SUGAR PACKETS (More bits and pieces)

Most of the notes I’ve saved over the years are simply about what happened behind the bar — an interesting character I met, or a weird event that happened during the shift.

Some of the notes tell a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Others are just bits and pieces (see The Chocolate Starfish). Here are two more of those . . .


(This note is from my early years as a bartender at The Lark Tavern in Albany, NY.)

A quiet guy walked in into The Lark one afternoon, and ordered a short Utica Club draft.  He was a medium-built guy with thinning hair.  I’d never seen him in here before.

I set down his beer and said, “That will be fifty cents.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out two white sugar packets, the kind you see in a cafeteria or diner.

He set them on the bar, side by side.

“That’ll be 50 cents, please,” I said again.

He seemed surprised, and pulled out a handful of sugar packets.

He placed a third packet next to the first two. He watched me expectantly and then laid down another, and another, looking up at me each time. He stood there waiting for me to pick the packets up.

Then I saw the hospital band on his wrist.

The Capitol District Psychiatric Center was a couple of blocks from The Lark, on New Scotland Ave.

Maybe the patients used sugar packets in some sort of barter system, or as chips when playing cards. He’d probably broken into a pantry and taken as many handfuls as he could manage. He’d snuck off the grounds with his pockets full of sugar packets, ready for a night on the town. He was still waiting for me, more sugar in hand.

“I think you’d better call the hospital,” I told him.

The expression on his face said, “How did you know about the hospital?”

I watched him walk to the pay phone. His back was toward me and he was hunched over as he spoke quietly with someone on the phone. Then he turned and headed directly for the door.  He didn’t look left or right, not even a fraction of an inch to either side, as though he couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

I felt sorry for him afterwards. If I’d just given him that beer on the house, he probably would have had his best afternoon in long time.



(This note is from The Cantina Italiana, in Boston’s North End — see Joey Cigars and Ghosts of Christmas Past.)

One of the waitresses at The Cantina gave us a cat. We named the kitten, “Tina.”

She was so small, about the size of my hand, that we never let her outside.

Tina would hide somewhere in the basement until everyone was gone. Then she’d cautiously peek her head out as I sat at the desk making up the next day’s banks. She’d hop up on my knee and start purring like crazy, kneading her tiny paws into my pant’s leg.

I’d lock her in the basement when I left, but she always seemed to find her way upstairs. She kept setting off the restaurant’s motion detectors.

I was attached to her at this point, so I took Tina home with me.

At the time I was general manager at The Cantina, and worked long hours. Since I lived alone, when I finally got home Tina would be bouncing off the walls. She’d be jumping all over me, with her eyes frantic and as wide as saucers.

“Cats need company,” my date one night explained when I told her about this problem, “You have to do something to help her burn off all the energy.”

“Just trail a string in front of her,” my date suggested, demonstrating what she meant. “Run the string across the floor, up onto the couch, back across the floor and up onto the chair . . . back and forth in a figure eight. Just drag the string until she gets tired chasing it, then she’ll be back to normal.”

It worked.

Now every night when I came home, I’d run that string across the floor, back and forth in a figure eight until Tina just gave up. She’d lie on her back, panting.

Sometimes I’d tease her. I’d dangle the string above her paws and as she lay there she’d take exhausted swipes at it.

One night as she lay on her back swiping with all four paws, I quickly looped the string around her legs . . . like a cowboy tying up a steer.

Her paws now bound together, I began to rock her back and forth.

Tina struggled for a second, then she began to purr loudly. With her mouth open and her eyes half-closed, she lay on her back purring liked I’d never heard her purr.

It became a routine after that.

I’d let her chase the string until she lay down in the middle of the floor. Now when she laid down, it didn‘t seem like she was exhausted, just ready for the next part.  She’d roll onto her back and put her four paws together to make it easy.

I’d rock her back and forth with that string wrapped around her feet, and she’d just purr and purr and purr.

Someone in my apartment building must have ratted me out. My landlord came down one day and reminded me that the lease specifically said no pets.

I took Tina back to The Cantina. She was old enough now to be let out overnight.

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 13 Comments


(Image from

(Ed. note:  We found “Cindy!”  We’d lost touch with the young woman in this story — real name Wendy LaHaye — when she left Fidelity Investments and moved to California.  Now she’s back in the Boston area with a company she co-founded, n2N Commerce. And she called us this week.  Woopee!!

A new post is coming tomorrow so I’ll leave this unchanged, but the story now has a different ending!)

On Thursday (March 17th), a good portion of Americans will be out celebrating with friends old and new, singing Irish songs at the tops of their lungs and having a blast.

