“BOOM-BOOM” (Pauline; Part I)

Copy of BoomBoomForBlogI was back to strictly bartending again . . . this time at an Italian restaurant in Boston’s North End.

For the last two years I’d been working 60-70 hours a week as a GM — working so much that more than once I slept overnight in offices of Friends & Company.  (It was a two-level restaurant/bar in Boston’s Faneuil Hall.)  I always kept a clean shirt and a different tie in the office — a quick shower at a near-by fitness club, then back to work.

So what did I do now that I had a new (much easier) bartending job, and the night off?

I headed to Friends & Company . . . the same place I’d been so eager to escape.

Now it seemed like a great spot to visit.  When I walked in the door I already knew half of the people there — all the regulars were like old friends, and I’d hired and trained most of the staff.

After a few beers I felt like I still ran the place.

So when I saw a new hostess seating customers at the downstairs tables, I didn’t hesitate to offer her a suggestion.  (Maybe being buzzed was somewhat of an excuse.)

“If you had seated that deuce at table 40 by the wall,” I said authoritatively, “You would have had the three-top open for the party waiting now.”  I smiled at her.

She stopped and looked at me.

I’d later learn that she was nineteen-years-old.  She had thick brown hair, a beautiful face, and she was dressed-to-kill in a slightly flamboyant outfit.  She was a knock-out, a real head-turner.

She stood there looking at me for a second.  I suppose at her age she was taken aback by this perfect stranger just walking up to her.

Then she recovered.

“Who are you?” she asked now.

“And who are you to come up and tell me how to do my job!” she said, gaining steam.

“Just a suggestion,” I said, and walked away.

As I was leaving the host stand, she was already asking some of the staff who was this guy (me), and what the hell did he think he was doing, trying to give her advice?

“You’ve got a lot of nerve,” she started out when I went back later to talk with her again.  Her tone was different.  By now she must have seen me joking with all the staff and the regulars, and figured I was OK.  She was more pleasant this time, but she still wanted to lecture me.

“I don’t care if you used to be the GM here,” she said sternly, although smiling, “You’re not now!  And you’re not my boss.”

“Listen, Boomboom,” I said without thinking.

The words came out before I knew what I was saying.  I’d been watching her seat customers, and she did have this strutting, bouncy sort of Boom-boom style.  She was always smiling — a trim, laughing, large-breasted girl with a runway strut leading people to their tables.  It was as though she was on stage, and this night was all about her.

I was a little drunk, so it just popped out.

“What . . .???”, her mouth remained open in shock.  “What . . .?” she said, turning to a waitperson standing there.  “He just called me ‘Boom-boom’!!!

But everyone started laughing, and then she laughed too.  Boom-boom actually summed her up perfectly; it became her nickname.

And she and I started a relationship — although it was never exactly clear what that relationship was.

That night she got off early (Friends & Company was open until 2:00 AM., but hostess-seating stopped at midnight.)  By now we’d been talking for quite a while, and she and I ended up trying to catch last-call at a bar in the Theater District.

“You’re only nineteen,” I said as we walked into the place.

“Paul always serves me,” she answered, giving a friendly wave to the bartender as we took our stools, “He knows I’m underage, but I have a good fake ID . . . wanna see it?”

I remember she drank “Pearl Harbors” — an overly-sweet cocktail for my tastes, but probably something that went down more easily at her age.

She had three or four of them within a very short time as we continued to talk and laugh.

Then we went back to her apartment.

The next morning I was checking the time on her bedside clock when I noticed a bullet laying beside it on the nightstand.

Yes, a bullet.

Copy of 45calIt was an unfired hollow-point bullet . . . probably for something like a 45-caliber handgun.

“Oh Jeez,” she said when I asked what this was — I was laying on my back, holding it up in one hand.

“Hank must have left that,” she said, rolling over to face me, propped on one elbow.  “He’s always doing crap like that . . . he thinks he’s going to scare away anyone I might bring home with me.”

It seems she was going out with a guy who thought she was his girlfriend . . . and he had a gun and was some sort of low-level Mafia gangster . . . and he thought he owned her.

“You’re not scared, are you?” she laughed, and she pulled me back down on top of her.

Anyway, that’s how Pauline’s and my relationship began.

As time went on, I never would have said she was my steady girlfriend, and I certainly wasn’t her only boyfriend.  I didn’t ask what she did when we weren’t with each other, and she never asked me.  We just kept ending up together.

