An Ode To Bartenders

We rarely ask so much of a service professional as we do of our bartenders. We walk in and put our drink order and our happiness in their hands.

They know your name. They are your therapist and your confessional. They keep your secrets. They break up fights. They have your back against unwanted advances from the creep next to you. They are a kind face in a new town full of strangers. They flirt, they enlighten, and on occasion, they kick you out. They let you drown your sorrows or celebrate your achievements. They suffer fools, albeit maybe not lightly. And for all of this, they may or may not get a good tip. But no matter who you are, they greet you with a smile and say, “What can I get you?”

I have had a lifelong love affair with bartenders. Or to be more precise, just slightly before the legal drinking age until now. Compared to boys my own age, these scions of worldly wisdom, facial hair, and dramatic pours were infinitely enticing. Where else could an AP English student with a secret stash of Anais Nin find a captive, mature male audience to whisper through watermelon lip gloss, “Sex on the beach . . . please.”

It was Lock Stock & Barrel, home to the start of the Cannonball Run. The legal drinking age was 18. The bartenders were rock stars, pouring 150 proof rum along the copper top bar and lighting it on fire. I was Alice falling down the rabbit hole. I could shed my unpopular, nerdy, social reject caterpillar self and emerge as a beautiful social butterfly. It started with Chip, a Long Islander with some scraggly teeth and unexplained burns on his hands (not apparently from the flammable rum). He was unimaginably sweet and protective but hinted at a darker side of life with some friends in the arson business. Directness was not our strong suit like unexplained funerals and the engagement ring masking-taped inside a card. This was a crush best left uncrushed.

Then came Mark, the 1000-kilowatt smile and adventurous spirit. We would leave a restaurant in New York City, martinis in hand, and hail a horse drawn carriage to deliver us to Studio 54. Nothing like the inside bartender’s track to get you right in the door with the paparazzi wondering, who was that Cinderella? Like the high proof rum, that one also burned hot and fast.

I vowed to move on and learn to fall for men where there was not a fashionable slab of wood between us. But like all weaknesses, this lasted until I found myself again alone and reluctant to trust men. This time it was young Frenchman who literally hopped over the bar to put his hand gently on my back and look at me like he had known me for centuries and whispered in my ear, “Princess.”

I had to laugh when I woke up one morning into our courtship and he was in my flowered bathrobe sharing a pint of Haagen Dazs with my Bichon Frise. Ah the kindred French spirit. He corrected me on my schoolgirl French and I taught him American slang like roll in the hay. Translation proved somewhat problematic — I woke up one morning to a long treatise written on my mirror in lipstick (my best Chanel, by the way), which I had to turn to a translation dictionary to decipher. When I saw him, he just gave me a look and said, “Ze lipstick, she is dead.”

And in winter time, my mind often wanders to my old college schoolmate who was a bartender in Aspen who would put me on the handle bars of his bike a la Katherine Ross in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but this time it wasn’t rain drops but snowflakes falling on my head. He would ride me through the late-night snow-covered streets with just the sound of him humming in my ear.

While these may not have been the major loves of my life, they certainly were there at turning points to give me faith again, and when I bellied up to the bar told me, “I know just the thing to get you.”

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