ARTICLES

What it’s like to tend a bar

A veteran practitioner of an ancient trade offers some inside observations on the habits and humors of his customers—and their ladies

CHARLIE McCAULEY May 7 1960
ARTICLES

What it’s like to tend a bar

A veteran practitioner of an ancient trade offers some inside observations on the habits and humors of his customers—and their ladies

CHARLIE McCAULEY May 7 1960

What it’s like to tend a bar

ARTICLES

CHARLIE McCAULEY

TRENT FRAYNE

ON THE JOB I’VE GOT, no arm this side of the major leagues is busier than mine and nobody’s eardrums outside of a psychiatrist’s office get more exercise. I'm a bartender. In forty-two hours every week I pour an average of a hundred bottles of whisky, at twenty-five jiggers a bottle, and serve sixty cases of beer, at twenty-four pints a case, to about fifteen hundred men and three hundred women. Most of the men are moody, and nearly all of the women are determinedly gay. With few exceptions, the men and women alike are excessively talkative. The bartender is everybody’s sounding board.

I've been behind the bar at the Town and Country restaurant in Toronto for the last ten years, and I've found that, mostly, the people just like to hear themselves talk. Men’s conversation, when they're not staring blankly into their thoughts, runs to the news of the day or next fall's football outlook. Women like to talk about last night's TV programs. 1 figure part of my work is to read the papers and watch television so that 1 can hold up my end if I have to, for the big thing in tending bar is to make the customer feel comfortable. Oh, you slice dozens of oranges for the mixed drinks and you squeeze your share of limes and you drop a lot of cherries into a lot of glasses. You make sure the beer is cold and the ice is crushed and the stock is up and the bar is clean and dry, but mostly what you’re concerned about is that the customer finds something in your place that will make him want to come back. More often than not. that's an attentive ear. In this connection, I've never forgotten the wisdom of a friend of mine in Brooklyn.

I was a cop in Brooklyn years ago. and 1 used to spend some of my off-duty hours in a little neighborhood bar owned by this friend, a man named Johnny, who had a wonderful way with people. On a Saturday night when the joint w'as jumping, Johnny would have half a dozen conversations going at once w'hile he served people. He’d move up and down that bar, refilling glasses, and still manage to continue each conversation where he’d dropped it. This guy was my ideal. He made the customers forget their troubles for a little while. He knew' I had a desire to get into the business, so he gave me a tip I've never forgotten.

“Talk to ’em if they want to talk. Charlie,” he said, “but the first requisite of a good bartender is that he be a good listener—and he never remembers what he hears.”

I've often thought of Johnny's advice. A welldressed young fellow used to come in with his wife, a real nice girl. I hadn't seen them for two or three weeks and then he came in alone one night. I made a fuss, said it was good to see him, but he seemed downcast. So I left him with his thoughts.

He had a couple of drinks and then he started to talk. He and his wife weren't getting along, he said, and they were thinking about a divorce. He said a lot of things he shouldn't have told me and then he left.

CONTINUED ON PAGE 64

A veteran practitioner of an ancient trade offers some inside observations on the habits and humors of his customers—and their ladies

Continued from page 33

You shouldn’t tell a drunk: “You’re cut off”

I didn't see him for another couple of weeks and then he came in again and this time his wife was with him. She and I exchanged the happy hellos, as we always did. but he was solemn and preoccupied. Then his wife went to the powder room.

"Charlie," he said, staring at the bar, "Helen and I are fine again. But. well. I’ve been thinking about that conversation I had with you. You haven't, er, mentioned it any place, have you? Ah, 1 . . .”

"Conversation, Bill?" I said, shooting my eyebrows up and looking astonished. “What conversation?"

He looked up then, and began to grin. “Well, anyway, it helped a lot just talking to you about it that night,” he said. “Thanks.”

I've found, though, that a lot of people are suspicious of a bartender. They think he pours less than a full measure in mixed drinks, or that he uses cheap liquor while charging for the best. Well, on the theory that there are a few bad apples in every barrel, I guess in some cases they're right. Mostly, though, it's not that way at all. Why, when I'm "behind the stick,” as I often call my bar. I'm in a different, wonderful world. My whole object, as 1 say. is to help people enjoy themselves, and any bartender who doesn't feel this way is in the wrong line of work.

If there's anything I can't tolerate it's a bartender who leaves the impression he's doing me a favor by silently, stoically, mechanically serving me a drink when I'm on the other side of the bar. I hose fellows shouldn't be in this business, and there arc a lot of them. There are a lot of them, in my opinion, because there aren t enough bars for the number of people who apparently want to patronize them. In this kind of a market, a bartender can be indolent because, comparatively speaking, he's got the only game in town. If the customer doesn't like the service, he's got to go a long way to find another place, especially on a Friday or a Saturday night when all the places are crowded.

