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When The Circus Comes To Town

I was setting up the bar last Thursday afternoon preparing for a busy night. The night before had been busy with a large group of salesmen from McGraw-Hill in the bar. Wednesday night had been a scouting party for Thursday’s evening of debauchery. When you think of McGraw-Hill, you probably think of every textbook you have ever used from K-12. When I think of McGraw-Hill, I think I’d better cut extra fruit because they drink like bastards. The bar math is simple: (out-of-towners + team building workshop + poor impression of Utah’s liquor laws) x corporate credit card = a bar full of drunks screaming “Piano Man” for five hours.

I was still recovering from getting sideswiped by a car. I was super-sore and I haven’t spared anyone from my non-stop whining about Utah drivers and my lack of heath care. My elbow has healed up pretty nice but my right knee still looks like raw hamburger. I forget how taxing bartending is on my body because I am so busy and don’t have time to notice. For nine hours, I am on my feet moving, bending and lifting all the while talking with guests, pouring drinks and trying to keep my silent judgments to myself. I never have a chance to take stock of my body until I am doing money at the end of the night. By that time all I want is beer and Motrin.

Setting up the bar is a time consuming enterprise. It involves pulling out all of the bottles from the cabinets, filling ice bins, cutting fruit, stocking beer and cleaning. Berg counts need to be made, banks double-checked and tables organized. I spend a lot of time fielding phone calls and making reservations for the weekend.  It takes about two hours. I call this time “putting make-up on the pig.” After applying enough mascara and lipstick, I turned the neon lights on and opened the doors.

It is traditionally pretty slow in the club from 7pm until the dueling piano show starts. The real draw of the club is the two guys on stage banging out the all-request show. I usually get a handful of people waiting to catch Trax, grabbing a quick drink after work or wondering in trying to use the bathroom. Thursday was different. I had a pretty full bar the moment I opened the doors. They were a combination of people going to Pioneer Park for the Twilight Concert Series, German tourist visiting our National Parks and construction workers. I slung drinks and ran plates of nachos from the kitchen. It had all of the beginnings of a great night until these two guys came strolling into the bar.

They looked like they were 14 years old but their ID’s said they were 23. I told them that we didn’t have a cocktail waitress and that they would have to order from the bar. They told me that it wouldn’t be a problem and asked if they could put together a couple of tables. No problem. After helping them set-up four tables in front of the pianos, I asked if they would like anything to drink. They asked what non-alcoholic drinks we had when a smile stretched across my face. Oh boy, Mormons! Better warm up the blender for virgin piña coladas! I told them Coke, Sprite and Diet Coke. The kiss of death came when they asked if we offered free refills. In a brief moment of weakness, I said yes providing you bring me the glass. I should live to eat my words.

My complaints regarding Mormons are limited to the State Legislature and inside of the club. Nobody put a gun to my head when I moved to Salt Lake ten years ago. I moved here on my on my own volition and to complain that there are a lot of Mormons in Utah is like complaining there’s a lot of Catholics in the Vatican or Muslims in Mecca. For better or worse, they came here before us and it’s their city. Nitpicking the LDS influence in Utah simply indicates you don’t understand the history of the state.

I love having them as neighbors. I just hate have them setting policy in the legislature and ordering mock-tails from me. But I figured, how bad can it be? It’s just a couple of soda pops, right? The problem was that they were needy and asked too many questions about bar life. This wouldn’t have been a problem if they ordering booze but for some reason I am less apt to talk about Salt Lake’s drinking culture when you’re slugging back Sprite for an hour. I still had a bar full of customers chugging beer and they were slipping off my to-do list.

As we were getting closer to showtime, the bar was filling up and I was starting to move. Just as the piano players were getting ready to hit the first chords of the night, a line of people started entering the bar. If a flock of crows are called a murder, a cluster of whales a pod and a gathering of owls a parliament, let’s call a group of LDS males a Circus of Mormons. With that said, the circus came to town on Thursday night.

Both the McGraw-Hill party and the rest of the Circus came through the door at the same time. In one moment, I went from busy to slammed. The book peddlers congregated around the bar and ordered a series of beers, whiskeys and mojitos. Mojitos are the time-burglar of drinks until a corporate credit card is handed over to me. Once I get that AMEX in my hand, we can all pretend we’re in Havana for the evening. The Circus, on the other hand, was a little more difficult.

There were about 20 of them which sat in front of the pianos. I went out to the table to take a drink order and you would have thought it was the first time they’ve ordered a drink from somebody other than their mother. After listing the non-alcoholic drinks to every single guy, my patience was wearing thin. How entitled do you have to be to think that you can monopolize the bartender’s time while you are struggling between cranberry juice and lemonade? Of course, in every Circus there are going to be a couple of “bad boys.” These are the guys that order a can of Red Bull with the moxie of a young Mike Tyson. What should take 30 seconds drags on to an agonizing quarter of an hour simply because they don’t know how to act in a bar and they don’t think they should have to pay for anything. It should be noted that you’re not allow to play the babe-in-the-woods routine with me if you are going to oscillate between being a hardass and super-sensitive.

