I am four deep at the bar. My shirt is soaked through with sweat, beer, cocktails and people’s spit yelling at me to get them a drink. We’re running dangerously low on glassware and I am almost out of ice. The mound of fruit cut for garnish is quickly disappearing either in drinks or people’s greedy hands. I am having a hard time seeing the swarming crowd in front of me because my glasses have so much filth on them you’d think I was watching a porno from the 70s. The floor is a swamp with broken glass, trash, melting ice and plastic cups. The neatly choreographed dance between my barback and other bartender has fallen apart as we frequently crash into each other. I am darting between the beer taps, my well and the register cash-n-carrying for the umpteenth time the same guy ordering a beer and shot. I have two thoughts going through my head. One, is this the first time these people have ever stepped foot in a bar and two, why didn’t I go to law school?
The crowd is rowdy and wearing U of U gear getting ready for Saturday’s game against Arizona State. Over the noise of the dueling piano show, it’s a deafening roar of people demanding JagerBombs, Long Islands, bottles of beer and cocktails. In reality, what they’re really yelling for is my attention. I am the gatekeeper to their booze and they are pissed the bar is filled to capacity. We could have had ten more bartenders and it wouldn’t have changed a thing. The only way to take care of this group of vandals was with a fire hose filled with AMFs.
I casually look at my watch and let out a quiet sigh. It’s only 10:30? It’s two and a half more hours until last call and I don’t see the swarm of people slowing down anytime soon. On the upside, my tip bucket has finally reached the point where the cash is flowing over the side and the signed credit card slips are piling up along the left side of the register. It’s going to be a great night providing we can somehow keep up this pace until 1 o’clock.
It is organized chaos. It’s not like going to a Jazz game where they have a serpentine line for beer. Guests push to the bar and fight for our attention. To remedy this I am big fan of playing the Number Game. The Number Game is when I assign numbers to people in what order who I am going to serve them. It’s like going to the butcher shop and taking a little paper number. Now serving #12: what are you drinking? When customers take a deep breath and pull their head out of their ass, it works like a charm. The problem is that most people don’t have enough KY to get their head in a position for me to take a drink order. Instead of a molecule of discipline, people just scream like Barbara Crampton for Coors Light. The lack of order makes every night really challenging. It doesn’t have to be that way but it is and the day that I start wishing for people to act rationally at the bar is the day I dust off that LSAT score.
In all honesty, all I want to do is to get everybody drunk and take as much of their money as possible. I am in the business of getting people sloshed and business is good. To think for one moment that I am not trying to move as fast as possible to get your drinks is both insulting and idiotic. You might not be the problem but your fellow customers sure are. Every time someone cash-n-carries for a single draft of beer, I am being put into the weeds simply because it takes way too much time to ring up one drink. And I love how people think that they are doing me a favor when they casually tell me go and cash out like they’re some sort of Caesar giving the order to slay a gladiator. It always makes me smirk in disbelief that some sort of 23 year old hussy thinks she is queen of the castle when she tells me cash her out after her single shot of vodka. Two things, Sweetheart: one, drinking straight vodka at a bar means you are a whore and two, find somebody with cash to buy it for you. Waving me away with the back of your hand is more dismissive then pistol whipping me.
And when did people’s club clothing become a cross between urban camouflage and a circus clown? I long to live in a world where everybody dresses like Don Draper or at least are applying for a job with him. I hate to sound like Old Man Raskin but when did having a fly fishing lure woven into your hair with shotgun applied make-up constitute fashion? How am I supposed to take anything you say seriously when you look like you came back from the future with a bolt through your ear and a T-shirt that is covered in chain link and a pit bull? I like the fact that on the weekends I know what I am going to be wearing: something black over black jeans. It must be terribly distressing to look into a closet filled with high school musical costumes and trying to find the right ensemble for a night of clubbing. I think it goes without saying that the nicer your dress shirt is the faster I am going to be taking your drink order. The guy in the sports coat with a date in a skirt is going to be served before the guy with a shirt that reads: “Five Dollar Foot Long.”
My favorite guests on Friday were these two couples. The guys were carbon copies of each other with swollen biceps squeezed into Affliction shirts (I wish I was joking) with harlots sporting fake boobs squeezed into even tighter tube tops. The alpha dog greeted me with a punishing fist bump that should be reserved for heads of state or Ray Lewis. They ordered three JagerBombs and a shot of vodka. I poured the drinks and put them down in front of them in quick order. As the alpha dog’s girlfriend paid for them with a credit card, Rich Wyman, one of the piano players, started playing Buckcherry’s “Crazy Bitch.” The bar erupts in a euphoric eruption as I put the girl’s card and receipt in front of her. As I was doing this, she seductively dances to the song with her friend and slides her tube top down showing me and everybody else in the 801 area code her humongous fake tits. What did I do? The same thing you would have done. I looked. As she danced for a six Mississippi, she pulls her top up and snaps at me, “You getting an eyeful, Dick?” Now, bartending does have its advantages over other professions: free drinks, cash money and the chance to meet some interesting people. But when did I become the Peepin’ Tom when you flash a bar with over 600 people in it? I guess I don’t have to tell you she was the one who ordered the shot of vodka.
