(This note is from an afternoon shift at The Lark Tavern.)
The Lark Tavern, Albany NY
There was a big guy sitting at the bar, a “rough-around-the-edges and loud” type, but he was my only customer so I didn’t expect trouble.
He was just one of those guys who likes the sound of his own bark, which can be irritating when you ask a simple question. I gave him a bottle of Budweiser and asked, “Would you like a glass?”
“Hey, why would I need a glass?” he said, “It already comes in one.” He pointed to the glass bottle, then laughed at his own joke. Don’t these people know how many times the bartender has heard that? Ok . . . so he said it once, but then he continued. “It already comes in a glass,” he repeated.
Another simple question a few minutes later: I asked, “Would you like another beer?”
“Another beer?” he said, “Why . . . do I look like I need another beer? You telling me I have a drinking problem?”
”Fine,” I said, “If you want anything, let me know.”
No matter what I said he was going to come back with something stupid. Who cares, as long as he didn’t start trouble. I let him sit for a few minutes until he called me over for a second beer. After a while I looked down and he was gone. There was some loose change next to his empty bottle. I wiped the small puddle, and tossed the change into the tip jar.
Ten or fifteen minutes later this same guy was back, sitting on the same stool.
“Where’s my beer?” he asked, clearly irritated.
”I thought you were gone,” I said.
”I’ll tell you when I leave,” he snapped, “Now where’s my beer?”
”I thought you were gone,” I said, “I thought you were gone, and your beer was empty.”
He glared at me. Maybe he was one of those guys trying to get a free round. They’ll leave a sip of beer or a couple of ice cubes in what had been a scotch and soda, disappear for ten minutes, then come back and insist that you picked up a full drink.
“The bottle was empty,” I told him again.
“OK, then where’s my money?”
“Look, I thought you were gone and figured the money was a tip . . . sorry,” I said. I turned to get his change out of the tip jar.
“”When I want to leave you a tip, I’ll tell you,” he raised his voice.
I wasn’t going to argue.
“I told you I was sorry,” I said, and pulled some change from the tip jar. I set it on the bar, about 90 cents. I didn’t remember exactly what he’d left, but knew it was only loose change and couldn’t have been more.
“There’s your money,” I said, “Now, would you like a beer?”
“It’s not right,” he said, as I walked by a little later. He was still talking about his misplaced change. ”You should never pick up someone’s money unless they tell you it’s a tip.”
“You got your money,” I told him, “Enjoy your beer.”
“It’s not right,” he kept talking, “You should always leave the money on the bar!”
He wasn’t going to let it go. A few minutes later, he was still lecturing me. ”You should always leave the money on the bar,” he said loudly, “You should never pick up someone’s money. You should leave it on the bar until they TELL you it’s a tip!”
“Look . . . ,” I stopped to face him. “I said I was sorry . . . you got your money back. What more do you want?”
“What do you want?” I asked, “Do you want more money?”
I turned again to the tip jar and scooped up more loose change; a few quarters, a couple of dimes and a nickel, some pennies. I slapped them on the bar in front of him. “Is that enough?” I asked.
“Do you want more?” I reached for my back pocket, “Do you want what’s in my wallet? How much do you want?”
I held the wallet in both hands as though about to take money out.
“You want a couple dollars? You want five bucks? How much do you want?”
I was trying to shut him up. He sat silenced for the moment. I went into the kitchen to say something to the owner’s daughter, Gail.
He must have sat fuming, because a minute later there was a loud crash. I looked out from the kitchen, and saw him storm out the front door. He’d taken his beer bottle and hurled it over the bar at the mirror. The front door slammed behind him.
On the back bar, a couple of liquor bottles had been knocked off the shelves. There was shattered glass from the beer bottle and spilt liquor everywhere, but the mirror was intact. I went to the bay window and he was walking fast down the sidewalk, already half a block away.
“Should I go after him?” I asked Gail. She hesitated, and I pointed out that the mirror was fine, no harm done. I really didn’t feel like chasing him down the street.
Later I learned that he was one of the Burke boys, notorious trouble makers in the Washington Park Area. That was Jeremy Burke, one of six brothers – I would run into them several times during those years in Albany.
When I came to work the next afternoon, the daytime bartender Johnny La La had already heard about the guy with the beer bottle. He took me aside, the life-time barman talking to the new kid.
“Next time, if you want someone to knock it off, just tell them,” Johnny said. “Let them know that they’re welcome to stay and enjoy their drink, but please give it a rest. If they won’t, ask them to leave. But don’t intentionally embarrass them, even if they deserve it.”
Johnny La La was right. I had made a classic, rookie mistake. “How much to you want? Do you want what’s in my wallet?” I made a guy who’d been drinking feel foolish.
(Ed. Note: A few months later, it was only because of another incident with Jeremy Burke that I met my girlfriend in Albany.)