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(Montana) State of the Union

School is back in session and that’s good for business. The summer doldrums are over and the city’s storefronts are covered in large ‘U’ paintings. The days are shortening and the nights are getting cooler. It’s the best part of the year. For such a horrible winter, wet spring and mediocre summer, I am ready to get to fall and the best part of living in Utah. My summer had highs and lows. We were able to get the yard and garden into great shape this year. It’s amazing what you can do when you sell a bar—you finally have time to clean up your house. We did some hiking, ate some great barbeque, rode bikes and hung out with friends. On the downside, I had a wandering catalytic converter problem, got hit by a car and suffered through every Twilight Series concert. Bartending was good this summer but I owe that mostly to out-of-towners and bachelorette parties. I am ready to get back to pouring drinks for locals. The worst the weather, the better the business. Bring on the fall and bring on the college students.

Like the sparrows returning to San Juan Capistrano, the bars see a wave of college students with recently cashed UHEAA loan checks. They’re healthy, fashionably dressed, happy to be 21 and drinking in a bar with their friends. The weight of the school year is still a week away and the beer is cold enough for them to forget that college is hard. Even though they cash-n-carry every transaction, they are pleasant enough and it is relatively fun enough slinging drinks for them. I have enough grey in my beard to good-naturally taunt them for not having cash or talking out of their asses. It’s a fun position to be in and I’ve seen it for the last ten years. With the exception of having to recreate some cocktail they had on vacation or deal with customers who have been hitting the Car Bar (drinking in their vehicle), it’s a good time of the year.

I debated calling this column, “Don’t worry about Tyler graduating,” because there is an endless stream of Tylers to replace him. It seems like every other customer is named Tyler, Josh or Matt. For the ladies, they run in packs of Jessicas, Ashleys and Brittanys. Every parent in 1990 should have stopped taking their cues from Friends and 90210 when naming their kids. They also should have taught their kids how to communicate.  If we dug up Ray Charles and plopped him in the middle of this pandemonium of parrots, all he would hear would be an audible tsunami of “Dude!” and F-bombs.  He would have considered his reanimation as being equally a crime against nature and very annoying.

There’s a difference between bartending in a club and a bar. Clubs are fast-paced, loud and fluid. Bars tend to be places where you can hunker down and drink in the company of friends and often the bartender. Slow play versus gunslinging. Slow play is working the bar, talking to all of the customers, getting to know your regulars and generally looking like Coach from Cheers. Gunslinging is turning your ball cap backwards, pouring as quickly as possible, yelling at your guests to “shit or get off the pot” and trying to turn as many customers as possible. I prefer slow play but I’ve made my living as a gunslinger for a long time. Keys On Main is a gunslinger bar on Fridays and Saturdays and if it’s a good week, I don’t get a chance to slow play at all. If it’s a great week, I get to do both.

Thursday was one of those nights. It was the home opener of the University of Utah’s football season. The Utes have recently joined the reformatted Pac-12 and the excitement of the possibilities was buzzing throughout the valley. The Utes had drawn a sacrificial lamb in Montana State for their inaugural game in the Pac-12 and every Utah man, woman and child was awaiting the slaughter. You couldn’t have thrown a rock and not hit somebody wearing a red Utes shirt. Trust me, I know—I threw a dozen rocks on my way to work. I was told that I was allowed to wear University of Utah gear to work on home football games. Instead, I elected to just wear my normal weekday uniform on Thursday of cargo shorts and black Izod. I am a Utah man in zip code only. My allegiance is to the University of Nevada and you can’t have two mistresses.

I’m not a huge football fan. I always preferred baseball. I never played football in high school and I wasn’t particularly interested in watching it as a kid. Growing up in Las Vegas, I was much more interested in looking at my father’s parlay cards and making my picks. At the end of the day, all I cared about was wins/loses. Football was academic, pure and simple. I cared more about a team covering the spread than who won or lost. Because Las Vegas is such a transient town, there was a strip mall bar that supported every team in the league. I always wondered how you support a team when your town supports all of them. Al Davis had moved the Raiders to Los Angeles when I was in high school and I associated the ubiquitous black and silver jerseys at high school with gangster rap. What can I say? I was a wuss growing up. When I went to college at Reno Nevada, I became a Wolf Pack fan simply because I had school spirit and I liked drinking in a parking lot. Tailgating trumped sitting in the student section at Mackay Stadium. After graduation, I stopped watching football with the exception of the Super Bowl or if I was fighting a Sunday hangover. I found fantasy football less healthy than heroin and since living in Utah, I preferred spending my Sundays up in the mountains or puttering around the house.

