Joe the Bartender (photo from www.life.com)

There’s a lot to love about this job.  Behind the taps on a busy night, the dance floor is packed and everyone is having a blast as the band rocks out on the stage.  Drinks are flying out over the bar and a steady stream of dollar bills heads for your tip jar.  You have to remind yourself that you’re working.

Add to that, I’ve met some of my best friends while working in bars.  Most of my girlfriends, too.

I’ve also come across exactly the right person, at exactly the right time, when working the taps — this business is full of connections.

An example: quite a few years ago, I was living with my girlfriend although I still kept my own place.  We’d taken a vacation on Cape Cod and when we returned we stayed at her apartment for a couple of days, which turned into a couple of weeks, then into months and a year.

We finally decided that it made no sense to pay the rent on two places.  We began planning to move into my Cambridge apartment.

She was twenty-three, I was a few years older, and with the enthusiasm of two kids we started to fix up the place.  That Cambridge apartment had classic wooden floors that were dulled by neglect, so we decided to refinish them before settling in.

I was behind the taps at Christopher’s Restaurant and Bar, talking about our plans with a few of the customers.

“What type of wood is it?” one of them asked.

I had no idea, but described it to him.  “Sounds like pine,” he said.

This isn't a photo of those Cambridge floors, but I swear my floors came out just as good. (Photo from www.filmnorthflorida.com)

As it turned out, he was in construction, specializing in wood floors.

“Test a strip of the floor first,” he told me, “Choose somewhere in the corner or under a chair.”

“Sand it down, then cut the polyurethene 50% with turpentine and apply one coat.”

“If it’s pine, that should give you some great marbling.  If you like the way it looks, do the entire floor with the 50% mix, then finish with a solid coat of the ‘urethene.”

When we finished, those floors were absolutely beautiful.

(Ed note:  My girlfriend and I never finished the move from her apartment to mine.  Living together day to day was fine, but a more permanent commitment scared the both of us.  The last letter I got from her included a picture of the thirty-foot yacht that she was spending the summer on with some rich guy.  That was OK; I still had that Cambridge apartment with the amazing floors.)

The reason I’d hung onto that apartment in the first place was because it was so ridiculously cheap.  It was $235 a month, utilities included.

I’d gotten the apartment years before, through another a bar connection.

I was a part-time bartender at Frank’s Steak House, doing research on a academic project in literature.  I was a college drop-out doing this on my own.

Back then, I shared an apartment with five other people that I’d met through a Boston Phoenix ad.  It wasn’t the best living situation.  Things got so bad squabbling over shared expenses that we each had to buy our own toilet paper.  When I had a guest and she wanted use the bathroom, I had to tell her to take a roll of toilet paper with her.  I kept mine in the top dresser drawer.  There was no toilet paper in the bathroom, but the apartment fit my budget.

Then something came up at the restaurant and owner Bill Ravanis SR. asked if I could work the bar seven nights a week for a short time.  “It will only be for a couple of weeks,” he said.

Eight weeks later, I told Bill I needed to take a couple of days off to find a new place.

“You’re looking for new place?” Bill SR. asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

He owned an apartment building in Cambridge and there was an opening.

“I’ll give you a good price,” he told me, “It’s a nice two-room studio.  Just keep on eye on the building for me, and take out the garbage once a week.”

Now I had my own place for less rent than I’d been paying to share living space.  I kept that apartment for fifteen years.

Meanwhile, I continued to work on the academic project.  With no degrees or affiliation with any university, I wasn’t having much luck getting into the better libraries.

Widener Library (Photo from www.collegeapps.about.com)

Harvard’s Widener Library is recognized as having one of the best humanities collections in the world, and I talked them into giving me a free pass for five visits.  I’d make a list of the books I wanted from the early 1900’s, and a work-study Harvard student would search the stacks. But each time I went in, they seemed unable to find what I requested.  I think those work-study students came up with one book in all the five visits.

I was complaining about this one day at The Sunflower Café, which was virtually across the street from the library.

“Why didn’t you tell me you wanted to get into Widener?” one of my good customers said.  His name was Larry Michaels.  He was the general manager of The Wurst House Restaurant, a couple of doors down the street.

“I know the guy who runs Widener,” Larry said.  “He’s a regular at The Wurst House.  I’ll see if he can help.”

