First they came for the bussers…

Drug dealers. Rapists. Refugees. Terrorists.

According to some who speak ignorantly and irresponsibly, these are the kinds of people I have worked alongside for over twenty years. Having infiltrated this country to work 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week clearing away people’s dirty dishes, cooking their food, cleaning up the messes made in the restroom, they are biding their time until the moment when they can all rise up and awaken from their conspiratorial slumber, impose sharia law on all of us and establish a dystopian Caliphate in America. Yes, it is only a matter of time before these good, hard working, loyal people throw away all they have worked for by taking on many of the menial, thankless jobs that we think we are too good to do,  to become jihadists and overthrow the American government. These cooks from Mexico, and barbacks from Ecuador, bussers from Bangladesh, washroom attendants from Senegal, Porters from Mali, doormen from Nigeria, bartenders from Morocco, Maitre D’s from Tunisia. All of them are in fact, simply committed to quality service, to making people happy and to making a decent living so they can provide for their families and themselves. They have all been next to me in the trenches of service during the combat that is dinner rush on Friday night. Armed with freshly polished silverware, uniformed with a smile, decorated with a Sommelier’s pin or a Cake tester, their Esprit de Corps is unshakable, and their work ethic is incredible. The restaurant industry has given me a lot, but nothing more valuable than the quality and diversity of the people I have met while working in it.

 

Several years ago, before 9/11, I worked at an iconic restaurant in TriBeCa called The Odeon. The Twin Towers loomed in the background every day as I rode my bike the 17 minutes it took to get there down West Broadway from my apartment in the East Village. Knowing that I would never see that view again was one of many things that shattered my heart the day they came down.

I formed a lot of special friendships at The Odeon and many of them persist to this day.

When I began working there, there were a lot of Moroccan people working there, so much so we all used to joke and call it the Moroccan mafia. One of the Manager/Maitre’ D’s, several servers, a bartender, a veteran food runner, a barback, and many others were all from Morocco or Algeria and they were an integral part of a team there that crushed service every single night at one of the busiest, most profitable restaurants in the city. Everyone at The Odeon knew each other’s name, we knew the owner’s children, we went to ball games together. And, as is the case in any restaurant, you chat about each other’s lives and we saw each other through a lot of milestones in life. From relationships (some of them with each other), to kids, to moving. It was very much like a family there. We had great perks too. We would stay after our shift and get a nice table and have a big dinner and several bottles of wine with the regulars, we’d go visit Paul and Michelle who lived above the restaurant, I could borrow Cameron’s BMW to run errands. Back then the bartender closed the restaurant so we’d wrap up at around 2-2:30am, and sometimes sip wine and chat until 3 or 4am, clean up after ourselves and go home. We never overdid it and management allowed us to treat the restaurant like our home. We’d sit there and gripe about service issues, share stories about sports, politics, books and sometimes, religion. I grew up fairly Agnostic but went to Catholic school for first and second grade and was primarily Methodist on both sides of my family. I got to learn all kinds of things about Islam from my Muslim friends at The Odeon and, as I got to know them better, I was fascinated by the devotion they showed to their religion.

Long before the word Inshallah was perverted into something death cultists say before they blow themselves up or murder innocent people, I overheard it there, from a very erudite, alcoholic, cartoonist regular of ours who was talking with my fellow bartender Abdul. Abdul was from Casablanca and they were talking about how in Portugal it is fairly common to say Oxala as a salutation. They were talking about it’s origins coming from when the Moors ruled there from the 8th to the 15th century and it was a way to bestow blessings on something, or someone. I remember thinking how special the historical convergence of these two things were, and I was moved further as Abdul and I talked a bit more about it afterwards.

