What a swell party this was…

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!

25 Responses to “What a swell party this was…”

  1. 1 Comrade PhysioProf August 29, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    The next time I have the privilege of standing at your bar, it would be an honor to join you in imagining us back in the days of the speakeasy!

  2. 2 Anonymoustache August 30, 2009 at 5:27 am

    Thoroughly enjoyable post, as always, dude! The ‘bad boy but Robin Hood’ allure of the bartender, eh?
    BTW, I love the word speakeasy—a couple of my punny life credos are “Speakeasy and carry a big drink”, and “Speakeasy and carry a big schtick”.

    Way off topic—I thought this would interest you. The title gave me a nasty shock, and I went “Say it aint so, Scrib!” till I read the article and realized it wasn’t you who was retiring.
    In the immortal words of CPP, Ahhhhahahahahahahahahah! Enjoy!

  3. 3 scribbler50 August 30, 2009 at 10:54 am

    The privilege will be mine, Sir!

    A couple of things. First off… you remain the master of “punnery” on this blog. Hands down. You always “mock” softly” but carry a big “kick”!

    And second, it’s funny you used the words “bad boy” in your comment because as I was writing this post I flashed on the Seinfeld episode where George, through a series of misguided circumstances, was thought to be a “bad boy” by a co-worker of Elaine’s. And that memorable scene where George and the gal are on the phone and she says (with devilish delight, anticipating something dangerous), “So what are you doing, George?” And George replies (acting dangerous) “You don’t wanna know, Baby, you don’t wanna know!” Then the camera widens out and he’s ironing his pants.

    And third, how did you ever get that picture of me! I said I wanted to remain anonymous!!!!

    PS: But the guy is from Pittsburgh, that’s close enough. Thanks for sending that along, Stache, truly am amazing article.

  4. 4 Anonymoustache August 30, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    You’re welcome, man.
    And that was a classic Seinfeld moment you referred to. That’s a George-ism up there with the “opposite” George and, of course, my favorite one when he gets it on with the cleaning lady and then protests to his boss, “Was that wrong? Was I not supposed to do that? I mean, if I had known that that kinda thing was frowned upon…..”
    Anyway, it was a remarkable article about the bartender wasn’t it?…..the times he has seen during his career…..the stories he could tell…

  5. 5 Jennifer August 30, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    Any bodies buried somewhere in that bar?? I’m guessing the floors and walls aren’t talking.

  6. 6 scribbler50 August 30, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    Maybe not the floors and walls, Jennifer, but the spirits sure are talking. And not the kind of spirits that come in bottles. The place is haunted. If you feel like it, go back and read my post called “Boo” who? posted January 4, 2009. Every word true.

    Thanks for your visit.

  7. 7 siobhan August 30, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    scribbler, I love this post – completely taps into my ridiculous “nostalgia” (in quotes because can one technically be nostalgic for an era one did not experience?) for 1930s and ’40s New York. I love that era’s movies, especially the ones featuring wise guys or hard-boiled reporters or tough broads – the dialogue is so rat-a-tat-tat and filled with crazy slang that I suspect was made up whole-cloth for each new screenplay. When I was in Paris in May, I went to see a Carole Lombard film called Nothing Sacred, and it was so sad to see how the rich and colorful and wacky dialogue like “I am sitting here, Mr. Cook, toying with the idea of cutting out your heart, and stuffing it, like an olive!” was reduced into subtitles that along the lines of “Mr. Cook, I’m very angry with you.” (By the by, I see that Nothing Sacred will be on TCM in September, if you’re interested – I bet you’d like it.)

    At any rate, work on some good Prohibition Era slang, for when you do finally pour me a drink.

  8. 8 scribbler50 August 30, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    Thanks for your comment, glad you liked the post. And I too share a nostalgia for that era, even though I only know it from the movies. The dialogue was truly gem-filled. And how about how many sentences back then began with the word “Say”. As in, “Say,what gives?” Or “Say, who’s the tomato?” Or “Say-y-y-y-y, what’s the big idea, Mac?” Hilarious! And truly indicative of a time and a movie era. As you say, rat-a-tat-tat.

    Tough deal on that French translation, that’s one step shy of getting the dialogue in sign language.

    And how’s this for Prohibition slang if you ever come in for a drink…
    “Say, what’s a nice dame like you doin’ in a place like this?”…. Or, “Whaddaya’ say, whaddaya’ ya’ know, what’ll it be, doll?” Or simply, “You’re new around here, ain’t ya’, Kid?”

    Again, you wrote a beautiful post today, Siobhan, if anyone here wants to read it go to inthenextapartment.blogspot.com

  9. 9 Jennifer August 31, 2009 at 6:38 am

    I will check it out, but don’t see an archive listing on the side… I’m a big fan of archive spelunking. I guess I’ll just meander.

