Dear Stephanie,

Have you ever seen the leopards at the Bronx Zoo? They pace feverishly back and forth behind what, to my eye, appears to be a very flimsy chain link fence. I took my little boy to see them when he was a baby, and this one leopard kept looking at us. You could tell he or she was thinking, “Damn, that’s some succulent looking, tasty human. Mmmmm.” Even when the trainers threw the leopards big hunks of raw meat, and they were breathlessly devouring them, that one leopard kept gazing at us longingly, raw, bloody meat dripping down its bloody chin.

I just tightened my grip on the baby while I eyed the chain link fence nervously thinking, that shit’s gonna hold, right?

I pace the length of the bar pretty feverishly myself sometimes, but instead of being the hunter, I often feel like the hunted.

I have a confession to make. One of the things I like about my new profession is that I don’t have to hide under a burka, metaphorical or otherwise. Early in my academic career, I noticed that being cute and perky was not compatible with being intelligent, at least to my professors—male and female—who tended to see me as weightless and unsubstantial.

This offended me!

I can be cute and perky and still be smart! Nevertheless, I felt burdened by others’ stereotypes and expectations.

It’s somewhat satisfying that cute and perky often nets me more than 20% tips on my sales total. I mean, I’m like that normally, so it’s nice to be appreciated.

On the other hand, when you realize that it’s five hours into your shift, and you haven’t had a single female customer, it can be a little bit disturbing. You inevitably have to think about the stereotypes and expectations your customers carry with them, right? (And by “you,” I of course mean “me.”)

On at least three occasions over the past week or two, my manager has had to “keep an eye” on certain customers, noting (in particular) when they leave and by which exit, and has felt compelled to accompany me to my car. It’s not that I have treated these customers any differently; I treat any all my customers—regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or sexuality—the same way. Cute and perky does not discriminate!

It’s just that some of the male customers sometimes interpret my behavior in ways not intended by me. Sometimes, they stare at me in a way that’s creepy. Sometimes, they hang around the bar for hours and hours, ordering drink after drink, meal after meal, offering me food off their plates. And sometimes, they do all of the above and want to buy me a drink to boot.

A fellow did that last night, even though I had to say, more than once, “There’s no drinking on the job here,” adding with mock horror, “I hope you don’t drink when you’re working!”

When they go on to tip me 50 or even 100%, it’s creepy and gross and takes away the satisfaction I feel at providing good service as I do when, for example, a couple or a straight woman tips me well. I would like to tell these men, What are you, delusional? Can you not see that I’m doing this for everyone?! What the fuckity fuck is wrong with you?

What also happened last night is that two gay men sat at the bar for a drink. When I offered them menus, one of them said, somewhat uncertainly, “I think we’re gonna get a table.” At this, I put my hands on my hips and my most offended looking expression on my face and said, “What?! You’re leaving me. That hurts my feelings.” To which the other one responded, “Well now we can’t leave her. She might spit in our drinks.” And I said, “Nah, I wouldn’t do that to you. But since you said you’re gonna stay, you might as well.”

And they did. And they were so much fun that I didn’t even feel like I was working.

Once again I’m reminded of the wisdom of our superiors encouraging us to desexualize ourselves. And also of how this covers over but does not solve the problem.




It’s a Man’s World

July 29, 2009

Photo by Intermayer

Photo by Intermayer

Dearest Stella,

It’s Monday’s dinner shift. ManagerRick pulls me aside. “I have an Observation of you.” It takes me a minute to realize he means Observation with a capital “O,” as in Evaluation with a capital “E”. We weren’t told about this process, so when he says, “My Observation about you is that you’re shy,” I say, “Oh,” meaning, “And?”

What follows is a reprimand, and I quickly get that I am a bad, bad girl, and that I will be punished if I don’t change. He continues: “I’m your first Observation. Then there’s Al. And then…,” he raises his hand above his head and glances at it to signify another, higher level. Then he looks at me, eyebrows raised, to indicate that bad things will happen if you’re still shy.

Being shy means I’m not flirting with customers. To work on this, I am to talk to at least five customers each shift. I’m to get their names, know their drinks, make them like me. That way, when I go to the bar I’ll eventually be working at, my new regulars will follow me. Essentially, he’s ordering me to steal regulars from the bartenders here.

I nod. “Okay. Got it.” I’m back behind the bar and I switch it on. You want Party Girl? I’ll give you Party Girl, mo-fo.

