that at any moment he could just decide to spank me.

“Which do you want to be spanked with?” he asked.

He was holding two pieces of wood left over from the construction of our new house — a three-foot piece of 2×4 in one hand, . . . and in the other, a thin strip of plywood, maybe a couple of feet in length, less than half an inch thick.

He stood in front of me with one in each hand.  “Which one do you want?” he asked.

I understand now that a strip of plywood stings more.  How hard was he going to hit me
with a 2×4?  And on the butt?  That wouldn’t hurt half as much as the sting of the plywood.  I realize now that he was using the deadly look of the 2×4 to trick me.

I didn’t know this as a child.  I just looked at the 2×4, and imagined broken bones.

“I want that one,” I said, pointing to the 2×4, “Hit me with that one!”  I hated him, and I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of seeing me be a baby, taking the easy way out.  I was scared, but determine not to back down.  “Hit me with that one!”

He looked confused.

“This one is really going to hurt,” he said menacingly, moving the thick slab of wood in one hand.  “I’d choose this one if I were you,” he said as he lifted the thin strip of plywood.

“I want that one,” I pointed again to the 2×4.  “Hit me with that one!”  Standing in front of him, I was barely able to keep myself from crying.  “You gave me the choice, and I want that one!”

He looked at me for a minute, and then it was over.  He turned away and told me never to do it again, . . . whatever I had done to make him angry.  But he never again hit me, or spanked me.

In grade school I wasn’t really bullied by anyone, probably because at my school in the rural area outside Syracuse, everyone was a neighbor.  I was a quiet kid, small, and I wore glasses.  I’m sure there were some mean kids, but I guess they didn’t think I was worth their time.

I was in one fight in grade school.  I was beat up by a girl.

In fourth grade, Mary Luchsinger and I were arguing about something when she hauled back and punched me in the nose.  She was a tough kid.  She had three older brothers and they all lived on a farm.

I stood there with my nose bleeding.  I came up with something like, “I won’t hit you back because you’re a girl.”

But I remember thinking, . . . “Man, that hurt!”

Everything changed in Junior High.  With the first classes, the other elementary school in our district added their kids to our school, and that introduced the boys from the more city-like suburb of Nedrow.  There was the expected jostling between them and us.

I was about to open my school locker one day, but three guys from Nedrow stood in my way.

“I need to get in my locker,” I gestured with a smile.

One of them leaned forward and glared at me.  “Why don’t you say, Pretty please?” he asked.

I looked at them.  This was ridiculous.  Surely we were more mature than this.  I waited, hoping they would step aside.

“Say, Pretty please,” the guy repeated, smiling.  The other two grinned with him, like they’d just come across a piece of freshly-frosted cake.

“Come on,” I said.  “Enough is enough.  Let me get in my locker.”

He stood in front of me, arms folded across his chest.  “Say it,” he told me.  “Say, Pretty Please, or you don’t get in.”

I looked at the three of them, and they looked at me.  I thought about it.

“Ok,” I said finally, “Pretty please.  Are you happy?”  They all turned away and walked down the hallway, laughing.

It only got worse.

One afternoon in a civics class, the teacher was telling us about people who posed as doctors, promoting fake cures.  One of the kids pointed and said loudly that I looked like a quack — and everyone burst into laughter.  Even the teacher laughed out loud before she caught herself.

After that, every time our paths crossed now, those guys would lean toward me and say,
“Quack, Quack!”  “Quack, Quack!”  And walk past laughing.

I wanted to change schools.

I had two friends back then — Bill Molloy lived one house further down Makyes Road and Barkley Tate lived on Griffen road, behind our house, over the hill.  I felt safe when they were around, but if it was just me and those Nedrow guys, they’d laugh and call out:  “Quack . . . Quack.”  “Quack . . . Quack!”

One afternoon I was at my locker when one of boys who had made me say “Pretty please” came over.  He leaned against the lockers next to mine and watched as I fit in the key.  By now I knew his name was Roger Buckley.  As I opened the locker door, he grinned.

My heart sank.  I was alone.

Then something snapped.

I turned to him.  “Do you want something?” I asked.  “You have something to say, Roger Fuckley?

He was startled.  His head snapped back on his neck.

Suddenly I was so angry.  The last time they made me say, “Pretty Please.”  How could I let them do that?

“What would you like, Roger Fuckley?” I asked.

“Don’t say that!” he scowled down into my face.

“Roger Fuckley!” I said, “Roger Fuckley!”

“Shut up!” he said, fists clenched, “You’re looking for trouble!”

“Roger Fuckley!” I said, “What are you going to do about it, Roger Fuckley?

It was just the two of us and I didn’t care.  He must have sensed this and turned away,
walking down the hallway.  “Don’t ever call me that again,” he said over his shoulder.

After that, there was no more “Quack-quack” as I walked down the hall.  But I worried
this might be the lull before the storm.  I was worried about a big confrontation with these guys.

I was saved in a way by my best friend, Barkley Tate.  These guys picked on Barkley too, and he’d gotten into a fight with Steve Haumann.  Steve was one of Nedrow boys, later an All County lineman on our football team.  A big guy.

Barkley whooped him pretty good, knocked him down a couple of times until Steve finally said quits.

Barkley’s parents let him subscribe to Ring Magazine.  When he asked, he parents had given him a heavy punching bag for his birthday.  We hung it from a rafter in his basement and spent hours punching that bag.  We imagined ourselves in the ring fighting for a world championship.  Barkley had two huge pairs of boxing gloves, 16-ounce gloves almost like pillows, and we’d spare on his sloped backyard.

I guess I got better faster than he did, because the last time we sparred I knocked him down three times within a minute or so, and we quit for the day.

Now Barkley had beaten Steve Haumann, and when the guys from Nedrow asked him if he’d ever been beaten, he told them about our afternoons sparring.  They didn’t bother me anymore.

The only real physical confrontation I had in high school, other than sports, came during
my senior year.  One of the wannabe tough guys in school, a punk, took a swing at me.  I grabbed him, he grabbed me, and he got me in a headlock.  I reached under his knee, lifted him up in the air, put a half nelson around his neck and slammed him down on the hall floor.  He was still lying on his back, trying to regain his breath when one of the teachers pulled me off.

Me and high school wrestling teamate Doug Emery (r) after a grueling session on the mats.

Later, a couple of guys the kid hung around with watched warily as I walked by.  “He
picked him up like he was a fly,” one of them said.  It was a wrestling move — if you know what you’re doing and they don’t, there’s really nothing to it.

Anyway, those were the two physical confrontations I had while in school.  I was beat up by a girl, and caused a stir by lifting someone in the air.

In the spring of my senior year I ran into the boy who had made me say “Pretty Please.”   I was walking down the hall and saw some guy coming the other way, looking at me strangely.  I didn’t recognize him at first but as he got closer, I realized it was him, . . . the kid from the locker in Junior High.  The one who did the talking.

I didn’t care about that now, but he had a tentative look and when he saw the recognition pop into my face, he shied away, moved further to the other side.  His eyes darted nervously as we approached.

What did he think, that I was on the wrestling team now and was going to punch him?  We passed on opposite sides of the hallway, and I felt bad for him.  He was a thin kid, not tough looking at all.

As we approached I thought about saying something like, “Hey, no hard feelings . . . we were just kids.  How’s it going?”

But by the time I’d thought of it, we’d already passed by.

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