A friend and fellow bartender… this guy named Alex who handles the crowd and the pouring at a famous watering hole… hit me with this little gem the other night when I stopped in after my shift for a little “wind-down”. The man always has something.
“Hey, I got a line for you,” he said, the second I hit the stool. “Maybe you can use it.”
“Use it for what?”
“For your blog, whaddaya’ think, man?” he said like I had two heads. “It’s a movie line that maybe you can have fun with.”
“Oh, okay, I can always use an idea, whaddaya’ got?”
Then, as he poured with professional care my liquid escape, he started his riff. “All right, here goes. You got Jack Nicholson, right? The movie is As Good As It Gets. He’s sitting at the bar commiserating with the bartender after his date storms out of the restaurant and, after explaining his side of the story, looks up at the bartender and says, ‘Instead I’m here with you… no offense… but a moron pushing the last legal drug.'”
“Anything there?” Alex added, with a look on his face that said, How a-bout this guy?
“Shit yeah,” I replied, “there’s definitely something there. Let me think about it.”
But I knew I wouldn’t be thinking about it for if you read my blog last week… my rant about how some movies disrespect bartenders… you’ll know that your friendly bartender has already been there. He’s covered that terrain with a tarp and nailed down the edges. I can’t repeat that theme again, can’t be Grumpelstiltskin, hell bent on some kind of mission bordering on jihad. But hey, Alex was right, there was definitely something there, just bad timing.
But then, a few minutes later, after those first few sips of my drink had completed their mission… washed away the bullshit from work and opened the floodgates of thought… the Nicholson line came back with a whole new perspective. But unlike what you might expect, dear reader, it wasn’t the part about “moron” that grabbed my attention, it was the part about “legal” that jumped to the fore of my thinking.
“Alex, when you get a chance,” I said, pointing to my empty glass, “I’ll have another one, please, and I think I got something.”
“Got something for what?”
“For my blog, whaddaya’ think, man?” I returned in gleeful kind, and as he went to refill my drink the wheels starting turning. Here’s where they took me…
There was a time a long time ago when we “morons” weren’t all that “legal”, but toilers under the banner of Very Illegal. That time of course was Prohibition when the selling of wine and spirits could get you arrested. And since I work right now in a Speakeasy bar… one of the great ones of all time… it got me to thinking about how I’m somehow connected. How I’m four generational degrees of separation from that era. I thought about all those bartenders before me who worked in that very same room, whacking out nightly tips in a most different time. Those Roaring Twenties.
And my first thoughts were… what a romantic and fun, exhilarating time everyone must’ve had, everyone doing the wrong and feeling right about it. It was bartenders, revelers, cops on the take and everyone in between, raising their glasses on high, thumbing their noses at all who proclaimed that they couldn’t. And as I pondered those times and considered the mood I was reminded of the words to a song… a Gershwin tune that might aptly state how they felt… “No, no, they can’t take that away from me.” And for fourteen years no one could!
Then my thoughts got specific, about what it must’ve been like to actually tend bar back then. For these guys not only faced each night the prospect of losing their jobs, but their short term freedom as well if the place got raided. Talk about job security! I mean can you imagine today, working at a Barnes & Noble, let’s say, quietly doing your job… alphabetizing gurus and frauds over in Self Help… and in come the feds to haul you away because some of those books don’t fit the moral agenda? Or you’re selling suits at Lord & Taylor’s and the guy you’re fitting just happens to be an FBI agent? And he hauls you away because the fabric in the suit is hemp? The kind you smoke? Now I realize that last is a reach, dear reader, but I’m just trying to make the point… to show what these guys were faced with when they went to work every night. For when they told their customers at times to “speak easy” or “keep it the fuck down!”, they said it because their jobs were on the line. Their futures. They were the Flying fucking Wallendas without a net!
Ah, but then I thought about all that was cool about being the man back then… the yin to the downside yang of working in a speakeasy. It was the part about how the ladies back then might’ve viewed them. I thought, did a “flapper” ever say to her friend as she was walking down 51st Street just off of Madison, “See that guy who looks like somebody’s uncle? That guy in the tweed blazer and serious hat? Well guess what? He’s on his way to work and he’s a bartender. Can you believe it? I know! And not only that but he knows my name so we won’t have to come up with the password if we ever want go there. Is that the fucking bee’s knees or what?” And did her friend respond with equal excitement, “Bees knees hell, it’s the cat’s fucking pajamas!”
Yeah, unlike me who walks into work and slips on his apron and tie, these guys slipped through a back door and put on the magic. They were guys who could sell you the goods the law said you couldn’t. I mean there had to be an air of romance about that which women must’ve found appealing… this “fuck you” to moral convention and Miss Goody Two Shoes… if the guy didn’t look like a can of worms or was married. At least that’s how I see it, or how I imagine it was behind the stick.
And I think I’m going to keep on imagining the next time I go to work, the next time I stand in the spot where all those guys stood. For it won’t be just a hardwood floor that is covered with rubber mats, but sacred ground that has covered some eighty plus years. And I’ll say to myself as I scan the room and ponder what might’ve been, these paraphrased words from another old song… Cole Porter’s “What a swell party this was!”
Then three drinks later, after all those thoughts had coursed through my brain on a steady stream of nostalgia, I jotted some key words down on a bev nap, paid my tab and respects, then thanked my friend Alex for his idea. And as I started to make my exit, Alex and I both firmly agreed that if Nicholson or anyone else had called us a “moron pushing the last legal drug” on a night, we’d both be pushing something indeed… his fat ass out the front fucking door in a hurry!!!
Over and out from Bar-land… see ya’ next week-end!