Bitten By My Own Snake

Originally published 14th of July 2011

Do you know what a rattlesnake is?

I am not asking about Crotalus atrox, a legless reptile that lives in the Southwest of the United States with a poisonous fangs and a castanet at the end of their tail. I’m asking about a middle-aged woman with too much makeup, age inappropriate clothes and a lifetime full of regrets shaking a glass filled with ice to get the bartender’s attention. Unlike the snake, however, rattling your glass at the bartender might result in you getting bitten.

Last night was one for the books. I am behind the bar the bar Wednesday through Saturday at Keys On Main and the beginning of my week is traditionally the slowest night of the week. That’s a good thing. It gives me an opportunity to set the bar up for the next three nights. Contrary to what most people think of bartending, it is a pretty monotonous job. I spend most of my time cleaning, stocking, organizing, preforming maintenance and waiting for somebody to come through the door. Because of the nature of the club, most guests don’t arrive until the piano show starts thereby giving me a chance to drink club soda and Tweet (hey, follow me @BennyRaskin).

I equate it to the calm before the storm. I am invariably busy once the show starts at 9pm and I make the most of it after I am done setting up. The only downside to having such a large club empty once we open the doors is that the first guest feels like a loner loser coming in to get a beer and is forced to ask a dumb quesiton. Even though the door is open, the neon lights are lit and I am standing behind a bar filled with potent potables, they always ask the same question: “Are you open?” That’s where the second part of bartending comes into play. 90% of bartending isn’t pouring drinks, it’s talking.

Of course we are. It takes a lot of guts (or the shakes) to be the first one through the door. Fortunately for me they know their two options for entertainment: watch TV or talk with me. Either way, as far as I am concerned it is show time. I have a lifetime of watching bartenders on TV to know what to ask. Where you from? What brings you to Salt Lake? The key to be able to talk to anyone from behind the bar is to have read the newspaper and the box scores from the day’s previous games. If you read the local rag, in my case, The Salt Lake Tribune and a USA Today, you should have no problems striking up a conversation. Throw in a little basic geography (“Allentown? Isn’t that outside of Philly?”), local trivia (“Yeah, Brigham Young is buried right up the street.”) and a dusting of Utah’s unique liquor laws (“No doubles but there’s ways around that…”) and you should have no problems entertaining anyone until they start banging out Billy Joel.

On average, most guests are cool. They get it. They’re usually one-and-done or have a little dinner before heading out. On occasion, they’re a bit snarky wondering why we’re not busier even though we just opened the doors three minutes ago or bitchy because we don’t sell Fat Tire or Yuengling but for the most part these are some of the best customers of the night. It’s just beer and cocktails with an occasional shot and a lot of talking.

Wednesday started out this way but somewhere along the way to the forum, everything went to Hell. Uncharacteristically, I had a full bar when I opened the door. There was a wide breath of business men, college students, conventioneers and people waiting for TRAX sipping beers and talking amongst themselves. I moved from right to left, refilling drinks, wiping down the bar and chiming in occasionally. It had all the makings of a great night until “They” came in.

“They” were a group of five people with Utah driver licenses, gold cards and Appalachian sensibilities. It was two women and three guys I would loosely describe as men in their mid-40s and they were on a mission. They came to drink. I knew they were looking to get into trouble when the first thing they asked me is if I sold Canadian Host. For those who don’t know what Host is, the best way I could describe it is to refer to their website which lists one of its positive attributes of Canadian Host as its “1.75 L size features an easy grip to handle.” It’s bourbon-flavored paint thinner. Instead they settled on Southern Comfort and Coke and lots of them.

They were caricatures of bad customers. They were demanding, ill-tempered, sweaty and completely oblivious to the other guests in the club. Bartending is a contact sport but they were treating the night like a MMA fight. If it had just been SoCo and Cokes all night I would have been okay but eventually they discovered our drink menu and opened up a barrel of monkeys:

What’s a Mojito? I didn’t know you had a blender? It’s Britney Bitch is a dumb name for a drink. Did you know Red Bull is made with cow sperm? Instead of pineapple juice can you make it with Kool-Aid? Why do you have a drink called Bohemian Rhapsody? Are you sure you don’t have Canadian Host?

They treated our drink menu the way a gorilla treats a piece of Samsonite. Dragging their fat, liquor soaked fingers over every drink on the menu all the while mouth-breathing like a dog waiting for a Milk Bone. I tried to make a suggestion to them to help facilitate their order but I was met by deranged, bloodshot eyeballs that screamed nobody tells me what kind of Mojito to order! My father used to tell me what kind of drink I should have and I hate him. The old axiom of monkeys and footballs came to mind. They eventually settled on Rock Coconut Mojitos and sent me away with the wave of their hand.

