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.”

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BLUE MOON DINER, and hitting on Big Sam’s girlfriend

(This isn't the Blue Moon Diner, but in Upstate, NY they all looked the same inside -- photo by Brian Beachum.)

(This isn’t the Blue Moon Diner, but in Upstate NY they all looked the same — photo by Brian Beachum.)

Before becoming a bartender, I took time off from my college years to travel as the road manager of a local rock band.  The band was called “Wool” — Neil Diamond was our producer.  Here’s a story from those days . . .

This was supposed to be an easy gig.

We were playing that night in Watertown, NY — where the band’s leader, Ed Wool, and his lead singer Claudia both lived.

The job was so close it was almost like taking the night off . . . we knew we’d be home early, right after the show.

As it turned out, I was lucky to make it back in one piece.

Once the sound check was over, I didn’t have much to do while the band performed.  I wandered around the nightclub, still checking the sound but mostly just drinking and having a good time along with the crowd.

There were two really hot girls at the club that caught my eye.  Some of the band’s popularity extended down to me, and to be frank, in those days I took advantage of it.

I was having a great time, talking and dancing with one of the girls . . . but when she went to the ladies room, one of the guys from the crowd came up to me.

“You know that’s Sam MacDonough’s girl?” he asked pointedly.

It was weird.  The guy seemed nervous to even be telling me this.  It was as though he was worried about just talking to someone on the wrong side of Sam.

“You’d better hope he doesn’t find out,” the guy continued,  “ . . . He’ll fucking kill you.”

Watertown is a small town, and this sounded like something you’d hear in a small town.  How could I respond to such a warning out of the blue?  I laughed out loud, of course.  You know young men . . . they never want to show fear.

“I don’t think so,” I said boldly.

“I’m taking karate,” I said.

Now that was true . . . I was studying karate, and I was training under a hard-core sensei.

(Masataka is now a 9th Dan, and Vice-Director of the International Goju-Ryu Association.)

(Masataka is now a 9th Dan, and Vice-Director of the International Goju-Ryu Association.)

Masataka Muramatsu taught old-school Goju-Ryu.  We were breaking boards and smashing bricks in his class.  At the end of my Kata, Tensho, Masataka would break a wooden pine board over my forehead, just to demonstrate how tough we were.

In the middle of winter, as we finished each class dripping in sweat, we would run barefoot through the snow outside, wearing only our open karate uniforms.

Those uniforms were often splattered with blood.  We were tough.

“I’m really not worried,” I told the guy, even though I’d actually only been studying with Masataka for about a year.

The fact is, as everyone in martial arts knows — until all the moves become absolutely engrained — you’re not going to fight as well at the beginning as when you knew nothing!

At the beginning, instead of reacting instinctively, you’ll probably fight stiffly . . . thinking about what you’re doing, rather than just fighting.  It’s a basic rule — don’t go looking for trouble just because you think you know karate, especially when starting out.  Don’t test this stuff in the real world until you’ve actually mastered it.

But I didn’t let any of this good advice stop me.

“He’ll have his hands full,” I said boldly to the guy, “This Sam . . . whatever his name is.”

But as the night went on, I saw other people looking at me a little funny.  It seemed like a lot of people in the crowd were thinking the same thing as the one who warned me.  They were probably asking themselves:  “Who is this fool hustling Sam MacDonough’s girl?”

“Exactly who is Sam MacDonough?” I asked the bartender after a while.

The bartender shook his head before answering.

“I don’t know what you’ve got in mind,” the bartender said, “But I’d wouldn’t be hitting on that girl, if I were you.”

According to the bartender, Sam MacDonough was a local tough guy who had killed two men in a bar fight.

Copy of crowbarApparently the two men tried to ambush Sam one night as he walked out of another club.  One of the men hit Sam over the head from behind with a crowbar . . . but that was just the beginning of the fight.