 

As I have said, as friends and co-workers, we saw each other through various periods and milestones. And the holidays were a big part of this, since often the keenest expressions of culture and belief come through their observance. When Ramadan came around all of the people of Muslim faith at The Odeon fasted during daylight hours. This meant no food or water of any kind when the sun was up. I was astonished since somehow I had never heard of this practice before. Odeon had a very busy lunch and dinner setup started early so there was a often a lot to do before the sun went down and the thought of not being able to drink or eat anything was unfathomable to me. Yet, everyone who practiced Islam there did it for a month with relative ease. I was so impressed I thought I’d try it but I flunked after 2 or three days when I accidentally sipped a beer when I was out with some friends on the weekend. These people I worked with were not fanatics, they were not fundamentalists, they merely practiced their faith with deep commitment and discipline. They were kind to others, true to their beliefs, and sought to balance their spiritual growth with some degree material success.

The food runner Yusef was going to Medical school then and is now an Anesthesioligist, one of the servers is a very well known hairdresser who lives on Park Avenue South and has a house in East Hampton, the bartender Abdul is now a partner in two successful restaurants here in the city, one of which is located in an iconic hotel in Times Square. I think of the countless people they have served and saved, and made look beautiful and feel happy over the 16 plus years since then and it is truly inspiring,

 

As I look back on those times, I am so very thankful to have known that precious group of people and to continue to know them. I am also sad though because the things that I am hearing proposed now are frightening and awful and ignorant and dangerous. I wonder what my life and experience at The Odeon might have been like back then if not for Yusef, and Abdul, and Sebnem, and Hafid, and Tariq, and Mohammed. Without having fresh Moroccan tea to sip on all night when we had to work on Thanksgiving, without the band that played and the dancing we did at Abdul’s wedding party at Layla. Without the obsessive talks about Jeter’s batting average with Yusef and why the acronym RBI didn’t make sense to him. About Fadwa being upset because I didn’t make it to Marrakech from Haifa that summer due to a travel snafu. Or yelling at Tariq to stop talking to guests because he loved talking and laughing with the guests so much and he needed to hurry up and bring Lincoln and his wife their bread before their Country Salad arrived. If you take all of those experiences and people like that away from our lives, is there anything truly worth experiencing? To me, it becomes just a damn job. A series of trips back and forth to the Micros terminal and making drinks and dropping checks. Putting down full plates and picking up empty ones. If you remove all of those kind, loving, passionate, hard working people, just a building remains, made of wood, held together by metal and stone, lit up by talking wires, marked with a sign out front, and empty inside.

 

Cocktail Epilogue

The Moroccan Martini created by Abdul Tabini:

2 parts Stoli Ohranj

1/2 part fresh lime juice

1/2 part Agave nectar

Splash fresh orange juice

4 mint leaves

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass along with ice. Shake passionately to insure the breaking up of the mint leaves. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a mint leaf.

 

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The Sum of All Cheers

You awaken, slightly bleary eyed. Upon realizing you’re alive, and which end of the bed your head is resting on, or even that you’re in a bed at all, you begin to reflect on the events of the previous night. You may struggle to remember the name of the person next to you, or the location of your phone, and who the owners of the various and sundry business cards and cocktail napkins with phone numbers on them in your pocket are, and… “What the hell is that stain on my shirt?!?”

Never has a journey lasting 12 or so hours seemed as perilous as the one taken on New Year’s Eve. The occasion is singularly fraught with sharp turns and pitfalls:  the requisite kiss at midnight can escalate and lead to much more than you planned, a celebratory toast can easily turn into multiple shots and a trip through a drunken wormhole. I have witnessed many a New Year’s Eve train wreck during my years behind the bar. So while not typically a fan of lists, I have struggled to carefully choose and share with you here some humble suggestions on how you might scale the ladder of revelry without tumbling down a chute of bad decisions on New Year’s Eve.