Because he was a good customer at The Wurst House, run by Larry Michaels — and Larry was a good customer at The Sunflower Café where I was a bartender — the Director of Widener gave me a year’s pass to go into the library stacks on my own.  Not even the undergraduate students at Harvard could get into those stacks . . . only approved graduate students and professors had direct access.

I would go to Widener late at night, sit at an empty window-side desk of some favored graduate student or professor, and research to my heart’s content.

I did eventually publish two of those academic papers, making me possibly the only college drop-out to become a published scholar in American Literature . . . and I owe it all to that thoughtful director, and the bar connection that introduced me to him.

Working behind the taps is like a gold-mine of connections.  Bars and restaurants are unique in their human interaction.

There’s an unspoken connection between a bartender and his customers.  There’s an instant camaraderie that leaps over the usual distance between people.  Doctors, lawyers, sales people, construction workers, taxi-drivers, clerks and business owners will all sit and talk with the bartender like a friend.  And if you happen to mention something that’s related to their field, they’re quick to offer advice or steer you in the right direction. Customers genuinely like their bartenders.  They’re only too happy to help out.  Who doesn’t want to be the bartender’s friend?

I was behind the taps at The Cantina Italiana, and a woman I was dating was having a lot of break-ins at her apartment building.  She’d been broken into twice, and they even broke into the apartment of the 70-year-old woman living downstairs.  This girl was on the verge of tears as she talked about it at the bar.  She thought it was some local punks.

One of the regulars at the bar offered to help.  He made a phone call to the suspected culprits, and the break-ins abruptly stopped.

I have no idea what he said to those punks, but he was one of those guys in the North End that you really didn’t want to mess with, if you know what I mean.  (This wasn’t him, but for a similar story from The Cantina Italiana, see “Joey Cigars.”)

Every time you turn around it seems that someone at the bar says or does something small or huge that can make your life easier.  At one point half the staff from Johnny D’s had gotten their apartments from Kenny, a real-estate agent who has been a regular at the club for years.  (See an earlier post, “Auntie Rosie”.)  Kenny got them the best deals, and he helped a Johnny D’s ticket-taker and her husband buy the perfect house for a song.

Paul Pierce drives for the hoop (Photo from www.whatisonline.com)

Her husband is a former employee of the Boston Celtics, and he still has season tickets which if he isn’t using them, he hands out to the staff.  Just a few rows back from the parquet court floor, there’s a view of the game that can’t be beat.

The list goes on and on, with these bar connections.

Brian McDonald was a bartender at Elaine’s Restaurant in New York City, when a customer suggested that he write down some of the stories he was telling.  Brian is now a professional writer with five books to his credit, including “Last Call at Elaine’s.”

Scribbler50 is another NYC bartender who entertains his crowd with story after story.  One of his customer came up with the idea that Scribbler should start a blog, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer.  He even offered to help set up the blog.  The resulting site, Behind the Stick, is one of the best bar blogs out there today.  I think for Scribbler this is just the beginning.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of bar connections.

Behind the taps you meet people who otherwise might not say hello, but who now seem like close friends.  Celebrities, professional athletes, film and TV personalities.  Working behind the bar, I’ve met Larry Bird and Jo Jo White of the Boston Celtics, and Bill “Spaceman” Lee of the Boston Red Sox when he used to hang out with a waitress from The Sunflower Café.  Hall of Fame baseball player Jim Rice acted like just another guy while sitting at the bar waiting for his table at The Cantina Italiana.

Martie Mcguire (Photo from www.chron.com)

I met Brad Park of the Boston Bruins, who became good friends with The Cantina owner Fiore Colella.  I met Martie Mcguire from Dixie Chicks when I was walking downstairs to the offices at Johnny D’s, and she was walking up from the band room.

(When the band room door opened, I had expected to see Dana or Charlie, someone from Johnny D’s booking office, but it was Martie who came out and she took me by surprise.  She was so beautiful. She smiled and said something like “Hi . . . how you all doing?” And I said, “Umm . . . ahh . . . umm.”  She was still teasing me about that at the end of the night.)

I’ve had after-hours drinks with former World Welterweight Champion Tony DeMarco, and several times have gone out on the town with former World Middleweight Champion Marvin Hagler.  I’ve met Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Eddie Vedder from the band Pearl Jam.  (In town for a concert, Eddie stopped into Johnny D’s as a customer and then later partied with us after-hours, playing music at the apartment of one of the waitresses.  That waitress’s husband is local musician Tim Gearan, and Eddie and Tim played a killer version of “Ain’t no Sunshine (when she’s gone)” on acoustic guitars.)

