The Bubbly and The Green Dress

The story behind the creation of the Bellini, and how the drink got it’s name, is fairly colorful and interesting. Yet perhaps even more interesting, is the story of how Harry’s Bar, the place where the drink is said to have originated, was financed in it’s beginning. Something involving money lent to an expat American (the eponymous Harry) in Venice during the depression. It’s all very Hemingway-esque. Which is ironic, since Harry’s later became one of Papa Hemingway’s favorite haunts.

My own personal Bellini story is a bit more R-rated, but it is, I assure you, quite colorful and exemplifies the kind of spontaneous, “No two days are ever the same” shenanigans unique to the life of a bartender.

I was somewhat wearily throttling the stick on a late Saturday night, while entertaining a few dead-enders and an old friend who lived nearby. This particular friend had been having great difficulty meeting and finding success with the opposite sex. So from my discerning perch behind the bar, I decided to make him something of a personal project of mine. I encouraged him to read some books on social interaction with women, to work on his appearance a bit, and to use the bar whenever he wanted as a sort of flight-simulator for chatting up the female species. He took advantage of this with varying levels of success during pretty much every shift I worked.

Part of this evolving makeover also included him wearing different and slightly flashier clothing and accessories in order to attract attention from afar and to stand out in the crowd of all the similarly clothed, male, Dockers wearing sloths who usually populated my bar on the weekends. Among his more favored accessories was a white fedora-style hat with a bold patterned band. The accoutrement worked rather well, and he began to have a lot more women approach him to flirt and strike up conversation. This is, in fact, what happened on this particular Saturday night shortly after a group of about 6 people came in and ordered a round of drinks. There were a few women in the group and one was wearing a very short, and very tight, green, one shoulder dress. tan, barelegged and propped up to an impressive height in a pair of wedges, she had dark blonde hair and garnered no small amount of attention from the malingering guests at the bar. This included my friend, whom I will call Dennis.  As the group began to order their respective drinks, I could see Dennis considering his conversational points of entry and doing the necessary mental calculus required before approaching a strange woman at a bar. The groups round consisted of the usual assortment of vodka sodas, etc. with the last two drinks standing out slightly. One being a Maker’s Mark on the rocks and the girl in the green dress’ order: a Bellini.

A Bellini? At 3 am? I hesitated and thought about suggesting something more appropriate to the hour and setting but I learned long ago not to argue or even try to understand these things. As I rummaged through my low-boy fridge to find the white peach puree, checked the expiration date and then began to mix her cocktail, I noticed her grab the glass of Maker’s Mark while the other guys back was turned and take a huge gulp of his bourbon. My mouth dropped agape momentarily as I stirred the puree into the Prosecco. I was both stunned and impressed.

I probably should have been concerned, but then, there was the matter of that dress. While I stirred and began to pour, Dennis feebly struck up a conversation with her, using some sort of mundane but ultimately effective opener. Broken clock theory at its best. She bit and they were chatting pleasantly as I served her cocktail.

As the two of them drank and talked, she playfully removed his hat and put it on, unintentionally proving that it was an awesome accessory to everything else she was wearing. Further, she proved herself to be quite insightful and observant when; upon noticing Dennis’ discomfort at being deprived of his hat, she made a bold pronouncement about his seeming to “Need the hat to feel complete.” “What do you mean?” he blinked, as I stood there slack-jawed at her perceptiveness. “ I just feel like you need the hat. Like you feel as though it’s the source of your power. Some sort of crutch maybe.” Whoa. This girl was quickly making mince meat out of him. Dennis was reeling and clearly out of his depth, so I decided to extend a hand across the bar and try to pull him back into shallower waters. “Waitaminnit.” I piped up. “You women are the last people who should talk about needing a piece of clothing as a source of power.” She turned toward me serenely and said, “What do you mean?” I continued, pontificating, “Well you have all these things you use to look better, smell better, appear taller, sexier, and you use them to get all of kinds of extra attention when you go out.” And then I made one of the best conversational maneuvers of my entire career behind the bar. “Like that dress for example.” “This dress?” she said, stepping away from the bar so we could survey her from head to toe. By this time, her friends had made their way outside to the smoking patio and the only ones at the bar were me, Dennis, and our inscrutable middle-aged Chinese barback Min who stood nearby waiting for the keys so he could begin locking up the joint.

We all looked her up and down and figuring I had her cornered logically, I smirked with satisfaction and prepared to gloat. “Yes.” I answered. Suddenly, with what seemed like preternatural speed, she reached down, pulled her dress over her head, completely off, and flung it aside. She stood there defiantly in nothing but a pair of wedges and a G-string.