However, I do know where my bread is buttered when it comes to game day. And on Thursday, I knew it was going to be with the Bobcats of Montana State. It goes without saying, Keys On Main is not a sports bar. Hell, we don’t even get ESPN on the television. Before they moved the TRAX transfer station from Gallivan Plaza to Courthouse, we used to get people leaving Rice-Eccles on their way south to Sandy but the days of people pre-loading at the club before a game are essentially over. I knew we’d be awash in Montana State fans by the end of the night because we are located to all of the downtown hotels. For somebody without a dog in the fight, I knew that I was going to have a chance to pour a lot of drinks.

Montana State is located in Bozeman and from their citizen’s mouth to God’s ear, it is heaven on Earth. I’ve never been there before but I can imagine it being beautiful. What parts of Montana I’ve been to is jaw-dropping majestic. After Alaska, I always consider Montana to be the last frontier in the Americas. My impression of the average Montanan is burly, jean wearing, hard drinking and fiercely independent with a dusting of cowboy poetry. They’re tough without arrogance. When you live in a state that occasional gets August snowfall it’s bound to toughen you up. Glacier National Park is amazing and Missoula is a great college town. You can’t get a better beer buzz than in West Yellowstone and their borders protects a large part of the United States from Canada. America would be better with more Montanas and less Floridas.

The boosters from Bozeman arrived in a slow trickle but quickly became a flash flood. They were decked out in yellow and black T-shirts, Montana State hats and smiles from ear-to-ear. Utah might have beaten them 27-10 but Montana State took it to the Utes in the second half and they came to celebrate. The point spread was 28 ½ and Utah looked pretty beatable in the third and fourth quarter. The Bobcats won the moral victory of surviving the Utes and their fans were at Keys On Main to rejoice Montana State’s solid showing. I went from to not having a soul in the bar at 10pm to having a mini-Bozeman in the blick of an eye. They drank Miller Lite and Coors Light like it was going out of fashion and took their Crown Royal with water. The piano players quickly realized that it wasn’t going to be a normal night. The show became less dueling piano and more like saloon minstrel. They played their catalog of standard tunes while the Montana State fans swung dance and took shots of Jim Beam.

I got the same sort of complaints when they first came into the club: your beer is fake, can’t get a decent drink, how come I didn’t have to join a private club and so on. I try to be diplomatic with the customers but their T-shirts told me that they weren’t going to become regular guests. I took my cocktail shaker and banged my cocktail spoon against it like a chuck wagon bell and told them the deal. With a captive audience of about 30 people, I told them how we were going to do it this Thursday night. Order what we have, paid for what you order and don’t complain about Utah. Complaints against my club would result in getting kicked out. They nodded in unison and I iced the cake by telling them that for one night, Keys On Main was a Montana State bar. They roared in approval and the party began.

They were a really fun group of people. Even though I had my back against the wall pouring beers and shots (hey Utah, take a note: they drank shots of whiskey not Red Headed Sluts), I had time to switch between gunslinging and slow play. I traded jokes with the group and talked about the football game. I didn’t get a chance to watch it but they filled me in on every detail of the second half. There was a pure sense of pride as they talked about their team. They were genuinely proud of the Bobcats accomplishments and were elated on how well the game ended. Moreover, they weren’t sore losers. For every pro Bobcat comment someone wished the Utes the best of luck in the Pac-12. It was a special kind of night. Sure, they were drunk and were on their way to installing a well-placed hangover for the seven hour drive back to Bozeman but it was innocent and fun.

I think what I liked most about them is that in a way I was one of them. I grew up in the suburbs of Las Vegas but I really came of age in Reno. When people ask me where I am from, I always say Nevada because I like having roots in both the northern and southern parts of the state. Live in Reno long enough and you pick up some hick habits. And maybe that is what I liked about them. We’re all hicks. We all live in the intermountain west. I figure people from Northern Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Western Colorado and Montana are all pretty much the same. There is both good and bad folks in this part of the country. I believe that we share a lot of the same values and characteristics. In one form or another, we all think of ourselves as a cross between Kit Carson, Picabo Street and Robert Redford.