I‘ve met Steven Tyler from the band Aerosmith, Peter Wolf from The J. Geils Band, singer Tom Jones, and so many other celebrities while working behind the bar that I’m sure I’ve forgotten half of them right now.

And while all this was happening, I just joked and laughed with the customers, flirted with the women, tossed out drinks to the music and shoveled money into the tip jar.  This is a job?  This is work?

It’s a great job, and sometimes the connections are priceless.

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THE CHOCOLATE STARFISH (and other bits and pieces)

This blog came about when I started to sift through all the cocktail-napkin notes that I’ve accumulated over the years.  My goal — to transfer the more worthy scribbling to one very large computer file.

That first day, sitting at the kitchen table with handfuls of crumpled napkins spread out before me, I realized it was my life I was looking at.

Like my life, there’s a lot of junk on those notes.  Ramblings with the key words sometimes blotted out by a splash of beer or wine.  The half-thoughts of a young man who had no idea that thirty years of the bar scene was waiting ahead of him.

Most of the notes simply tell what happened while behind the bar, an interesting character or a weird event that just went down.  Some notes are like complete stories with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Others are just odd bits and pieces.  Here’s three of those . . .


I was behind the taps at The Lark Tavern, in Albany NY.  I was in my third year of bartending and feeling pretty cool.  Maybe I was a little cocky.

A noticeably well-dressed man came one day– perfectly pressed slacks, a white silk shirt with the top buttons open to display a thick gold chain.  He had a large gold watch.  I recognized the watch immediately — it was gaudy, expensive-looking, covering a large portion of his wrist.

The last time he was here, he had fidgeted with that watch constantly.  He would lift his arm and turn the watch slightly on his wrist as though trying to find the perfect fit,  . . . so that the watch felt just right.

He had held it up demonstratively so that everyone in the bar could see it.  He must have studied that watch thirty times in an hour, somehow managing to draw it into every conversation.

Like when I asked if he’d like another scotch.

He lifted his wrist to check.  “Yes,” he said thoughtfully, carefully studying the watch face, “Yes, . . . I think I have time for one more.”

Yea, there was no way I’d ever not recognize this guy, even though it had been a few weeks since I’d last seen him.

It looked like he was here with the same gaudily-dressed blonde.  She seemed bored.

“Nice to see you two again,” I said as they sat down.

They both froze.

They both sat stiff-faced and motionless.  Now the man looked to the side and began fiddling with his watch.

The woman was staring at me with daggers.

“I’ve never been in here before,” she told me frostily.

“You must be mistaking me for his girlfriend,” she said.

The conversation went downhill from there, for both me and this guy.   As it turned out, the blonde he was with this time was his wife.

Live and learn.  Everyone loves a friendly bartender, but you have to be careful before you open your mouth and assume too much familiarity.

Since then I’ve met others in this business who’ve made the same mistake.  Once I was on the receiving end.

I was visiting my friend, Colleen (see an earlier post, A Holiday Thought“).  She wanted to stop at The Pinkerton Tavern in Derry, NH.  She likes their Rum Filet Tips, a huge plate of steak tips that have been marinated in dark rum, brown sugar and molasses.


As we sat at the end of the bar, the bartender laid down a couple of cocktail napkins in front of us.

“Nice to see you folks again,” he said

I’d never been in there before.

Colleen is a striking woman and the bartender clearly remembered her, but whoever was with her the last time was forgotten to him now.

Colleen laughed, and the bartender was completely flustered when she told him this was my first time at The Pinkerton.

The poor guy, I knew exactly how he felt.

I should have laughed and told him, “Don’t worry about it . . . I’ve done the same thing myself!”

But I just said, “It’s OK . . . no big deal.”

I didn’t want to go into my years as a bartender.  Besides, let him think he’s the only person who ever made this mistake and he’ll never make it again.


(Photo from www.bbc.co.uk)

I was behind the taps at Johnny D‘s on a busy night.  At the end of the bar, a group of young kids in their early twenties, ten or fifteen guys and gals were laughing and talking amongst themselves.

I had the impression they were from out of town.  Maybe Western MA, or north of Boston, or Cape Cod.  They were a good bunch of kids — friendly, polite, good tippers — but it didn’t seem like they’d spent much time in nightclubs.  Johnny D’s is laid-back and funky, but they were all a little wide-eyed, looking around.