The best way to put me into a tailspin is to order a series of time consuming drinks and ordering rounds of muddled Mojitos is a pretty good ways for me to cry Mayday. We make our Mojitos with fresh mint, limes, granulated sugar, simple syrup, rum and club soda. Making one takes time but knocking out a table full of them requires a scrum of bartenders. Mojitos have a way of becoming a self-replicating drink. While a guest is waiting to order, they see me muddling away and decide they would rather have a Mojito over the bottle of beer they came up to get. Rack ‘em up! No drink sells itself better than a Mojito.

Mojitos are only bad because of the time consideration but they are far from my least favorite drink to make. If I had to list my least favorite cocktails to make, it would include any drink that includes half-n-half, Butterscotch Schnapps, Irish cream or requires to be blended. Guess what I did for the next two hours? If you guessed pouring Jack-n-Cokes, you’d be wrong.

They worked their way through our new drink menu damn near causing me to have an aneurism trying to remember all of our new drinks. If it’s a classic cocktail like a Manhattan, Singapore Sling or Pink Lady, no problem. I know the cannon of American bartending. But if it is a Lady Gaga, Snaggleberry Surprise or Upside-down Screaming Orgasm, I might need to consult my smart phone. Between the Mojitos, new drinks and the Kentucky Headhunters playing “Stump The Bartender,” I was beginning to lose my cool.

They wouldn’t have been a problem if they were the only customers in the club. But like a Chinese Elm, these backwater inbreds had this invasive characteristic of sprouting up new patches of equally demanding hillbillies in the bar. As the night progressed, we became increasingly busier. Every time I looked up, there was a new swarm of self-entitled knuckleheads yelling for our drink specials and wondering where the Canadian Host was on the liquor shelf.  I was falling behind with the volley of orders and only surviving by muscle memory and sheer will. It’s not that making the drinks is difficult—it’s taking the order, making the drink, delivering it and getting the money all the while putting on a confident face that is hard. The hordes of screaming maniacs don’t make it easy but nobody said bartending is a cakewalk of a job.

This is the job. You can’t take it personally. Working in bars is volatile simply because anytime you add alcohol, people act irrationally. It’s the nature of the business. While certain nights are easier than others this one was becoming pretty difficult. Even though I had reached a point in the night where I was flowing through our guests, knocking out Flamin’ Dr. Peppers, Irish Car Bombs, Stingers, Grasshoppers and any other madman drink I eventually hit my breaking point. One of the ladies in the group got up from the table, walked to the bar and shook her empty glass at me.

Did that bitch just rattlesnake me?

I was in the middle of making another round of Mojitos for her table (by my count, their fifth round) when she rattled the ice in her glass right in front of my face. I have pet-peeves like everybody else. I don’t like being mauled when I am bartending, I don’t care what bar life in Florida is like, don’t disrespect my co-workers and do not rattlesnake me. I didn’t mind making rounds of Miami Vices or Scooby Snacks but waving a glass in my face is where I draw the line.

What do you want? You want another Mojito? I’m making you another Mojito. Put the glass on the bar and go back to your God damn seat. She was dumbfounded. The last time somebody spoke to her that way, she was probably getting hog-tied and thrown in the back of a squad car. She was acting like a Pentecostal Christian: handling a snake, speaking in tongues and soon to be drinking strychnine. The whore of West Valley City piled enough crap at me and I was ready to throw it back at her. She did an about-face and returned to her table. For the rest of the night she eyeballed me but I didn’t care. I knew that no matter what else happed throughout the evening her morning was going to be worse than my night.

Mercifully, I made last call. No matter what happens, it always eventually becomes 1 o’clock in Salt Lake City. I dropped checks off at the WVC and was surprised that even though they acted like Dudley Moore in denim they actually tipped pretty well. The rest of the room slowly cleared out and I was left to the task of cleaning up this pig sty.

The mark of a professional is keeping your cool throughout the night no matter how bad things get. Granted, I was muttering every four letter word under my breath, smiling though gritted teeth and spitting in every fourth drink (gotta love those odds) I was able to keep my composure the entire night. It was a busy Wednesday and that’s good. It’s better to run your ass off instead of sitting on it all night long. And for money, let’s just say thank God for quantity as oppose to quality. In the end, you can’t choose your customers. You just endure them.

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