Bartending may not be the world’s “oldest profession” but the hours are similar and it’s just as hard on your feet. In both cases you have to service people convinced they are at their most charming when they are invariably at their most cretinous. One big difference is that a bartender can usually tell obnoxious drunks to go screw themselves (this being an attitude clearly antithetical to the fine art of sexual solicitation). Usually.
It was a slow night at Bradley’s, a Monday in February, dim and drizzly. I was leaning on the bar, staring out the window, watching all the faces pass by. They made me think of one of those games you had when you’re a kid, where you flip different sections of pages to form different faces, bearded ladies and bow tied Indian chiefs. After bartending in NYC for fifteen years I had recently concluded that barring mutants, disfigurement and people from particularly gene stagnant parts of New Jersey, I had probably seen every combo there was. For me New York had finally become a finite set of Mr. and Ms. Potato Heads. With more than a few gender non-specific Potato Heads thrown in for good luck.
Pondering these verities I continued to watch the world march by. There were the usual collection of Village attitudes past and present, groups of NYU students with various body parts shaved, pierced or bandanna-ed. There were the occasional over-fifty types with the same affectations that were either artists, bikers, lesbians or entertainment lawyers. (Or possibly all four, but then you’d expect silver dollars to start shooting out from under the window.)
I was preparing to tackle last Sunday’s crossword during what was sure to be an empty first set. I introduced the band to the scattered applause of three tables of Japanese tourists and was deeply involved in 13 across when the door opened and two relatively attractive woman entered followed by two very drunk men. The first was short, red headed and loud, imagine the Hyde alter ego of Bud from Flipper. The second was slightly taller, balding and thick lipped. He reminded me of a butcher I’d worked for part time after school when I was twelve. I remembered him fondly. He once smacked me in the head after I had neatly added the tip of my thumb to a pile of sliced headcheese.
Now loud drunks are not your ideal clientele in a jazz club that has a world famous shushing policy. On the other hand three tables of jet lagged Japanese tourists aren’t either. Terry, the doorman, looked at me. I looked at the empty room and shrugged. He took their money.
They stumbled back to a table across from the band after making a loud show of saying “Hi” to the musicians. It immediately occurred to me that I had perhaps made an error in judgment. Sure enough two minutes later Bud Hyde is leaning on the service bar wanting to know why we don’t serve saki. I bit back the “at least we serve morons” and sent him back to his table, but not before he glared at me and told me he was a friend of Bradley’s. Considering that Bradley had been deceased for six years I didn’t consider this much of a recommendation.
I returned to my crossword trying to ignore the noise from the table, but, before you could say seven letter word for puckered orifice the waitress came up and told me that Buddy was being a nasty little prick and Mr. Headcheese was drawing all over the table cloth. I put down my pencil and walked to the back.
At this point I think it necessary to point out that in all my years of tending bar I’ve never actually had to hit anyone. Sure I’ve gotten in between countless drunks engaged in “hold me back” brawls and I’ve pushed, shoved and pulled my share of undesirables out the door, but I’ve never had to resort to an actual punch. This is good for two reasons. The first is that I think violence is a stupid, messy and ultimately ridiculous manner in which to resolve disputes. The second is because the last time I did try to punch someone out was in seventh grade. I distinctly remember loading up a huge roundhouse that missed everything and landed me on my ass. No, I was never the type of guy who was quick with his hands, I specialized in verbal defense. So I was forced to come up with some other way to deal with the inevitable confrontations that occur when you decide to make the service of controlled substances to ambulatory idiots your career. What I perfected was what I called the Hitler invades Czechoslovakia technique. Put simply this means managing to look so insane that your potential opponent, no matter how large, will figure that you are more trouble than it’s worth and give up, (Chamberlain’s First Principal of Appeasement). This had always worked in the past thanks to the fact that, when I get really angry, my bright, Irish, blue eyes bug out in a manner horrible to behold. Staring right into the aggressors eyes, nostrils flaring in a most impressive fashion, I would more or less triumph by superior psychosis, with the offending party leaving the field amid a flurry of inebriated invective. Afterwards I would pour myself a couple of Victor Mcglaglen size Bushmills and pray that I didn’t look quite as ludicrous as I felt. While this method had worked in the past I wasn’t so dim as to believe it would prove effective indefinitely. I was well aware that there are certain individuals that treat intimidating behavior is more foreplay than deterrent. Ex-convicts come to mind, closely followed by anyone who has grown up in Manhattan, excluding the Upper East Side.