I figured they might be here from a small town, driving into Boston to see live music.

One of their group was a cute young girl with curly brown hair.  She was a petite girl with big brown eyes and an irresistible smile.  She took a shine to one of our bartenders, John Bonaccorso.  (See an earlier post, “The Drowning Frog.”)

She spent the entire night trying to hit on him.

We had three bartenders working that night, and we were all slammed as the band rocked on in the background.  John was friendly and courteous, but this girl didn’t get anywhere.

At the end of the night, one of her male friends walked up and stood beside her at the bar — she’d been in the same spot for hours, trying to get John’s attention.

“Hey, Cindy’s been trying to pick you up all night,” the guy told John, as he stood beside the girl. “But she says she’s not having any luck.”

John explained that he had a girlfriend.

“Too bad,” the kid continued, “You don’t know what you’re missing out on.”

“You‘re throwing away a really good time.”

“I’m sure I am,” John smiled politely, “But my girlfriend would kill me.”

Leaned forward beside the girl, the kid didn’t give up easily.  Maybe she had asked him to say something to John.

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” the kid said again.

“She’s a cutie, isn’t she?” he went on, “ . . . And she wants to lick your chocolate starfish.”

I just about choked.

John was speechless — unusual for him.  The girl was totally embarrassed, with her head down now, . . . but she didn’t protest.

“That’s what you said . . . didn’t you?” the kid asked, turning to the girl. “You said you would, right?”

The girl looked up at John with a sheepish smile, and nodded “yes.”

I quickly walked to the other end of the bar, looking for someone to serve.  As I left, I heard John say, “I‘m sorry . . . I have a girlfriend.”  He said it with a straight face, although I don’t know how.

All of those kids hung around until closing time.  The girl had turned around now to talk with her friends, but she never moved from that spot.  If we hadn’t cleared everyone out at 1:15 A.M., I think she might still be standing there.


Working behind the bar at Johnny D’s, we get a lot of requests for directions.  People who live in the Greater Boston area simply hop on the Red Line train to Davis Square.  But people coming here from out of town are always calling for directions.

We have a printed sheet, probably copied from MapQuest, that will tell them step by step how to find us.  We have directions from the Mass Turnpike, from Route 93, from New Hampshire or Maine.  From North, South, East or West — no matter where they’re coming from we can get them here.

One afternoon behind the bar, I got a phone call.

“How do I get to Johnny D’s?” a young man said.

“Where are you coming from?“ I asked.

I pulled out the sheet, thinking I was about to hook him up with directions.  Some of the detailed directions have been repeated so often that I have them memorized, even though there might be fifteen different streets and turns, exits or stop lights to tell them about.  Sometimes we give them directions while they’re actually driving in their cars.  We talk to them on their cell phones, as though we were in the control tower, trying to bring in a lost plane.

“Where are you now?” I asked.

“I’m in Davis Square,” he told me.

Johnny D’s is in Davis Square.

“Where in the square?” I asked.

“I’m at the Davis Square MBTA stop,” he said.

Johnny D’s is across the street from the Davis Square MBTA stop!

I looked out the front windows.

There was a guy at the bank of pay phones outside the T-stop.  His back was turned toward me, and he was hunched over with one of the phones to his ear.  He had one hand covering his other ear so he could hear.

I looked at this scene for a moment through Johnny D’s front windows.

“Are you wearing a red jacket?” I asked.

He straightened up suddenly.  His back was still to me, and I swear he held the phone away from his ear for a second and looked at it.

“Yes, I’m wearing a red jacket,” he said now, into the phone.

“Turn around,” I said.

“Turn around slowly.“

“Look across the street, and you’ll see a brick-faced building with a lot of flowers and plants in the front . . . then there‘s a sign that says, Johnny D’s.”

View of Johnny D's from across the street at the Davis Square MBTA stop

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LILLIAN, one of my worst shut-offs

(This note is from one night at Christopher’s, in Cambridge MA.)


“I’ll have one more VO and ginger,” Lillian said. She had said the same thing before ordering each of her last four drinks.

I was behind the taps at Christopher’s Restaurant and Bar. Christopher’s is an upscale bistro known for its natural-foods menu, the quality selection of draft beers, the mixed yet decidedly college town clientele, and a relaxed low-key atmosphere. But the place still had it’s bar crowd, and I was responsible for making sure that everyone made it home safely.