Not me. I’ll be working.

That’s OK . . . for a bartender, any night off is a potential St. Paddy’s day.  Even on a work night when we finish last call, we usually raise hell afterwards.

This post is about a unique celebration that always took place whenever the band Beatlejuice played at Johnny D’s . . . the after-hours parties at Cindy’s.

First, let me tell you a little about Cindy. She was in her late twenties, a short girl, medium-built with curly brown-hair. She was one of our favorite customers a few years back.

We loved Cindy. (That’s not her real name and I won’t tell you exactly what she did for a living. I’ll only show you a retouched photo of her, for reasons that will become clear shortly.)

Cindy was simply the best regular any bar could have. When she stopped in to see a show, she was always upbeat, funny, a genuine delight to have at your bar.

She was also a great tipper . . . she’d been a bartender herself while working her way through college.

Cindy was an executive at a top-rated, internationally-known finance company. She probably had a larger annual salary than all of us bartenders combined.

But when she was at the club, she was just one of the guys, joining in the brouhaha like she’d just gotten out of prison.

Of course the person everyone likes best is the one the bartenders always give a hard time.

Cindy couldn’t come in for a quiet dinner or spend a weekend night at the club without the bartenders trying to think of new ways to bust her chops.

We’d do something that would draw attention to her as she tried to blend with the crowd. We’d embarrass her in a friendly way with all the other customers watching.

Let me give you an example:

One night Cindy went to the ladies room, and bartender John Bonaccorso (he’s Johnny D’s general manager now) began frantically writing on a small white sign. He posted the sign high on the ceiling above where Cindy had been sitting.

When Cindy came back, John kept her busy with endless chatter so she wouldn’t notice it, and we let her sit there with the handwritten sign directly over her head, visible to everyone in the club but her.


The sign said, “SLUT,” with an arrow pointing down.

It was hard not to laugh out loud when the first customers came from the dance area and walked slowly by the bar . . . they’d stop, look up at the sign . . . then keep on walking with their heads still turned.

More and more of the customers did the same thing. Cindy couldn’t figure out why they were staring at her. One guy kept coming back, walking more slowly each time, glancing surreptitiously in her direction.

He eventually came over to her, and was then joined by another guy who was also curious to find out what the hell was going on.

When we finally told her, Cindy swore at us and hopped up onto the bar to rip the sign down, but she was laughing as she did it.

“You assholes!” she shouted, “You’re all ASSHOLES! I don’t know why I keep coming back here!”

But she was laughing the whole time along with everyone else.

This friendly busting of chops wasn’t confined to the club. We expanded our efforts.

I managed to get her email address at the high-powered investment firm where she worked. I sent her porn ten times a day.

(Photo from

(It was mostly soft core stuff, although I did send eventually some explicit pictures — until her company put up a new firewall that kept salacious email from getting through.)

Sure, I knew this was childish — but I felt my status as a bartender gave me diplomatic immunity.  Why always behave like an adult?

We didn’t spend all our time busting Cindy’s chops. We did nice things for her, too.

One year we surprised her on her birthday. We convinced her friend Linda to bring her to the club, making her promise not to tell Cindy what would happen.

We had a large cake made for her with a huge, realistic penis mounded on top in flesh colored frosting. We gave her present after present, each one wrapped with so much paper it was difficult to open. We gave her the largest battery-powered dildo we could find. It came with four AA-size batteries. Not realizing what was in the package, she unwrapped it with everyone at the bar watching.

We had nice presents for her also, an expensive silk scarf and a beautiful pen and pencil set that we thought suited her corporate position.

We took a lot of time thinking about what to get her that night. We spent what was for us a considerable amount of money. Cindy couldn’t hide her delight as everyone in the bar watched her unwrap each one, trying to figure out who was this person to get all this attention, and wondering what was in the next package.

During one Christmas holiday, we gave her a mound of gifts which we presented at the bar.

The next Christmas we did the same thing, but this time Cindy had a nice present for everyone on the bar staff. One by one she had discretely asked the other staff what each of us might like for a gift.

It became a Christmas tradition at Johnny D’s.

But the biggest thing everyone remembers about Cindy is the after-hours parties we had at her apartment.

It started innocently enough when John and I gave her a ride home one night after a Beatlejuice show. (Brad Delp, the lead singer for the band Boston, had formed a Beatles cover group with some of the best musicians in town.) The next time Beatlejuice played three or four of us went back to Cindy’s place, and with each show the size of this new after-hours tradition grew until sometimes there were fifteen or twenty people.

