The first time I poured a drink in a bar I was 16 years old. I was working as a barback and dishwasher at a crummy little strip-mall bar in North Las Vegas named Gator’s. It was owned by my next door neighbor and managed by her daughter. It was a blue collar bar frequented by a bikers, construction workers, casino employees, professional drinkers, derelicts, drug dealers and prostitutes. And this was just the staff. My manager had a one-out/one-in approach to bartending. For every drink she poured, she would have one. Fortunately, she was fortified by a steady stream of crystal meth to keep her going throughout her shift. It was a rare night when part of my barbacking responsibilities didn’t include carrying her to her car and helping her with the ignition.
On one particular night after she tipped a bottle of Canadian whiskey down her neck, she literally passed out behind the bar. I was washing glasses when I saw her fall to the ground like a sack of potatoes. I propped her up against a beer cooler. There were about 20 grizzlied men eye-balling her and all of the booze behind the bar. Instead of letting these animals tear the bar apart, I kept everyone at bay by pouring beers. My relief bartender wouldn’t be there for three hours and that 180 minutes proved to be the longest of my life. Fortunately, they weren’t ordering cocktails. It was all beer and shots. I think the only reason they didn’t destroy the bar and me with it was the fact that I was giving away most of the beer and reciting Andrew Dice Clay nursery rhymes the entire time. When the graveyard bartender came to relieve “us,” he found his boss passed out, a bar filled with drunks and a kid who barely got his driving license walking out the door with $200 in tips.
Gator’s was a place for a lot of firsts for me. In twenty years of working in bars, Gator’s is the only place that I’ve ever seen a chair get broken against somebodies back. There were bar fights there nightly with the locals kicking the crap out of the airmen who worked at the nearby Nellis Air Force Base. It’s the first time I saw hard-drugs, caught people screwing in the bathroom, cleaned up vomit out of video poker machines and been propositioned by a hooker. As summer jobs go, the stories I told my senior year at high school trumped most of the tales my classmates told about Taco Bell or Jack In The Box.
It was the single most unhealthy environment I have ever worked in. Yet, I learned more that summer about people, booze and how to make money when I could anywhere else. It was an internship into learning how to hustle. Bartending is one of the last trades that still utilizes an apprenticeship. Unlike electricians and pipe-fitters who have schools teaching them the skills necessary to preform their trade, bartenders learn on the job usually starting as a barback. Gator’s was the kind of bar that said electricians and pipe-fitters would visit after work to drink a dozen beers before going home to families that they resented. Gator’s was a proving grounds of sorts: I learned not only how to prep a bar for a busy evening but how to interact with all sorts of people, work along side functioning alcoholics and drug users, avoid getting the crap kicked out of me and how to make money.
Prior to Gator’s, I recognized danger the same way most of us recognized an angry dog: snarled lips, exposed teeth, growling and such. Working along side degenerates and addicts a couple of nights a week, I saw mad dogs and Englishmen in every customer. It toughened me up and exposed me to a world where you can scratch out a living if you worked hard, avoided the mistakes of vice and treat the work of a bartender as a profession not as a job.
Bartending is a trade with a low point of entry and a high ceiling for success. It’s a rare night somebody doesn’t ask me what is my real job. It’s not meant to be insulting because there are only a select few who make a living pouring drinks in Utah. Even though I have a day job, I always tell them that this is my real job and bartending has been good to me. Too often people think that you can’t be a professional bartender in the Beehive State. Between the liquor laws and abundance of Mormons, a lot of people think that martinis and highballs pour themselves. The service industry gets a bad reputation in Utah because it is populated with a lot of rookie waiters and bartenders but I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the best. The diamonds in the rough in Utah shine brighter than those in other states.
Last week, I started training two new bartenders for Keys On Main. They are cocktail waitresses that have been promoted to take over Tuesday’s karaoke night. It’s hard to train new bartenders who haven’t barbacked before. The time spent watching the bartender and working along side them is invaluable to learning the trade. I’ve worked a dozen clubs since Gator’s and at each one, I have been able to pick up some sort of knowledge, trick or technique. Training as a bartender isn’t just learning the computer, how to set-up the backbar or how to cut fruit. It’s learning the patience of the trade, being able to work as a team and how to deal with the volatile customers that pay our wages. Nonetheless, I think April and Megan are going to do a great job. They’ve already mastered how to talk to customers and how to hustle.
