It was a moment in time when your friendly bartender was anything but friendly, a moment he clearly regrets and surely will learn from. Or so he hopes…
This event took place a few weeks back on a night that looked for all the world like a bust. The first signs of spring had warmed the city and if anyone was in the mood for a drink they sure weren’t having it with me… this was one of those nights for sidewalk cafe fare. I had no one at the bar, the tables as well sat damn near empty and the only pressing matter it seemed was what game to watch.
Then all of a sudden, like a frantic fire drill from hell in reverse, in poured twenty young professionals eager to unwind. They’d apparently just left a seminar of sorts and were here to soak their new-found knowledge in alcohol. Holy shit, I thought, this is a job for Superman! So I quick jumped into my imaginary phone booth, put on my red cape and tights, and flew to the task of sating a huge gang of thirst. There were Cosmos coming in waves it seemed, bourbon old fashoined’s and sours and such, and all kinds of drinks that weren’t just your beer and wine types. But fear not, all you doubters, Superman had it covered. But then just when it seemed I was getting ahead… three quarters through all those orders… in walked a sight that sure as hell didn’t fit this picture.
Pushing through the crowd with a firm politeness, hell bent on claiming the one empty stool at the end, was an older gentleman well over six feet tall. In fact he was huge. And I only point this out because it was this along with his age that compounded the oddity. He was not only thirty some years past the crowd but a good twelve inches as well, amazingly trying to join this mob of “Let’s drink!”
Aw, man, what the hell is this? I thought, as I looked up from the ice at Grandpa Goliath. Why would that man at this time join that crowd in this fucking bar? Is he a masochist? I know that sounds cruel, dear reader, but those are the thoughts that run through your mind when you’re buried in catch-up mode, and any addition to the tally looms as intrusion.
“I’m going to be a while,” I shouted, with the warmth of a Tundra December, “I’ve got myself quite a group here ahead of you, Sir.” I actually wanted to discourage the man from staying. Pretty lousy, right?
“This is no problem,” the man answered back, in an accent I couldn’t discern, then he added the broadest of smiles which was just as elusive. “But for now, if this is okay, Sir,” he went on maintaining that smile, “may I see please one of your menus that I could look at?”
You gotta be shittin’ me! This guy wants to fucking eat at the bar on top of it? Can he see what’s going on here?
“Here ya’ go,” I barked, stopping mixology to show him some menu toss-ology. Then I went back to mixing.
About five minutes later, and after taming the thirsty beast at least for the moment, I returned to the man with the menu and very strange accent. “Sorry to keep you waiting there, pal, would you like to order a drink before the food part?”
“I would,” he said. “I would like a glass of this Oban and a bottle of your Budweiser. Do you have these?”
Hmmm, not bad, a shot and a beer with pretty good brands to boot!
“Yes, I have these.” Then I went and got (this) and (your) and placed them in front of him. But then came the part when I wanted to kick my own ass.
“I am so glad that finally I get to come to this bar,” he said.
“Where are you coming from?”
“And why does this make you so happy? Coming to this bar, I mean.” He took a sip of his Oban, a healthy swig of his Budweiser, and gave me that great big smile again as he spoke.
“You see, I just put my mother, who is a hundred and one years old, in a retirement home. And when I go through all her things to empty her apartment, I find from her days in New York a little diary book, yes? And so when I start to read this book…”
“Whoa!” I interrupted. “It’s none of my business but do you think you should be reading your mother’s diary in the first place, let alone sharing it with some bartender here in New York?”
“Oh, no, I know she would not mind… this is not a diary like what you think. This is a journal she keep, from 1944 to 1946, when she and my father live right here in New York. It’s like a history. And when I’m reading this, I see all the time three famous places they go to. One is The King Cole Bar at the St. Regis, another is the Russian Tea Room, but most of all she writes about this place right here. Yes, from what I read they came here most of the time. And so I say to myself while I’m reading this, when I come to New York I have to go to this place. And look! Now I am in this place. Can you see now why I’m happy? I’m reliving history!”
Well, needless to say, dear reader, seeing the joy in this man’s expression and contemplating how I had treated him upon his entrance, made me feel about as small as small can get. We’re talkin’ micro!
“Well, Sir,” I offered, taking a swipe at my guilt which was now at its apex, “all I can say to you is, I’m really glad we were here for you when you got here. And I mean that. And hey, since your mom and pop obviously spent a lot of time here, which means a lot of money here, I’d like to offer your next drink on the house, how’s that?”
“Oh no, that’s okay, I only have these two and then I eat. But thank you.” Then I took his food order (chicken wings, of all things, given all the wonderful entrees on our menu), then I left him so I could mow down a fresh batch of cocktails.
When I returned (my cape and tights in tatters but clinging nonetheless), this hulk of a man, out of nowhere, began this sort of reverie about his mother. And it was downright touching.
“You know,” he began, “what was to me so… ahh… so beautiful… when I read all these words she writes back in 1946, was how different she was from the mother I know growing up. Do you know what I mean? She was so young back then and so happy and so free, and so loving to my father which I never see in all the years that I know them. It just makes me happy to know this other woman. Even proud. And this is the woman that now I want to remember. The one who came here in 1944.”
At this point, either the wings were too damn hot or his words were too damn pure but a tear began to form in the corner of his eye. And almost in mine.
He finished his plate of wings, drained off his Bud and his Oban, paid his bill and tipped me above and beyond. Then (good grief!) he shook my hand with such a force you’d have thought I’d been that bartender back in the forties. And then he was gone.
Well, there you have it, dear reader… an Oban, a Budweiser, an unlikely plate of chicken wings, a man from Sweden with a story to tell and a red-faced bartender with one big lesson to learn. And that is this. Never prejudge a patron, always give a warm welcome, and realize it’s not about you but about the customer.
Over and out from Bar-land… see ya’ next week-end!
Celebrity update: The couple I wrote about two weeks ago in the post called “A Lesson in Humility”, stopped in again and gave me permission to name them. So for those of you still curious, it’s Adam Campbell and his wife Jayma Mays. She’s starring right now in the television series “Glee”. And the two of them couldn’t be nicer.