Cindy had an apartment large enough for half a dozen people to live in easily. Her job kept her moving back and forth across the country, so she had never bought a home, just always rented a really nice place.

Cindy kept a well-stocked bar, and when that bar began bursting at the seams, we all chipped in and bought her a larger one. It was a really nice wooden bar with plenty of under-the-counter cabinets and an ice bin with a drain.

Cindy filled that new bar with top-shelf liquors, sometimes with three and four back-ups of the things we drank most.

She had Patron tequila; Anejo, Reposado, and Silver. She had two types of single malt scotch, Macallen 14 yr. and Laphroaig for those who liked a more peaty taste. Ketel One Vodka, Caribbean rums, Knob Creek or Maker’s Mark for those who preferred bourbon.

(Photo from

Cindy would never let us help restock her bar, but we always brought at least one gift bottle with us. Once we gave her a couple Magnums of Dom Perignon, but at next party she opened them and they were gone in minutes.

Just off work, we often had the munchies so someone would stop at the 24-hour Shaws on their way to Cindy’s and pick up bagfuls of snacks, or stuff to warm up or cook. I remember the night when one of the waitresses said something about wanting an omelet later, so Felick picked up cartoons of eggs, crabmeat and cream cheese. Felick was a bartender but he was also a great cook. He stood at Cindy’s stove, working two pans at a time until everyone had a crabmeat and cream cheese omelet to go with their frozen margaritas.

We would party until dawn, although Cindy usually headed for her bedroom around four or five in the morning while the rest of us continued.

Those were great parties.

But no matter how great the parties were and no matter how much we loved Cindy, we were mindful to play some prank on her before we left.

It became another tradition — to leave Cindy something besides a trashed apartment to remember us by.

We wanted to show how much we liked her.

It began one night with a can of Pringles. We were half-in-the-bag and someone came up with the idea that we should take some of the Pringles out, put something inside and then replace the remaining Pringles, putting the can back on the shelf.

Felick volunteered his underwear.

He took off his underpants and after putting his jeans back on, stuffed the wadded underwear into the narrow can, replacing a good amount of chips back on top.

We pictured Cindy after a long day at work, sitting in her living room watching TV. She’d take out one chip after another from that can, until she hit the cotton surprise. We delighted in imagining her shock.

What can I say?  We were drunk and couldn’t come up with anything better.

After another all-night party, we spent an hour stretching overlapping layers of masking tape from one side of the outside frame of her bedroom door across to the other side. We taped the outside of her bedroom door from top to bottom with masking tape so thick that the only way for her to get out in the morning would be to find something to cut a narrow passage to slide through.

Another time John and I snuck into her bedroom after she was sound asleep and carefully moved her large, six drawer dresser against the inside face of her door. We stacked other furniture and anything we could find on top of the dresser and all around it. That dresser was so heavy Cindy could never have moved it on her own.

We left through her bedroom window and imagined Cindy getting up in the morning, and wanting to head for the bathroom — but she’d have to crawl out the bedroom window like we did. Of course, she’d be doing this in broad daylight, dressed in her nightgown.

Cindy never complained. She kept coming to the club with a smile on her face, and after each Beatlejuice show she seemed to bring more and more people back to her apartment.

So we kept it up.

There’s no one quite like John to bust chops. One night he decided to take Cindy’s toilet seat as we left.

He unscrewed the bolts underneath and lifted it off, leaving her with nothing but the porcelain bowl. We imagined (hoped) that the next morning Cindy would sit down without looking.

Now John had her toilet seat, but he wasn’t done yet.

Cindy had told us that she had a high-powered meeting that Saturday morning after the party.

John put the toilet seat in a box, wrapped it in professional brown paper and had it delivered Federal Express to her office.

He called her secretary to say that an important package would be arriving — and that Cindy expected it, so be sure to give to her immediately.

Sitting at the head of her conference table, Cindy accepted the package and began unwrapping it. All of her underlings were seated at the table watching. She only opened the package enough to discover what was inside.

“Now then,” she later told us she said calmly to everyone there. She quickly rewrapped the package and set it down by her chair. “Now, let’s get back to the Dreyfus Fund project.”

But things change.

Brad Delp’s tragic death in 2007 left a hole in the Beatlejuice performances for a while. Joel and Carrie, two from that group who were dating at the time, got married and had kids. Other people moved. Those who remained showed up less often as their lives became more complicated (some would say more adult).

Cindy still came in, but less and less each year.

Then, — and I don’t want to pass the buck, but someone had her phone number — we lost track of Cindy.