I left the bar and walked over to the table with my best “We’re not going to have any trouble here are we?” demeanor and asked Mr. Headcheese if he would mind not drawing all over the table cloth. Bud loudly informed me that his companion was an artist. Looking at his work around the salt shakers I figured he had just as much reason to call himself a seismograph and pointed out that no matter what his muse it did not give him license to deface any flat surface that happened to separate him from a view of his shoes. Bud countered that they were friends of the piano player and that I was making a big mistake. What he said in fact was that I didn’t know “Who the fuck They were.” In retrospect I have to admit that he was right. I was making a big mistake and I didn’t know who the fuck they were. At that moment though I decided that whoever the fuck they might prove to be their patronage was no longer desirable. I told them they would have to leave and turned to tell the waitress that they would be needing their check. As I did so I decided that this would be a good time to work my self up to my most fearsome psychotic demeanor. I didn’t get quite as far as Hitler though. Shit, I didn’t get as far as Babar. As I turned back to the table I experienced a moment of disorientation. This, I quickly realized, was caused by the fact that I was laying on my back on the floor.
At that moment the part of my brain that I’ve always referred to as the Irish part, (the medulla paddyola), kicked in. Usually this section of my intellect limits itself to decisions related to two critical aspects of my life. The first is the inspiration to express myself in writing, to follow my muse as it were. The second is the inspiration to stay in bars until all my money is rolled up into little balls of singles. At that moment it told me to get up quickly without looking first. Boom, I’m laying on the floor again, and again before I can say “no mas” my medulla punchingbagola kicks in and tells me to jump up again, but not before it tells me to grunt as I get kicked in the head.
This time, however, I don’t jump up so quickly. I manage to reach an erect position, (don’t even think it), shaky, but standing. And there is my opponent, Bud, collecting his date and throwing money on the table. Now I suppose I could have rushed at him. I guess I could have, in the best John Wayne – Mickey Rourke tradition, picked up a chair and charged. But, if I’ve learned one thing from years of bartending, it’s that you don’t win bar fights, you survive them and something told me, a trifle late perhaps, that this guy had survived a lot worse than anything I could do to him. What I did do was walk slowly over to the bar. My embarrassment at this point was far out weighing any pain I might have felt. The thing that still sticks in my mind was that the band just kept playing.
By the time I had collected myself they were just about out the door, and I doggedly followed. I’m not sure why. At some point Mr. Headcheese had met the door man, who was walking to the back to see what was happening, and punched him in the mouth. Terry had quickly called the police and we all more or less converged on the sidewalk.
What I remember of this scene is two things. The first was the two bad guys trying to say that we had attacked them, which the police refuted by calmly using their best powers of detection and pointing out that Terry and I were bleeding while our erstwhile opponents were not. The second thing that caught my attention was when Buddy and Mr. Headcheese notified the police that they were carrying, respectively, a gun and a knife, (although Bud was quick to point out that it was a very small gun). This somewhat mollified my sense of disgrace. It also made my decision to not retaliate seem quite well informed.
Eight hours later I’m sitting in the “55”, the unofficial elephant’s graveyard of New York bartending, commiserating with my brethren. After a dozen or so Bushmills my Irish brain is again talking to me. (Although it generally does whenever I make eye contact with myself in the back bar mirror at six in the morning). We get in a conversation with a journalist who is leaving in two hours to cover the extradition of an accused IRA terrorist. We talk of violence and shame and the better part of valor. Eventually I stumble out into the bright light of Christopher St. and semi coherently hail a cab. I have reached a life changing insight into men and their need to express themselves through bombing and punching. I am having a transcendental Norman Mailer moment and everything seems crystal clear. I eventually brave the sunlit streets and weave my way home, smugly content with my new and deeper understanding of the universe and the mad, beautiful people I share it with.
Sometime the next afternoon I wake up. All that is left of my moment of insight and clarity is a hangover, a black eye and a wadded up handful of ones. And the vague conviction that getting punched and kicked is better than getting stabbed and shot. Usually.