Bartending jobs in this city are a coveted commodity, especially after the rise of so-called "mixology," which attempts to elevate drink-makers to the vaunted place occupied by master chefs. But even a gig at the grittiest beer hole is a good find; your days are free, the tips are (usually) plentiful, you rule the roost, and you stand a good chance of getting laid a lot. Speaking as a girl, there is a lot of truth to the idea that a guy is just a guy until he stands behind the bar; a 5 can be elevated to a 7. And with the proper amount of gin, he can even move up to an 8. It's just like being an average-looking musician in a noteworthy band (that dude from Sleigh Bells is so psyched).
It does have its pitfalls, though, most obviously dealing with drunkards all night long. The next would of course be having to listen to your co-worker's shitty iPod mix.
But people who work in clubs and bars stick together. They let one another into their respective establishments for free. They give each other drinks. They know which places have a high turnover because the boss is a dick, and they know which places retain their staff for eternity. Every year this camaraderie is celebrated at the Bartender's Ball, where everyone who works in the field in S.F. mingles over drinks and food. This year's was at the Cafe Du Nord, which is one of the best venues in the city. It has a rich red and deep wood interior, a sizable dancefloor, and lot of hazy little nooks and crannies, like an English muffin dipped in whiskey.
I was part of the judging panel that night, along with Marke B. from the Guardian, Allie Pape from 7X7, and blogger Broke-Ass Stuart. The contests were all booze-related, natch, like who could drink an Irish car bomb the fastest, who could identify the most whiskeys, and who could make the best mixed drink from some fucked up ingredients, à la Chopped.
I showed up early like I always do — I am cursed with punctuality. That was okay, because DJ Brown Amy was killin' me with her mid-century R&B. I sat in the corner by myself (some habits are hard to break), feet up and ears back. I recognized a lot of the bartenders, but couldn't match faces with places. That was okay with me; I prefer to keep these dudes exalted and mysterious. "Hey hey!" said one guy, who lumbered over to me and attempted to fall back onto a stool all slick-like, but actually ended up further pushing the stool out from beneath him, resulting in an awkward near-death experience. He caught himself in time though, steadied his skeez, and crossed his long legs nonchalantly. "Where are you from?" he said, trying to eyeball my nametag. He was wearing a long parka and scuffed '80s Reeboks. It's small-talk encounters like this that fuel me, people.
Finally I saw Marke B., and a finer person you are not to meet. We first met a few years ago and hit it off immediately, spending a drunken evening on the town livin' it up entertainment-journo style. I hadn't seen him since then though, so our reunion was teary and heartfelt. Then I met the other panelists, Broke-Ass Stuart and Allie, who were also game to get judgmental. The Irish car bomb drink-off was over before it started, with a dude in a flannel shirt winning, of course.
The next DJ came on, and I scooted over to Allie, who writes about new bars for 7X7. It was then that I experienced the strangest thing. She was awesome, intellectual, funny, a little goofy, self-effacing, girlish, and loved to drink. Yes, friends, she was me when I was just starting out. I was sitting next to my doppelganger. When she went on to say that she wanted to write novels, but that she just couldn't be bothered to actually do the work, I had to pinch myself. I wanted to shake her and say, "Don't miss the opportunities that I missed! Don't give in to the sloth of underachievement!"
"Maybe you and I can prod each other," she said, "You know, make each other start that book." From there we made a pact. I started to remember why these sort of events are fun — I get to meet new people and make new friends! A novel idea! (Pun intended).
Broke-Ass Stuart started looking a bit green; he said he didn't feel well, and left. Dang. And then there were three. Allie and I worked up the idea that the judges were being knocked off one by one by a scheming bartender bent on revenge for some bad review we all wrote. "There's a book idea!" I said, grateful that my collaboration with Allie had already begun.
As is requisite at such events, we all posed for pictures that George Jones likes to call "grab 'n' grins," where everyone huddles together and smiles like they are having the bar mitzvah of their lives with dear friends they have known since childhood. In reality, a few people in the shot were complete strangers to me. I smiled like a perky bridesmaid nonetheless.
"Holy shit! Holy shit!" I exclaimed, pointing at an antique hanging on the wall. It was a pay phone. A working pay phone!
"I've already made five drug deals!" joked Marke B. We all stood in awe of the relic. Some of us lifted the receiver to hear the dial tone. Suddenly I was catapulted back to 1980.
From there I mingled my little heart out, exchanging business cards and barnstorming other people's conversations. And to think that most of my bar experiences are spent by myself, listening in on some old coot's philosophy on the best Karen Black film. I decided that from there on out I would mix it up a bit more. Get it? Mix it up? Ha! I got a million of 'em.
"Next week? You and me? Mix it up?" I said to Allie. She agreed. I was happy.