Sometimes it would be once a week for a while, and then I wouldn’t see her again for a month.  When we got together it was like we were meant for each other . . . and then we were on our own until the next time, whenever that might be.

Sometimes I’d call her.  Other times she’d stop over to see me, all upset about something.

Once a guy I knew from Friends & Company suggested that he and I should go out on the town for dinner and drinks.  He was interested in a girl he’d just met, and he said I should bring someone too.

“Who will you be asking?” the guy wanted to know.

“Not sure,” I told him.

He laughed.  “You’ll end up taking Pauline,” he said, “I know it.  It’ll be you and Boom-boom.”

He was right, and I took crap all night for him being right.

At first with Pauline, I thought it was strictly sex.  You know how it is when you hit it off with someone that way.  When we were together we couldn’t get enough of each other.  We would be up all night doing everything.

Once, after we hadn’t seen each other for a couple of weeks, we ended up fucking ourselves silly.  We had stayed at my place, and the next afternoon when I was walking her to the subway stop in Harvard Square, we were leaning against each other, arms over each others shoulders.

“My legs are bending both ways,” I joked as we walked along the sidewalk.

“Next time we can’t wait so long,” she said, “Or someday we’ll fuck ourselves to death.”

The problem, in my mind, was that I was a lot older than she was . . . more than ten-years-older, and that’s a lot when a girl is nineteen.

She had just moved here to Boston from the Midwest, and she was only starting out in life.  I could never see a real relationship developing.  She had once asked something like “what-we-are-doing?” and I explained that I thought I was too old for her . . . but I wasn’t sure it was a serious question anyway.

She was just a young, strong, bold girl . . . sometimes too strong for her own good.  She’d end up doing something — just about anything — without ever thinking where it might lead.

“You have to be more careful, Pauline,” I’d tell her, “Your strength is in some ways your biggest weakness.  You think you can do anything you want.  You take risks without realizing the potential consequences.”

But of course she was too headstrong, and probably too young to really know what I meant.

Like when she finally stopped seeing that gangster guy, Hank, and started dating a drug-dealing photographer who claimed he was from Norway.

I never met Hank, and now I’d never meet the photographer, but Pauline told me all about him.  She ended up moving into his place . . . a condo he owned in Boston’s exclusive Beacon Hill district.

The amazing thing was that our relationship didn’t change one bit — not with Hank, or now with the new guy.  We were still getting together the same as we always had, and sometimes she’d tell me what was going on with the photographer.

She had started doing coke all the time when she was with him, and she was telling me about the parties he’d sometimes send her to by herself.  I thought from what she said that maybe he was having her fuck some of his wealthy drug clients.

She wasn’t my “girlfriend,” as I said it was mostly sex  — but by now, I really cared about her.  I worried about her.  I didn’t want anything to hurt her.

“Aww, you love me don’t you,” she laughed, “And I love you, too, you know that don’t you?”

“But you really shouldn’t worry about me,” she said, “I can take care of myself.”

She was only nineteen . . . maybe too attractive, and way too bold for her own good.

(For Part II click here. )

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 9 Comments


What me ... Extortion??? (Yelp! spokesperson .... oh wait, that's actually Alfred E. Newman.  My bad.)

“What me … Extortion???”  (Yelp! spokesperson … oh wait, that’s actually Alfred E. Newman.  My bad.)

Below is a real-life case study of a Yelp! review — first the reviewer’s lengthy and numerous complaints, and then a look at the facts.  Unfortunately for the reviewer, everything happened to be recorded on camera . . . ).

For all the many gripes and extortion lawsuits against Yelp! perhaps the most damning critique is a common-sense analogy that’s being tossed around lately.

If you want to find a good mechanic, the best school for your kids, or you’re looking for a reliable open-heart surgeon . . . do you ask the opinion of a perfect stranger walking down the street?

If you’re in an AOL chat room, do you necessarily believe that everything you’re being told is true?  Is the woman you’re talking with online really a 36″-24″-36″ former Playmate model?  What makes us think Yelp! is any better?

The fact that anyone (regardless of their motive, intelligence, or qualifications) is free to post an online review on Yelp! . . .  well, that would seem sufficient warning.  Yet people continue to read it.

