Belly Up To The Bar, Folks!

[Charlie's Tavern, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948] (LOC)

So it’s come to this: I have taken a Summer Job. I haven’t really done that in a long time. I mean, usually I do have plenty of work to do in the summers — I play weddings, I play bar gigs or winery gigs, I play in pit orchestras for musicals, I read and write and do prep work for my next year’s classes, and sometimes I teach an online class (which I will also be doing this year). Because I’m taking so many classes for my MLIS this summer, though, I decided that I needed something with regular, predictable hours and more or less predictable pay that kept me close to home. So what did I do? I went to my favorite bar in town and asked the owners for a job.

[Charlie's Tavern, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948] (LOC)

Because they are awesome, they said “yes,” so now I’m tending bar a couple of nights a week (with occasional banquet or wedding or party jobs). It’s the first time in more than 20 years that I’ve had a food/beverage service job, and the first time ever that I’ve worked anywhere that served liquor — I’ve made cinnamon rolls and and served ice creams with boozy names (thank you, Oh Temple of the 31 Mystic Flavors), but this is my first stint behind the bar. I’m still training, and…well, it’s just fascinating, honestly.

When I worked for retail food joints of the franchise variety back in high school and on college breaks, there were two important things they always had in common: standardized procedures and fixed, displayed price lists. These were modular joints, designed for transitory workers whose whole, almost purely mechanical job was to measure out correct large or small scoops (for example) into a narrow set of correct containers (cone or dish) for people who expected consistency. They were jobs defined by uniforms and procedural uniformity. If you forgot how much to charge for something, it didn’t matter — the prices were on display, and the cash register was already programmed (and essentially idiot-proof). You clocked your hours, you cleaned when you weren’t restocking, baking, or serving, and it all worked like a tidy food-dispensing machine.

Bar work (or at least, bar work at the place where I’m working) is not idiot-proof or mechanical. There is no chart on the wall displaying a limited set of standardized offerings with fixed prices. The presumption of such a place is that the bartender will know the inventory, and also that s/he will know how it is to be assembled, sometimes in arcane and unique ways. The modularity of a bar is found in the work of mixology, not in the meshing of uniform components and policies.

[Portrait of Joe Helbock, Charlie's Tavern, New York, N.Y., ca. Mar. 1947] (LOC)

I am no mixologist. I am a fancy beer fan (all about the hoppiness!) who occasionally drinks a Jack and Coke, rarely wandering off into a Cosmo, a shot of Jameson, some Sangria, or some oddly-colored thing in a martini glass. I’ll do margaritas if there’s a round happening, but it’s not high on my list of things to order. All of which is to say that I have no earthly idea what to do when the fruity drinks come up. I’m a bit of a disaster, honestly, but I’m learning. Because I am a nerd, I am taking notes. Oh, my, am I ever taking notes!

So far, what I’ve learned to really appreciate about this job (which still includes all of the cleaning and restocking of every other food-involving job I’ve ever done) is that being good at it is a matter of memory and judgment. I’m not a machine dispensing booze — I am actually obligated to make decisions about whether or not to serve someone, to make judgments about IDs, etc. I have to remember the prices, and make decisions about them when the mix is new. I have to remember the regulars, who each have their own thing going on. I have to remember who gets the plastic cups and who gets the good glasses. I have to do my own arithmetic, because the cash register isn’t set up to do it all for me. There’s an art to pouring well from the tap, and I have to learn it. I have to decide, sometimes, to pour a little light for someone who’s getting a little too far along towards no-more-service-for-you territory. I have to engage my customers (and sometimes know when to leave them to themselves). I have to watch for the empty glass or empty bottle, because that’s another sale waiting to happen.

I don’t know that I’ll ever be good at this bartending thing, but I can see something attractive in the kind of challenge it presents for a knowledge worker, and I think that’s kind of wonderful.

Belly on up to the bar, folks! I’ll do my best not to completely screw up that drink recipe you just totally made up to mess with me. ;)

*The photos from the Library of Congress in this post were all taken at Charlie’s Tavern, which once upon a time used to be a notable jazz joint in the Roseland Building in New York City.


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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2 Responses to Belly Up To The Bar, Folks!

  1. bob f says:

    If you’re working around Ragbrai time, it will be my pleasure to drink a beer served by your own hands.

    Liked by 1 person

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