“You still have half a drink in front of you, Lillian,” I said. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

I knew Lillian from the first bar I’d worked at in the Cambridge area, The Sunflower Café in Harvard Square. She had told me back then that she was a retired Navy officer. She said that she had once been second-in-command of a cruiser or destroyer, something like that. She was a tall, regal woman in her late fifties, with solid grey hair pulled back in a tight bun. She had a stiff-upper-lip sort of presence that made her story about being a Navy officer seem possible.

But she drank alone, and she drank too much, even back at The Sunflower.

Now she was sitting alone in Christopher’s and I didn’t want to serve her another. I kept busy, hoping she might decide to leave on her own.

“I’ll have one more VO and ginger,” she said when I happened to pass by a few minutes later. She said it as though we hadn’t just spoken.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, before rushing away to fill the wait staff order. By now, Lillian’s glass was empty.

“Just one more,” Lillian said smiling, when I felt obligated to go down to her end again. She gestured to the empty glass.

“I’ll be honest with you, Lillian, I think I’m going to hold off on that drink. I want to make sure you get home OK.”

“I’m fine,” she laughed. She was speaking clearly but her smile was a little off, somehow strange. “I live nearby,” she said, “And I’m walking.”

“I know, Lillian, but I don’t want to see you leave here and then have something happen. I don’t want you to try to cross the street, or twist your ankle on a crack in the sidewalk, and then I’ll feel terrible.”

“I want to see you back here another day,” I smiled, “ . . . And in one piece.”

“Just one more,” she pleaded.

“How long have we know each other?” she asked. “How long have you been my favorite bartender? Have I ever caused trouble?”

“No, Lillian, you’ve never been a problem and you’re not being a problem now. You’ve always been nothing but a lady, and you still are. But I want to make sure you get home safely.”

When I walked by a few minutes later, she renewed her case for another drink. “One more,” she said. “I’ll have one more, and then I’ll go home.”

“Lillian . . . ,” I leaned over the bar to make sure no one else heard us. “Lillian, I’m sorry, but I’m done serving you for tonight.”

At first she glared at me as though I was a sailor under her command and when she told me something I had damn well better do it.

“That’s it for tonight, Lillian. Come back tomorrow and I’ll buy you the first drink.”

She continued to stare at me, then her look softened and she smiled. “You don’t understand,” she said quietly.

“It’s not for me,” she said. She glanced to her right, to an empty stool. “It’s not for me,” she continued, “I don’t really care if I have another drink or not.”

“HE wants me to have a drink,” she said, gesturing to the empty stool beside her.

“GOD wants me to have another drink.”

I’m sure my head must have popped back a couple of inches on my shoulders. I was speechless.

“GOD wants me to have one more VO and ginger,” Lillian said. She motioned again to the empty stool, almost secretively, as though she didn’t want God to know we were talking about him.

“HE wants me to have another VO and ginger,” Lillian said. She caught her breath and her voice broke, as though she was about to break down and sob. “GOD wants me to have one more VO and ginger!”

“Listen, Lillian.” I reached out to put my hand on her hands, which were now clenched together on the bar top. “Lillian,” I said softly, “I’m going to call you a cab, I’m going to pay for the cab and the tip . . . but when that cab comes, I need to you get in it and go home.”

Her eyes began to water and she was shaking a little as I kept my hand on hers.

“You’re a great lady, Lillian,” I told her. “I’ve always admired what you’ve accomplished in your life.”

The cab finally arrived.

I never saw Lillian again. Either she woke up the next day too embarrassed to stop in at Christopher’s anymore, or she woke up the next day too pissed.

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(This note is about a plot that was hatched at Johnny D’s, the Boston-area nightclub where I tend bar now.)

For as long as I could remember, my cousin Bill Patti was always breaking my balls. He was a great guy, but he never missed a chance to bust my chops.

Everyone called him “Big Bill.” He was just under six feet tall, weighing 250 lbs., with shoulders as square as a barn door. He was a retired Marine Corps sergeant, a veteran of Vietnam and Korea. In Korea, Bill had fought at the Chosin Reservoir. “The Battle of the Frozen Chosin” is regarded as one of the greatest battles in US military history — a few thousand American soldiers somehow avoided capture as over 60,000 Chinese regulars pursued them across the harsh terrain.