Sam shook his head a bit — took the crowbar away from them, and then he killed them both.  He later escaped any charges because it was self-defense.

I walked away from the bar with my head spinning a little.  The barman’s words put a whole new light on things.

“You’re not afraid of Sam, are you?” the girl asked when I wanted to know if she was in fact his girlfriend.  “He can’t tell me what to do!” she said, “ . . . Come on, let’s dance!”

Now I was dancing while looking over both shoulders . . . but I was too proud to back down.

Beside, Sam wasn’t even there.

I drove this girl home in the band van, and she invited me upstairs.  She was one hot, foxy babe, and her hands were all over me as we tongue-kissed at her front door.

I looked over my shoulder once more, and went upstairs with her.

I will tell you, if you’re going to die, this was almost worth it.

This girl loved to ball.  And it seemed there wasn’t anything she wasn’t ready, willing, and able to do.  When I say she got down . . . I mean all the way.

Anyway, it was time for me to head home, and with the fun part over I began thinking about her boyfriend again.  I was thinking that she and I caused such a buzz at the club, word must have gotten back to him.

I was thinking that maybe he knew I’d gone home with her.  Maybe he’d followed me.  Maybe he was waiting somewhere for a chance to beat the living shit of me.

Maybe he wanted to kill me.

I pictured myself being run off the road on the deserted stretch of Route 81 that I had to take home.  (In that image, I saw Sam driving an old pick-up truck.)

I decided to stop at the Blue Moon Diner on the outskirts of Watertown just to calm my nerves, and think things over.  It was probably something like five o-clock in the morning.

I stuck my head in the door first, and looked around.  The diner was mostly empty.  Someone had given me a rough description of Sam MacDonough . . . and it didn’t look like he was here.

But I was sitting at the counter eating scrabbled eggs and ham when two new guys walked into the place.

One of them fit Sam’s description perfectly — he was a thick-necked, barrel-chested guy with a military-style haircut, a crew cut on top and shaved close on the sides.  He was wearing a T-shirt.

The two of them gave me a vicious look as they slide into a booth at the end of the diner.

They kept glaring at me as I finished my breakfast.  They were leaned over opposite sides of the table, and they were talking in low voices as they watched me.  “That’s Sam MacDonough,” the counter man said, as though to warn a perfect stranger about nearby danger.

“I’m screwed here,” I thought, “I’m totally fucked!”

I figured I’d be better off if they came after me in the diner.  At least there’d be witnesses, and maybe someone would step up to help me.

The men’s room was right opposite the booth where they were sitting, so I walked down towards it, trying to show no fear.  I figured they’d have to get out of the booth just to stand up, and that would give me an extra split-second to react.

But they just sat there glaring, watching me ominously and whispering to each other as I stepped inside.

Now I figured they might jump me when I came out.  I had a plan to kick the men’s room door open when leaving, but to hold back on stepping out, hoping to get them to jump too early . . . maybe throw them off a little.  My mind was racing.

Still inside the men’s room, I tried to get myself ready to fight.  I threw punches and kicks in the air.  I grabbed hold of the sink and pulled on it as hard as I could, trying to get my muscles ready to respond.

(This is something like what that towel dispenser must have looked like ... before someone took a baseball bat to it.)

(This is what that towel dispenser may have looked like … before someone gave it a serious beating.)

There was one of those old linen towel dispensers in the men’s room . . . the kind that has a big roll of linen inside, and you turn the crank to roll out the fresh part.

It looked as though someone had worked over the towel dispenser with a baseball bat.

The metal on the front and both sides was badly dented, almost caved in . . . and the entire dispenser had been knocked so hard that the long bolts attaching its back to the wall were now fully exposed as it hung there at an angle.  The whole dispenser looked shaky.

“Not my problem,” I thought, and I reached up to grab the dispenser with both hands.  I was going to pull on it hard, just like I had on the sink.