I don’t give myself time to think. I stop worrying about whether I’m doing what Sam, the head bartender I’m supposed to be shadowing, wants me to do. I stop trying to figure things out, and I just go, go, go.

I even break out the dance moves. No kidding. I do the walk and strut; I do the shoulder shimmy; I do the head bob as I carry three shots to the bar; I even do the twist.

I pick a random guy and ask him how his day is so far. Then I keep talking. My mouth moves up and down like a dumb bird—open, close, open, close—and words pour out. I laugh, I smile, I draw him out, and then I draw out the guy next to him and get them both talking. They don’t want to talk about work, I learn quickly; they don’t want to talk about their day. They want to be distracted. They want to talk about sports, about me, about Def Leopard, about the jute box—anything but their day.

Five minutes later, Sam pulls me aside and reprimands me for neglecting other customers. Let me revise that. He teaches me. “You’ve got to have eyes on the back of your head,” he says, “and the sides.” He tells me it’s fine if I’m having a conversation with this guy, but I can’t neglect that guy who wants a drink. Everyone’s got to feel special. Put the napkin down in front of the new guy as I’m closing with a witty one-liner to the first guy.

I focus on Jake, an easy target. I met him my first day when he walked into the bar and everyone yelled, “Jake!” “This guy’s our Norm,” another bartender said. Jake is young and cute and easy to talk to. He’s the one I go to when I need a break but I’m supposed to be “not shy” because I can relax a little around him. But not much. Because I am, after all, trying to be “fun” with a loaded gun against my head. Or bad things will happen from above.

It’s a strange thing, this top-down management technique. Clearly these fellas don’t keep up with the latest management styles. Theirs is archaic and Machiavellian. They withhold information, fuel paranoia, scare us by saying how many people want our jobs, emphasize how dispensable we are.

There are demands from above: “Corporate says we gotta do it this way,” as if Corporate is a faceless man sitting behind a desk in a penthouse office, watching us scuttle around inside a creepy snow-globe, placed next to the paperweight in the shape of a breast on his office desk. Trickle-down fear. Has anyone here even met Corporate? How do we even know He exists?

There are mysterious disappearances. First there were ten bartenders. Now there are six. Female bartenders are dropping like flies.

Rumors abound. “I heard Callie was on something,” one male trainee says. I saw Callie on her first shift, white hat askew, hoot and hollas flying, finger pistols shooting at top speed. The other bartenders rolled their eyes and mouthed “Oh. My. God.” Callie flew around the bar replacing empty drinks. Each time she’d pass me, she’d whisper, “Help me, Steph, help me.”

I’m hesitant to believe rumors. Whatever happened at the bar, Callie suffers; I know that from the short time we knew each other. I think about how my friend Jamie, in her hunt for a house with history, found a trail of old houses abandoned by women who had either gone mad or could no longer function in the world. The plight of mad women moves me deeply and profoundly. I wonder how Callie will pay her rent now. She received an eviction notice and was selling her possessions on Craigslist one by one. The air conditioner was the first to go. I picture Callie sitting on the crooked floor of her apartment in unbearable heat, feverishly surfing Craigslist. Again.

Nancy was fired before she even got behind the bar because she was 15 minutes late. She came back to beg for her job and was turned way for having a “bad attitude.” “You showed your true colors already,” the manager said in a conversation clearly meant for the rest of us to hear. “I’m glad we found out now.”

So the crazy girl and the girl with the bad attitude are history.

In the chaos of happy hour I make a mistake and give someone a plastic cup when they ask. It doesn’t feel right, and I ask Sam about it after I already gave it to them. “No, no,” Sam says, “Never. Ever. There’s a no-tolerance policy on that.” He looks around for the manager, who will apparently “flip” if the cup is discovered. “Quick, he says, “Walk away. Fast. This never happened. You never gave anyone a cup.”

“If it’s such an important rule,” Dawn says when I get home, “Why didn’t they fucking tell you about it?” (You can probably tell Dawn’s not a big fan of The All American right now.)

I can guess. If I knew about the rule (or any) beforehand, Sam would be deprived of the opportunity to protect me, just like ManagerRick would be deprived of the opportunity to reprimand me if I had known I was supposed to whore myself out. These men are my pimps: they push me on the male customers; they punish me, reward me, and protect me.