And Yelp! continues to grow — and businesses continue to be put-out-of-business by these totally un-verified “independent reviews.”  (Yelp! offers another option.  You just have to pay them hundreds of dollars a month and they’ll “filter” things so that good comments have equal billing with the negative ones.  The good reviews remain buried at the bottom until you pay them money?  Some people think that’s extortion.)

A friend of mine runs a popular Boston area restaurant — and when his establishment recently received a negative Yelp! review, he decided to see for himself what actually happened.  His restaurant has a security camera system.

First, here’s a summary of that published Yelp! complaint.  (So we can keep the identity of the reviewer anonymous, I’ll list the main points rather than reprint it entirely.)

— The reviewer claimed to have arrived at 9:00 PM for a reservation, but not be seated until 9:30.

—  The reviewer stated that their waitperson was “clearly overwhelmed“, and that “it took her forever” to get to them.

— The reviewer said that a burger was delivered without the bacon they’d ordered.  There was also a complaint about the overall quality of their meal.  (Can we trust this person?  Did they actually order bacon . . . or did they mistakenly assume that it automatically came with the burger?  Don’t vote yet . . . wait until we see just how reliable/unreliable this reviewer proves to be.)

— The reviewer said that by the time they found someone to complain to about the missing bacon, they were already “half-way done” with their meal.

— The reviewer complained they received “mediocre” service from a “harried” waitress.

My friend, the manager, wanted to see what had gone wrong.  The waitperson involved was one of his best . . . so he checked the restaurant’s security tapes.  He was able to identify the reviewer by reservation time, and the table’s specific order.

Here’s what the actual recorded video shows.  (I changed the name of the waitperson to “K”.)

Service Timetable for Table 70 (yelp complaint)
9:19 Customers sat (their reservation was for 9:15)
9:22 First visit by “K” (waitperson)
9:25 Food order rung in
9:27 Drinks ordered
9:29 Drinks delivered
9:41 “K” checks on table*
9:45 Food delivered (by expeditor)
9:46 “K” visits table (two bite rule)  “K” goes to kitchen right after
9:47 “K” spoke to table
9:49 “K” brings bacon
9:50 “K” checks on table*
9:53 Looks in on table again
10:02 “K” checks on table*
10:03 “K” checks on table*
10:09 ”K” checks on table*
10:17 “K” checks on table*
10:23 Table gets up to dance. Customer walks to the area where table 102/103 would be for a minute or so then walks around the floor toward table 24. The floor was very crowded.
10:32 Customer returns to the table.
10:33 “K” walks by and looks in on them
10:34 “K” walks by and looks in on them
10:36 “K” walks by and looks in on them
10:37 “K” walks by and looks in on them
10:41 Clears table 71 next to them
10:42 Spoke to table 70
10:43 Gave water to table 70
10:44 Gave one drink
10:46 Spoke to table 70
10:47 “K” walks by and looks in on them
10:52 Cleaned table 71 and looked in on table 70
10:53 Reset table 71
10:55 Spoke to table
10:57 Spoke to table
11.02 Took C.C. from table and returned it to the table
11:11 Picks up the C.C. customer had left

“*” denotes when “K” looked in and may have communicated with the customer, hard to tell

Longest times between visits:
12 minutes while food order is being prepared (customers had drinks)
9 minutes when customer is dancing
9 minutes after dropping off the C.C.

25 Total number of “check-ins” on table over the course of their 1 hour and 52 min stay

Hmmm, I’d say that waitperson was pretty darn attentive.  What was all the bullsh*t about her being “overwhelmed” and “taking forever” to get to them?

Following the “two-bite” rule, the waitperson stopped by to ask how everything was for them one minute after the food was delivered — and then she immediately went to the kitchen.  (The reviewer claimed it took the server “forever” to stop back, and that they were already “half-way done” with their meal before they could point out there was no bacon on the burger.)

The bacon (was it actually initially ordered by the reviewer?) arrived three minutes later.

As recorded on the security cameras, this waitperson was checking on the reviewer’s table repeatedly, if only to look in and give them the chance to request more service.

If the reviewer’s complaints were that far off — on the actual time frame, and the promptness and quality of the service — how much can we trust the rest of what was said?

I think we might get a more honest and accurate review from that self-proclaimed AOL centerfold playmate.

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 13 Comments

BARTENDER-Larger-Than-Life (Aaron Bardolino)

Copy of Copy of AaronPostTwoEverything about Aaron was a bit over the top — the way he acted, the way he dressed, the way he talked.