The person who had her number left the club. We had a black phone book at the bar which had Cindy’s number, but one of the new bartenders recopied most of the numbers into a new book, not realizing that hers was important.

It’s the kind of small tragedy that probably happens in a lot of bars.

We tried calling some of the other regulars she hung around with, but a lot of them had disappeared too. And none of the numbers we’ve gotten from the people we have been able to talk with turned out to be Cindy‘s.

Cindy, if you’re reading now . . . why did this happen? How did we lose touch?

Please give us a call, Cindy. Just to say hello. We really miss you.

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 6 Comments

A FEW GOOD MEN (Famous cocktail napkin notes)

The idea for this week’s post comes from comrade-in-arms Scribbler50, author of one of my favorite blogs, Behind the Stick.

I got this email from Scribbler the other day:

“Hey, Mike, I just read something in the New York Daily News you might get a kick out of . . . It‘s an article about Aaron Sorkin and how he wrote his first few plays (including ‘A Few Good Men’) on cocktail napkins.

. . . It’s a good read and maybe something you can turn into a post.

Good luck, Scrib”

Aaron Sorkin . . . didn’t he just win an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screen Play, “The Social Network?” And he started out writing on cocktail napkins? I had to check it out.

It turns out that after graduating from Syracuse University Aaron moved to New York City, where among other jobs he worked as a bartender (just like Scrib). Aaron later recalled his life behind the taps at The Palace Theater:

“I wrote ‘A Few Good Men’ on cocktail napkins during the first act of La Cage aux Folles . . . I would come home with my pockets stuffed full of cocktail napkins.”

“A Few Good Men” — I always liked that movie, and like it even more after hearing the story behind it.

I’d already used another Aaron Sorkin/cocktail napkin tale in the “About this Blog“ section on the right of your screen.

In the TV series, The West Wing, a political insider wants his best friend, Jed Bartlet, to run for President.  He grabs first thing he can find to write down the slogan “Bartlet for America.”

Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) does become President and later has the cocktail napkin put in a small picture fame.

I began looking for other famous cocktail napkin stories.

It seems that in the early 1960s, a local DJ in Los Angeles was at an all-night diner with Jan Berry, of “Jan and Dean” rock-and-roll fame.  DJ Roger Christian began scribbling down the lyrics to a new song on a napkin and “Honolulu Lulu” became a hit for Jan and Dean, rising to #11 on the national charts.

Southwest Airlines supposedly got it’s start on a cocktail napkin when a business man and an airline pilot were having a drink together in a San Antonio bar. They began discussing an idea for an airline that would provide short intrastate flights at a low cost. As they sat at the bar they developed a business plan, mapping out potential routes on cocktail napkins.

In 1974, economist Arthur B. Laffer of the Office of Management and Budget was in a downtown Washington DC bar having a drink with Jude Wanniski of the Wall Street Journal and Dick Cheney, then deputy White House chief of staff.

Mr. Laffer sketched out a diagram on a napkin to explain how lower taxes might spur economic growth. His “Laffer Curve” and the theory of supply-side economics became famous during Ronald Reagan’s Administration.

Marilyn (photo from

Marilyn Monroe’s book, Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters, was written in at least in part on cocktail napkins.

“Marilyn never lost her insight, her passion, and her humor. To confront the mounting difficulties of her life, she wrote – on everything — cocktail napkins, cheap drugstore notebooks, and stationary from fancy-schmancy hotels.”

The grand design of Chicago began on a cocktail napkin. In 1905, a relative of movie critic Roger Ebert was having a drink with then Chicago big-wig, Daniel Burnham.

From the Chicagoist, we learn:  “Over cigars and cognac with Daniel Burnham, Hieronymus Ebert— Roger’s great-great grandfather—inadvertently inspired Chicago’s famous grid system of streets after drawing a tic-tac-toe game on a cocktail napkin.”

Tennessee Williams worked as a waiter early in his playwright career. You can’t tell me he didn’t jot down a writer’s note or two between serving tables.

But my personal first choice for a great cocktail napkin story isn’t famous at all. It‘s just something that happened at Johnny D’s, on a night that only two people will ever remember.

Dan Ehrlich (photo from

Dan Ehrlich has been coming into Johnny D’s for years, but it was a long time before I actually found out what he did for a living. He talks about everything and anything, and always asks how I’m doing with my book, but he never talks much about himself.

