There was a considerable buzz building at the Cove and it was all due to my upcoming show. The bar was like a small town and me singing in a few weeks was the most excitement they’d seen in a long time. It got to a point where I wondered what we’d talk about after the gig as everyone was all about the “big night.”
I began to realize that being a bartender, you needed stories. While it was true that a large part of the job was listening, you had to be ready with something witty and interesting at the drop of a hat. People liked to be entertained. At least these people did. My stories fed them just the escape they needed and the more I made them laugh, the more money I made.
They were beginning to feel like family – these random people, who drank entirely too much on an alarmingly regular basis. I knew their habits and their ticks. Robbie liked his rum and diet coke in a wine glass and he’d always go home after six of them – never before. He was quiet and kind of sad. I wondered what life was like at home since he had to liquor up each night before going there.
Seth and Kerry were a lot of fun. He was in town for some sort of fast-track law program and she, well, she just hung out waiting for him to get out class. I think they were my favorite as we’d spend hours talking about a wide range of topics. Kerry was a happy drunk and easy to serve. Seth was cool too – as long he didn’t drink scotch. Macallan 12 on the rocks would snatch away his usually, sunny demeanor, replacing it with a darker, more prickish version.
The key to being a successful and sane bartender was to never get caught up in the lives of my customers. It was a delicate balance, but I couldn’t think about what they did outside of the bar. The truth was that for as much as they drank, none of them could be very happy. I so wanted to help them, but after Jake Bukowski, I’d learned my lesson.
Jake was a regular who came in on Sunday nights. He gave me a hard time when I first started, calling me “Rook” every time he ordered a drink.
“Hey Rook! Get me another beer would’ya?” And then to the others, “How long’s this kid a bartender – a minute. Pfft! I may have to find myself another bar with more experienced people.”
He made me nervous in the beginning. Like anxiety-ridden, nervous. I’d be on edge the whole night hoping that he’d make good on his promise and go over to Foxhounds, the dirty pub down the street. But, no, Jake would show up at sharp every Sunday already half-sauced, ready to rumble.
One night, he was particularly ornery and I was PMSing, which meant limited patience, even for the nicest person.
“Hey Rook! Rook!” he slurred. “Can I get some damn service here?”
The bar was not large and his yelling at me was almost comical. That is, if I were in a different mood. I decided to ignore him hoping to teach him a lesson. When he finally got so infuriated that I thought he was going to have a heart attack, I calmly walked over to him and said, “Jake. If you can’t act like a civilized human being, I’m going to have to cut you off.”
He blinked and stumbled back a step.
It was like a silent showdown and I could smell him sizing up the situation in his mind as he processed what I was telling him. And then something strange happened.
Jake started to cry.
I don’t know what freaked me out more – his crying or the fact that I had my first experience with cutting someone off. But I wasn’t an asshole and I soothed him and listened for the next three hours about his pathetic life of misery.
After that, Jake knew his place and gave me no lip when he came in on Sundays. He’d even started tipping more. The only problem was that he thought I was his new shrink coming in each week with a laundry list of problems to share. That’s when I learned to keep it light and on the surface with the customers – otherwise, I’d develop my own drinking problem.