Saturday night was a wall of faces. I was working the service well for the cocktail waitresses and the girls were jamming. The service printer was spitting out tickets a foot at a time and the customers were an unruly group of British Isle monsters consuming copious quantities of Jack and Cokes, gin and tonics and JagerBombs. I used to think that bachelorette parties were the worse customers in the world until I met the Welsh on holiday. The self-entitlement of a woman about to get married yelling at me that I don’t know how to use her digital camera is nothing in comparison to a mob of Welsh skiers barking a knock-off version of English for another round of Red Headed Slut shots (1 oz. Jagermiester, 1/2 oz. peach schnapps and cranberry juice). It would be one thing if Tom Jones was giving me the business but these thugs in their North Face jackets indicated that Cardiff was a dozen village idiots short.
They knew everything about America except that tipping is customary and the practice of modern dentistry. Their complaints about the differences between our countries fell on deaf ears. I refused to believe that our cultures are that much different if the shot of choice for their douche-nozzles and ours is the JagerBomb. One guy actually insulted Utah because it wasn’t located on the ocean. While I agree that beach side property would be nice, that’s like reprimanding a zebra for its stripes or anyone of these guys for not knowing who their father was.
I’ve come to the opinion that the image of the ugly American abroad is a myth created by Europeans to excuse their behavior when they’re visiting our country. I’ll concede that there are a mess of Americans that would be considered unpalatable but the guys with a lip full of Copenhagen, camouflage hats and bass fishing T-shirts are not touring the Louvre. These Euro-trash have to come here to experience the ugly American and they’re our ugly Americans. It’s experiences like this that force my hand to recognize that I only have enough love in my heart for Americans, Canadians and Mexicans. The Welsh have forced me to become a NAFTA xenophobe.
Fortunately, we had other guests in the bar to keep me moving. The club was completely booked and people kept pouring in the entire night. It was an Old Mr. Boston kind of night: the guests were ordering every single conceivable drink. Shots, beers, cocktails, wine, blended drinks, muddled and layered. I was put through the ringer racking my brain on how to make Brooklyn Zoos (1 oz. vodka, 1/2 oz. rum, 1/2 oz. gin, 1/2 raspberry liqueur, pineapple juice and sweet-n-sour topped off with draft beer), Tree Smackers (1 oz. rum, 1/2 oz. apple pucker, 1/2 oz. peach schnapps, orange and pineapple juice and sweet-n-sour) or Gladiators (1 oz. Southern Comfort, 3/4 oz. amaretto, orange juice and Sprite). I even had a guy order a Fog Cutter but we didn’t have the cream sherry to make it. In case you’re wondering, the Fog Cutter is 1 oz. rum, 1/2 oz. gin, 1/2 oz. brandy, lime juice and orange juice with a float of cream sherry. One of the bartenders, Farley, came up with a great drink called Apple Sauce (1 oz. Goldschlager, 1/2 oz. apple pucker and pineapple juice) as a shot and it sold like wildfire.
I love it when people try and play stump the bartender. Providing they have their method of payment ready, I’ll make anything they order. Unfortunately, like most nights, the guy who refuses to start a tab ends up having seven drinks and I have to run his credit card for each one. I always know what kind of night I had by how dirty my glasses are at the end of it. By 11 o’clock, my glasses were so opaque I thought I was watching an adult movie filmed in the 1970s.
Much to my chagrin, there were a handful of ugly Americans in the club. But for every jerkweed, there are ten great customers. Keys On Main is a wild bar. The dueling pianos is only part of the show a guest could expect when they visit the club. Between the music, the customers, the bartending staff and the moving sidewalk of Salt Lake passing by our windows on Main Street, Keys On Main is a fantastic experience. There’s nothing like it in Utah.
I haven’t been back home to Las Vegas in four years and it’s been a decade since I last stepped foot in Gator’s. I miss my family in Nevada but I certainly don’t miss dodging beer bottles, stepping on crack-pipes and ducking Hepatitis C from working at Gator’s. As a first job, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. As a career, I’ll take the dueling pianos.