No Time For Backup

I slid across the hood of my squad car and withdrew my sidearm. It was 300 to one. I kept thinking it was pretty good odds. The Fraternal Order of Police was having a convention in Salt Lake City and Keys On Main was getting the brunt of the business. There were over 5,000 out-of-town cops wandering the city and they were in search of strong drink and action. Descending upon my bar like a pack of mad dogs, they proceeded to drink me out of house and home in no time. A sea of men flashing their badges demanding service awaited me the moment I opened the doors and I quickly rethought my odds. Thursday night wasn’t going to be won—it was going to be survived.

When I am behind the bar, I like to think of myself as the sheriff of the club but I had a roomful of people who would quickly disagree with me. I was treated as if I had a gram of heroin and a zip gun in my sock. They had short-tempers, loud voices and dead eyes. The drink of choice was bottles of Coors Light and Miller Lite because they weren’t going to get suckered into drinking that wussy 3.2% beer (the joke was on them—both of these beers are 3.2%), Seagram’s VO, sweet vodka-based drinks and for some reason, a lot of Apricot Hefeweizen. While their body types ranged from fit-to-fat, short-to-tall, donut-to-diet in one form or another, they all sort of dressed the same. They were all wearing some casual uniform of a graphic T-shirt from one of their local bars or a collared golf shirt, cargo shorts and loafers without any socks. At the height of the night, when I had a chance to look up and survey the room, I was instantly reminded of Ralph Stedman’s drawing of the narco-convention from the second half of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

My two takeaways from the night were that cops are cheap and loud. They act like a ditzy blond who wants everything bought for them and have a voice register that only bartenders and Labrador retrievers can hear. The fact that as a group they could yell my name for five straight hours is only matched by their love of cheap, cold yellow beer. I work alone behind the bar on Thursdays with only my trusted friend and colleague, Aron, minding the door and helping me with dishes. I knew that the night was going to be brutal after the previous evening. They came in force and threatened to come back. It felt like they brought reinforcements.

Now, before some SWAT team kicks in my door and arrests me on a trumped up charge of libel, I want to go on record that I like cops. With the exception of rapping along to an NWA song, I rarely speak begrudgingly of police officers. I view them as partners with the community and an essential tool to keep crime to a minimum. I honestly think that the overwhelming majority of police officers are decent, honest and intelligent enforcers of the law. Moreover, it is essential to have a good relationship with the police if you are operating a business that sells alcohol and every single encounter I’ve had with cops at the bar has ended positive. Sure, there are a handful of knuckleheads on the force but find a profession that doesn’t have a couple of buffoons.

I like a man in uniform and so do you. Tell me you’re not strangely fascinated with their Batman-esque utility belt filled with guns, tazers, handcuffs and batons. Even the mostly grossly obese police officer looks good in their uniform. Squad cars are cool providing you’re not in the back of one and there is no vehicle more badass than a Harley-Davidson Road King Police Special. Even plain clothed police are cool with their sidearm tucked tight into their side and a badge hanging off their belt. We love John McClane, Riggs and Murdock, Dirty Harry Callahan, Popeye Doyle and Barney Fife.

With that said, I don’t hang out with cops socially. I have only a handful of police officer friends and I am usually oblivious whether or not somebody is a cop when they come to the bar. This certainly wasn’t the case last week. Instead of polite conversation about where people are from and what can I get for you, I was told three things upon immediately greeting someone: I am a cop; Salt Lake has a lot of homeless people; and you’re drinks suck. So much for what can I get you?

The vast majority of the police were from Connecticut, Oklahoma, Ohio and Kentucky. There were a couple of stray dogs from other districts around the country but these four states composed the majority of the business. They formed intensely segregated groups around the bar choosing only to mingle with members of their own state. They were practicing the drink buying game that bar owners love and bartenders hate. They were buying rounds for their tables but were suffering from sticker shock when I would drop a $54 bill on them for each round.

Those who were without a state ordered as if it was their first time in a bar. Even though the bar is filled with intoxicated patrons, beer taps, bottles of liquor and wine, they looked at me as if all I sold were beaver pelts and radiator hoses. Without exception, this was the sequence of service. They would wait impatiently for me to get to them as I was struggling to keep up with their fellow patrons, have absolutely no idea what they wanted to drink when I got to them, tap the bar nervously as if I forgot what they ordered and finally fumble through their wallet looking for a $3 or $7 bill to pay their tab. Once again, know what you want, know how you’re going to pay for it and shove off. The last thing I need is to play eye-hockey with you after I dropped your drinks off.