American soldiers on the move at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea

Not all of those US troops made it home, but Big Bill did . . . just so he could give me a hard time.

Let me give you an example. One Thanksgiving I was at Bill’s home for dinner with his family and a few other relatives. We were all in the living room watching TV when the phone began ringing. I looked around. Everyone was busy talking and no one answered it. Bill looked at me and said, “Mike, you’re the closest, are you going to answer it or not?”

I went into the hallway, but when lifting the phone the only thing I heard was the dial tone. That’s when everyone began laughing. The phone that was ringing was on the TV program. Bill had made me walk into the hallway to answer a call that didn’t exist. He’d gotten me again.

When he pulled this stuff, I’d always tell him that someday I was going to get even.

“I’m going to get you, Bill,” I’d say, “And when I do it won’t be these childish little things. When I get you, it’s going to be something big.”

But I wondered if I’d ever get the chance.

A few years later, Bill developed a heart condition and he was scheduled to go in for triple bypass surgery. On the night before his operation I went to the hospital, and for the first time I saw Bill Patti scared.

“I just want you to know,“ he said, clasping my hand hard as we said goodnight, “I just want to say that it’s been great to have known you.”

“Shut up, Bill,” I said, trying to stay positive. “You’re going to pull through this fine. You’re a tough old guy.”

His eyes were watering as we shook hands that night.

Bill did come through with flying colors, and the day before he was scheduled to be released I went to see him again. I was late getting to work after leaving the hospital and when I walked into Johnny D’s, two of our regulars were already sitting at the bar. Pam and Laurie, two nurses.

They asked why I was late and when I told them I’d just come from the hospital, they asked which one.

“Beth Israel,” I said.

“You know I work at Beth Israel!” Pam said, “And you never thought to find me and say hello?”

That’s when the idea struck me.

After all these years, here was an opportunity to get Bill.

The three of us came up with a plan as I worked the bar.

The next day Bill had been OK’d for release and he was in the waiting room before being officially signed out. It was a bright, sunny room. Bill was there with his immediate family, along with two other soon-to-be-released patients and their families.

I picture them all talking and laughing as in the background they hear the creak, creaking of small wheels being rolled down the hallway. Now there’s a cute nurse standing in the doorway.

Pam, the cute nurse

Pam Rowell is 5’ 2”, blond hair, blue eyes, and . . . let me be frank . . . she’s a large breasted little gal. I can see her standing there in her crisp white uniform. At her side is the white medical dolly that she had rolled along with her. Hanging from the dolly’s long arm at the top is a red bag.

“Mr. Patti?” Pam addressed the room, looking for Bill. “Mr. William Patti?”

“That’s me,” Bill responded.

“Mr. Patti,” Pam said, speaking quite a bit louder than she normally does, “Mr. Patti . . . it’s time for your enema.”

All conversation in the room stopped. Everyone looked first at Pam, then at Bill. Bill was speechless.“W. . . What?”

“Your enema,” Pam smiled pleasantly. “It’s hospital policy. I have to give you an enema before you leave.”

“No . . . no, I don’t need one!” Bill protested. Everyone in the room was looking at him. “I’m fine!” he said.

“I’m sorry,” Pam told him firmly, still smiling. “It’s hospital policy, Mr. Patti. You won’t be able to leave here until we’re finished.”

“No . . . hold on,” Bill was so flustered he was sputtering, “I don’t need one!” Now he was desperate.

“No,” he said, “I . . . I . . . I went three times today already!”

No longer able to keep a straight face, Pam burst out laughing and it finally dawned on Bill what was going on.

“Say,” he asked, “You don‘t know a guy named Mike Qualtiere, do you?”

Bill could bust your balls until you wanted to choke him, but he would laugh just as hard when someone got him. I think he retold that story every time I was at his home for a holiday dinner. He told and retold that story until his heart condition finally got the better of him — I like to think he’s still laughing today. He was one of the greatest guys I‘ve ever known.

Rest in peace, Bill.

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Decorating the tree and finding a special gift . . . that‘s Christmas, right?

Not entirely, at least not for bartenders.

Remember the movie, It‘s a Wonderful Life? Jimmy Stewart struggles to find the true meaning of Christmas, and a bar called Martini’s plays a key role in the story. Lost to most viewers, behind the taps that Christmas Eve, a bartender is working.

