You’ll never forget breaking your legal hymen.
I had been running The Woodshed for two months when I popped my court cherry. For those of you that have never been served with papers, imagine being in a car accident in slow motion. The impact is inevitable. The collision is brutal. The sounds are horrible. All you want is for everything to stop so you can take stock of what just happened. I’ve been in five car accidents ranging from fender benders to Jaws of Life but no accident is as bad as getting served.
Owning a bar in Utah is tough. It’s not just all of the rules you have to follow with the DABC but the culture of drinkers in the Salt Lake. There are only so many customers out there and I had to fight every single day to get people into the club. Margins are lean, overheads are high and liability is through the roof. It takes massive cajones owning a bar in Utah and opening The Woodshed in the middle of the worst economic downturn in the last decade has been a decision that haunts me every day. Nonetheless, I pursued a dream of owning my own club against my better judgment.
Because The Woodshed was a bit off the beaten path at 60 East 800 South, I had to rely upon creative promoting and booking to get people into the club. If there was ever a single reason why I wanted to sell the bar it was to get as far away as possible from musicians and promoters. Horrible people. They are the kings and queens of something for nothing. They promise the stars and expect the world for their efforts which at best could be summarized as minimal in all of their efforts. It was a deal with the devil: I needed entertainment for the club and they needed a place to showcase their bands. The problem was that both parties were bad at their job.
Case in point: Some guy named Danny Thompson approached me about hosting a pre-Halloween party at the club. Danny owned was the now defunct Clean Flicks. It was a company that took PG-13 and R-rated movies and edited out the content that Mormons might find inappropriate, i.e. sex, profanity and violence. I had already booked a Halloween party with DJ Knuckles but Danny wanted to do something at my bar the night before. I figured I would double-down and do a week of Halloween parties. Besides, Danny’s people were going to decorate the bar and I could use the decorations for the week.
I spent every dollar I had getting the club ready for the first of two parties. If Friday went off, everything I made on Saturday would be gravy. It was a frigid, dry October night at the club. All the ghouls and ghost were hung, candy bowls put out, drink specials posted and dry ice was scattered throughout the room in every conceivable cup of booze. Usually I had a sinking feeling in my stomach at the beginning of the night that nobody was going to come to the club but Danny’s party was different. We had a line of people dressed up trying to get into the bar when we opened the doors at 8pm. They came in all shapes and sizes and in every type of costume. Overwhelming, in 2007 the costume of choice was sexy fill-in-the-blank. From Wilma to flight attendant, all of the women wore some sort of short cut outfit that showed off their bits and pieces.
The bar was absolutely packed. As bartenders, we were completely overmatched by all of the guests drinking. As sales go it was the best one that I ever had but it was a complete struggle to get to last call. Unlike now where I can’t wait to get to last call since I owned the bar, I wished I could have poured until sunrise. We ran out of everything that first night but it was awesome to have a club that was pumping to the house music Danny was playing and all of the guests drinking all of our high-end liquor. Best of all there were no problems until the very end of the night.
My door guy, Mark, told me that the sailor and the catwoman got into a fight in the middle of the street. I didn’t need any more information than that to know who he was talking about. The sailor and the catwoman were these skinny, chesty blondes that looked like prostitutes in their outfits. According to Mark, as they left the bar they had stopped in the middle of 800 South and the sailor beat the living crap out of the catwoman. I went out to see if I could help but the fight had been broken up by the time I got there. I went back into the bar and started cleaning up after an incredibly busy night. Besides, I had to clean up the bar for our “real” Halloween party in 18 hours.
I showed up to work at noon the next day to get the club ready for DJ Knuckles Halloween party. As I was cleaning up and getting a liquor order ready, this heavy set middle-aged woman came into the bar and demanded to speak with the manager. I told her I was the owner and asked what I could do for her. Through teary, red angry eyes she told me that her daughter was beaten up in my bar last night and wanted to know what I was going to do. I was confused. Even though we had been busy, I knew that there weren’t any fights inside of The Woodshed last night. She snapped at me and said it wasn’t in my bar but on the street. Oh, sailor and the catwoman. I wanted to find out what happened and she laid out a knockout punch to me.
The sailor and the catwoman were sisters. The problem is that the sailor was only 19-years old. The sailor used catwoman’s ID to get into the bar. I remember everyone in the club buying the girls drinks all night and I wasn’t surprised they were drunk when they left. The mother yelled at me and asked why did I serve a minor and didn’t I know she had an anger issue? I told her that I don’t serve minors and how was I to know that she had an anger issue? After the sailor beat up her sister, catwoman had to go to the hospital to get stiches and the mother wanted me to pay for it. The mother demanded $1,500 for the emergency room visit and wanted the money right now. I told her I wouldn’t be paying for it and she told me she would get that money. She angrily stormed out leaving me with a bar that needed to get ready for a busy night and a sick heart.