You can’t have a real bar story unless there is a woman. Fortunately for us, we had one. It started with a very simple question: What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything? The question was asked to a statuesque redheaded woman who probably stood a shade under six feet tall. She was fair-skinned, skinny and had tight curly red hair that went down to the middle of her back. By all accounts, she was a pretty woman. She drank Strongbow Dry Cider and shots of Jameson. I was surprised when I carded her that she was only 23 years old. She had an “old soul” about her: confident, strong and free-spirited. She sat at the end of the bar and struck up a conversation with one of the Connecticut police officers. She had a major disadvantage when she walked innocently enough into the club: she happened to be on a road trip from LA back to Connecticut. She never stood a chance. The cop, trying to be coy, asked her what the meaning of life is. Failing to get the right response from her, he asked me and I responded, “42.” I was quoting Douglas Adams and I happened to answer correctly. She immediately shouted that my answer was bullcrap and I agreed. The point of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is bullcrap but it still makes for a great read. Instead of rolling with the punches, she took this opportunity to challenge the police to a drinking competition. I don’t think I need to tell you how this ended.

I know for a fact that the most popular beer in the United States is Bud Light but surprisingly enough, the cops had a strong disdain for it. They’re drink of choice was Coors Light and Miller Lite. After two straight days of drinking us dry, we eventually got to the end of these beers. This is when pandemonium was introduced into the bar. Grown men who carry a badge and a gun for a living were dragged to their knees in shock and disappointment. I honestly thought that the room as a whole was going to walk out but they bit the bullet and moved to Bud Light bottles. But for Bud Light ordered, there was a glance shot at me that read, “I know he’s holding out on me. I’d love to get him into a windowless room.”

Here’s a little bar math for you: what do you get when you have 300 cops in a bar? 300 concealed weapons. No matter how bad things got, no matter how much I wanted to open-hand slap every fourth customer, I knew that there was a .38 Special strapped to their ankle. For the next five hours, they were drinking with the reckless abandonment. I would have tried to slow them down but they were armed and dangerous and on a mission. And the worse of the bunch were drinking things that I wouldn’t have touch back in junior high. For as tough and gruff as they were trying to be portrayed, they sure drank a lot of Apricot Hefeweizen. I want to put a particularly fine point on this observation: they drank a lot of Apricot Hefeweizen. Sure, Squatter’s makes a fine fruit-flavored beer but after a couple of gallons of it, I would be so sick I don’t think I’d have the strength to beat a confession out of a suspect. Moreover, they really enjoyed drinking one of our house drinks, The Lady Gaga. The Lady Gaga is made with strawberry-infused rum, Malibu coconut rum, pineapple and cranberry juice. Granted, this is a tasty drink but my idea of a police cocktail is a mug of Irish whiskey and a cigarette. The fact they were killing boat drinks in SLC on a Thursday night made it hard for me to take them serious.

Contrary to what most people think, I really like our dueling piano show. I think the guys playing the piano are incredible talented and I am well aware that without the show, I wouldn’t have the good problem of having a roomful of drunk cops. I get asked every night if I get tired of the show and I answer honestly that I rarely hear the show. I am usually so busy that I don’t get a chance to listen to the music. Sure, like most people who hear Billy Joel, Elton John, Journey and Bon Jovi four nights a week, 52 weeks a year, I get tired of some of the same songs but for the vast majority of my guests, it is the first time they’ve seen the show. Just because I’m tired of “Benny and The Jets (for the record, Benny in this song is a girl),” doesn’t mean I have to act put out that they play it every night. Moreover, on occasion, something special happens on stage. I get a front row seat to an incredible experience and get to witness something that has never happened before.

On Thursday, such a thing happened. For a brief moment, I actually had caught up to all of the cops. Everyone had a full drink in their hand, the dishes were washed and I had a chance to catch my breath. Grapping a drink of water, I heard the opening riff to one of my favorite songs, Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues.” I can’t help but think it might be Elton’s best song and his rendition with Mary J. Blige is the saddest most gut-wrenching version I have ever heard. I looked quickly up to the stage to watch one of the piano players begin belting out a great song when my vision was blocked by the tall redhead. She was sauntering across the stage seductively, tousling the hair of the Connecticut cops and gyrating to the song. Before the first verse was even over she had successfully turned the most powerfully emotional Elton John song into a poll dance. Slapping the stage with her hand and whipping her hair back and forth, she did everything short of stripping down to pasties before the end of the song. Needless to say, she was quickly cut off after that dance.

When they weren’t drinking 3.2% beer, tall strong and fruity cocktails and Apricot Hefeweizen, they were knocking back Seagram’s VO. I honestly believe after pool tables nothing has caused more fights in a bar than Seagram’s VO. It is the perfect combination of rotgut and shame in a bottle. The last real fist-fight I got into occurred almost ten years ago when I got too drunk on Seagram’s VO and Coke and decided to take on the entire door staff at the old Port ‘O Call. With a belly full of cheap charcoaled-flavored whisky, I told an army of meatheads that if they’re looking for trouble they just found it. They dragged me outside and beat the stuffing out of me. Ever since then I have always called Seagram’s VO Fight Sauce. The hair on the back of my neck always stands on end when somebody orders one and I caution the cops Seagram’s VO is known to bring out the worst in people. It fell on deaf ears.