Consider his girlfriend.  He’d met her back in junior high when they were both around eleven or twelve years old.  From that point on, all through high school and even five years later when Aaron was working at Johnny D’s  . . . they were still a pair of love birds.

It was really kinda cute.  Aaron’s steady girlfriend was his childhood sweetheart — and if you’re curious — she was currently working in a strip club.  (As a cocktail waitress, not a dancer, but she could have been one; she was a knockout — a natural blond with the body of a gymnast.)

See what I mean, though?  Nothing about Aaron was middle-of-the road-normal.

Aaron behaved like a movie star.  He dressed like a movie star.  One night he came in wearing these God-awful, ostentatious snake-skin cowboy boots.  They were pale yellow, with snake-skin texture and long pointed toes.

“Aaron,” I said, “On anyone else those boots would be too much.”

His real name was Aaron Baird, but at that moment it was clear the name just didn’t fit.  Aaron Baird?

“From now on,” I told him, “When anyone asks, I’m going to tell them you’re Aaron Bardolino . . . only someone with a name like ‘Bardolino’ would wear boots like that.”

(The name stuck; Aaron even had business cards printed up saying — Aaron Barolino, bartender.  Then later, Aaron Bardolino, GM.)

Aaron Bardolino . . . where do I begin?

I guess I could begin with the day I hired him.

We had an open slot in the bar schedule, and Aaron was chosen after the first round of interviews.  He had experience, lots of confidence (OK, he was downright cocky), and he talked like he could handle a busy nightclub environment.

I called his home around 3:00 PM on a Saturday afternoon to let him know he had the job.

“Heello?” an old man answered shakily.  Aaron had told me he lived with his grandfather.  He was taking care of him.

The grandfather was evasive.  It seems Aaron was there, but for some reason he couldn’t come to the phone right now.  I said, “I want to tell him he got the job at Johnny D’s.”

“OK,” the old-timer finally agreed, “I’ll see if I can get him.”

“Hel…llll…(o),” Aaron managed to mumble when he picked up the phone.

He sounded half-asleep and seriously hung-over.  The “hello” had trailed off so much at the end there was barely an “O” in of it.  It was obvious he was still in bed, and it was three-o’clock in the afternoon.

“Aaron,” I said, “This is Mike from Johnny D’s . . . we want you to start next week.”

“Oh, Mike!”  Now his voice was immediately transformed.  Instantly it was bright and alert, the voice of someone you’d have no second thoughts about hiring.

“Sure Mike!  Mike, good to hear from you!” Aaron said in his suddenly responsible daytime voice.  “Yes . . . yes, I’ll be there Monday afternoon!”

It was a small thing, but I never forgot that phone call.

Aaron Bardolino (Or is it Scott Cann, from the movie "Brooklyn Rules?"

Here’s a photo of Scott Caan, from the movie “Brooklyn Rules.” (See Aaron immediately below …  with the right lighting, it could be the same guy.)

Maybe I should have started by telling you about Aaron’s picture at the top of this post.

Everyone who knows Aaron will immediately recognize him from that photo . . . but it’s not him.  It’s not Aaron.  That’s a photo of actor Scott Caan (James Caan’s son) from the movie “Brooklyn Rules.”  (When I saw the movie recently I couldn’t believe it.)

In that movie, Scott Caan looked, talked, swaggered and behaved exactly like Aaron Bardolino.  It was Aaron’s attitude, the way he moved his shoulders, that little strut to his walk.

But I’d seen Aaron this way since the late nineties . . . and “Brooklyn Rules” wasn’t made until 2007.

Actual photo of Aaron (with a new friend.)

Actual photo of Aaron (with a new friend.)

So who copied whom?

When Aaron and his long-time girlfriend broke up, he went a little wild.  Being a bartender in a busy nightclub only made things worse.  Aaron was unstoppable.

I remember one night he was watching some really cute girls walk in the door, but they went to sit at a table in the dining/performance area.

No problem for Aaron, the club was packed with good-looking women.  Behind the long oval bar he started chatting with a group of girls on the right side of his section.  Then he was talking with some girls on the left.

While making drinks, Aaron kept spinning back and forth between the two groups, keeping them all entertained.  All the girls were leaning forward to talk with him whenever he paused for a moment.

Then the girls he had noticed at the door came back to the bar, and Aaron saw them.