Some bartender, somewhere, is always working. While the rest of the world celebrates the holidays a bartender somewhere keeps the beer cold and the mixers ready.

Mac, the bartender

Bartenders have a unique lifestyle and a different calendar. (My favorite line about this lifestyle is a tongue-in-cheek comment from an old Western movie, My Darling Clementine — Henry Fonda has the role of Wyatt Earp and he bares his soul to the barman know as Mac, played by J. Farrell MacDonald.

“Mac,” Henry says as he lifts his glass, “Have you ever been in love?”

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

No surprise that a bartender’s Christmas tales are not the traditional ones.

My first working Christmas was in Cortland NY, where I was the bar manager of a college joint called The Mug. The other bartenders were home for the holidays so I had to work Christmas Eve.

At the time I was living at Beta Phi Epsilon, the nation’s oldest Phys. Ed. fraternity. Beta Phi was the original Animal House. Over Christmas break, with the chaos of thirty jocks suddenly missing from our three-story house, the silence from each room was eerie — it was like something from The Twilight Zone.

I was glad to go to work.

When the shift began, The Mug was uncharacteristically quiet with all the college kids gone. After a while a few of the local regulars came in; Ken Tobin, Pat O’Malley Jr., and a guy everyone called Mountain. One of the “townies” came in with his girlfriend and she’d brought a Christmas dinner plate for me. They were glad The Mug was open, but felt sorry that I had to work on a holiday. While I enjoyed the ham dinner with mashed potatoes and peas, a few of the couples exchanged Christmas presents.

It turned into an unique, unscheduled holiday celebration. There were lots of shots and beers, and they insisted that I have an occasional drink with them — everyone was in a festive mood as I served good cheer between bites from my plate. This was the first time I’d really gotten to know these townie regulars, who were now the only customers in the place. They were a great bunch. It was one of times where you realize even as it’s happening that this is something you’re going to remember.

As Christmas rolled around the following year, they were all at The Mug again, bringing me another Christmas Eve plate and exchanging presents. It became a holiday tradition for each of the three years I was at The Mug, and it continued after I left for Boston, when my good buddy Jim Fennel took over as manager.

My worst Christmas Eve also happened in a bar — a few years later, at The Sunflower Café in Cambridge MA. (This was briefly described in an earlier post, “A Holiday Thought“.) The night started out with my only two customers somehow getting into an argument that escalated into a table-toppling fist fight. Later a woman broke down and began to sob uncontrollably halfway through her drink. As more people wandered in, a waiter we all knew from a nearby restaurant got a little buzzed and loudly yelled out the most intimate confession to everyone in the now-crowded bar.

But the worst part of the night came when a guy stumbled down the stairs and wove his way to where I was standing behind the taps.

“I’ll ha..ha..ha..ve a gi..gi..gin and tonic,” he managed to stutter.

I looked at him. He was a mess. He was an average-sized guy, twenty-five or so, with thinning hair. His glasses were tilted on his nose and his hands kept jerking as he tried to order the drink.

“G..g..g..gin and . . .” .

I stopped him before he could repeat his request.

“Not tonight,” I told him. “I think that’s it for tonight. Come back another day.”

He looked at me.

“I’ve g…g…got Cer..cer..cerebral Pa…paalsy.” he stammered, his hands jerking as he spoke.

I felt the eyes of everyone in the bar bearing down on me. I could hear them thinking, ‘That poor man . . . he has cerebral palsy, and now the bartender is calling everyone’s attention to it rather than just serve him . . . and it‘s Christmas Eve!”

I felt like such a jerk.

“This one’s on the house,” I told the man as I set down his drink. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I really am.”

Before he’d finished that first drink, he tumbled off his bar stool. He did have cerebral palsy, but he was also falling down drunk. He’d probably been shut off someplace else before stumbling in here.

As we carried him up the stairs to a cab, the manager of The Sunflower Café kept glaring at me as if to say, “What the Hell were you doing? How could you serve someone that’s so trashed?”

The Cantina Italiana

My best Christmas Eve didn’t actually happen while I was working, but at the home of the owner of The Cantina Italiana in Boston’s North End, where I was a bartender. (See an earlier post, “Joey Cigars”, for a story about one of The Cantina’s regulars.) Fiore Colella invited me to his home for a traditional Italian Christmas dinner. “Don‘t fill up on this,” Fiore told me as he served everyone the first course. Don‘t fill up on this? Jumbo shrimp cocktail, eggplant rollantini, the most amazing plate of antipasto? This was the best food I’d ever eaten.