Per usual, once a VO and Coke hits the tables, the room becomes a madhouse. The inmate running the asylum was an officer from Kentucky. He was squat and rude. With bad tattoos, a flat-top haircut and no sense of humor, he had finally become the focus of my disappointment with the room. For three straight hours he had done nothing but bad-mouthed Utah, Salt Lake City, Keys On Main and our state’s liquor laws. He was bitching about not being able to get a decent drink in this state and was telling me for the fifth time that back in Kentucky, he wouldn’t have to spend a dime on his drinks because he was a police officer. I’m an immigrant to SLC and I have chosen to make it my home. For better or worse, I live in Utah and the last thing that I will tolerate is some hateful tiny-tike from Kentucky bitching about my community. He came up for his umpteenth VO and Coke and I told him that if he makes one more snotty comment about SLC, he’d find himself out on the street.

Incredulously, he stood back and went to my doorman, Aron, to complain. Aron listened patiently as the cop complained about everything. I could see Aron breathing calmly and sizing up this whiner. Figuring enough is enough, I went over to them when I heard the cop tell Aron that there is eight of them and only one of him. Did he just say that?!? Did he just threaten us?!? Are we going to be going fisticuffs with a bunch of cops?!? In the span of one breath, I envisioned the bar exploding in violence not unlike the moments before the shootout at the OK Corral. Granted, the odds were stacked a little bit higher against us than 8 to 2 when you factor in that the fact that almost everybody in the bar is a police officer and I’m sure they still like a good hog-whipping even while on vacation. He brushed off of Aron and sat down. I looked bewildered at Aron and he gave me a knowing smile that yeah, he just threatened us. Fortunately, calmer heads prevailed but in one brief moment I thought I might be living every skaterat’s fantasy of beating up a bunch of cops without fear of getting arrested. They would have made mincemeat out of us. Still, something had to be done. When he came back to the bar for his umpteenth+one VO & Coke, I told him he’s had enough. You haven’t lived until you’ve cut off a cop in a bar and told his friends that he is 86ed.

Through everything, we made it to closing time. At one o’clock, I was trying to tell them that I am done serving. Cinderella becomes a pumpkin at one in Utah. And it wasn’t like there wasn’t adequate warning. The piano players called out “Last Call” no less than three times and I was putting the bottles away as quickly as I could as the witching hour approached. Utah law mandates that all alcohol needs to be locked up by one o’clock and that there is no more service after that. You are given an additional hour to finish what you’ve ordered but there are no more drinks poured after the booze is secured. For people who work in law and order, you’d think that I was running some elaborate joke on the police. They honestly couldn’t believe that Utah’s last call was a full hour earlier than their state.

Instead of manning up and take their party back to their hotel room, they started negotiating with me. If they negotiated people off ledges as well as they did for beer, I would hate to walk on their city’s sidewalks. I told them that I have rules to follow and shame on you trying to make me break them. I asked for their badge number because I wanted to file a complaint. Once again, no laughs. What bummed me out more than anything was the fact that there were a bunch of smuggled beer and mini bottles in the bar at the end of the night. When we were cleaning up after all of the police officers had shoved off, the bathroom garbage cans was filled with empties that we don’t sell. Even cops smuggle booze into bars.

My war cry in the middle of a busy shift is “Wrecking Ball!” I came up with it about a year ago when I stared down a bar full of customers and jokingly told them that the only way I know how to bartend is like a wrecking ball. Anytime I get a better than average tip, I yell out “Wrecking Ball!” as both a thank you and a warning to the other bartenders that I am stuffing the tip bucket that night. Well, on a night like this, I guess 4% became a wrecking ball when your customers carry a badge. When I was doing the money at the end of the night, I think I finally knew how Rodney King felt. I know they’re civil servants but after five hours of getting my teeth kicked in maybe they could have helped pay for my dental work. I honestly believe that Mormons are better tippers than cops and that’s saying a lot.

As far as I am concerned, Salt Lake City PD and the Utah Highway Patrol are cool. These people deserve a beer on the house for what they do for the community. And in fairness, most of the cops in the bar on Thursday were decent enough but a bad glazed donut can ruin the box. I guess when you’re so accustomed to getting what you want without question hearing “No” from a bartender can really put you in a tailspin. I’ll let them in next time providing they check their gun at the door and ease up on the Apricot Hefeweizen.

Ben Raskin bartends at Keys On Main Wednesdy through Saturday. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin or become a fan of Behind The Bar on Facebook.

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