But pulling on it just finished off what someone else had started.  The whole dispenser gave way . . . it went crashing to the floor . . . and those long securing bolts pulled out a good chunk of the plaster wall with it.

The whole thing hit the floor with this huge crashing noise.

“I’ve got other problems,” I told myself, and I turned to the men’s room door, leaving the dispenser and part of the wall on the floor.  Sam MacDonough and his buddy were waiting for me.

I kicked the door open as planned, holding back before sticking my head out.

They were both still sitting in the booth.

I walked back to my seat trying not to visibly shake.  I saw the one guy go into the men’s room, and when he came out he and Sam immediately began talking again in low voices, still watching me.

I paid the bill and walked out of the diner expecting to be jumped at any moment.

All the way home on Route 81, I was driving with one eye on the rear-view mirror.  There had been a pick-up truck in the diner’s parking lot, and I knew it had to be Sam’s.

It wasn’t until I was almost home that it hit me . . .

The two of them had a different look on their face when I came out of the men’s room.  The one guy had immediately gone into the bathroom and when he came out they both looked a little concerned about something.

I finally had to laugh out loud . . . finally relieved . . . suddenly understanding what must have happened.

Someone probably told them that I knew Karate — and they had no idea that the towel dispenser had been previously worked over with a club, or something.

When that guy went in, what he saw was a smashed metal dispenser with the living fuck beaten out of it, and a gaping hole in the wall where the bolts had pulled everything down along with it.

They must have thought that I’d done it . . . maybe with with a spinning karate kick.

(I had glared at them when I walked out of the men’s room, but it was only a return glare out of instinct . . . at the time I was scared shitless.)

But the destruction on the men’s room floor and the round hole in the wall must have made them think twice about jumping me . . .

By the time I thought of this I was almost home, but I was still laughing as I got out of the van.

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 3 Comments

IN THE WEEDS (with fresh-squeezed OJ)

Christopher's, Cambridge MA

(Christopher’s, Cambridge MA)

Bartending should be fun — and it is fun, especially when there’s music in the background, a lively crowd, and those dollar bills keep piling up in in the tip jar.

It can also be hard work, a daunting challenge . . . and that’s just part of the fun.  

It’s like playing in the big game.  You want things to be busy, you want to be out on the field . . . you relish the battle.  You get to play hard, and win.

But sometimes, as the old saying goes . . .“Sometimes the bear gets you.”

Today’s post is about one of those times . . . a shift where I got my ass kicked.

Pride . . .

“Can you work for me this Sunday Brunch?” Sarah asked.

I hated the idea of getting up early Sunday morning after closing Christopher’s Saturday night, but Sarah was a sweetheart.  And she never asked for a day off.

“My mom is coming in from New York,” she said.

How could I say no?

“Sure,” I said without hesitating, “No problem.”

And honestly, I really believed it would be no problem.

Sarah was a good bartender, but she didn’t have the experience yet to work anything like a busy weekend night.  Once, when she did have to fill in . . . she struggled even in the slowest station.  So she worked two of the quieter nights during the week, and then was alone on the downstairs bar for Saturday and Sunday brunch.

“If Sarah works the brunch,” I thought, “How difficult can it be?”

You have to understand I was younger then, and perhaps a little cocky.  I’d been at Christopher’s for less than three months, but before that I tended bar in really busy places.

Once, at Cafferty’s in Brockton MA, the customers at the bar had risen to their feet —  not once, but three times to give me a standing ovation during an especially busy shift.

Cafferty’s had three bars, live bands, a capacity of 1000 customers — and I worked alone on the third, smaller bar called “The Pit.”  The work station in The Pit was a perfect three-foot-spin . . . everything you needed was only a half step away, and you could just stand in the middle, spin and turn with both arms and hands flailing away non-stop as you slung out the drinks.

I remember when those people at the bar stood up to applaud, and cheer, and laugh . . . I thought, “Damn, I AM good, aren’t I?”

What do they say about “PRIDE going before . . .