  10. 10 siobhan August 31, 2009 at 10:25 am

    scribbler, LOVE the slang! lay it on me, pal. And thanks for the plug….

  11. 11 d-a-p August 31, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    really fun nostalgia…great stuff as always…see ya next week…

  12. 12 JSaw August 31, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    OK, finally clicked over to you from Siobhan’s blog, after meaning to do so for months. So glad I did.

    Nice post, though I don’t share the speak-easy nostalgia.

    Completely agree with the last paragraph about pushing his fat ass out the door. As someone who has often partaken of a drink to ease the path home or to rev up for the evening ahead, I’m nothing but grateful for the guys and gals who see me coming in the door at 5pm or 3am and say “How you doin’? Sit the fuck down.”

    I’ll be more on topic next time but am here to stay. Thanks.

  13. 13 scribbler50 August 31, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    JSaw: Thanks for the kind word and welcome. And just so you know, there’s always room at the bar for you here… all you have to do is come back every week and “sit the fuck down”!

  14. 14 Isis the Scientist August 31, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    Hey Scribbler, will you write about this term “speakeasy” for us poor, uninformed souls?

  15. 15 scribbler50 August 31, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    My dearest Isis, I realize you’re a youngun’ compared to the grizzled Scribbler over here but I am shocked that a woman of the world like you has never, ever heard of the term “Speakeasy”. But I’m happy to oblige.

    During Prohibition, the 1920’s and early 1930’s, tens of thousands of illegal bars opened up here in New York and around the country. They were called speakeasies. You needed a password to get in and it was all on the hush hush. Haven’t you ever seen one of those old movies where someone looks through a peephole in the door and says, “Joe sent me.”? Well that was the drill and that’s how one got in. And the term “speakeasy” simply came from the fact that it would be better to “speak easy” lest a cop on the beat walks by and hears what’s going on. Does that explain it? It’s really that simple and that obvious.

    But I’m very glad you asked, it’s a rare day on the planet when I get to teach YOU something!

    Later, dear friend.

  16. 16 Isis the Scientist August 31, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    It’s really that simple and that obvious.

    HA HA HA! I’m going to have to remember that phrase for later use…

    Thanks for the history lesson, Scribbly pants!

  17. 17 robe September 1, 2009 at 12:24 am

    Also the great 86 line came from the speakeasy days in NYC. Old Chumleys in the village. Gone for good I think. Or if it re-opens I’m sure some velvet rope asshole will own it. Anyway, amazing days. Speaking of doing things not legal. I , today as I speak, love to roll a fat one and puff away while listening to Bob or Neil. It makes me feel soooo good!

  18. 18 Donna B. September 1, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    My ancestors, being nowhere near NYC or any other city, simply continued making their own. The last moonshine I had was in 1972, when a cousin brought some to me from a distant uncle.

    My dad was a town marshal during the ’40s. Even though prohibition was over federally, there were many places that booze was still illegal. The mayor’s court book is on display in a small museum and it’s a wonderful trove of family history, with my Dad arresting several of his brothers-in-law and cousins.

    Dad told me they’d drive up and down the street drinking either water or tea out of mason jars taunting him.

    You still have to drive to Oklahoma or Texas to buy booze from that part of Arkansas and there is at least one still operating in the area. There’s a small grocery store, where if you know the right people, you can buy it.

    Scribbler… if you ever decide to vacation in the backwoods, I’d be proud to buy you a jar.

  19. 19 scribbler50 September 1, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    Donna B:
    Always a wonderful anecdote with your comment… thank you for that. I especially love the part about “tea out of mason jars”, must’ve driven Dad nuts. And as far as me trying some moonshine, I’d love to, but you’d have to bring it to NY… I don’t “backwoods” very well.

    Great comment, thanks again!

  20. 20 robe September 1, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    scribbler 50, you don’t like me do you?

  21. 21 Donna B. September 1, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    Gawd alone knows how many laws I’d be breaking if I brought some moonshine to you in NYC. Should you ever change your mind, I promise you lodging with indoor toilets, A/C, and valet service.

  22. 22 scribbler50 September 2, 2009 at 12:15 am

    Robe: Not the case at all, I just had nothing to add to your comment.

    Donna B: Okay, the indoor toilets cinched it, I’ll be down!

  23. 23 Donna B. September 2, 2009 at 12:48 am

    We may be “backwards” but we love the amenities of civilization. Perhaps the difference is that we remember doing without them and enjoy and value keeping that knowledge alive.

    That spirit of freedom is akin to the speakeasy culture, I think. It’s just the difference between country and city. Nobody likes being told what they can’t drink 🙂

  24. 24 mvpalex September 2, 2009 at 1:24 pm


  25. 25 scribbler50 September 2, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    mvp: Glad you liked it… figured you would!

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