The other trainees—three guys—don’t have to work on their “shyness.” Not because they aren’t shy—I didn’t see any of them talking to customers—but because it is, apparently, not necessary for them.

A song comes on, Jake’s choice, whose chorus is something about getting women to “act right.” “I can’t approve this song, Jake,” I say, as I’ve been grading his song choices all shift. “I don’t like this nonsense about women acting right. I’m for women acting out.”

Jake laughs. But I’m serious, of course. I ask myself each day how long I will play this game, how long I will pretend to be the Party Girl. The mangers dangle money in front of us like big, juicy carrots. I haven’t seen one cent yet, and it’ll be weeks before I get to keep my own tips, but Oooh, they tell us, when it starts, you’ll be making SO MUCH MONEY. If you play your cards right. If you act right.

I fantasize about getting out of debt. About relieving Dawn’s stress from trying single-handedly to keep us afloat. I fantasize about having my own money, about being able to buy Dawn something every once in a while (it’s been at least 2 years since I’ve been able to buy her a single gift). About being able to buy lotion and gas for the car and food other than ramen. Plus, I’m getting priceless training really, really fast. And then there’s my curiosity . . . the writer in me hungry for a story.

Men at the bar. Men behind the bar. Men watching me, managing me. And me—the one they have begun to see as The Party Girl, the girl they’ve wanted to see me as all along.

In reality, of course, I am—Ph.D., feminist, writer, complex, crazy, attitudenal, and undercover spy.


Dearest Stephanie,

In the past, I have alluded to some of the problems associated with writing for business people: they’re all about selling, buying, processing. Everything is a commodity, including me and the fruits of my labor and creativity.

All this is to say: our essences are in conflict.

I would like to say: My creativity is not for sale! But that would just be foolish. Of course it is! How else is a lady supposed to make a living?

But I recently completed a project for an interior designer, and I found it really satisfying, so satisfying that I’m writing to you about it now. What was different? Well, she understands something about creativity and beauty and wholeness that I have found business people often don’t.

I’ve been wondering about how this impacts my actual writing. It doesn’t change how I write, but it maybe changes how I feel about what I write and how I assess it. Maybe it affects my ability to engage fully in the process and also the pleasure that I can take in the process.

I like pleasure!

Sometimes I feel sad that I will never write a great work of art. I’m just not that kind of writer. I’m more about competence and craftsmanship.

But even so, I want whatever I write to be as beautiful as it can be within the limits of that genre, and I can still appreciate that, whatever I’m writing about, it’s a creative process. Subject matter doesn’t necessarily change my approach—I still need to internalize my subject before I can write about it seamlessly, effortlessly, before I can write about it beautifully.

This includes the subject matter assigned to me by a client. In fact, the client him or herself is sort of the subject. That’s what I’m learning and that I find somewhat fascinating. With some of the previous clients I have worked with (or perhaps I should say “for”), I think maybe I relied too heavily on what they said, what they were able to articulate, as if this accounted for everything that needed to be said or that they wanted to say.

But we both know that’s just the beginning. The most important, valuable things are also the hardest to access and articulate. We’ve learned to beware of things that are too easy, haven’t we?

Which is to say: eventually, it occurred to me that these business people often didn’t know what they were talking about any more than I did, and this is why they wanted to hire writers in the first place. But while I can improve on what they say and help them articulate it, I can’t come up with something out of nothing.

If they lack substance (and—trust—they often do), I can’t miraculously make them substantive.

Working with this interior designer, though, I’m beginning to understand the ways that my past life as an academic and the work I do now intersect. Clients, like books, have hidden dimensions, ideas underneath the surface that have to be teased out, and it’s my job to inspire the client to reveal him or herself to me. What I’m discovering, too, is that it’s much more enjoyable to write for someone who I believe in and value.

I say this as if it is a surprise. It should probably be fairly obvious—no?—that life in general is more enjoyable when you identify with and value what you do, who you spend your time with, when you’re learning and being challenged rather than just managing a situation.

Recently, I was working with a college student on her senior thesis, and she said to me, “I feel like you’re helping me figure out what I really think rather than just telling me what to think. That feels new. It’s exciting to realize that I actually have thoughts and ideas.”

I found this terribly poignant, and for about 12.7 seconds, I almost missed teaching for just these kinds of moments. Then I remembered that it was only possible because of her—because she had substance, and it could be teased out of her. What to do when you’re working with people who don’t have substance?

It’s not really a salvageable situation, is it?