“The Fall . . . ”

“Sure,” I told Sarah back at Christopher’s, “Sure, I’ll cover the shift . . . no problem.”

I was right about one thing; it wasn’t easy getting up that Sunday morning.  I was tired, hung-over, and my ass was dragging but I made it back to Christopher’s on time.

As I worked on the set-up, my feet were back underneath me, and now I was feeling in complete control.  Christopher’s might be packed on weekend nights, standing room only —  but I knew the brunch was at a much slower pace.

The doors were about to open when the first inkling of trouble appeared.  Someone from the kitchen set a large box full of oranges on the bar top.

“There you go,” he said.  And he walked away.

The box was about the size of a beer case.  It was overflowing with oranges.

“The juicer is in the back closet,” one of the waitresses said as she walked by.

A box of oranges?  The juicer?

Now it came back to me . . . when Sarah asked me to work the shift, she’d said something like:  “The fresh-squeezed orange juice can be a pain-in-the-ass . . . but other than that, it’s kind of slow at the bar.”

The only thing I’d heard was, “It’s kind of slow at the bar.”  The pain-in-the-ass part had gone in one ear, and out the other.  I’d been too cocky to really listen.  I’d been too confident to ask any questions.  And now I was about to pay, big time.

A box full of oranges?  A juicer?  Are you kidding me?

(I’m sure with their brunch as busy as it is now, Christopher’s uses jugs of fresh-squeezed juice from Odwalla, or some other fine “fresh-squeezed” company.  But this was when Christopher’s brunch was just starting out . . . and yes, the bartender was expected to hand-prepare each glass of juice.

Sarah must have made up a quart, maybe two quarts, maybe a gallon of juice ahead of time . . . just to get a jump on things.  But I hadn’t asked, she hadn’t said anything, and now the doors were opening!)

“Two fresh-squeezed OJ!” one of the waitresses shouted immediately . . . and the nightmare began.

(Do you know how long it takes to hold half an orange down on a spinning juicer — one after the other — until you have just one glass of fresh-squeezed OJ?)

“Two more fresh-squeezed juice!” another waitresses yelled as she approached the bar.

The box of oranges was sitting on the beer cooler, the cutting board and knife were beside it.  I stood with a sliced half-orange in one hand, holding it down . . . and with the other hand I was cutting the next orange.  I felt like Lucy in the chocolate factory (see the video at the end of this post.)   I couldn’t keep up.  I was falling behind!

“Four fresh-squeezed!” a waitress shouted.  I was getting buried!!  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to dig myself out.

Copy of orangesMy hands were smeared with fresh juice and pulp. I felt my shirt sticking to my back.

“Two more fresh OJ!” another waitress called out.

I was bent over the juicer, unable to get to my customers at the bar.  I was all alone on the deck a sinking ship, and the water continued to rise.  I was going down!!!

“Five fresh-squeeze juice!” another waitresses shouted, and this time I didn’t even bother to look up.  I just kept my head down, trying to make more of that freaking fresh OJ.

So much for being a hot-shit bartender.

Needless to say there were no standing ovations for the bartender that brunch.  Some customers watched with a look of pity as they saw their barman completely in the weeds.

It’s a lesson that’s not easy to forget.  Being fast behind the bar isn’t just about raw speed.  It isn’t only about multi-tasking, knowing the next step, or economy of motion.

It’s also being aware what to expect . . . and setting up properly.

When the brunch was over, one of the waitresses came up to the bar to give me her tip-out.

As she handed me the folded bills, she casually said:  “Sarah will be back next week, right?”

I’m sure it wasn’t done on purpose, but her words were like salt thrown on a fresh wound.

“She’d better be,” I said.  My hands were still sticky, but I gave my best attempt at a good-natured smile.  “ . . . For everyone’s sake, I sure hope so.”

(Click the image below to see Lucille Ball “In the weeds.”)

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 17 Comments