The Thin Air

It’s not the heat that grabs you but the lack of air.

The air is thin. Too thin to work in and much too thin to survive. I would have paid a Sherpa a king’s ransom to pump rejuvenating air into my lungs—to carry the weight for a moment, to ease the tension that my body was quickly succumbing to. But there is no such luck nor hope that Tenzig Norgay would be coming around the corner.

I’m alone at the west bar and the tickets are flying off the printer. On the tickets are drink orders for the cocktail waitresses and I am the conduit to get the booze from the bar to the girls to the customers on the floor. I pour drinks for a living. I am a bartender. The apex of the blue-collar professions, I’ve been doing it for too long but I’ve gotten good at what I do.

The rolodex of recipes that I know would fill three good sized personal computers but I usually only pour 12-17 different drinks a night. Certain cocktails become hot for whatever reason and on any given night I might muddle a gazillion mojitos or never touch the metal wand needed to macerate the mint.

Tonight, it was grouping of upside-down pineapple cakes, blended pina coladas and white gummy bears that filled those God forsaken tickets. Interspersed were Bud Light drafts, Corona bottles and Jack and Cokes. Random other drinks were ordered but these were drinks du noir and my hands made them without my mind thinking about it.

I bring this up because I was working alone. There was no relief from a partnered bartender or barback. We were down a man and I volunteered for the solo shift. Knowing that it wasn’t going to be that busy I figured I could manage. I did but at a terrible cost. I have been fighting a cold for the last week since returning from a three day camping/elk hunting trip in the Uintas. I haven’t been sleeping and the effects of too much activity have been taking a toll on me. Not only am I not young anymore, I’ve become a vessel of poor health decisions. Short of having phenomial luck with my health and constitution, I should weigh 300-lbs. and look like a drag queen because of my diet but somehow I have fooled nature with good footwork and a decent ability to rise to any occasion.

Tonight was no different but it was a choir.

It was a choir because people don’t know how to order. This is because people simply do not know what they like to drink. They treat every moment at the bar as if it will be the last cocktail they ever have and refuse to bend to the notion that maybe, just maybe, they might order a second drink. They refuse to believe that they will have to pay for their drinks therefore never, and I mean never, have cash or credit cards ready at hand when they approach. They put on blinders, shutting out the rest of the bar, and act as if they are the only people waiting for a drink. Lack of empathy and lost in their own world means that slow down service and make me the focus of other’s anger on why they can’t get their drink. A lesser bartender would falter against the vicious eye-glances or verbal cheap shots but I survive.

Survival is the name of the game and bartenders working busy clubs without a sense of self-preservation will never make it very long.

Unless you think that I am some sort of egomaniac that is ready to carve my face next to Washington at bartending Mt. Rushmore, consider this: I am not really good at many other things. I fake my way through almost every construction project. Most if not all means I prepare are some variation of white rice and deconstructed meatloaf. The fact that I haven’t been sent straight to the bin at the Salt Lake Tribune is both a constant statement that I am they are in desperate need of free-lance writers and comfortable with editing the bejesus out of my submitted work.

But behind a well-stocked bar and with adequate customers in the room, I am very good at putting out drinks and ringing the proverbial tip bell when it is time to pay. If only this skillset translated into a better paying position that didn’t involve selling used cars.

Back to the air.

It was hot. Damn hot in the room and the steam steeping out of the dishwasher and the amount of running I had to do to work a long 20-foot bar by myself was intimidating. I was in a constant state of motion and there was no end in sight. It was like a gerbil on a wheel running madly towards freedom with only the promise of last call to get me off this never-ending sprint. Fortunately, I was assigned a good group of waitresses. Some had skills, others had looks and in Colbilyn’s case, both. But in the end, they were committed to the evening and ready to push.

They ordered early, often and fast. The tickets screamed out and I never dared to look at my watch in case I needed to be pouring a draft or firing up the blender for the umpteenth time. The music from the show was a hot mess of noise but that’s good. The pianos are for the paying customers and not for the staff. I’ve heard enough dueling piano music to fill five lifetimes and tonight it was about treading water fast enough to avoid drowning.

And I tread water really well.

From 7pm to the closing moments of last call, I slung drinks and made chitchat with the customers who approached my bar. My shoulders are numb from the amount of cocktails and shots I had to shake and my feet feel like poured concrete ready to finally set. Bartending is a contact sport and that probably accounts for the reason I self-medicate at the end of a busy night.

It was the lack of air that killed me. My lungs were battling a cold and the air was jettisoned from the room by the singing crowds. Gathering a particularly long stream of tickets, I got lightheaded and took a brief moment to collect myself. Where the Hell is my support and who stole all of my lung power? That thief is going to get a whipping at the end of this! But instead of a delivering a whipping, I took one. Technically, I took a whupping but at this point in the night, who is correcting semantics?

In the end, it was just another night. A night filled with a busted colostomy bag at the bar, a ton of Fireball shots and customers who received great service but felt they were given that golden ticket of service because we were cranking. I like those moments when my ball cap gets turned around and I get to the busy work of pouring but every now and then, I wish that I could put a little more effort into my craft. Unfortunately, my craft is more speed driven than flare but in a club like Keys On Main, speed doesn’t kill—it preservers.

Home is for drinks, time with the dogs and avoiding waking Erin. I am calmly sitting at my desk, punching keys and thinking about how I can muster another night at Keys. That said, the air is rich and thick in my office. The drinks are cold and the soft music on the stereo, albeit it Henry Rollins, is calming. The sweet spot. It’s both the reason why I pour and always point my compass home.

Ben Raskin bartends at Keys On Main Wednesday through Saturday. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin. Check out the prep sports podcast that he moderates at TPR: Trib Preps Radio. One can never acclimate the air behind a bar without a Tenzig in their life.

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