When I worked with her, I was telling her what I heard her say beyond the words she could use, underneath and within them. Such a delicate process! And in some cases, I got it wrong, but it was through the back and forth that we figured out what she wanted to say and what she didn’t.

Writing for the interior designer wasn’t different: I had to infer things, put the pieces that she gave me together in ways that she couldn’t yet see. And, again, I sometimes got it wrong, and we had to go back and forth to get closer to the thing she was trying to say.

In a way, perhaps what I’m trying to say is that the problem isn’t so much that one must—to survive in this world—buy, sell, and/or process. Perhaps the problem is when this is done mindlessly, with little regard for the bigger picture.



Dear Stella,

You are so right that bars are about escape and fantasy. But what is the fantasy? And if bartending is a performance, then what, exactly, is the role we are performing?

Some East Village bars, for example, pride themselves in their too-cool-for-school bartenders, who don punk rock attire and scowls. They slam your shot down on the bar with all the affection of an abusive lover, then wave it away with a dismissive hand as if to say, “Take it or leave it, cowboy. I could care less what you do.”

On the other hand, bartenders at upscale venues with 14 dollar fancy-pantsy drinks and aged liquors are aloof; they make you feel as if you are part of an exclusive group just by virtue of being there and shelling out mucho dollars for that El Diamante Del Cielo Anejo.

But at my bar, The All-American, an entirely different persona is in order.

If the mise-en-scene is any indication of who I’m supposed to be behind the bar, I should probably be afraid. Very afraid. While your bar seduces the customer with its lush, vibrant reds, my bar’s reds are of a picnic-basket hue and scream “It’s party-time!”

Instead of candles, my bar is lined with ginormous menus and bottomless glasses that I can only assume are meant to reassure patrons: “Hey!,” such accoutrement says, “Even in this recession you can stuff yourself grotesquely with the excessive waste that we Americans associate with success and well-being!” My bar wants you to know that everything is not just good, but freakin’ fantastic. Exchange your troubles for a deep fried, bacon-wrapped, jumbo shrimp atop onion rings and French fries, accompanied by extra sauce (but of course) and a 14 oz drink made of 8 different well liquors and 12 variations of sucrose.

Music, too, is very important at The All American. Instead of the innocuous, self-effacing Musak of your establishment, we jack up the tunage and rock out, dude! Day one: Metallaca, Guns and Roses, classic rock. Day two was an improvement with Lady Gaga and Riyanna.

I’m slowly shedding the unspoken rules I internalized from the culture of academia, in which we were supposed to pretend we don’t have bodies, though my cubicle mate who dated his student shows that, clearly, we do. He got fired, by the way.

In a classroom, if a student were to stop mid-lesson and say to you, the teacher, “You’re really beautiful. I mean that; you have a beautiful smile,” you would be majorly thrown off, peg him for a troublemaker, and quietly try to regain control of the classroom by directing him back to Foucault for more close reading. It’s okay to read about bodies, but not okay to have one yourself.

In The All-American, such a statement is not only acceptable, it’s desirable. For one, that’s how you get the Big Tips (not that I’m allowed to keep mine yet.) Instead of quietly freaking out and worrying if the student’s outburst will embolden other students to talk to you “disrespectfully”—what we would call it in the context of the classroom—as bartender, I’m supposed to show the customer that big ole’ smile he likes so much and say, in that I’m-such-a-sweet-party-girl voice, “Thank you! You just made my day. What’s your name, handsome?”

Not that he’s handsome, of course. But that’s the point. Part of the fantasy. That for this moment, a sweet-party-girl-bartender like me, at least 20 years younger, might actually think he’s handsome.

I watched Diyanna, the bartender training me, talk to one of her regulars. The bar had just opened at 11 am, so it was relatively slow, and she talked to him for about a half hour. He was our age and very good looking, and as she talked, he gazed at her with the widest puppy dog eyes. She made this grown man shy in her presence.

“You’re all dressed up today,” he remarked, batting his eyelashes. “Very pretty. You going somewhere special?” Diyanna brought her hands up to her hair, gave a playful pat, then lightly ran them down her body as she looked over her clothes, like a pin-up model posing for the camera. “Yeeah,” she drew the word out flirtatiously, “I’m going out tonight. I thought I’d sex it up a bit.”

