If you’re working alone and there are no cherries out, no limes cut, no clean rags, no cold wine stocked, a keg empty, and not enough ice in the bins when you open, and then the room immediately fills with kids from the neighboring galleries, photography studios, PR firms, and dot-com companies, the ensuing carnage can make for Lucille Ball-inspired scenarios, while removing years from your life. But tonight begins the way I like. There’s plenty of time to set up, it’s empty for a bit, then it builds slowly. Scattered customers I don’t know. I often ponder how much nicer my job would be without regulars sucking at my psychic teat. I understand perfectly that they’re my bread and butter, but I love a night without them. Unknown faces, some of them pleasant, some of them indifferent, none of them that matter.
Tonight, early, it’s a lot of gay men. One of the things I love about my bar is its ability to chameleonize from a rock ’n’ roll dive bar to an annoyingly elitist art-world clubhouse to a fashion-model/coke-whore hang to a gay bar to a bridge-and-tunnel frat party, sometimes incorporating three such incarnations in a night. It’s like having a child and knowing what you’d like to mold it into but having to acknowledge that the child has a will of its own and naturally becomes whatever it must, irrespective of your wishes or guidance.
Different groups of guys are chatting across the bar, someone has brought in fresh-roasted cashews and is passing them around, everything is amiable, and I’m wearing my jolly publican guise. The bar begins filling with the later crowd, couples taking tables and the first spray of tomcats headed out for the night, better-dressed and looking fresher than those who came directly from work. With every seat taken, there are still groups of five and six pushing in, and I’m seeing the shift in the customers like watching ominous clouds rolling in. I steel myself with my longtime mantra for pulling myself through the weeds: “Set ‘em up, knock ‘em down, set ‘em up, knock ‘em down …” I’m taking orders as quickly as I can, keeping sets of three and no more in my head at once, so as not to lose any and have to ask again. I’m trying to make eye contact, a quick nod to acknowledge those I can’t get to yet, but it’s no longer a well-mannered crowd. Every time I look at someone, they begin blabbering their order or, if they’re down the bar, waving the ubiquitous 20, behavior that always leaves me just shy of winging an ashtray at the offending rube.
I’m kicked into hyper-efficient mode now: head down, no smiles, no quarter, passing over people who flag me but don’t have their orders together, delivering drinks without flourish, making change curtly. Pretty soon I’ve reached critical mass. I want to be pleasant to people who are pleasant, or whose faces at least register empathy for my predicament, but in the end I can’t even do that. It all breaks down at once. I’m tripping around on the rubber hex mat like a wounded animal, grabbing at glassware and bottles, searching frantically for a champagne flute I know I just took down. The loss of the ten seconds it takes to locate it so enrages me that upon finding it I smash it into bits against the sink. I’m bellowing curses that I hope are drowned out by the blaring music. It’s as though I’m in a grainy old black-and-white movie, where even as my actions slow to a maddening crawl, so do the faces around me, frozen in hideous ricti, all horsey teeth and corpulent lips agape in piercing laughter.
As soon as there’s a lull I bolt from behind the bar to reclaim some glassware. At the nearest table are five art scenesters who have been there most of the night, the whiff of clove smoke hanging over them. I begin clearing the table and notice several champagne flutes filled with red wine. I’m thinking, what are these dorky kids up to? Then I notice several wine bottles lying on their sides under the table. I shift to my avuncular scolding voice: “Hey, you guys can’t just bring your own wine in here and expect to …” Looking closer I see the wine bottles are, in fact, the type of merlot I serve. The whole table is actively, nervously trying to ignore me. Then like a bus it hits me: They reached over the bar while I was crazed in the weeds and filched a mess of booty, and this is the remainders. The entire night seems to bend in on me, and I go off like a Roman candle. I begin hurling curses at the top of my lungs. The girls look up, terrified, but the three boys increase their volume, trying to buy some time with forced ennui. I’m yelling, “How fucking dare you come into my bar and steal from me, you art-worm cocksuckers?!” They go on with their strained conversation. I sweep the tabletop with my forearm, candles, ashtrays, and wine all raining down together. The kid closest to me, with a blondish fall of bangs and tiny round wire rims, turns to face me. He takes an exaggerated drag of his cigarette and says contemptuously, “You need to fucking chill out, man,” then blows the smoke in my face.
Unwise of him. I don’t even think, I just explode. Snatching his hair up in a big handful, I yank him off his stool and begin dragging him through the bar. He lets out a muffled howl and flails at my hands and arms, but his feet are trailing behind him and he can’t stand up. His friends all leap up from the table and begin pulling at me. The whole improbable cortège lurches toward the door. One of the girls is crying, fumbling with a wad of money, trying to push some 20s at me. I shriek that I don’t want her money. The other customers in the bar, oblivious to what caused the fracas, break out into applause as I heave the assemblage through the door. One group of regulars follows outside to scream at the retreating kids, “We hate you, stay out of here!”
After throwing them out, literally—something I’ve never done before—I’m trembling and clammy. People are cheering and clapping me on the back, which only makes me feel worse. These kids ripped me off, true, but I’ve had drunks try to pick fights, I’ve had drinks thrown in my face, and I’ve always made a point of talking down trouble without resorting to violence. I’ve dealt far more humanely with far worse infractions. I begin picking up the broken glasses and empty bottles, feeling idiotic and gripped with remorse. There’s one good thing about my job at times like this, when you really need a drink: Take your pick.
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