It's not the kind of gig you dream about as a child, most people just sort of end up in it as a means to an end. In my case, I stood jobless many years ago in the middle of Danceteria, in a bondage cap and goth drag, surveying this brave new world, and said to Michael Schmidt, "Maybe I could bartend..." Rudolf, the owner, happened to be passing by, and Michael touched his arm and said, "Rudolf, she wants to bartend." Rudolf replied, "You're hired, come see me tomorrow afternoon."
It's funny how every person's destiny hangs on one random moment or another. At the time, I thought getting a job was the easiest thing in the world because I'd had a similar experience at a Betsey Johnson a few months earlier. I didn't realize until later that my youth, looks and willingness to dress as outrageously as possible were opening doors for me. I was shocked and hurt when I started at Danceteria and the barbacks and many of the female bartenders expressed open hostility toward my presence, quickly exacerbated by the fact that I hadn't a clue how to pour a drink. Karen Finley, a performance artist superstar and a very kind woman, taught me how to pour a count during my trial by fire on a busy Friday night, graciously and with a minimum of eye-rolling. Rudolf paid for bartending school, and I cultivated some non-hateful work relationships, and it quickly became amazing.
I met rock stars, formed bands, picked up new boyfriends, learned how to do drugs, learned how to spot drug addicts, wore my underwear as outerwear, wore a ponytail on a belt fashioned to look like a horsetail for a good six months. I slept all day and got up at dinnertime, usually opening my eyes to whomever I'd partied with the prior night and morning: sometimes punk rock Jill, her giant mohawk leaning sideways, cigarette already in her mouth, sometimes a new guy. After a childhood in Michigan feeling like an alien, I loved having my fellow aliens around. I'd chainsmoke, send Jill out for coffee, tease my hair, put on a ton of makeup, belts, belts, earrings, earrings, scarves, jackets, leggings, hats, and roll on out to do it again, night after night. I had so much cash around my apartment that I would forget where I'd put it and find $300 under my jewelry box two months later.
And then eventually, as time went on, record deals procured and lost, rock stardom almost reached and then dashed upon the rocks of grunge and foolishness, romance turning out to be something excruciating and horrible that I clearly couldn't navigate properly, drugs serving to create suicidal tendencies, bartending morphed from a party in a job to something I had to do because I didn't know what else I could do. I began to hate it. I hated being around so many people. I hated people waving their hands in my face and shouting my name. I hated talking to lonely drunks. I hated people in general, especially wasted ones. Every minute behind the bar was a punishment and it showed in my face and demeanor. I became THAT bartender.
And so it was time to stop, or die, or kill someone, and learn a new trade. Which happened, and I excelled and enjoyed it for a time and I thought I'd never return to the bar. Yet here I am. Never say never. And strangely, it's not bad. At moments it's awesome in a completely different way.
Saturday night on Avenue B is quite a different scene from the last time around. The crowd is primarily all the people "we" have complained about for years, who now completely dominate our once-fringe neighborhood, which was a tight knit community of musicians, artists, drag queens, freaks, and faggots, who had invaded the primarily hispanic ghetto that came before us. My people. My adopted homeland. Our tribe is gone now: died of old age, mohawks grown out and cut into sensible bobs and moved to suburbia to raise children, moved to other cities more amenable to the artistic temperament and financial state. But because Avenue B is a little off the main drags of Avenue A and further west, it's not too horrendously collegiate just yet. And I work in an elegant little bar that attracts, for the most part, intelligent, educated young adults from good families who know how to behave in public. Most of them are either in college or recently graduated and working in one prestigious profession or another.
Let's call a thing a thing. Yuppies. I'm waiting on a lot of yuppies. People I used to sneer at if they dared to walk my block, which they rarely did because it was dangerous and held nothing of interest for them. But that was long ago. They won the war; my people defeated. But I am not a sore loser (after loudly going through the seven stages of grief). I have come to terms with my loss and am willing to meet them on the battleground with shield lowered and hand outstretched, especially if said hand receives a cash tip.
So there I am, a curious relic from another time, covered in tattoos and rock and roll gear, manning a small island bar by myself in a side room off the main bar. I provide a little bit of East Village flavor for their evening's entertainment. I am older than they are, I am of another world, I Am Legend.