Halloween night was a blur. People tell me it was a good time. We had great sales but my mind was somewhere else. Unlike the Danny Thompson night, DJ Knuckle’s party had multiple fistfights that needed to be broken up. It’s ironic that between the two nights, the one resulting in violence in the club didn’t result in a justice of the peace coming by the bar in a week to serve me papers. I’ve been in car accidents, fistfights, had a knife pulled on me and been in a convenience store when it was getting robbed with two guys holding sawed-off shotguns but nothing scared me like getting served with papers the first time. I thought that I was going to get arrested right then and there. As it turns out, all I had to do was show up in front of a judge in 30 days.
In preparing to go before the judge, I got all of my ducks in a row. I collected as much evidence proving it wasn’t my fault that the sailor got into my club but considering the sisters worked in concert to sneak into the bar made it hard to have a record of them. Halloween costumes are a nightmare for checking IDs. Through in a push-up bra and some hooker make-up, I can easily see how somebody who is 19-years old. Moreover, I knew Mark was a good guy and if a mistake was made it was an honest one. The best part of owning The Woodshed was that I employed really good people. If it wasn’t for them, there is no way I would have been able to stay in business for more than a year.
I showed up to the courthouse with my attorney, Mark Flores, and met with the mother and the catwoman. They elected for mediation. Mediation is done through a court-approved mediator who tries to get some sort of resolution before going before the judge. I wish I had the knowledge today that cold evening in the Matheson Courthouse to tell the mother and her daughter to pack up their bullshit and sell it to somebody else. The daughter looked like 200-miles of bad road. She starts with telling the mediator that she gave her sister her ID to get into the bar, that I poured alcohol for a minor and then they got into a fight in the middle of the street resulting with her sister pounding her head into the asphalt. I was aghast and terrified. Her story was terrible but I couldn’t figure out why it was my fault. In how I saw the dominos falling it all started with her helping her underage sister into the bar.
I didn’t dispute any of the facts she said and I offered a solution. I felt bad that she took a $1,500 medical bill from leaving my bar. I didn’t feel as if I had any direct responsibility from the attack. As far as I was concerned her sister was responsible for all the damage but as her mother told the mediator, the sister was unemployed and couldn’t pay the bill. So, I suggested that we break it up the bill into thirds: it was my bar, it was catwoman that facilitated her getting in and the sailor should find the rest for beating up her sister. Sounded fair but you would have thought I was offering to pistol whip catwoman. They were adamant that they didn’t have any responsibility in the altercation and it was my entire fault for allegedly feeding liquor to a minor in my bar. What a load of horseshit!
After my attorney argued for me for a half-hour, he was able to get them to agree that the entire fault did not lay with me. They agreed to split it down the middle and in the worst decision I made since opening the bar, I agreed to it. I did it because I was nervous of losing in front of the judge. I did it because I wanted it to go away. I did it because I was simply afraid. I cut a check and the case was dismissed.
Moral of the story is that I would rather have the judge sentence me to five-year hard labor than agree to another bogus deal like this. There was no closure on my end. I felt like I had been hornswaggled. I did everything I could do to run my club on the up-and-up and this trashy family successfully came in and picked my pocket for $750. In the laundry list of reasons why I sold the bar and didn’t do more to hold onto The Woodshed, this makes the Mt. Rushmore.
The aftermath of being served for the first time was that I am tougher than I thought. There was no reason to panic when getting served simply because there is always a way to win if you are innocent and willing to fight. Moreover, there is no reason to worry because there is more than adequate time to prepare a decent defense. I wished I had gone to the judge for them to make a ruling but I didn’t. For that, I will always be disappointed in myself for not having the fortitude to fight harder. I hope I have that strength if (Lord forbidding) I get served again.
The coda to the story is that Danny Thompson, the guy who hosted the party at The Woodshed, was arrested a year later for paying a 14-year old girl $20 for oral sex. He was arrested, sentenced and sent to jail for a period of time. Clean Flicks folded. I didn’t blame Danny for what happened but I can’t help but think that anybody who hangs with underage girls might have had a hand in getting the sailor into the bar. He was an unsavory character and I am glad that his conscious decision was punished and my inadvertent mistake was recognized for what it was—a mistake. The takeaway from that entire episode is that owning a bar in Salt Lake City is harder work than you think and complaining to the bartender about Utah’s liquor laws is only the tip of the iceberg club owners face every day. Having been on both sides of the bar I can appreciate how hard it is to make a go of it in Utah.
Because of this, all things being equal, I prefer being behind the bar.
Ben Raskin bartends at Keys On Main Wednesday through Saturday. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin. Because of this episode, he routinely kicks out sailors and Halle Berry from the bar on a nightly basis.