Watching the return of “Mad Men” last week (a ritual when the show is in season) your friendly bartender couldn’t help but to go back in time. But not to the era depicted on screen when cocktails in the office were as common as IBM Selectrics, when lunches were three hours long if they ended at all, but to the era immediately following that time when there was no workplace to go to, when lunch was all there was for there was no job. The aftermath… the hangover… the days when I first started doing this thing called bartending.
Some say it started when Jimmy Carter declared the “three martini lunch” a bogus business expense. Others believe it was all those mergers giving rise to the ubiquitous bean counter… the guy who was brought on board to trim all the fat. But whatever it was that sobered us up it marked the end of an era, and it turned a lot of these ad men into sad men. Very sad. For it took away all their toys which I witnessed first hand…
My first experience with all this stuff took place in the nineteen eighties (my first real job as a bartender), at a one-time haunt for agency types and sales people. Deals were made there, trysts were played there and bullshit bounced off the walls like balls in a racquetball court. Phrases like, “Cost per thousand” and “What were the overnights?” could be heard in the air as readily as “Pass the salt.” This was a place for “players”, especially if they played “hardball”, or at least it was before I’d gotten my job there.
For when I arrived at this venerable spot the tsunami had already hit, and a lot of these one time players were now out of work. Ah, but they still tried to play the game, these guys, as if they were still on top…still wearing bright red party hats when there was no fucking party… which provided for your brand new bartender quite a balancing act. The guys who were still employed were fine and they always did the right thing (like pay their tab!!!), but those who weren’t used to drive me right up a wall. They hung around almost all day long, lying to me and each other (“Hold my check, will ya’, bartender? I have a three o’clock and then I’ll be back”), or in general got sloppy drunk and sometimes belligerent. But you didn’t really know who was who at first… which is where the balancing came in… so you smiled at all and played the game til you did.
And how did I eventually separate the wheat from the chaff? Well, even for a rookie like me, dear reader, it got to the point where I could spot these guys in the doorway. Their suits were a little bit shiny at the elbow, their shirt collars toyed with a fray, the soft leather cases they carried around were as thin as The New York Post, and (to quote myself from a past blog) a conversation like this might have easily taken place.
“Hey, Kid, where the hell’s (owner of the bar), that crazy son-of-a-bitch? We used to have more fucking fun than a barrel full of monkeys.”
He’s not here right now, he doesn’t come in til four.” (I worked the day shift.)
“Oh, r-i-i-i-i-g-h-t, I forgot. That’s just dumb, for cryin’ out loud, I better have me an eye opener. Listen, young man, give me some quarters to make some calls, I gotta confirm some appointments, and pour me a Dewar’s on the rocks while you’re at it, okay?”
“Oh, and by the way, can you cash a two party check while I’m here, my friend? (Owner) used to do it all the time, I’m cash poor today.”
“Geez, I’m sorry, we’re not allowed to cash checks anymore. New rules.”
“Shit, okay. Then let me go take this meeting and I’ll pay you when I get back.”
“Whoah! Wait a minute, Sir, what about a credit card?”
“Hah! Are you kiddin’? The wife’s got it. She’s out spending all of my fucking money!”
Or something like that, as I recall… fast talkin’, smooth talkin’, full-court press bullshit as if I were a client. And when he’d hurriedly walk out the door, this type, you might even see some shiny suit pants as well! They were funny, they were tragic, and a far cry from some of those lovable rogues we see each week on Mad Men, who were one generation away from perhaps the same fate. Which brings me to a little incident I had a few weeks ago.
This guy used to be a regular with us and though loaded with phrases like, “Sorry I haven’t been in in a while, I’ve been traveling a lot to Germany,” aside from that nonsense he wasn’t an unwelcome guest. His B.S. was somewhat harmless and so was he. But lately he’s just been coming in and standing around the piano, listening to the music (to the untrained eye) when the truth be known he was waiting for a friend to walk in. A friend who would pick up the slack and buy him a drink. So on this night of a few weeks back… this night which took me back to the Eighties… he sidled up to the bar for a change, ordered a glass of wine, and proceeded to have a total of three for his stay.Then, after a good two hours of sipping and smiling he called out my name rather loudly, mimed a note pad with one hand while he feigned writing on it with the other (the universal sign to tab out), then shouted even louder, “Let’s have my check!”
“You got it,” I shouted back. Then I tallied his check, walked to his spot, but when I got there he went and said something that really bugged me. He said, “I said I’ll have one more and then my check. Didn’t you hear me?” Now of course you know what’s going on, dear reader, it’s the oldest ploy in the book, and one that has about as much chance of flying as a Studebaker on blocks without a pilot. Because here’s the scenario. He figured, rather than me redoing his check at this point, a pain in the ass to be sure, I’d simply say, “What the hell, this one’s on us.” And the funny part is if he’d asked for a fourth, which he clearly hadn’t, I assure you, I probably would’ve given him a buy-back anyway. But this, as I said, just bugged me for its sheer transparency. So fuck it, he’s paying! I know that sounds cut and dry and harsh but you get cut and dry and harsh when you’ve done this a while. When you’re being played!
So I placed his glass of wine on the bar, the rewritten check beside it, picked up his cash (by the way, cash with these guys is also a sign that things aren’t going too well, it usually means their credit’s been called to a halt), and I rang up the tab for four drinks much to his chagrin. It was simply my way of saying to this guy, “Don’t do stuff like this, man, you know you’re better than that, and you look like a fool for thinking that I’m your fool!” End of story.
So what’s my point in telling this? It’s that nothing changes. The “song and dance” goes on as before, just like it did in the Eighties, with different partners now taking the floor and your friendly bartender still doing his best to lead. And the Mad Men are still the sad men, alas, at least the ones who still try to play these games. (Cue the violins!)
Hey, but before I go I’d like to end on a high note, or at least a note from Bar-land I think is humorous. A customer of mine… actually one of my best and a real gentleman… came up with this little scenario I thought worth repeating. He said, “What are the three worst words you can hear in a cab?” “I don’t know,” I said, “what are they?” He said, “If you meet a terrific woman in a bar and actually get to leave with her, she says when you climb in the cab, Two stops, driver!”
I like that, ’cause it’s happened to me and every damn guy in New York.
Over and out from Bar-land, now I gotta go try and cash me a four party check!!!