As I watched them talk, I wondered about the relationship between bartender and regular. Because it is a relationship. I’m just not sure how to categorize it or how to make sense of it yet. To say bartenders are like strippers doesn’t seem quite right—is it only about creating the illusion for customers that you like them, whether sexually or not? Because Diyanna sometimes hugs her customers hello and kisses them on the cheek, male and female, as if she really is happy to see them.

Might we call this a friendship, even if it is confined to the bar, even if money is exchanged, or is there some other name for what happens here?


Proper Business Attire

July 23, 2009

Dear Stephanie,

We understand things in relation to what they are not. Isn’t this the grand lesson of the French theorists (Lacan or some such)? I mean, we understand what it means to feel hot because we have felt cold. We understand hunger because we know what it feels like to be full. We realize we’re lonely because we remember having felt not-lonely.

Remember when we were teaching how our superiors were very concerned with how attractive females dressed? And this was ever so much more important than how attractive males dressed? Partly, this is because what goodies do guys have to show off in work clothes? It’s not like our superiors had to worry that guys would come into work wearing muscle shirts and running shorts. I mean, that would never happen, right?

But if you or I were to, say, wear a pair of jeans that were just a bit too tight or a low cut shirt, who knows what kind of hijinks would ensue?!

Remember that time I had a writing center session with an attractive male colleague of ours, and I thought, “wow, he’s hardly lifted his eyes off the page! He must be really into my work!” Then when, at the end of the session, we both stood up, I realized that he still hadn’t lifted his eyes above chin level. That’s when I noticed that a shirt button (or two) had come undone. I was giving him quite a show!

“Oh!” I gasped as I turned away to button my shirt. “I don’t know how that happened!”

“Our superiors would have a fit,” he said intently, eyes slightly glazing over.

So when you and I went to lunch after, I undid the button and asked you, “tell me really, how bad is it?” And you blushed and said something incoherent. And I realized, yeah, that was pretty bad.

I was so nervous it would happen in the mostly male class I was teaching that I kept my coat on, buttoned to my chin, for the rest of the day.

All this is to say, I can understand now why our superiors were so concerned with how we dressed.

At the time, it seemed unfair that—let’s just say, for the sake of argument—your cubicle-mate, a reasonably attractive heterosexual male, could be dating a student in his 9:30 class with little fanfare while you, a reasonably attractive hetersexual female, would be routinely reprimanded for your wardrobe choices, even though you dressed so conservatively that you were mistaken for a Hasidic woman on the subway.

Nothing but a burka would suffice. And even then, your superior might just pull you aside and say, “In Afghanistan, they have little grills that cover their eyes. I’m not telling you that you have to wear one. I’m just suggesting you think carefully about your choices. It’s possible that your eyes are seductive without your intending it.” Then she might look at you meaningfully and pat your shoulder in a way that’s intended to be sympathetic and reprimanding, at the same time.

“Hey,” you would say to your cubicle-mate, quite collegially, “your girlfriend stopped by. She wanted to know what she got on her paper.” (I’m guessing an “A”—how ‘bout you?) Then you would adjust your headscarf.

It seemed unfair, but I get it now. Women have to worry about being ogled in a way that men don’t. Obviously, your cubicle-mate’s girlfriend was attracted to him for his mind, not his killer rack. So that totally makes it okay.

Oh how this contrasts with my current occupation, where making yourself over into an ogle-able creation is most desirable!

Take my conversation with Cranky the Server the other night. The conversation began in a way most familiar:

“You know,” he said to me, as he lounged against the bar waiting for me to pour him a ginger ale. “You should think about how you dress more.”

“Oh, is that so?”

And that’s where the conversation took an unfamiliar turn.

“You should wear tighter pants. Maybe stretch pants. And tighter shirts.”

“This one’s an extra-small. I’m pretty sure they don’t make them any smaller.”

“Maybe you should move into kids sizes, then,” he continued, without missing a beat. “People wanna have something to look at. When I was bartending, you know how many girls would give me their numbers and tell me they wanted to take me home and fuck me after my shift? Your clothes are too loose.”

“I’m pretty sure they’re normal sizes, like, appropriate to my measurements. And furthermore, I’m not looking for any phone numbers or offers of gratuitous sex.”

“They look really baggy to me, and the issue isn’t whether you’d actually go home with them,” he insisted. “If you really wanna get people in here, you gotta objectify yourself more. Be more of a sex object that they can lust after and pretend they have a shot with.”

Okay, he didn’t actually say those last two sentences. But he may as well have.

