When I tell people I tend bar, the typical response is, "Oh, that must be fun!"
Sure, there have been moments, like the time an attractive drunk woman followed me into the walk-in cooler. (I sat her on a cold keg of Killian's Irish Red while I searched for somebody to take her home.) But for the most part, tending bar is not fun. It's like taking tickets at an amusement park, where you make change and smile, even though you think most of the people passing through the turnstile are dorks and losers.
Take the credit-card-waving men with ties still knotted tight long after midnight. They're always the first ones to tell me how much they envy my job, because "I'd love to work nights and sleep all day." Dream on, pal. I'd have more fun loafing in your corporate cubicle than working behind the bar on a busy Friday night.
Their female counterparts aren't much better. They stand across the bar waving cash-machine-crisp $20 bills as if they're drowning, only to lose their memory when I finally approach them.
"What'll you have?"
"I'm not sure" is the typical response. "What kind of beer do you have?"
I try to make it easy for them. "Light/dark, domestic/import, draft or bottle?"
It's a tough decision. Finally, "I'll just have a Bud Light."
How do people like that stay employed?
Next in line is the space cadet who, after ten minutes of standing at the bar, has neglected to take his friends' drink orders. "Hey, guys, what do you want?" he yells over his shoulder when I give him a nod.
"Ask him what kind of beer they have," someone shouts back.
And the cycle starts again.
A piece of friendly advice: Bars display beer bottles on the wall, not because colored glass with recessed lighting looks cool, but because that's what they serve. If that's too hard, try checking out the large beer-tap handles about six inches from your nose.
But figuring out the order is only the beginning. After serving a drink, bartenders are often mistaken for customer-service representatives, ready to field complaints they have no control over. Among the most common: "The band is too loud." "Four bucks for a beer!" "Can I get a seat?" "The ladies' room is out of toilet paper."
Tough, yes, no, and use your hand.
You think your drink is too weak? I don't have any control over that either, especially in corporate-run chains, where they make you measure each pour with a jigger. The fact is, most of the drinks served at busy Cleveland bars contain more alcohol than you're supposed to get, because the bartenders, to save time, free pour, estimating the prescribed amounts.
When a customer complains about a watered-down drink, most bartenders don't argue. We just retrieve your drink and add more liquor. Or so you think. One of my favorite tricks is to sweeten drinks by dribbling a drop of liquor on the tip of the straw. (This works better on women, who tend to use straws more than men. No straw? No problem. I just rim the glass with a little liquor.)
The people I really abhor are the credit-card freaks. It's not a class thing; any schmuck can pay fifty bucks a year for a Platinum American Express Card. What's annoying is the way they open tabs, buy tons of rounds, then act shocked by the number of drinks on their final bill.
At one restaurant where I worked, bartenders would hold the card until the customer signed off for the night. If someone was giving me a hard time, I tended to temporarily misplace his or her card. "I think I dropped it behind the cooler," I'd groan. Nothing levels the playing field as quickly. No one wants to wait, but no one can go back to work without the company card.
And you should hear what you sound like asking endless trivial bartending questions. You're fascinated by the size of beer coolers, the spiral pattern of stacked cocktail napkins, how many shots are in a bottle of Jägermeister, and the cost of scotch.
Just once, you might consider asking something intelligent, like "How many guys have already bought a drink for the woman seated at the end of the bar?"
Toward the end of a long shift, my mood predictably worsens. And it's all your fault. The drunks are getting louder, and everybody wants water. I understand the water rush--alcohol dehydrates people--but there's no way I can meet it, because bars have limited glassware. When you demand water, you're going to get it in whatever's at hand--clean, dirty, or straight out of the trash.
My advice: If you don't see plastic cups, wait until you get home.