Yesterday, I found this on the internet — it’s from page twelve of the Boston University Department of Biomedical Engineering Annual Report, where they highlight their faculty:

“Dr. Dan Ehrlich joined the department in October, 2008 as a Research Professor. Dr. Ehrlich comes to us from the MIT/Whitehead Institute where he was a Principal Investigator and Director of the BioMEMS laboratory. Prior to joining the Whitehead, Dr. Ehrlich spent 18 years at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory.”

It seems Dan’s research “. . . spans optics, lithography, biosensors and biomolecular assays, with a current emphasis on microfluidic instruments for highcontent, high-throughput cell-based assays and deep-UV imaging.”  Huh?  Oh, he also has 23 issued patents and over 230 publications, . . . and he won the R.W. Wood prize from the Optical Society of America for the outstanding discovery in the field of optics in 1991.

(Photo from

If you were tending bar with Dan sitting there, you’d never guess any of this. If he’s going to say anything about what he’s doing, Dan will talk about his travels to Asia or his passion for photography. When I sent him an email to tell (warn) him about this upcoming post, he was in Burma.

“I am totally enamored with Burma (Myanmar),” Dan wrote back. “The main reason is the people who relate to strangers in a natural and organic way. Their interest in you is as a human being first. Their rituals are fantastic.”

But, back to the main story . . . I remember the night at Johnny D’s when Dan seemed preoccupied. He’d just finished his dinner and was now sipping a cold IPA when he began scribbling like madman on a pile of cocktail napkins.

Months later Dan told me what he’d been doing on those paper napkins. He had been designing a laser. He’d been developing a business plan to start building and selling lasers.

Dan followed through with the plan, but the business end of it finally made him lose interest. He became tired of the daily personnel crises in his new high-tech company and eventually sold it to the publicly-traded company, FEI Corporation.

I’m sure with all the bars and restaurants there are in America and across the world, other customers — somewhere, at some point — may have sketched out the design for a laser on their cocktail napkin. But did their design actually work? Did they build functioning lasers?

But for me, the key difference between Dan and them is that I wasn’t their bartender as they jotted down their plans.

(image from

I couldn’t have asked them, as I later asked Dan, if he would build me a laser that would fit on top of my car. No more discussion about who’s parking spot this is, and forget about being stuck in a traffic jam! I couldn’t have asked them for a personal hand-held laser to convince customers that they should leave a proper tip.

Dan politely said he was sorry he couldn’t help.

After I’d completed my online research, I emailed Scribbler50 back to thank him for suggesting this post.

With a history of famous cocktail napkins fresh in my mind– now I don’t feel so dumb for saving all the notes (boxes full of them) that I’ve pulled from my pockets over the years. Who knows what hidden gems might be found on the unread ones?

Sources:  (Southwest Airlines) (Scott Stulberg)

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 11 Comments


I had to think it over before putting up this week’s post. Will anyone be interested in bar fights?

Colleen in her home office

“I’m certainly not,” Colleen said. (Colleen is my best friend. She looks over everything I write and I often rely on her suggestions — see “A Holiday Thought” and “The Chocolate Starfish.”)

Then I was reading one of my favorite blogs, Restaurant Laughs, and this week there was a highlight on all the brawls taking place at Chuck E. Cheese. Yup, Chuck E. Cheese! Click here for a video on the story.

I’m sure it’s possible spend a lifetime behind the taps and never once be called on to break up a bar fight.

But in many neighborhood spots, where I spent most of my early years, you’re happy just for the nights when there isn’t a scuffle.

At The Lark Tavern, we only had doormen on weekends. During the week, the bartenders joked with the customers, laughed and slung drinks, but we also kept a close eye on things.

A big guy walked into The Lark one night, and we knew he was going to be trouble. He just didn’t fit in and considering all the different people we had at The Lark, if he didn’t fit in here he wasn’t going to fit in anywhere. Maybe that was his problem.

He was a huge guy, over six-feet tall and at least 250 lbs. He had a massive chest and arms bigger than my legs. He was wearing a tight T-shirt with his muscles bulging underneath. He was black, but sort of an albino black, with very light skin and a brush-cut of light orange – yes, orange – hair.

He didn’t say a word for most of his first beer, then he started talking to himself. He made sure that everyone in the place heard him.

He wasn’t happy here — “THIS PLACE SUCKS!” — that kind of thing.

“Fuck you!” he said to the man standing beside him. The poor guy had made the mistake of glancing sideways.

“Come on,” we told the big one, “No need for that. Why don’t we all relax and have a good time.”

He wouldn’t stop. Fuck this and fuck that, and fuck everybody.

“Come on, guy,” I said, “Keep it down, OK? Just relax, . . . no one is looking for trouble.”