It makes sense that our superiors didn’t want us mucking up the waters by being sex-objects. Universities are serious places! Intellectual work is intense enough without confusing matters by being attractive as well as wildly smart and interesting! You exist to enlighten the minds of America’s youth. Let them go to keg parties for all the rest.

Or bars.

Because bars are about surface and artifice, to a large extent. They’re about escape and fantasy.

Did you learn these simple customer service tips in bartending school?

  1. Attend to the mise-en-scene—make sure candles stay lit, that the bar is clean and neat, don’t leave towels or dirty glasses and dishes where customers can see them.
  1. Never allow glasses to pile up in front of customers, and always give customers a clean napkin with each new drink. Never allow more than two cigarette butts to accumulate in an ashtray. You don’t want them to experience the passage of time.
  1. Tell customers your name so they feel like you’re a friend. You want them to feel comfortable around you and making requests of you.
  1. Don’t discuss politics, religion, or family matters, and never talk about one customer with another customer. You want to steer clear of serious, controversial issues on which they may have differing opinions. Keep it light and happy.

Being a good conversationalist is certainly a bonus, as I’ve come to learn, but what customers are most likely looking for is an hour (or two or three) of release from reality. If they want to talk about their problems, it’s not so they can solve them (let them see their therapists for that). It’s so they can be sympathized with.

To some extent, bartending is an exercise in self-effacement.

Which is probably why I love it so much.



Holy Shit

July 23, 2009

No really. Holy Shit!!! Oh, dear Stella, what have I gotten myself into?

Today was my first real day of “training” behind the bar. Not the bar I will ultimately work at if I make it through training, but a bar close to its projected intensity and central location.

Let me just tell you now how the day ends so we can get this over with.

I burst into tears and run into Dawn’s arms as soon as I get home.

But let’s not dwell on such hideous vulnerability. Instead, I’ve written up a brief guide for tomorrow. It’s a quick revision of some things I learned in the training workshops before this fateful day behind the bar.

Theory: You will be trained.

Reality: You will be thrown into the burning pit of hot lava fire with nothing but your new red shirt and hat—good luck! And you’re welcome to ask questions, if you have time and don’t have a problem interrupting and basically being a real burden.

Theory: Don’t ever, ever scoop ice using the glass. Always use the metal ice scooper. It’s a health code violation, plus the glass could break in a gazillion trillion pieces in the ice. Then you’re fucked.

Reality: Ice scoopers are nowhere to be found. Ever. (Where are they? Does someone keep hiding them in their pants? The cool metal must be quite refreshing in this goddawful heat. Why won’t they turn up the AC?) Customers need their drinks fast because their train is about to leave. Cranky! Everyone’s doing it—just one little scoopy-poo, then suddenly, Bam! a bad habit is formed.

Theory: When pouring draught beer, hold the glass at a 45 degree angle, then slowly straighten the glass as the beer fills.

Reality. Foam. Fucking foam. Foam in the glass, foam on the glass, foam over the sides of the glass. Draught beer station at the front of the bar, in front of the customers. My own little personal draught beer foam show—People! Gather round, look at me go! Foam for everyone! The highlight of the show was the I-thought-I-shut-it-off-by-pushing-the-lever-back-but-it’s-still-pouring-
isn’t-it-and-oops!-look-at-it-go-down-my-shirt-and-down-my pants! show.

Theory: Lunch breaks. Breaks of any kind.

Reality: You can eat before, you can eat after, but you can’t eat during your eight hour shift and you can’t drink anything. Not even bottled water. No drinking anything behind the bar. It’s a NYC health code violation. In Yonkers you can drink bottled water behind the bar, but not Manhattan; they like their bartenders thirsty… Don’t worry, it’s only eight long hours standing, working, starving, thirsting…

Theory: The smile is the most important part. It’s all about the personality—chat up the customers, make them feel special, tend to them, take care of them.

Reality: You there—the one tightrope-walking for the first time—[speaker throws three oranges to tightrope-walker] juggle these, don’t look down, and while you’re at it, chat up your audience members—it’s all about the smile!

* * *

So, yes, that was me, trying to hide behind the register like a ninny. Trying to hide in menial tasks: You need wine bottles? I’ll open them! Glasses washed? I’m there! Oh, we don’t wash them ourselves? Well certainly they must need stacking!