Talk about playing your trump card. I was rendered mute, something that rarely happens to me behind the bar. Min looked like he just won 10 grand at Mah-Jongg and Dennis tongue rolled out of his mouth and out the front door. She seemed calm and sober as she said superfluously, “I don’t need this dress.” She had a beautiful, toned, sun smooched figure. As I took everything in, I believe I managed to stammer, “You win” or something to that effect. A little observant time behind the bar will quickly teach you that women are much smarter creatures than men, and with a flick of her wrist this woman had just proven it. She outmaneuvered us all. Game. Set. Match.

There were a few more conversational acrobatics as she put her dress back on and then, for her closing argument, removed it again, this time along with the g-string.  Later, during her nude bartending lesson, she told me that F. Scott Fitzgerald was her Great-Grandfather and she proved this by almost drinking the bar into bankruptcy. (After a display of such audacious wit, drinks were most certainly on the house.) I have no idea where her friends went, but after I tossed her almost forgotten g-string into the cab I escorted her to, I locked up, and was left with a memorable and humbling lesson in gender dynamics.  And you can’t put that into the tip bucket.

Cocktail Epilogue

The Bellini

2 parts White Peach Puree

3 parts Prosecco*

½ part Marie Brizard Peach liqueur (optional)

Combine ingredients (without ice) in a mixing glass and stir. Then pour into a chilled champagne flute.

-Invented in 1948 by Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Harry’s bar in Venice, Italy.

*As always, proportions may be adjusted slightly according to personal taste.

 

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Love’s Leaver’s Lost

Losing things can be a tremendous nuisance. There are the tangible losses that sting: a scarf, an umbrella or a cell phone. And the abstract losses: your innocence, your inhibitions, and perhaps, your self-respect as a result of several booze-induced bad decisions. Alone or accompanied, you wake up and wonder, “What was I thinking?” The bar is a place where you willfully go hoping to lose something intangible and perhaps unmentionable, while praying that your belongings and daily mentionables don’t tumble out of your purse or pocket along the way. After all, a hat or scarf can be replaced, but that favorite hat or scarf that you bought during that trip to Ireland, and all the memories associated with it, cannot. You walk through the door courting a kind of self-inflicted amnesia, and you do so at your peril. You wager on your future and the quality of your evening . Win big, lose small, and most of all, know when it’s time to go home.

The best bartenders know a lot about losses and gains. They recognize that the bar is a kind of casino where bets are placed; often by people who don’t even know what game they are playing.  In the abstract, you can win big in the form of closing a big business deal, or you can meet the love of your life. You can also come so painfully close to success with either that you will want to cry like a baby when it is suddenly snatched away from you.  We are the Croupier, the Pit Boss and Casino Manager all rolled into one. Things get lost or left behind, people spend far more than they intended to, and we dispassionately bear witness to all the comings and goings. When the item is something material, we store it, label it like an archivist and (usually) hope it gets back to it’s rightful owner. When it is something we covet however, this becomes more of a challenge. The woman whose shameless flirting seems to grow in direct proportion to her date’s lateness or dull conversation. The new iPad or digital camera someone left behind. These things can inspire no small amount of temptation. But I feel pretty secure in saying that our guilt at keeping an item from the lost and found directly corresponds to its material value. It is the cheap and mundane, the crass or comical things, neglected and easy to replace, that we consider fair game.

Take umbrellas for example. I haven’t bought an umbrella in twenty years. I’ve had all sorts come into my possession. At one point I counted an accumulated two dozen umbrellas in my apartment. I eventually gave most of them away and all but two I don’t have anymore. Why? Because I left them in a bar somewhere. Believe me, I am more likely to buy an Aston-Martin than I am to buy an umbrella.

I don’t smoke, but I have dozens of cigarette lighters. Bics and butanes, large, small, plastic, aluminum, I even have a $500 DuPont lighter that I probably should have sold on Ebay long ago. Scarves and jackets, a couple of amazing raincoats courtesy of the unclaimed lost and found bin; I could build a façade of accessories that would make Ian Fleming proud. But please don’t think me a thief or cold-blooded opportunist. In every one of these cases I have at least waited the requisite 2-4 weeks before taking possession of the orphaned items. I confess to being a bit of a calendar watcher on occasion, but at least as often, I have gone on the internet, or Facebook, and called credit card companies and told them to inform the card holder of their lost item.  Certainly, that lambs wool sweater feels far less itchy with a clear conscience.

Some things that get left behind are just plain weird. Opening a stranger’s bag can be akin to opening the prize packet inside a depraved box of Cracker Jacks. Someone once left a beautiful leather golf bag behind and upon opening it I discovered, among other things, a nice, but weathered dop kit that, along with the usual toiletries, contained a diabetics insulin testing kit and several syringes and medications. Worrying about the persons safety should they not get their meds, I scoured the bag for anything that might identify the owner, but to no avail. I was once haunted for months by a woman’s lost Korean passport with all sorts of difficult and complicated stamps and visas stapled in it. Try as I might, I couldn’t find her via the internet or any other source and she never called or returned for it. The documents are probably still in that office right now.