I think there ought to be community bars, too. a little place in your neighborhood that you can drop into and know everybody. 1 think singing ought to be permitted. What's wrong with a quiet little singsong? I don't mean discordant drunkenness: I wouldn't tolerate that if I had a place. But I'd never use that hateful term. "You're cut off." If a man grows belligerent you must pacify him but not insult him. The bartender's job is to protect his customer, not hurt him.

I simply say to him, "Listen. Bobby, why don't you take a little air, come back in an hour maybe?" I say it very quietly, to avoid embarrassing him in front of people.

One night a customer stayed a little longer than he should have. I didn't think it would be a good idea for him to drive home, but I didn't say so to him. I asked him if I could compare his car keys with mine. I said I thought they were pretty nearly identical. He brought them out

and 1 compared them for a long time. Then I moved away to serve other people, and then I called a cab. My customer went home in it.

He came in the next day and he was mighty worried. He sat silently for a while and then he said, "My Lord, Charlie. I was out last night and I lost my car.”

“Your car!" I exclaimed.

"Yeah. This morning it wasn't in the garage. My wife is fit to be tied. I told her I'd left it down town, but I've really got no idea where it is. It might have been stolen, but I'm afraid to tell the cops until I figure out where I was."

So I held up his keys.

“Why you gave these to me last night,”

I said. "You told me you'd prefer to take a cab and your car’s in the parking lot.”

Some people just don't know how to handle alcohol. Occasionally this kind of man decides he’s going to take the place over. About a year ago one of these challenged me. You don’t ignore a drunk, or walk away from him. because then he thinks he’s in control of the situation. You just stand with your hands on your hips and look at him. T hen lie's not sure where he stands. He called me a dirty name.

“If I come out from behind this stick," I said, "you might beat me but you'll have a busy five minutes.”

lie backed down. "Let's shake hands." he said, holding his out.

"You're talking to an old-timer, buddy," I said. " I ry that one on somebody else."

It’s an old trick. The guy grabs your hand, pulls you toward him when you're off-balance, and belts you with his other hand.

I called a couple of waiters and they led him very firmly to the dcor.

A bartender gets to see so many people that he can usually anticipate their moods. He has his antennae up as he moves around and he can hear a change in the tone of a voice right across the bar. If the tone spells trouble I always put on a little act to break up the tenseness and get a little laugh. For example. Fil pour a little too much into the jigger, spilling a few drops.

"Oops.” I'll say, "the boss wouldn't like that!"

Or I'll say, "Have you gentlemen tried our specialty: The longest drink in town in a short glass."

The humor wouldn't knock Wayne and Shuster off television. I know, but the diversion is usually enough to relieve the tension.

You can pretty well tell if people are drinkers or sippers by what they order. The drinker will have a highball or a martini or a manhattan. The sippers order the drink that looks prettiest in the pictures on our wine list, the ones with the fruit and the bright colors. This applies to women as well as men. for there is a hard core of drinkers among women, although the percentage is much lower than among men. Some men drink the fancy stuff, though. We had two couples return to the bar after dinner for liqueurs. Ong guy said he'd have a grenadine. Now grenadine is a red fountain syrup made from pomegranate and contains no alcohol.

"Do you mean benedictine?" I asked.

"No." he said, "grenadine. I've drunk them for years."

So I gave him one. Some liqueur!

Grenadine is always a great ingredient when a bartender is stuck by the unusual name a customer may apply to a drink. A woman asked me once for a Red Velvet. I'd never heard of it. I asked her the ingredients. She said she didn't know

but that she’d had one once in Syracuse and loved it. So I gave her vodka, which is almost tasteless, and soda and grenadine. She said it was the best Red Velvet she’d ever tasted.

Those odd names wall throw you— and sometimes they’ll throw the customer. A bunch from Texas were in town attending a convention and one of them said he wanted a Salty Dog. "We drink ’em all the time in the Panhandle," he said. I asked him the ingredients.

"You take a large glass and put in three ounces of gin,” he directed. "Then

you throw some salt in on top of it.”

"How much salt?” I asked, getting the shaker.

"No, no. not with that.” he said. "Get a carton of salt and pour it in until I tell you to stop.”

I must have poured in half a dozen teaspoonfuls, thinking it sure must get hot in Texas to require this much salt replacement, before he finally shouted whoa. Then he said. "Fill 'er up with grapefruit juice.”

He had a couple of those, which added up to six ounces of gin. so I suggested

that they must be pretty powerful. He bragged that he often drank eight or ten.