In the thick of the fight, I was able to find a pace that could keep up with the demand. It’s a precarious dance to keep things moving when you are completely overwhelmed with the amount of customers we get at Keys On Main. The job demands that you think on your feet and problem solve on the fly. I was doing well until I hit a big hick-up. Her last name was Green and she drank a Mexican Quinceañera of tequila. She ordered a baker’s dozen worth of shots for her and her friends. When she finally closed out (she was one of the good ones who actually started a tab), she left my bar only to return 15 minutes later to close out. I told her that she already closed out. She told me no and I said yes. Instead of looking through her possessions to see if she had her receipt, she told me that I was a liar and a bad bartender. Well, she was half-right. Even though there was a wall of customers screaming for drinks, I stopped everything, leaned over the bar and said in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “I am way too busy to lie about closing out your credit card, Green. You need to check your purse, your pockets and your bra for your credit card. I closed you out and I need you to shove off.” Tequila brings out the demon in people and she was no exception. She said repeatedly that she didn’t have her card until she fumbled through her bra only to find her Visa. Instead of apologizing to me, she flipped me off. I would have been mad at her except I figured her Saturday would be one long day of an icepack on her head followed by dry-heaving into a toilet.
I probably looked like a whirling dervish behind the bar. Spinning from customer to customer, I put Green in the rearview mirror and moved forward. Fortunately, most of the drinks are your basic orders: bottles of Miller Lite, gin and tonics or kamikazes. I am very dramatic when I am going to take a customer’s order to make sure that there is no confusion whose turn it is. I point with my entire arm and bark, “What are you havin’?” Hopefully they have a general idea and if not, they at least can give me an idea of what they would want. If you find yourself in my bar on a busy night, avoid asking what is my favorite thing to make. I’ll just pop open a bottle of Bud Light. I would stay clear of asking me what I would drink because you’re going to get a shot of Jameson and a bottle of Pacifico. Don’t try and tell me about a summer vacation to the Florida Keys or about the time your Aunt Dee was making mojitos with cucumber and dill. Avoid complaining about Utah’s liquor laws because I will tell you I won’t argue or agree about the parameters I need to follow to keep the bar legal. And at all costs, don’t ask what we have on tap. Some 6’7” guy on Friday actually asked me what we have on tap when his face was less than six inches from the taps. When I go to a new bar, I take a beat and check out my surroundings. Beer taps have this interesting thing called a label on them usually describing them to a tee. You need to be elastic when you’re in a busy club. They might not have what you want but I am certain there is something in the neighborhood of what you can drink to make the night less than a complete disaster.
Now a word about tipping. I am going to let you in on to a very, very dirty secret. You don’t have to tip. You also don’t have to go to the bar. Tipping is as much a part of the bar experience as risking driving home drunk. You’re going to do both. My general rule for tipping is that I throw down a buck per drink. Even though I make my living by gratuities, I don’t expect more than a $1 a drink. It’s fair and it usually works out to 20%. The old cliché of not having money to tip but money to drink doesn’t pass mustard with me. There are repercussions if you choice not to tip. For starters, don’t think for one moment that me and every other bartender worth their mettle doesn’t keep some tipping scorecard in their head when dealing with a busy crowd. If you don’t want to tip then start a tab. At least with a tab, you can wait until the end of the night to stiff me. When you are cash-n-carrying and I can judge your level of commitment to me getting you loaded. And under no circumstance tip anything less than a dollar. Tipping 50 cents on a drink does nothing unless you’re going to leave me a time machine so I can go back to the 1950s to buy a cup of coffee. Coins are an appropriate tip when they are Sacagaweas but keep the pocketful of nickels and pennies for a barista. I don’t need them. And under no circumstance ever give me a verbal tip and your business card when signing your check. A verbal tip is something along the lines of “that was the best service I have ever had.” Verbal tips only count when they come with an Andrew Jackson. You can’t put gas in your truck or groceries in the fridge with a verbal tip. Multi-level marketing hucksters are the kings and queens of verbal tips. I guess when you’ve based all of your financial decisions around a pyramid scheme you forget what it’s like to work for a living.
My friend Blake Perez told me that I am not a good writer but that I am just lucky enough to work at a club that provides a lot fodder for great stories. I think he is right on both counts. Writing is hard but bartending is even harder. I am usually a physical wreck come Sunday. The hours are long and the window to make money is short. We are only busy for four hours a night and that’s when the dueling piano show is on. No show, no dough. I think with all of the bars closed in Salt Lake City, Keys On Main has become the last large club in the Valley. People want to come to our bar because it is a very cool place. It’s classy, the entertainment is top-shelf and the drinks are reasonably priced. It’s a good place to throw a drunk on and hit on people of the opposite sex. I think what Blake was talking about is the 10% douche bag count at the club. Much like my column, the 10% idiot count takes up 90% of my energies when I am bartending. Nobody wants to read a story about a respectable group of young men enjoying shots and tipping appropriately. If that was the case, I might as well rename the column, Behind The LDS Curtain: Tales of Boring Things with Boring People. The vast majority of my guests are super easy to deal with and usually a joy to take care of. Is it my fault that the people I constantly bring up wear Affliction gear and hang out with hoochies?
Four deep at the bar is how I want to spend every one of my nights and so do you. When I am four deep at the bar, you know that you are in the right club and you have a chance to have a great night. I don’t know what you’re looking for but I think you’re going to have a better chance of finding it with me than any other bar in Salt Lake City. Yes, we are not Las Vegas but we’re the closest thing to it in Utah. But don’t think for one moment how you act in my bar is not how you’re supposed to act any other busy club. Know what you want, pay for it, tip and shove off. Let’s keep the bar four deep not six.
Ben Raskin bartends at Keys On Main Wednesday through Saturday. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin or follow his Tumblr feed. Become a fan of Behind The Bar on Facebook.