“Fuck you!”  the big guy said as he leaned into my face.

Then he turned and hurled his beer bottle against the wall on the other side of the bar. A young couple at a table ducked as the bottle smashed over their heads.

“FUCK YOU!” he said to everyone in the crowd now staring at him. He shoved the guy next to him hard. Fortunately the man was already moving away, so he stumbled a bit but stayed on his feet.

“FUCK YOU!!!” he said as he swung back to me.

I didn’t have much choice. I had to do something. He looked like he was about to start swinging at people.

I grabbed the house billy club, and came out from behind bar. That club was a two-foot cylindrical piece of oak with a metal rod inside. On the other side of the bar, I stood about three feet away from him. It must have looked ridiculous. He was huge, and I was 5′ 9″, 160 lbs.

But I had the billy club.

“Time to go,” I said.

I’d been a collegiate wrestler and was now in my third year of Karate. In a few months I’d be an amateur boxer, fighting with Archie Goodbee as my trainer. I was young and fearless . . . and sometimes just plain dumb.

The guy looked at me, with one hand in his jean’s pocket. “Do you know what I’ve got in my pocket?” he asked.

The hand in his pocket was moving.

It could have been a knife. It might have been a gun. But in either case he’d have to bring it out before he could use it. His pants were so tight that if it was a gun, the barrel could only be pointed down. He wouldn’t be able to shoot without taking the gun out.

“Do you know I’ve got in my pocket?” he asked again.

At this point, I didn’t have time to think things over. How many times have I stepped to the other side of the bar, and then thought, “What the hell am I doing?” Standing in front of this guy now, I thought, “This is not what I planned. This isn’t good.”

“Go ahead,” I told him, “Bring it out.”

I jabbed the hand in his pocket with a quick stab of the billy club, then brought it quickly back, cocked behind my side. If he started to bring his hand out, maybe I’d have a split second to smash his wrist with the billy club. With his wrist broken, I’d have another hundredth of a second to swing back as hard as I could and club him across the face.

Why the hell did I come out from behind the bar?

“Go ahead,” I told him again, “Go ahead, bring it out.”

One of the other bartenders, or maybe a waitress must have called the police — it was an experienced crew at The Lark; they knew when it was necessary to call the cops. As this guy and I stood glaring at each other, two uniformed officers walked through the door.

The Albany Police . . . God Bless their rapid response time. They escorted him out.

Bar fight in the movie "GoodFellas". (Image from

While working behind the bar afterwards, I thought about had just happened. You hear stories about people being killed in bars.

Usually The Lark Tavern was pretty laid back, and you could avoid trouble if you used your wits. Johnny La La taught me a lot about heading off problems.

Johnny was a cranky old barman but he could settle disputes, quiet customers down and shut people off as easily as someone might turn off a faucet. When he had to, Johnny could charm the skin off a snake.

Sometimes you watch bartenders do everything wrong, fueling the flames, creating problems for themselves. I‘ve seen bartenders yell: “You’re not getting another drink! You’re drunk . . . I’m not serving you anymore!”

Johnny would talk with them quietly. If you were watching from the side, you would have thought that Johnny and the guy were long-time friends, having a private conversation. “I’m not trying to give you a hard time,” Johnny would say quietly, “But I want to make sure everyone gets home OK. I want to see you back here another day.”

“Look, don’t take it personally,” he’d say if they were still putting up fuss, “It’s just my job.”

Always start politely, that’s what I learned from Johnny La La. There’ll be plenty of time to escalate if they won’t listen to reason.

Don’t let anyone else at the bar know what’s going on. Why make a guy feel that he has to defend his honor with everyone watching?

“Come back tomorrow and I’ll buy the first beer,” Johnny would tell them quietly on the side.

Sometimes problems start before you know it, and there’s no chance to get ahead of them.

One day at The Lark a group of big guys got out of hand. They were all friends just having fun, but two of them began wrestling. They thrashed their way to the seating area and knocked over a table and a couple of chairs.

I came out from behind the bar and pulled the two grapplers apart. I told them this wasn‘t a gym and it was time for all of them to go.

They seemed reasonable, these students from Albany State. I think they were football players at the college. I motioned for the group to follow me and walked toward the door.

Why did I turn my back?

Suddenly I was up in the air.

One of them had picked me up and had me over his shoulder. Now he was bringing me down fast and I saw the edge of the bar rushing up at me.

“Jesus Christ, I’m going to hit the fucking bar!” I imagined being paralyzed, spending the rest of my life in a wheel chair.