At first he was ecstatic, but now he seemed a little concerned as he glanced over his shoulder.  (Behind him one bunch of girls was sitting on the right side of his station, another group was across from them . . . and now these new girls took seats at his bar?)

He just stood there, and his shoulders slumped a little.  I was watching, and it was hard not to laugh out loud as his face slowly sank.

It was written all over his face . . . he had just realized that he couldn’t get to them all.

One night an Elvis tribute band was playing at the club . . . a Mexican Elvis tribute band, if you can believe that.  The guy was really good — he called himself “El Vez.”

“El Vez” was rocking his stuff with the band, but Aaron wouldn’t be outdone.  Working behind the bar, he grabbed the soda gun like a microphone and started singing along.  It was hysterical as Aaron bumped and grinded — he shook his hips as though he was Elvis’ son, singing into the soda gun.  (“Whole lotta shakin’ going on . . . Ah Huh!”)

Everyone loved Aaron, and Johnny D’s was like a stage for him . . . every night, all night long.

One of the most fascinating things I saw him pull off — some might say the lowest — was a carefully planned scheme to find a hot date.

(Again, this was right after Aaron split with his long-time girlfriend so I suppose he might be excused.)

By now Aaron was also working a couple of shifts as a floor manager in the club.  Once I saw him talking with the doorman at the beginning of the night.  Later, I learned that he told the doorman if any really good-looking girl came into the club, the doorman should remember her name and the home town on her license.  “Just tell me what city she’s from,” Aaron told the guy checking ID’s.

A while later, after checking with the doorman, Aaron made a point to wander to the platform section . . . up to where he’d been told this really hot chick was sitting.

As he walked by one table in particular, Aaron paused.  He stopped for a second as though caught by surprise.

“Mary Beth?” Aaron said tentatively as he stopped in front of one seated young lady.

“Mary Beth?????” Aaron said again as though just now recognizing an old friend.

(He didn’t know this girl from Eve.  He’d gotten her name/hometown from the doorman.)

“Mary Beth,” Aaron said, “You don’t remember me?”

“I’m Aaron,” he said, “Aaron from Wantagh, Long Island.”

“We went to grade school together,” he said.

Aaron didn’t even know where “Wantagh, Long Island” was . . . but he apparently convinced the young lady that they’d gone to third-grade together.  He convinced her that as a toddler he’d always had a crush on her, and that now he was totally shocked to see her sitting in the club he was managing.

I don’t know all the details, but after that we did see Aaron out on the town with the Long Island lady.

Throughout all of this, Aaron was still a kick-ass bartender, one of the best.  I remember the night a band called From Good Homes played at the club.

All that afternoon we were getting calls from people interested in seeing this New Jersey pop band.  One caller wanted to know how to get to the club.  He sounded stoned out of his gourd.

“Hey Dude!” the guy said when I answered the phone, “How do I get to Johnny D’s?”

“Well, where are you?” I asked, thinking I could give him directions for wherever he was coming from.

“I’m at my friend’s house, man!” the guy said cheerfully.

What we didn’t realize was just how popular “From Good Homes” had become.  We didn’t know until a large chartered bus pulled up in front of the club.  Apparently the band had followers all over the East coast, and this bus held 65 drunken fans from New Jersey.

Then another bus pulled up (this one from New York City) . . . and we were wondering why we only had two bartenders scheduled, not three.

Suddenly all those people departed their buses and began streaming into the club.  People were also showing up from the Boston area, and within minutes we were mobbed.  It was like 300 thirsty people had walked into the club all at once, and behind the bar Aaron and I were running around like crazy.

Then the power went out.

It was in the middle of summer, hot as hell, and the demand for air conditioning must had overloaded the local power grid.

Dave, the owner’s son, was running around all over the place.  He brought up boxfuls of candles, and we had candles all over the bar, candles on every table, candles in the rest rooms.

Dave talked our neighbors (who for some reason had power just next door) into letting him run extension cords from their apartments.  Now we had electricity to run the kitchen refrigeration units and to power the band’s equipment on stage . . . but we had no electricity in the rest of the club.  Everything was lit only by candlelight.

With the walk-in cooler off, the draft beer was getting warm so we were selling bottle beer.  But behind the bar, the coolers weren’t working either — so the bar back just kept bringing us bus buckets filled with ice and cold beer, and we were serving bottled beer out of bus buckets stacked anyplace we could set them.