But it is the birthday parties that yield the most colorful left behinds. The half-consumed customized cakes, and tons of delicious designer pastries. Kooky balloons withering on their strings, the thoughtfully chosen oversized cards with scores of signatures that the drunken birthday celebrant completely forgot about. I once had a guy celebrate his birthday at my bar. Kinda hip looking in a Maroon 5 sort of way, he intended to move to a table but wound up having such a blast at the bar that he just stayed and reveled the night away as his friends continued to give him all sorts of various and sundry gifts. When he left, many of them were left behind in a bag (they were unwrapped) and a partial list included: an iPod Charger, a bottle of 1999 Dom Perignon, a bottle of K-Y warming lubricant, and an enormous 12” black dildo called “The Emperor.” I suspect the last item  may have explained his hesitancy in calling to retrieve them. We kept everything for quite a while until one day, the dildo mysteriously vanished along with a never-been-kissed Jehovah’s Witness cocktail waitress of ours. The timing may have been a coincidence, but at the end of the day, I’ll never know. I can only view it as the detritus of a night well enjoyed, that in some mysterious way, rippled outward and made a few lives better.

When the evening ends, the inventory of things lost and found can begin, and one hopes that they are only vague and ethereal. A few cares and inhibitions, perhaps a forgotten stop or two during your bar crawl.  This along with a few dollars and you can happily declare that you’ve at least broken even. If it’s a tooth or a pair of underwear, well, it still could’ve been worse. William Shakespeare must have just awakened after a long night out when he wrote, “Praising what is lost, makes the remembrance dear.”  Indeed. And if you’re lucky, we may just be holding on to it for you.

Cocktail Epilogue

The Casino Cocktail

2 parts Old Tom Gin

¼ part Maraschino liqueur

¼ part fresh lemon juice

2 dashes Orange bitters

Combine all ingredients along with ice in a cocktail shaker, shake vigorously and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a brandied Maraschino cherry.

Source: New Diners Club Drink Book, 1968, by Matty Simmons

On Golden Voice and Cuervo Gold

I have been bartending for a long time; longer than I ever expected, in fact. And  during that time, I’ve seen many things. Things both sublime and ridiculous, tragic and trivial, horrific and hilarious. And that was just on Saturday nights.

The unwritten code of the bartender calls for great discretion regarding what we see or hear, but there are a few stories that , however discreetly, must be shared. And so, while preserving the privacy of most depicted herein, I shall plumb the depths of my elephantine memory and  offer you, Dear Reader, a tale of Mexican beer, a shot of Tequila and a bizarre brush with genius.

It was probably my third bartending job at a nondescript but popular staple of the East Village, a 24 hr. continental restaurant. It was the sort of place that had a good burger and fries, but also a pretty decent shrimp scampi, and some surprisingly good vegetarian fare. Even though I had only been bartending about 3 years or so, I was sure I knew everything I needed to know about bartending. However, I also knew that there were all sorts of characters that made up this world that I moved through, and many of them I could never understand. So instead of trying, I resolved to sit back, serve them, and enjoy the ride. One of these characters was a night manager I worked with at said place. He was a fitness-obsessed Italian-American guy named Jerry who would typically ride one of his two motorcycles to and from work everyday, and who also had a tremendous Asian fetish.

Now, this didn’t mean he walked around quoting Lao Tzu or played Mah-Jongg on the weekends. Basically, it meant that he loved Asian food and he really loved Asian women. A lot of the staff used to rip him behind his back about his simple tastes, but since both agreed with him, I actually thought that, for him, it was a pretty good deal all around. Jerry was a fairly colorful, witty guy, and he often liked to go in the kitchen and cook the two of us fresh Asian stir-fry populated with various noodles and spices he would get from the Asian market next door. At the start of a typical shift, he’d walk in the door wearing his expensive motorcycle jacket and carrying his helmet and disappear into the office briefly, then emerge still carrying his helmet, and place it at home on top of the stereo behind the bar and ask, “You hungry?” I always said yes, because, you know what? He was a damn good cook.

He’d then disappear into the kitchen, proudly emerging 15 minutes later to hand me a hot, heaping plate of aromatic and exotic victuals and after the first bite or two, he’d invariably ask, “How is it?”

That night it was particularly delicious, and since it was quite slow at the bar, I sat down to talk to my then visiting girlfriend while I consumed the aforementioned tasty stir-fry. As will become apparent later, it is relevant to mention that my girlfriend was originally from Japan, but then living in London. While we talked, I had the plate on the bar top in front of me yet sort at of a right angle from where she was sitting.