I spun out at the last second, kicking my legs back. By shifting my weight, with his momentum stretching him beyond his center of gravity, he was spun onto his back as we toppled.

I landed on top of him as we hit the floor — it wasn’t something thought out or planned, just a reaction from high school and collegiate wrestling.

I jumped up. The guy was still on the floor with his friends standing over him, laughing.

“OK,” he said from the floor, lying on his back, “Ok, I’m an idiot.”

At Johnny D’s we have a crew of trained doormen, but I remember one Sunday afternoon during the Blues Jam, when we had a young woman checking ID’s.

This big guy walked in, clearly from the streets, and the petite door lady stopped him. As they talked he was making angry gestures. “I want to speak to the owner!” the guy shouted.

I walked out from behind the bar.

“I want to speak to the owner!” the guy turned toward me.

He was huge. He looked like The Incredible Hulk. He had a massive chest and bulging arms beneath a ragged yellow T-shirt. The shirt was smudged all over with dirt. Was I imagining there was also blood on that shirt? It looked as though he’d already been brawling somewhere else.

“I’m the owner,” I told him. Of course I’m not, but sometimes I say that when I think it’s appropriate.

“What the fuck is the problem?” the guy asked. “Why the fuck won’t this girl let me in?”

He was two feet away from me, arms away from his body as though he was about to grab me and crush me.

I tried to calm him down, telling him that it would probably be better if he came back another time. As we talked, I was thinking about what this guy might do to me. My mind was racing with the moves I’d use if he started swinging.

I tried to straddle that fine line between being unbending, yet non-confrontational.

I would later learn that he’d just gotten out of prison. He’d been serving time for beating the crap out of people and sending them to the hospital. Right now he was clearly fucked up on some kind of drugs.

He stood there looking at me, and when he saw that I wasn’t going to back down the strangest thing happened. His eyes began to water.

He had a few tears running down his dirt-smudged cheeks.

“Give me a hug,” he said, stretching out his massive arms.

“What?” I thought.

“Give me a hug,” he said.

I hesitated. If he got those arms around me, I’d be fucked. There’d be no chance for a quick defensive strike to a vital area.

“Give me a hug,” he said again.

So I gave him a hug.

We stood in the open area by the front door, arms wrapped around each other for a minute, and I patted him on the back.

Then he turned and left.

“Thank you,” he said over his shoulder as he left, “Thank you. I know I’m all fucked up . . . I’m all alone.”

“That was the first time here I’ve actually been afraid for my safety,” the young door lady said afterwards.

“But all he wanted was a big hug!” she laughed.

Yup, I took a lot of ribbing for the rest of the shift.

That young lady was inexperienced (we always have male doormen at Johnny D’s now) but surprisingly, women are often the best at handling trouble.

Stacey Conway, one of the female bartenders at The Lark Tavern, could shut people off, calm them down or even ask them to leave, and they’d never blink.

Stacey was always polite but firm, and never raised her voice unless she had to – but when she had to, the snap in her voice and that angry wave of her finger commanded their attention. And no matter what she did, it never threatened their male ego.

A classic bar fight (image from

Years later in Boston, I was spending a night off at a bar called 33 Dunster Street, in Harvard Square. (It’s now the John Harvard Brew House.) A brawl broke out to rival the movies – three separate groups, maybe a dozen guys in each, brawling.

The manager was a tall, thin woman from England with flaming red hair. She stood at the top of the stairs and yelled: “Stop this! Stop this right now! The police are on their way!”

She stood at the top of the steps, yelling, “Stop this right now!”

And one by one, each of the groups stopped. Just like that. They all turned and looked at her, then raced toward the door to get out before the cops arrived. I’ve never seen anything like it.

In some bars trouble is a rare occurrence, while other spots have problems on a nightly basis.

I’ve seen bartenders who have a tough time dealing with these problems, and I’ve seen others who actually enjoy the excitement. They’re all pumped up after afterwards, as though they loved this part of the job.

Myself, . . . I really prefer a quiet night.
Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 12 Comments


From time to time as I’m writing these post, I take a break and check out other blogs. There are millions of them. Seriously, I mean there are literally millions of blogs to choose from (and I have to thank you sincerely for taking a minute to read mine.)     

This week I thought I’d highlight four of my favorites, ones that I’ve liked well enough to list on my blogroll. These include three industry blogs, and one that’s hard  to pin down — it’s heart-warming, sometimes a little twisted, but always fun.     

Let’s start with that non-restaurant blog.     

Hyperbole and A Half had me with its title. Author Allie Brosh uses prose and totally-engaging original drawings to capture priceless scenes from life, many from her early childhood.     