The registers didn’t work so we kept the cash drawers open and just made change, jotting down the amounts on a note pad at each register — just hoping that we were doing the math correctly.

There was no air conditioning.

The place was packed to capacity, with a line outside, and Aaron and I were literally dripping in sweat as we ran back and forth.  It was a slamming three-man night, and there were only two of us.

I have to say, though, we kicked ass.

With both of us spinning and whirling in continuous motion, it was one of the top three shifts I’ve ever worked with a”two-bartender” team.  (The others were with John B. on one occasion, and Eric P. on another.)

The bartenders at Johnny D's around ten years ago.  From left to right: John B., Eric P., Aaron Bardolino, and Mike Q. (The best crew I've ever worked with.)

The bartenders at Johnny D’s, around 2001.  From left to right: John B., Eric P., Aaron Bardolino, and Mike Q.  (This is the best crew I’ve ever worked with — can’t you just picture Aaron’s snake-skin boots?)











When the power finally came back on a couple of hours later, the first thing we heard was the beer-cooler motors, then the lights flickered on, and then the air conditioning kicked in.

Aaron and I stood behind the bar with our spread arms raised and our fists clenched, and we were shouting . . . “YYYEEEssssss!!!!  YYYeess!!!”  That first blast of air conditioning felt so good.

I could go on — there are a hundred stories I could tell you about Aaron Bardolino — but this last one is definitely one of my favorites.

Aaron, John B. and Eric P. were out in Boston’s Combat Zone one night, hitting all the strip clubs.  At the end of the night, they decided to go somewhere for breakfast, and they stopped at a local diner at the edge of the Zone.

They were only in the place for a few minutes when they realized it was primarily a gay and transvestite hang-out.

“I’m not staying here!” Aaron said under his breath, “I’m not staying!”

Aaron is a man’s man, and often dramatic about it.

John and Eric convinced him to stay, and they settle on their stools to order breakfast only to be waited on by a totally flaming counter guy.

John B. loves to bust balls, and he couldn’t resist now.

When the counter guy was in front of them, John turned to Aaron and spoke to him as though confidentially, but loudly enough that the guy taking their order could clearly hear.

“Don’t you ever tell me that!” John said to Aaron with an exaggerated lisp, “Don’t you EVER tell me that I can’t satisfy you!

Aaron choked on a mouthful of eggs.  The counterman’s head snapped back on his neck.

Later, just when Aaron thought things had calmed down, the counterman came back to them.  The guy put one foot up on something back there, and leaned forward to address Aaron.  The guy was leering in a smooth, come-on way.

“So . . . ,” the counter man said, smiling slickly.  “So, . . . I hear you’re hard to please.”

Aaron was so red-faced and completely flustered that he just sat there shoveling two slices of toast into his mouth, one with each hand.

“You’re an asshole!” Aaron said to John under his breath, “You’re a fucking asshole, . . . and you’re buying when we’re done, by the way!”

Aaron opens for James Montgomery (Photo courtesy Northern Music.)

Aaron opens for James Montgomery.  (Photo courtesy Northern Music.)

[Ed. note:  Aaron eventually left Johnny D’s to become the GM of a bar/restaurant in western MA. 

Also, I didn’t get to mention that he’s a talented musician, good enough to open for James Montgomery at a recent outdoor music festival.  You can catch Aaron playing every Thursday (Ladies Night) at Piccilono’s in Shirley, MA.]

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 7 Comments

CONFUCIUS IN THE HOUSE (and other bar stool philosophers)

Copy of confucius“I know it’s early,” Stacey said when she woke me up.  She kept gently shaking my shoulder.  “I know it’s early . . . and I hate to do this,” she said.

It was eight o’clock in the morning and I knew exactly what was coming next.  Even still half-asleep, I knew . . .

“Is there any way you can work for me today?” Stacey asked.

She was hung-over.  It was eight in the morning and she was too hung-over to make it to her day shift at The Lark Tavern.

Stacey and I were no longer “a couple” — now we were just good friends — but after a night of drinking we’d sometimes end up in the sack together.  Last night we’d really tied one on, and now she wanted me to work for her this morning.

“I’m really hurting,” Stacy said, sitting beside me as I lay there, “I mean really.”

“Please?” she asked.

What could I do?  She was a friend, and in our kind of job being hung-over is almost a legitimate excuse.