Suddenly, the red phone rang at the service bar, which is where the drink orders are made for the tables. I ambled over, still munching on the last spicy bits of kimchee, and began pouring various tap beers, making vodka tonics, and blending strawberry margaritas (as I said, this was many years ago). After a few minutes of doing this, I turned to check on my girlfriend and noticed that someone else had taken up a seat at the bar right in front of my half-eaten plate of stir-fry. He was staring, not at me, as many customers have the irritating habit of doing, but straight ahead. As I looked at him, I though he looked a little familiar.

Thinking it inappropriate, even in a place as casual as this, for my food to be idling there in front of him, I stopped what I was  doing and retrieved the vittles, putting them somewhere more discreet, and then asked him what he’d like. He ordered a shot of Cuervo Especial and a Corona and during the transaction, I suddenly realized why he looked familiar. I recognized him as a famous singer-songwriter, critics darling, and current messiah of the downtown music scene.

Adhering to another tenet of the bartender’s code, I said nothing that would indicate that I recognized him and I left him to his drinking. Only the tiniest thought that it was pretty cool to have him at my humble bar while contemplating his next album, and the tremendous creative angst he was undoubtedly feeling ever crossed my mind.

Continuing with the slinging of drinks, I glanced over at my special lady friend again and she gave me a very long intense look of the, “my hair is on fire!” sort. It got my full attention because I had never seen that look on her face before. She signaled me over to her by mildly tilting her head to the side, widening her eyes and pursing her lips slightly. I was incredibly curious as I approached her, and when I got close enough she leaned toward me and softly breathed the words, “He ate some of the food off of your plate.”

I stiffened with disbelief and wondered if I had heard her right.

I blinked and looked at her again, my eyes saying, “Really?”

She nodded gravely, and I slowly turned my head toward young Dylan, the only other customer at the bar, nursing his Corona and shot of Cuervo. As our eyes met, I could see that he knew that I knew. And he knew, that I knew, that HE knew, that I knew. I narrowed my eyes at him and he quickly looked away. I looked back at her and she looked at me as if to say, “See?”

Wow.

I then walked past the spot where he was sitting and continued making drinks for the waiters. I needed to think about this because it was very weird. I wasn’t sure what I should do.

Could it be that this handsome, young, angel-voiced rock star, who had a hit record at the time, and was touring all over the world, making television appearances etc. had come into my bar, sat down and surreptitiously eaten the food off of my plate? Strange things often happened at this particular restaurant, but this was bizarre even on this side of the looking glass. I regarded the cooling mess of my celebrity-defiled food, considered the whole situation, and decided I had to say something to him. I wasn’t sure what, but I had to speak out.

But before I could approach him, he sheepishly called me over. I took the two or three steps it took to get there as though it were a funhouse corridor stretched out before me.

“What’s up?” I said, trying to sound cavalier, even though I knew damn well what was up. He began haltingly, “Dude, I’m really sorry about eating your food, I mean-”

I couldn’t play dumb any longer and interrupted him, “Yeah, ummm…What’s up with that? Did you think it was, like, bar snacks or something? ” “No, he muttered.”

At this, I could barely hide my incredulity. “So, I mean, is that just something you do? Go into restaurants and eat off of other people’s plates?” Without a hint of irony or sarcasm, and not sounding like he was trying to be a wise-ass at all he says “Well… yeah.” Flabbergasted, but at the same time, kind of impressed by his honesty, I blurted out, “Well, didn’t anybody tell you that’s considered kind of rude?”

“I’m sorry” he said.

“Uh-huh. Ok.” and I walked away. He had already paid, so he took a last sip of his beer and shuffled, some might say, slunk off, pausing to say again how sorry he was. I simply nodded.

As he walked out, I went over to my girlfriend, who had no idea who he was, and we just looked at each other and shook our heads.  I said to her, “Do you know who that was?” Of course she said no, and since she was from Japan where something like that would probably get you thrown in jail for six months, no amount of celebrity or fame could make the incident seem any more strange and heinous to her than it already was.

I still didn’t totally believe it was him until a month or so later, when he came in again. Obviously recognizing me from the stir-fry incident, a faint and slightly mischievous smile crossed his lips.

“Hey man, I was in here last night and I left my credit card, I just came back to pick it up.”

I remembered seeing a credit card clipped to the register so I went and got it. I held it up to look at it and even though I knew the answer already, I facetiously asked him what his name was. As I read the name, he said the words embossed on the card,

“Jeff. Jeff Buckley.”

Cocktail Epilogue:

El Diablo Cocktail

INGREDIENTS

  • ¾ ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1½ ounces tequila blanco
  • ½ ounce crème de cassis
  • Ginger beer

Method:

Combine all ingredients except the ginger beer in a shaker tin or mixing glass. Add ice, shake vigorously and strain over fresh ice. Top with ginger beer and garnish with a lime wedge.

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