But there is no hiding. It’s a wrap-around bar. Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere are scary customers. I fear I will dream about their big gaping mouth-holes—needy, hungry, staring, licking their thirsty little lips…

Mama! What have I done!


My dearest Stephanie,

I fear I am more devious than you. This saddens me. Allow me to explain:

You speak of “triangulation” (involuntary shudder), that age-old practice of pitting “you” against “them.” When we were teaching, I devised what I believed (and maybe still believe, feel free to be the judge—I trust you, even if the Brooklyn Jury Duty system does not) to be a rather fool-proof strategy for managing The Authority Figure.

Instead of playing into the “The Program makes me do it, kids, so sorry” trap, I simply did what I wanted to do, meaning that I took great liberties with the curriculum. This allowed me to be both The Cool Rebel and The Responsible Teacher at the same time!

How so, you ask?

Well, when students would say, “how come everyone else has to do X, but we don’t?” I would say, “I’m sure X is perfectly fine” (implying, needless to say, that X is decidedly not fine otherwise why weren’t we doing it?) “but we’re going to do Y, which you can see builds on X in such-and-such a meaningful way but takes into consideration where you are in your thinking and writing” (implying “You are safe now, my darlings, we won’t diss The Program, but I have given it great thought and come up with something extra-special, just for you, you precious creatures, you.” Then I would smile benevolently and soak up their adoration.

I mean, it wasn’t just an illusion, a trick, though. I really meant it. I really did spend a lot of time tailoring the curriculum to students’ needs, and when I didn’t understand the purpose of a particular assignment, I would revise or omit it because, well, it’s really hard to sell something you don’t believe it.

It doesn’t really work out as well at the bar. As you point out, customers want the bartender to take care of them. They want to have fun with you. Sometimes, they even, from their own experiences, have becomes trained to think of management and owners as The Enemies of Fun.

This past Sunday night was replete with examples, but I will limit myself to one.

These two girls, very fun and personable, came into the bar for drinks and dinner. Since I had no other customers at the time, I spent quite some time chatting with them. As we were in a bar and one of the girls also bartends at a local restaurant, we discussed alcohol, eventually settling on the topic of shots.

Now, I am a big fan of shots and even received, as a gift, two books with (between them) over 1,000 shot recipes, which I have studied extensively. What’s not to love? They’re fun to drink, fun to make, and, best of all, I learned a little flair-bartending shot presentation trick that I love to show off.  Since I rarely get people doing shots in my upscale restaurant, I enjoy entertaining the servers with it, using water of course (though my favorite server did suggest, more than once, on one particularly dead Saturday night, that we amuse ourselves by doing actual, alcohol-content shots—I had to decline, which goes to show how much of a rebel I really am).

Anyway, I was telling the girls about the peanut-butter and jelly shot (Chambourd and Frangelico—you must try it! It really does taste just like peanut-butter and jelly!). So they asked me to make them this shot.

“Can you do one with us?” asked one of the girls enthusiastically.

“I can’t. I’m sorry,” I replied regretfully.

“Come on,” she insisted. “Are there cameras here?”

“No. But no, I really can’t.”

“Just put one in a little plastic shot glass. No one will see.”

“We don’t actually have plastic shot glasses.” Here, I decided to practice a little strategy I have perfected from motherhood called diversion. “What nights do you work again? When I come in, we’ll do one together at your place.”

She made me promise to come in the next time she’s working, and we moved on.

But it did make me realize that negotiating the line between cool and responsible is definitely a challenge. When I was teaching, my primary concern was credibility—if the students were learning something (at least at our particular institution), they’d generally be satisfied. If I believed and valued what I was teaching, then they were more likely to do so as well, and to respect me for it. I didn’t need to be cool so much as to be a benevolent, caring authority figure, who was also fun.

Bar customers, however, have entirely different concerns. They’ll gladly throw me some extra money if I “take care of them,” which means pour them strong or, better still, free drinks. They want me to be cool and rebellious. Their ideal paradigm is neither






But while they tip me, often generously, they do not employ me. So the bottom line is that I have to look out for the bar if I am to look after myself. I just have to give the customers the impression that I’m looking out for them too.

To their credit, many bars know this too, which is why they have devised a clever strategy known as the buy-back policy (wherein they authorize bartenders to give out a certain number of free drinks, essentially allowing their bartenders to look cool and rebellious but under conditions carefully controlled by The Establishment.

Hmmm, come to think of it, it sounds a lot like government.