While I was in the shower, Stacey called Gail, the owner’s daughter, and said that I’d be working for her today, but I couldn’t get there until later.

My ass was dragging on the one-block walk to The Lark.  We all lived in the neighborhood.  “Good morning!” Gail said with a big smile when I arrived.

The first thing I did was pour myself a mug of coffee, and add a good shot of Jameson whiskey.  Back then we could all have a drink while on the job . . .  you just had to keep it limited, under control.

Around noon-time, a psychology professor from Albany State stopped in for lunch.  He was really smart, always proper in his dress and behavior, but there was also something a little odd about him.

I chalked it up to his profession — you know what they say about psychiatrists and psychologists — they may go into that field to solve their own problems.

(Way down the road, several months after this day shift, the professor would come in with a younger man, a guy dressed like a mid-western cowboy and talking with this outrageous cowboy accent.  They’d have an argument when this cowboy began dancing with everyone, including other men.  At one point, I overheard the professor say to the young man, “Why do you do this to me . . .  you know I love you!”)

Anyway, that night still lay ahead in the future.  Right now, I was hung-over and talking with the professor.

WALHe asked about my ongoing plans to write an academic paper.  I’d told him about it one day.

Today he wanted to know what I saw as my end goal, and I told him all the things I expected to happen when I got this series of papers published.

“One thing you’ll learn in this life,” the professor said somberly now, “Is that no one will ever just give you anything.”

His words stopped me short.  I immediately knew he was right.

But I also heard a sadness in his voice, a kind of personal lament.  His comment wasn’t about a bartender caught up in dreams.  He was thinking about himself . . . and looking back on his own life.  Apparently that life had a lingering, bitter after-taste.

This day shift continued to go steadily downhill.

Later a woman from the state government offices was sitting at the bar.  (Here’s the central part of all this rambling.)  As I set down her drink, she was asking how I ended up here.  What brought me to Albany?  Why was I tending bar at The Lark Tavern?

“It’s a long story,” I began.  (You have to understand, I was working an unexpected day shift and wasn’t making any money.  I was still a little hung-over.  Maybe I was feeling sorry for myself.  Maybe I was wondering . . . what am I doing here?)

I told the woman it wasn’t anything planned . . . that I’d come to Albany to visit my sister for a couple of weeks, and somehow I just ended up staying.  I told her that I’d run out of money, and finding myself alone and broke in a strange city, I just fell into a job that it seemed I’d always done before.

It was a long explanation, and I tried to make it interesting.

There was a guy sitting a few bar stools away, and evidently he’d been listening to our conversation.  His head wasn’t exactly on the bar, but he was bent over his drink, and his posture and general air had that unmistakable “down-and-out” aura.

After I’d finished my story, he lifted his head and said:  “Life is a path of many windings.”

He didn’t turn to address us.  He was looking straight ahead, talking to the air in front of him.  I guess he might have been talking to us, or maybe after hearing my story he was simply thinking out loud to himself.

At the time I didn’t know he was quoting Confucius, although it did sound like old Chinese wisdom.  He was just some guy at the bar making a random comment after sitting there in silence throughout our entire conversation.

“Life is a path of many windings,” he said, and then he bent his head down over his drink again.

The woman and I just stopped and looked at him.

Then she laughed; we were both a little shocked and surprised by his unexpected words.  It was one of those “from the mouth of babes” things . . . but this was an eerily spot-on comment from an unknown drunk at the bar.

The woman and I looked each other in the eyes, and shook our heads in amazement.

The epilogue:  Something happened at the club a few weeks back that made me think of all this . . . one of those comments from a customer that stops you in your tracks for a second.

Kevin is one of the most-respected musicians at the Sunday blues jam.  He quit drinking a long time ago, and we were talking about all the time we’d both wasted over the years by just running around, and being hung-over the next day.

It was one hell of a good time — we couldn’t deny that — but we were talking about how we might have done things differently.  (Kevin is totally on the wagon; I still have a couple of beers every night but don’t drink like I used to.)

“Isn’t it amazing,” I said to Kevin, “All those years . . . ”.

Kevin thought about it for a second.

“I don’t regret it one bit,” he said.  “It was just something I had to go through to get to where I am now.”

Amen, Kevin.

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 5 Comments

IT’S HIGH TIDE behind the bar

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least not until closing time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the customers during all this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we kept serving drinks.

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

A week later, I was called into the office.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 15 Comments