But after three, he was finished. His friends had to lead him away. Come to think of it. I guess our Canadian salt is more powerful than they have in Texas.

My partner at the Town and Country, a lean dark-haired young fellow named Bill Weiland, has had his share of strange orders, too. Bill and I each work a fortytwo hour week, alternating on afternoon and evening shifts. One evening an Australian asked him for, inevitably, a Kangaroo. Bill asked him the ingredients.

"You take a tall beer glass and pour in half an ounce of lemon juice." said the customer. "Then two ounces of gin, and then fill the glass with beer."

Man, there was a drink! As Bill said afterwards, "I suppose that would make a man hop around like a kangaroo, wouldn't it?”

We try to give our customers anything they ask for. although there was a sixfoot-six wrestler who used to drop in after the bouts at nearby Maple Leaf Gardens every Thursday night and ask for three double ryes in a glass. Well,

that's plainly ridiculous; that's six ounces of whisky. 1 refused to serve it one time, claiming that the liquor control board regulations forbade it. But that didn't stop the wrestler.

"Well. I'll tell you what you do. pardner." he said. “You just pour me three doubles, one after the other."

He drank them faster than 1 could pour them, and he didn't even sit down. When he'd finished the third he calmly w'alked to the dining room for a late supper.

Rye, by the way, is the drink most

Canadians take in the evening, but vodka is by far the best seller at noon. The reason is fairly obvious if you're aware that vodka has less aroma than some other drinks. Many a businessman thinks he can drink and still not affront his associates—or reveal himself to his boss.

People being people, we also find we have a heavy call for vodka whenever the police announce a safe-driving campaign. Watching this parade of deception. it often occurs to me that people aren't always what they appear to be. I'll have men sit at my bar with their

ladies, sipping disinterestedly on a lonely highball. The instant the lady goes to the powder room they'll call. "Hey. bartender. quick, gimme a double rye."

But the real pips are the tip-grabbers, the customers who scoop up money left on the bar by another customer. We have a decorative mirror high over the bar at the Town and Country which reflects off a wall mirror and enables us to see more of these fellow's than most bartenders when our backs are turned. Sometimes we ll even see a man pick up his own tip. A businessman, making an impression on other businessmen, will make an obvious gesture in (lipping down a dollar, and then he'll casually lag behind when the group is leaving. He slides the dollar back into his pocket and rejoins the others. Women often "palm" the money left by their escorts. There's not much the bartender can do; he can't call to the guy and say. "Hey, your wife just swiped my tip," can he?

Tipping is a ticklish subject, and not many bartenders or waiters discuss it, even among themselves. It's often struck me as strange that a service-station attendant, say. will clean my windshield, check my oil and battery, fill my car with gas. and rarely expect a tip. Yet I'll merely pull the cap oil a bottle and the customer will put down a dime. Actually, though, less than fifty percent of people tip. Id say. Their tips average ten percent of the check, maybe a little under that.

Still, non-union houses pay ridiculously low wages to some bartenders and waiters—maybe forty bucks a w'eek or less— arguing that they'll pick up a good income in tips. The union scale is sixtysix dollars a week, but only ninety-two of the one hundred and ninety-two outlets in Toronto are affiliated with our union, the International Beverage Dispensers and Bartenders Union Local 280. There are thirty-five locals in Canada, with 14.541 members. These include lounge waiters, beer waiters, maids and porters in addition to bartenders. I heard one time there were only some seven hundred actual bartenders in this country.

I got my training eleven years ago when 1 paid a hundred dollars for a private course advertised in a Toronto newspaper. As 1 said earlier. I spent most of rny working years as a New York police officer, in Brooklyn, the garden spot of this earth, where I was born. I came to Canada on a vacation fifteen years back and. through mutual friends in Toronto, met Mary, who is now my wife. But Mary grew terribly homesick. After four years, we moved to Toronto, where her roots are.

When I read the bartenders’ school advertisement I realized that here was my opportunity to get into the business of my old friend Johnny, the neighborhood barkeep in Brooklyn. That was a tough year for Mary and me. I got temporary jobs here and there, worked weekends when the bars are busiest. I never considered taking any other job. though. When you have a desire, you have to follow it through.

If you'll pardon the old philosopher, I think every man must have a goal, regardless of what his job is. There's no purpose in life if you have nothing to shoot for. My objective? Well. I’ve always wanted to own my own place, a little neighborhood bar. if we ever get them in this country. I’ve always warmed to the friendliness of such a place, and I can see myself behind that stick, kidding with the customers and making a living, too, at what I like most to do. Even if I never get it, I have that dream.