This site just cracks me up.     

Allie offers posts like “This is why I’ll never be an Adult” and “7 Games you can play with a Brick,” but my absolute favorite is her post “The God of Cake.”     

(This might not seem like a bartender’s first choice but go back to a time when you were a youngster, and cake was important. It was a piece of chocolate cake that changed my name.)     

In “The God of Cake”, Allie recalls being a little girl when her Mom was baking a birthday cake for her grandmother. She stood at the kitchen table looking up at the cake, which was now frosted and resting quietly. She had been warned that the cake was for later, but she couldn’t stop staring at it, mesmerized.     

Here are pictures from Allie of exactly what was going on in her young mind.     












What happens next makes for a wonderful story, and you’re cheating yourself if you don’t go to Hyperbole and A Half and read it.     

For a restaurant blog, I often head for I’m your SERVER NOT your SERVANT, written by Patrick Maguire.     

I wasn’t working the night Patrick stopped into Johnny D’s as a customer. He left a good tip . . . a tip so generous that the bartenders asked if he was in the business. He was, and he actually had a restaurant blog. He gave them a business card which they passed on to me, and I’ve been a fan of SERVER NOT SERVANT ever since.     

Patrick writes about the rules of engagement for servers and customers. He has a “Customer Hall of Fame“ and a “Customer Hall of Shame.” He writes about the best in restaurant human interaction, and about the audacity of some, including managers and owners. Click on the red letters if you want to read how just plain dumb an owner can be.    

One of my favorites is his post about illegal immigrant workers in the restaurant business. It seems that when one restaurant chain was charged with exploiting these workers, a popular regional restaurant TV program steadfastly defended the chain — was it because that chain was one of the program’s sponsors?     

For the second year in a row, in 2010 Patrick won the “A-List Award” as Boston’s Best Local Blogger.     

I came across Restaurant Laughs a couple of weeks ago when I noticed that a number of visitors here had been referred from that site. Restaurant Laughs had linked one of my stories on its blogroll.     

As it turns out, Restaurant Laughs is part of a larger network called The Hospitality Formula Network. Here’s the complete list:     






This is a mind-boggling group of sites, a golden resource for anyone in the restaurant business, or for those who are simply curious about it. There are current affair articles, inventory suggestions, food-knowledge posts — how does David Hayden, author of the sites, come up with so much interesting information week after week?     

Let me give you an example. In a post last week on one of his sites, David provided links to articles about: 1) a bigoted cop harassing a national fast-food chain; 2) a former Hooter’s waitress who now battles her “sordid” past as a member of Congress; 3) the story of three restaurant employees who held down one of their co-workers and branded a swastika on him; and 4) a story about two restaurant customers so high on coke that they were arrested for engaging in sex acts at their table (“Sex at table 19 . . . their food must be taking a long time to come out!”)     

These are only four of the eleven stories David linked us to in that one post.     

I can click on any of the Hospitality Formula sites, and read for hours     

I came across another of my first choices for blogs by accident — I was searching for a bartender’s line I once heard on an Academy Awards show. They ran a short clip of an old bartender saying, “I’ve been a bartender all my life,” but they didn‘t identify the movie.     

Behind the Stick showed up on a Google hit when I was looking for this line. It seems the blog’s author, Scribbler50, also remembered the line and had quoted it in one of his posts — but like me he was unsure where it came from.     

I eventually found out that the line is from an old Western movie called My Darling Clementine, delivered by a bartender named Mac.     

Mac the bartender

“Mac,” a character played by Henry Fonda says, “Have you ever been in love?”     

“No,” Mac replies, “I’ve been a bartender all my life.”     

(This photo and the info come from Caftan Woman — I still have to get a copy of My Darling Clementine and check it out myself.)     

Meanwhile, I went back to read more of Behind the Stick. Scribbler50 seemed like a kindred spirit.     

This is a great blog — Scribbler’s posts are honest, thoughtful, well-written and clearly drawn from experience. He has articles on every aspect of this business, from a classic bar prank played on a slave-driving owner to the question of how much can a customer’s tip really buy?  His latest post is about an elderly couple at his bar who got up to awkwardly dance, and the entire place fell under their romantic spell. Perfect for Valentine’s Day.     

But one of his posts in particular has to be my personal favorite. In June 2009, Scribbler wrote a post about bev naps (cocktail napkins.)  He even toyed with the possibilty of starting a blog based on them.     

Damn, I thought I had an original idea.     

Anyway, enjoy these sites . . . and see you next week for more Life on a Cocktail Napkin.

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 11 Comments