Monday, March 1, 2010

Guest Bartender

Guest Bartender

One occupation I missed out on was bartender.

I don’t know why, exactly, although, I suspect this:

There was an oft-told legend in my family (of three, in the era in question, two of them adults—I could argue my points until I or the cocker spaniel fell asleep).

My father’s older brother was tending bar one day, when suddenly, at the exact moment of the end of his shift, he turned in his bar rag, and walked out of the pub, never to return again.

Uncle Billy—or Uncle Bill, or Willie, or Will, or William, or Watusischwartz—died of malignant melanoma before I got to see him or summon him by name, also before I checked the story out.

The story continues: my father (or my grandfather, or grandmother, or some such curious soul) asked him why he had done that (during the Depression, no less). I mean quit a good job, without so much as a conversation, without a reason, (ostensibly), without a difference of opinion between him and the owner, without a beating, without anybody insulting his girlfriend, without allowing him to attend Mass. He just left.

I was captivated.

According to this story, William Francis Lowe, my father’s only brother, whom legend has it could walk on the East River (“I love my Bill,” my grandmother always told my Dad, I guess without the approval of a parenting book), said: “I find myself reaching for a highball.”

(I listened intently. “He found himself reaching for highball.” What was that about, that it make you quit a job? That doesn’t answer anything.).

Well, heads were to have nodded, I judged by my father’s demeanor and tonal change from somber to sacred. I mean, no question. Case Closed. End of story. No need for an explanation, no argument, no difference of opinion, no nothing.

On hearing, “I find myself reaching for a highball,” even I was to nod in affirmation and go about my business, never to ask again, nor need to.

(Subject change. What do you think of those Dodgers?).

Now, when I was younger, I mean, really younger—like, unsure-of-the-meaning-of-highball younger—this puzzled me no end. Trouble was, I could not reveal that.
In the absence of a sibling, I didn’t want to appear stupid. So, I waited patiently for an explanation, maybe, in context, down the road apiece.

None came. And the story was told so reverently, so convincingly, so mysteriously, I knew I would reveal myself as having to be stupid for failing to get it.

So, I never told the story, nor did I ever ask what were the key words in the sentence: “I find myself reaching for a highball.” Whether, “I find myself,” or, “I find myself reaching,” or, “reaching for a highball.”

I think I learned next that a, “highball,” was ginger ale and whiskey. I learned other drinks, some with vodka, some with citrus, some with gin—the difference between a martini and a Gibson, for instance, was a decoration—an olive for the martini, or a pearl onion for the Gibson. That stuck with me. “I’ll have a martini…no, better yet, a Gibson.” Same drink, different awful vegetable.

Some of them smelled good, though it never occurred to me to taste one. I had a beer when I was 14 and knew I was going to be locked in eventually. I experimented, but nothing matched a beer.

It was some time before I learned about, “Toxins.” By that time, I knew the meaning of, “soaked,” as well as, “cast ironed liver,” “stewed,” “three sheets to the wind,” “hammered,” and the rest.

I also had learned other things, but not well enough.

The stroke followed some years later. (“Oh, you mean, like, really poison, poisonous.”).

But somehow, that story made me want to not be what I thought I knew I wanted to be, the Center of Attention, the Ringmaster, The Publican: The Director of Mirth, The Solace of the Forlorn, The Confessor, The Advisor, The Entertainer, The Protector, and The Arbiter of Cusswords.

I tried priest. That didn’t work for me.

Musician would have worried my mother, as would comedian. Depression error people were convinced that civil service would keep anybody alive, but not show business. And half of mine was a family in show business.

I sought to be a cop for a minute, but my father was opposed, and he was a cop. I was a Teacher. I could have stuck it out as that, but for the graduate courses in education.

Then I got job writing stories, with the codicil that I never would get a part-time job without permission.


“Except…oh well…done. I’ll never be a bartender.”

A role comes to me in the last few decades, “Guest Bartender.” You don’t get paid, so you don’t break the rules. It’s sort of play bartender, classic fantasy summer camp bartender. My world was perfect.

I think my first was at a secret known by hundreds. It was a benefit held by saloon keepers for a saloon keeper friend whose saloon had been destroyed by fire just before Christmas. I don’t know how many guest bartenders there were that night, but I stayed. I tended bar all night. They had to pry me away. Of course, I couldn’t walk the next day, but I didn’t have to.

I served as guest bartender after that maybe a dozen times. The last few, I worked behind whatever bar on slow nights a few nights before, to get used the cash register, the soda gun, the speed rack, and when and how to get out of the way when the real bartender needs it.

When Jimmy the Greek Varelas floated the idea of being a guest bartender a few weeks ago at Abel Conklin’s in Huntington, I started laughing. My inability to laugh the way I used to laugh made me laugh harder. That, in turn, made me laugh harder. I pictured myself tending bar, one arm, one leg, and that made laugh harder.

I was now choking. I had to hang up.

Maybe 60-to-70 people showed up. I served, or re-served, oh, six drinks. Denise, the bartender, picked up the slack.

I have really wonderful friends.

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