Okay, maybe that's a bit dramatic. And it's slightly turned around because I'm the one wearing too much makeup. But this is how it feels more often than not.
Because of the size of the room, I work a lot of birthday parties or groups of people who want to escape the larger and more crowded main bar. So I sort of get the cream of the new New York crop. They're hip enough to land on Avenue B and adult enough to want to hang in a side room. They don't scream for Pickle Backs, but they think an Old Fashioned with an expensive bourbon is a really cool drink and they do a lot of shots of Jamison.
I feel sad for them in some ways, they are too young and their pop culture too vapid to know the exquisitely painful rock and roll heart burst that came with, say, hearing the end breakdown and buildup of "Sick as a Dog" the first time you put Rocks on the turntable. So much promise of an ecstatic life imminent in the music of my youth. They'll never bounce up and down in a sweaty, joyfully mind-blown crowd in front of The Cramps. It's just oldies radio to them. Most of them don't really care about music, and what they do enjoy sonically seems flat to me. Where is the sex? The danger? The passion? The beauty? Why don't you ache for anything?? But maybe they do, and I can't see it. I have not enjoyed the pleasure of living in a luxury apartment, and I am not so selfish to think that just because the things that move me aren't interesting to them, doesn't mean that they don't have things that move them equally as deeply. We all carry beating hearts within our individual chests.
So lately I've been making connections with people that I once viewed as the enemy. These are fleeting connections, to be sure, we're not making plans to hang out after work, but they are connections nonetheless, and I'm finding that I enjoy it. And interestingly, I'm finding that many of them yearn for my good opinion. They have no idea that I had and have a life outside of pouring drinks, but the smarter ones know what "we" think of them. They know they're not that hip, but they really want to stand next to hip and feel comfortable. They ask me questions about my life. They ask me where I got my dress. They give me stock tips. They want the tattooed and scarred alien to be nice to them, which I am, and they respond, for the most part, in kind.
This week I had a guy who told me that he had been robbed of his iphone at knifepoint on his way to the bar. It was easy to see how it happened. He looked very normal, had a beautiful navy wool coat on, a good haircut, clearly a well-kept guy and one who is not going to fight back if you pull a knife on him. Although who knew that people had knives pulled on them anymore on a Saturday night in the East Village? I bought him his first drink as consolation, and he tipped mightily on all subsequent purchases and high fived me for hours. His friend kept repeating, "If you had full sleeves I'd marry you." (Meaning if I were tattooed to my wrists instead of elbows). Finally I laughed and said, "How is that a reward for getting more tattoos? Am I supposed to be tempted by this random offer?" That drew more high fives from his friends. Now we were hanging.
Another guy said, "You're the first bartender in this neighborhood who has been nice to me!" And his girlfriend answered, "Yes! Everyone has been so bitchy, we're going to stay here with you!" That made me smile. I never cared about people like this the first time around because I was too busy making sure Joey Ramone had a beer or that the biker at the end of the bar wasn't going to beat the crap out of my latest, half-a-fag potential boyfriend. Anyone outside of my circle was invisible. Now everyone is visible. I like being liked, I want people to have a good time. I like paying attention to signs, I have more compassion and am more able to let the little things go. I'm not looking for something or someone new, there's no agenda, just a desire to earn a living with a minimum of angst. When I have the time and inclination I dance behind the bar along with them to the dumbest songs. They think "Shout" by the Isley Brothers is the pinnacle of dance heaven because they remember it from Animal House. I'll make bullshit girlie drinks for the 22 year old girls, who leave a dollar tip like they're doing me a huge favor. I'll pour water for the shitheads who know they should tip for it but don't. I don't care. It evens out in the end, the good outweighs, or outtips, the bad. It's all good, I guess, until it feels bad again.
It's edifying to view these people as people for the first time, when throughout my life they have just been the nameless army of "straights" hell-bent upon destroying my world. My beloved past is gone, but the present is here and there is still fun to be had. I'd rather dance to a tired old 50's song in a roomful of mostly strangers than not dance at all.
So uh, yeah. Tip your bartender. Don't ask for a mojito when the bar is slammed and there's nary a mint leaf in sight. And if they're really crabby, don't take it personally. We're all in our own bubble.
Photo by Felix Rodrigues