My favorite moment of the night was at last call. They had been drinking like demons for a couple of hours when I took the last order of the night. I poured 15 plastic cups of Bud Light for the remaining guests in the bar to drink while I started cleaning up. They paid for it on a dozen different credit cards (I guess they have more in common with the average U of U student than I thought) and got to work downing the last beers of the night. One guy who had been jawing my ear off all night about our liquor laws gave me a going away fist-pump and proceeded to palm four cups of beer. He was heading to the door for the long walk back to the Grand America Hotel. My door guy, Aron, stopped him and told him that he couldn’t leave with an open container and he would have to drink his beers in the bar. The guy was incredulous. He couldn’t believe that he wasn’t allowed to leave with beers. I was impressed not because of his limited knowledge of state law but that he actually could carry four beers from the bar to the door. My max is three plastic cups and how the Hell was he going to be able to drink them on his five block walk without spilling them all over his shirt? I was half-tempted to let him try. He begged and pleaded but Aron held strong. He begrudgingly went back to the bar and polished them off over the next hour.

The last straggler left right at 2am. We locked the doors and returned Keys On Main back to a University of Utah bar. The bar looked like a bomb went off and we cleaned for the next hour before heading home. It wasn’t my best night. I might like Montanans but they’re mediocre to okay as tippers. Quantity over quality saved my night but it was one of those rare nights I would have bartended for free. I met a wide group of people from Bozeman who travelled a long distance to support their team. They came from all walks of life: nurses, students, miners, writers, insurance salesmen and college administrators. A real mixed bag. My favorite customer of the night son was beginning his freshman year at the University of Nevada and we talked about the pros and cons of going to school in Reno. I told him that my time in college was the best period of my life and I hope his son has a similar experience. Time in college is the best and I am looking forward to the upcoming weeks to sling drinks for U of U students. It’s a good period in one’s life and I hope a handful of them recognize it.

I started writing a column my senior year in high school when Mr. Wright convinced both the principal and my parents that instead of expelling me for inappropriate school essays I should work for the student newspaper. I guess submitting a story about losing your virginity to your 11th grade English teacher isn’t that hot of an idea. The first story Mr. Wright published of mine was about collecting butterflies in a field across from the football practice field. See, I told you I never really liked football. I won columnist of the year for Clark County my senior year and I took this recognition to college. At Nevada, Marcel Levy gave me a weekly columnist spot for the school’s paper, The Sagebrush. Under Marcel’s tutelage and prodding from my fellow columnist Matt Black and best friend, Fitz Whaley, I wrote Raskin’s Rhetoric for four years. I enjoyed every deadline and every moment in the Sagebrush offices writing about the nuances of college life. There’s nothing better than having a release valve to write about whatever you are thinking about during the best years of your life. But for one reason or another, when I graduated I stopped writing.

It took meeting a reporter from The Salt Lake Tribune, Bill Oram, to remind myself how much I enjoy writing. He introduced me to the wonders of Twitter and from there I stumbled onto Blogger. Blogger reminded me of what it was like being the Sagebrush offices even though I was sitting at my desk at home. It’s funny how things can take you back. I started writing this column as a way of talking, discussing and sharing everything I see from behind the bar. Life as a bartender is a rich mine to pull a lot of observations.

I have been trying to publish a column out once a week but it’s really hard to find time to write. Life has a way of getting in the way of the things that you enjoy doing. Moreover, I realize that to be serious about talking about life in Utah and pouring drinks for a living, I need to honor a couple of things. For starters, thank you to everyone who has read the column. I am seriously appreciative of every download and for every comment made by the readers. Every single comment, both positive and negative, has made it all worthwhile. I realize that I am long on story and short of grammar checking but I will work harder to edit the columns before I post them. Second, I need to be more regular with my postings. Starting next week, I will be putting out two columns a week starting on Tuesday and Friday. The Tuesday column will always be about the previous week’s shift at Keys On Main or other aspects of bar life in Utah. Friday will be about anything that tickles my fancy. I would like to have a format to talk about other aspects of my life or things that are impacting us in Salt Lake City. Finally, I started a Tumblr feed to start posting pictures of all of the knuckleheads and bozos I pour draft beers for. Sometimes more can come from a photo than writing about it.

I don’t expect to ever get paid one plug nickel for writing this column but if you like what you read, please tell a friend. I am really appreciated at the number of readers and I will try to keep bringing the funny from behind the bar. If you have any questions or ideas for stories, please comment and I will get back to you. Making Manhattans, Mojitos and Martinis is easy. Writing is hard. Let’s try and see if we can make writing a column as easy as muddling an Old Fashion.

Ben Raskin bartends at Keys On Main Wednesday through Friday. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin, check out the Tumblr feed or become a Facebook fan at Behind The Bar.

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About Ben Raskin

Born in El Cajon, raised in Las Vegas, educated in Reno and living in Salt Lake City. I bartend, write, box and live in Sugarhouse UT.

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