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BAR WARS! : The Public Can Drive A Bartender to Drink

June 14, 1987|BILL STEIGERWALD | Steigerwald served five years behind bars. and

No, the writer isn't working his way through college. He didn't go to bartending school to learn how to make all those fancy drinks. He's not going to fix you up with one of the cocktail girls. And no, he doesn't want to hear any Gary Hart jokes or sad stories.

Waitresses certainly have their trays to bear, but the public also inflicts its share of physical and mental torture on America's 400,000 bartenders.

Sure, from the stool side of the bar, bartending looks like a great job, a profession even. The salary is decent, plus IRS-untold bucks in tips. And our drink-driven culture has invested bartenders with princely powers. They not only control all that booze and beer, they seem to exercise near-absolute sovereignty over their turf. They can even dim the lights.

Yet before any disgruntled waitresses rush off to enroll in the nearest Frank Fontaine Correspondence School of Mixology, be forewarned: It can be hell being trapped back there.

Physically, you're constantly bending, reaching, dipping, stretching and fetching--and standing. Your ears are bombarded by human and musical din, and cigarette smoke stabs your lungs and eyes. Your hands are never dry.

Psychically, however, it is worse. Consider these types who belly up to the bar.

Bar Children--Loners, they aren't children really. They just behave like them. They sprinkle cracker crumbs everywhere, smash pretzels into dust, flick ashes randomly, litter the bar with cigarette wrappers. They play with anything they can reach. They chew and twist and toss stir sticks and straws. They strip labels from beer bottles and build trash piles in ashtrays. They toy with their garnishes and play hide-the-gum-wad.

The Tourist--Easily spotted by his hat, camera and cranky children, he usually travels in gangs. He speaks a language of sentences ending with question marks. He orders exotic drinks, then complains that they taste funny. He moans about high prices and never tips. He loots matches and glassware, devours bar snacks, creates noise and confusion. Blessedly, he is usually a seasonal problem.

Bridge Club Ladies--They don't order drinks, they shop for them. They travel in packs and warily approach the bar, hesitant to commit themselves. While the bartender waits patiently, they insist upon knowing the molecular makeup of a pina colada. They consult, compare, recommend, then change their minds. Finally with the utmost deliberation, each orders . . . a time-consuming chi-chi or a virgin mai tai. The busy bartender falls hopelessly behind. (Groups of schoolteachers and secretaries exhibit the same behavior, especially during Christmastime.)

Salesmen--Unlike such amateur bar-goers as bridge club ladies, who mercifully disappear after one ridiculous drink, businessmen descend upon a bar after work and monopolize it for hours. Office equipment salesmen are the worst. These pros arrive in teams, usually with one or two women in tow. Each demands his personal tab. They never carry cash, but pitch their credit cards across the bar to pay for huge tabs and 85-cent glasses of wine alike. By 8 p.m. they've all vanished. Tips can be extravagant or nonexistent.

The Sport--His mouth is big and rude. He calls bartenders "Hey, Mack," or "Hey, chief," and bartendresses "Sweetheart" or "Nurse." To get attention, he whistles, pounds the bar with his fist, taps coins, raps ashtrays or bangs glass bottoms. "Monday Night Football" is still his weekly holy day. Tips are what he gets at the race track.

The Regular--No doubt, when Man was building the First Bar, a regular was already there, waiting patiently for all the hammering to end so he could get his first drink of the afternoon. Not just a steady customer, he's a fixture, like another beer tap. Usually a man with a soft job, the regular is one who, from among the universe's countless corners, selects one bar--maybe even one bar stool--in which to spend unclocked time and unaudited funds drinking the same drink at the same time each day. A regular can stare forever into the face of terminal boredom without a squirm. He keeps his money on the bar, drinks tough drinks like dry Manhattans and martinis, is patient, and tips almost too well. He causes no trouble, even when he drinks too much, which is usually impossible.

And this is just a small sampling of what the bartender has to contend with. There are also those who delight in playing Stump the Bartender. They ask for Plutonium Daiquiris and are appalled that the barkeep can't make it. Pseudo-sophisticates seek the latest gimmick-drink pushed by a liquor company. Some "know" the hard liquor is watered or question the drink's contents. Others perpetuate esoteric nicknames for simple drinks (Cuba Libre, Greyhounds, Sombreros, Dirty White Mothers, etc.).

Money crumblers who toss balled-up bills across the bar are a real treat for a busy bartender. So are coin dumpers who make bartenders pry $3 in coins off a wet bar.

Others include the (increasingly rare) husband-accompanied women customers who belong in a Home for the Hopelessly Soft-spoken. Macho men who battle each other for the honor of using their $20 to pay the bar tab. The die-hard who suffers deafness only at last call. The dullard who goes into shock and confusedly frisks himself when asked for money to pay for his drinks. The under-age college kid. . . .

Not every bar customer is a boor or a headache, however. Some just order a beer or drink simple drinks like scotch and water. They tip well and cause little bother. They are polite, congenial, interesting and intelligent. Both of them.

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