  1. Know whether you’re coming or going. Map out in as tangible terms as possible, where you are going, how you will get there and more importantly, how you will get home. Taxis and Car services like Uber will be in very high demand, and in the case of Uber, will implement surge pricing of up to 50% more than they would normally charge. Personally, if I’m traveling alone, I ride my bike and secretly scoff at all the people struggling to get cabs. Also look into public transportation options near your home and destination, the bus sounds corny or  like something for old ladies until you’ve been standing in the cold for an hour trying to get a taxi.
  2. Pace yourself. This is especially true if the party you’re going to has an open bar. Even if the open bar ends before 4 don’t be a booze camel. You’ll be wasted by midnight and have a terrible rest of the evening.
  3. Be nice to your date and don’t try to upgrade. New Year’s Eve is also the number one night for breakups. People get a bit hammered and say things they don’t mean or they succumb to the pressures of the evening and lash out at the person closest to them when things don’t go as planned. Take a deep breath and remember, it’s the end of the year not the end of the world, which leads me to my next point.
  4. Don’t chase perfection. It doesn’t exist the other 364 nights of the year, and it doesn’t exist on New Year’s. Sometimes it’s best to settle for a decent night than to chase the mirage of an epic one.
  5. Use the buddy system. Make a pact with a responsible friend or two and look out for each other, if they leave with a stranger make sure you politely get the person’s info, if they take offense you have permission to massively cockblock them.
  6. Eat hearty beforehand. Because, Duh.
  7. You don’t have to hook up with someone. That expression “it’s better to regret something you have done than something you haven’t done”? Not on New Year’s it isn’t.
  8. Don’t accept drinks or a rides from strangers. Unfortunately some people’s idea of a good time involves victimizing other people. (Also see #5 and #1 again)
  9. Get a phone leash. You will lose your phone at least once during the night.

10. Plan your New Year’s Day. It’ll give you some perspective and help you realize that you want to have a good day the next day and avoid that shameful walk and the cold comfort of your bathroom floor.

So there you have it. A bar’s eye view on having fun and staying safe on the biggest party night of the year. Enjoy, drink, and be wary.

Cocktail Epilogue:

Champagne Cocktail

4 oz Blanc de Blanc champagne
1 white sugar cube
2 light dashes of Angostura bitters

Method: place sugar cube in the bottom of a champagne flute and dash with Angostura bitters. Slowly add champagne by pouring down the length of a bar spoon. Watch the sugar excite the effervescence in the glass, and sip and enjoy while stirring occasionally.

Drinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Secret [see-krit]: faithful or cautious in keeping confidential matters confidential; close-mouthed; reticent.

In this time of NSA eavesdropping and data mining, of leaks and whistleblowers, let us take a moment to consider privilege. Not Attorney/Client, nor Doctor/Patient, but something perhaps even more treasured and ubiquitous. Let us consider the privilege that exists between bartender and guest.

 Those of us that frequent bars and restaurants entrust our bartenders with a great many things. We often do this without even really thinking about it. There are the material things: the bartender holds your credit card when you run a tab, we’ll safely guard your phone that’s charging and not read your text messages. When you ask for a Ketel One and soda, you get a Ketel One and Soda. When you are at a table and request that obscure $32 Age D’or Calvados that pairs perfectly with your dessert, it goes without saying that the contents of your glass have not been surreptitiously replaced with some spirit of far lesser quality. You take for granted that your bartender is washing their bar tools and their hands thoroughly and frequently, and, when visiting a craft cocktail bar, that all the garnishes are market fresh and have been carefully chosen and maintained. The social contract and guest-to-host dynamic in our bars affords us a certain civility and comfort and on this we heavily rely.

A good, observant bartender bears witness to a great many private things and hears a great many secrets. We know where the bodies are buried and who did the burying; we know the numbers and the data behind them. We know what’s cooking in the kitchen and in the office. Bartenders are exposed to all these things, yet as professionals we are all sworn to obey the prime directive of bartending:  Discretion.

My favorite example of this involves a legendary NYC bar owner and colleague of mine. Even though he is incredibly knowledgeable and fluent about wash lines, the science of shaking and the importance of the surface area of ice cubes in cooling your cocktail, he is equally  concerned with preserving the sanctity of his bars as places where all his guests, be they famous or just a face in the crowd, can feel well looked after and have their privacy maintained.