After running trays of soft drinks to their table, I asked them what the occasion was. They told me that they were having a bachelor party. I almost hit the floor. The success of Keys On Main is that it appeals to a large group of people. We are able to cater to a wide-breath of guests and I think we do a really good job of entertaining a diverse group of people. With that said, if I ever have a bachelor party and my best man takes me to Keys On Main, I will punch his mother in the mouth. A memorable bachelor party involves going across a state line, strippers, booze, a squad car and maybe a goat. Having my friends getting me on stage so that they can sing “My Ding-a-Ling” to me doesn’t cut it.

Somehow, I was able to fall into a strong routine between running to the circus tent and back to the bar to knockout a round of peach mojitos, 7-n-7s and Coors Lights. The book dealers were getting their swerve on. They were making quick work through our drink menu and trying every combination of mojito we offer. They were an interesting group of people. In talking with most of them, I discovered that there wasn’t a single person who wanted to sell textbooks for a living. Every one of them fell into the book business after another avenue of work closed.  As a whole, they were decent people. Individually, however, there were some doozies.

There were two women fighting for the top podium spot for batshit crazy. One woman with saddleback hips, bad bangs and a voice like a banshee was screaming “Donna Summers!” the minute she walked through the door. She bellied up to the bar (literally) and ordered a Patron and dill. Thinking she meant the herb dill, I told her we didn’t have any. She pouted for a moment and told me that her favorite drink was a shot of tequila with a chaser of pickle juice. Oh! You mean a Pickled Weenie? Yeah, we got those. I ran back to the kitchen and filled a squirt bottle up with brine. For the next three hours, she ordered rounds of Pickled Weenies and became increasingly louder. To be fair she already had the volume of a Mack diesel truck. Somehow through the over-priced tequila and pickle juice shots, she was able to yell Donna Summer’s name at levels mimicking a shuttle launch. If I drank a quart of tequila and pickle juice, I would be horking for the next three days.

Her competitor was a pleasant middle-aged woman from Redding California who was disappointed with our one-ounce pours. She was complaining that I wasn’t making her rum and Cokes correctly. I might not know every drink in the Boston Bartender’s Guide but I have mastered the rum and cola a long time ago. In trying to figure out how I was making them wrong, she told me that the bar she drinks back home make the drinks better because she can’t taste the carbonation from the soda pop. I apologized but I told her that in Utah we are limited by our shot size. She told me that she had gastric by-pass surgery and she can’t have too much bubbly water. Incredible, you get elective surgery and it’s now my problem that you’re ordering drinks you can’t have? That’s like somebody who is lactose-intolerant ordering a cheeseburger and then getting bent out-of-shape when it comes with a too thick of a cut of cheddar cheese on it.

I would have chalked her up to nuttier than Jimmy Carter’s poop if she didn’t ask me what my favorite baseball team was. I told her it was the San Diego Padres. She leaned in and asked if it wasn’t the New York Yankees. I told her no and that I hated the Yankees for what they did to the Padres in the 1998 World Series. I hate the Yankees not because of their bottomless checkbook—I hate them because they swept the Padres. I asked her why she loved the Yankees. Was it because you’re from New York? No, she had never been to NYC before and that she loved them because of Derek Jeter. She likes the Yankees the same reason why my mother likes the Minnesota Vikings; Mom likes the colors purple and gold. I would have let it slip except every time she wanted another drink instead of asking for a rum-and-coke, she would howler: “Jee-tah!”

What the Circus and the book people had in common is the absolute astonishment of what we didn’t sell. Keys On Main isn’t the Monty Python cheese shop sketch. We actually have a humongous selection of drinks and food. If for some reason we aren’t carrying the one item that you had your heart set on, you have two options: order something else or clear out. Bitching that we don’t carry Diet Dr. Pepper or Blackberry schnapps shouldn’t be a deal breaker from you having a good night. My role as the bartender is to find something that you will enjoy. However, when I have a full bar and you want to have a Lincoln-Douglas style debate about why I don’t carry Fat Tire Beer or Fanta Grape Soda, you will be detracting from the other guests and acting like an imbecile.

The night raged on. The Circus ran me ragged with refills and the book peddlers were dropping like flies. If they had been the only groups in the bar, it would have been tough but I had so many other guests that I was dripping in sweat and wearing down. Mercifully, we got to last call and I sent them packing.

You can’t choose your customers. You get who comes through the door. It’s a crapshoot and I like gambling. Sure, I would love to bartend for an ATM machine that orders Miller Lites and tips $20 bills all night long but customers come in all types. On Thursday, I got both ends of the spectrum. The McGraw-Hill people drank like warriors and tipped like the Mayan calendar was for real. The Circus? Not so much. Somehow I scratch out a living in between these two groups of people and that how it goes. There are no perfect customers. However, I am always appreciative of everyone who comes through the door. I have always said that I would rather go to the library over the circus any day.

Follow me on Twitter @BennyRaskin or become a fan of Behind The Bar on Facebook.

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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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