But he was right. Each course was better than the one before. We ate Veal Saltimbocca, Pasta Primavera . . . then we took a break and went into the living room with Fiore’s family and a few other people, and sat around talking and sipping Sambuca. Half an hour later we went back to the dining room for another course, and another.

Fiore Colella, owner of Cantina Italiana and Ristorante Fiore in Boston's North End

After the fourth serving, Fiore and I lit a couple of good cigars and took a walk while everyone else went back to the living room. We walked around his neighborhood talking and smoking cigars. When we got back, Fiore served the main course, Lobster Fra Diavolo, followed by homemade cannolis and a platter of Italian cookies. We had been eating since six o’clock, with several long breaks in between, and now it was after midnight.

It was a feast like I’ve never had before or since.

I have other Christmas memories from Johnny D’s, the Boston-area restaurant and music club where I work now.

Andy Curtin is a lawyer who stops at Johnny D’s now and then. He served in the US Merchant Marine, then became a patent attorney — but when he’s at the bar what you notice is his sense of humor and his irreverence. Andy is around six feet tall, a clean-cut looking guy.  The best way to describe him would be to think of a free spirit who served in the military, and then became a lawyer, without ever really changing.

When Christmas season rolled around, Andy wanted to get all his shopping done in one fell swoop. He’d start early in the morning and shop until seven or eight o‘clock at night. Then he‘d come to Johnny D‘s with bagful after bagful of presents, wrapping paper, bows and ribbons, and Christmas cards. He‘d find an open spot at the bar, order a beer, and sit there wrapping. Sometimes he borrowed the bar’s scotch tape, or our stapler. He’d just sit there and wrap present after present while sipping his beer, watching a game on TV and talking.

He did this every year.

Other customers at the bar thought this was a riot, and every now and then over years we’d see a few other people doing the same thing.

Andy is the brother-in-law of bartender John Bonaccorso; he married John’s sister, Chris.

John Bonaccorso, behind the bar at Johnny D's on a recent New Year's Eve

John and I were working the bar one night a week before Christmas — a night that provided another Christmas story.

John was talking about his Christmas shopping, how he was trying to find just the right gifts for his girlfriend, her Mom, and his Mom. As I turned to get someone a drink, a woman at the bar got into the conversation and started talking with him. They talked for several minutes.

“What was that all about?” I asked a few minutes later.

“Nothing,” John said. “She just overheard us and asked what gifts I had planned.  She wanted to know who was the hardest to shop for, and what I was buying for everyone.”

Neither of us thought much about it.

In the last days before Christmas, John and his girlfriend went to visit Joel and Carrie, long-time regulars at Johnny D‘s.

“Do you know how to make vegan brownies?” Carrie asked John out of the blue.

“I have no idea,” John said, ” . . . Not a clue.” Why was she asking about vegan brownies? He had bought a cookbook titled “Sinfully Vegan” for his vegetarian girlfriend.

“What about knitting,” Carrie asked, “Do you know anything about knitting?”

What is this?” John asked. He also had a book on knitting for his girlfriend.

“Why all these questions?” he asked.

Carrie showed him an article from the Boston Herald.

That woman at the bar wasn’t just any customer. She was a free-lance writer and had sold an article to the Herald about Christmas shopping. She mentioned John by name. She told where he worked, and she recounted their entire conversation word for word.

Two days before Christmas everything John had said to her appeared in the Boston Herald, circulation 2,000,000. The article told how he made his decisions, all the presents he was buying, and for whom.

The woman quoted John as saying that shopping for his mother was easy . . . but that shopping for his girlfriend’s Mom was a pain in the ass.

“I really didn’t need that,” John said after the holidays. “I really didn’t need that in the paper about ____’s (his girlfriend’s) Mom.”

“And I had to buy another $100 of presents for ____, just so she wouldn’t already know everything she was getting.”

Anyway, that’s enough of these stories for now.

I’ll be working behind the bar at Johnny D’s this Christmas night. We won’t be serving food and we’ll have J. J. from the booking office to spin classic tunes instead of our usual live music . . . but if you’re in the Boston area please feel free to stop by and say hello. If I don’t see you then, best wishes to you all for a very happy holiday season.

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