One particular night at his bar he had a guest he had never seen before drinking with a friend. This person happened to be drinking the cocktail equivalent of a Dead Man’s hand in Poker: a drink invented by Ernest Hemingway called a “Death in The Afternoon.” After having several of these, he promptly passed out at the table and was abandoned by his friend. In search of a relative or significant other he could contact to come retrieve the fellow , my colleague scrolled through his texts and recent calls. He found  the number of the guy’s girlfriend, but not before discovering some salacious texts from a second girlfriend. He promptly deleted the incriminating texts to save the guy from the wrath of the first girlfriend and then contacts her. She asks him to put him in a cab, which he does, but the driver will not take him home alone in such an unresponsive state, so he  rides home with him. Along the way the guy soils himself. In spite of this, he takes the guy to his door and left him safely in the care of his girlfriend . He played Alfred to his Batman and fulfilled his duty, he saved him from himself and asked for no reward

It also pays to have a short memory. I once worked with a guy who, like a lot of bartenders, worked two bar jobs. Both places were owned by the same person and, while differing in concept, they shared a similar clientele. One was a French-American bistro and the other a trendy subterranean Russian-Inspired cocktail bar. Said bartender had a male regular that he knew quite well. This gentleman liked to frequent the bar at the bistro with his wife and the cocktail bar with his mistress. At one bar he’d laugh raucously and passionately grope his paramour, and at the other he’d enjoy a more placid date night with his spouse. In visiting both places it was implicitly understood that his bartender would never disclose having seen him with another woman, and further that he even visited him at the other bar at all.

While thoughts of such deception may seem distasteful, this guest felt very secure in doing this because he trusted his bartender.  It is not our place to judge or comment on such matters it is simply to serve and provide a safe harbor from the stress and strife of life outside those swinging doors. Regular or rookie, this benefit is afforded by bar professionals to all of our guests. One veteran bartender I know follows this code to such an extreme that if you walk into his bar with someone he’s never seen you with before he will behave as though does not know you. More than once when walking into his bar I have been greeted with a blank stare found myself feeling like the star of another remake of “Total Recall.”.

Those of us that choose to do this professionally believe in the inviolability of the bar. We work for tips, but that alone does not sustain us, your trust does.

Waitresses can chat about their cramps and their love lives, the owner will grouse about his business partners and the General Manager spending all his money, the GM will complain about the owner being a skinflint and we are privy to it all.  It is priceless information, and at the end of our shift it gets placed into the vault of our memories and we dutifully forget the combination.

 

Cocktail Epilogue:

Death In The Afternoon

1 oz. Absinthe

4 oz. chilled Champagne

Method as per Ernest Hemingway as published in “So Red The Nose” ca. 1935:

“Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”

A Man Walks Into A Bar…

“A man walks into a bar…”

Those six words have filled many a bartender with dread and angst at the prospect of hearing yet another ancient, unfunny, or worse, offensive joke from a guest sitting at their bar. Bar jokes can inspire the eruption of laughter and the breaking of ice, or unleash the hurling of insults and the breaking of glass. Either way, it’s the bartender’s job to smile and nod approvingly or, if the joke is particularly bad, smirk and pretend that it falls into the “it’s so bad it’s good” category. A bartender is an audience of one that may let you get bombed, but won’t leave you feeling like your joke was a bomb.

I’ve heard a ton of bar jokes over the years. I’ve heard them from people of all professions: cops, lawyers, firemen, mobsters, construction workers, pimps, fellow bartenders, shell-shocked Vietnam vets, and on the list goes.  I’ve heard long one’s and short ones, silly ones and clever ones, chaste ones and crude ones, straightforward ones and ones that make you think. Hearing the words, “Knock , knock” on a lazy day while stirring a Manhattan will always make me perk up slightly, smile with anticipation and say, “Who’s there?,” for it’s the bartender’s job to listen to the unlistenable, laugh at the unlaughable and answer the unanswerable.

And as is the case with everything, it’s all in the timing. Anyone who wants to try and make me laugh before they’ve ordered a drink probably doesn’t have the money to pay and is looking to ingratiate him or herself before sharing this important fact.  So if someone walks up to my bar and the first thing they say is, “Why don’t aliens eat clowns?” my defenses will go up and I will respond drily with, “What’ll you have?” Pose the same question halfway through that first martini though, and I’ll be waiting for the punch line with bated breath. Or at least I’ll pretend to. A funny joke is a good opener, but that doesn’t mean it should be the very first thing you say. (The answer by the way, is because they taste funny”)

Two-liners tend to be the most effective openers, since they have a quick payoff and there is less opportunity for you to be interrupted by the drunk guy halfway off his stool at the end of the bar. Jokes about ducks, giraffes and grasshoppers walking into bars usually end well, as does anything involving Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman. If they contain any three of those, well, you just might make beer come out of someone’s nose.  Men telling jokes to other men are low risk. Most men are acutely aware and sensitive to the fragility of the male ego in this context. However, men telling jokes to women, especially if they’ve just met them, pose more of a risk, but when successful, they can pay off tremendously. The only thing that works better than a good joke for meeting women in a bar, is a well-executed magic trick. (Yes, I’ve seen it done.) Unlike magic though, a good two-liner is easy to learn and not hard to properly execute. Making laughter appear out of thin air can help you advance your cause with the woman a few stools over, and you may curry a bit of favor with the bartender. Even the most cynical and jaded of us will often reward a good joke with a shot or an offer to buy your next beer. A good bar is a microcosm of the social ecosystem we all inhabit, and the right joke can bridge continents far and wide and make laughter rain down upon them.

Dirty jokes are a matter of taste, but there are some places you just shouldn’t go. Body parts and what might be done with them are best alluded to rather than directly mentioned. However, it is a bar, so some degree of raunch is warranted.  In my opinion, it is best to let the person’s imagination do most of the work and then zing them with a killer punch line.

Case in point, the Willie Nelson joke.

The Willie Nelson joke was told to me by a bartender friend of mine named T.J., and to me it is the perfect bar joke. It’s a two-liner, and while it doesn’t have Batman or Wonder Woman in it, it does have Willie Nelson. It’s clean enough that you can tell it in front of your grandmother, yet still bawdy enough to meet the raunchy standards of the local smoke-filled tavern. Two caveats though: One, while you can tell the joke to men, if you do so, you must tell it to them instructively, as though you are teaching them how to tell it to women. This doesn’t take away from its punch. It’s just a slight modification because the joke is really meant to be told to women. Two, and this is pretty obvious, the person hearing the joke must know who Willie Nelson is. They must be able to picture Willie Nelson looks in all his hairy, weathered, twangy voiced splendor. That means there’s no telling this joke to Sherpas from Tibet or time-traveling vixens from the past.

So, now that you’ve thoroughly profiled your audience member(s) you may proceed to the joke:

Question: “What’s the worst thing you can hear after having just slept with Willie Nelson?” (Pause patiently and give the listener time to try and picture herself actually sleeping with Willie Nelson)

Answer: “Ummm, I dunno.”

The punch line (delivered while leaning in close and whispering into her ear)

“I’m not really Willie Nelson.”

After the peals of laughter have subsided, take note of the shoulders that seem a little less heavy with stress, the posture that is a little less defensive. For a few moments you have pulled aside the drapes of cynicism, and opened a window to hospitality and conversation.

It is said that alcohol is a social lubricant. But humor oils the skids of social discourse. Nothing takes the edge off like a good joke.

Now, somebody please get this duck off of my head?

Cocktail Epilogue

Grasshopper

1 part Crème de Cacao

¾ part Green Crème de Menthe

2 parts Cream

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker along with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

A grasshopper hops into a bar. The bartender says to him, “Y’know you’re pretty famous around here. We even have a drink named after you.” The grasshopper says, “You have a drink named Irving?”

Source: Unknown.

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