Thursday, July 21, 2011

Belly Up to Bartending

During my last two years of college, my plate was full.  Twice a week, I commuted an hour and a half – each way – to my university.  I crammed all of my classes into two days – 12 hours each – so I was able to work at my unpaid internship in New York City the other two days.
At the time, I was lucky enough to have my very own apartment.  It was on the third floor of an old Victorian house situated right on the shores of Sunset Lake.  My mom – and her then fiancé – had handed over the keys when they moved to New Mexico earlier that spring.
I loved that apartment, but it wasn’t free; so from Thursday to Sunday, I worked as a bartender to pay the bills.
I had gotten my first bartending job the summer prior at a Jersey Shore hot spot.  I had been a cocktail waitress in high school, but I had never bartended.  Luckily, my best friend Amy and I both got hired and started on the same night, but we were extremely nervous – especially when they assigned us to two different bars.
I had my “Mr. Boston: Official Bartender Guide” – you know, that little red book – with me all night.  Most people ordered beer and vodka drinks that were self-revealing.  It was a lot of physical work, but well worth it when we counted out the tips that night.  After a few weeks, I started dating the owner of the bar and, a few weeks after that, I didn’t have a boyfriend or a job.  Let’s just say it ended badly.
Almost immediately I landed a job at Tradewinds Beach Club in Sea Bright.  It was a huge club that had several bars, a pool and live bands.  I worked there the summer it opened and it was a happening club. But once fall approached, the club closed its doors for the winter, so I had to get out and look for a new job again.
I drove all over town and started filling out applications at all the happening bars and clubs near where I lived.  Some bartenders that I had worked with at Tradewinds told me about the reopening of the Stone Pony in Asbury Park.
The “Pony” is one the world’s best known music venues and a starting point for many Jersey musicians – most notorious – Bruce Springsteen, but also Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Jon Bon Jovi, and Steve Van Zandt.
The original club opened its doors in 1974 but, it had been closed briefly for renovations, and revitalized before reopening in the early '90s.
I was hired – along with scores of other bartenders – in anticipation that the new “Pony” would be extremely busy.  On opening night (and for the next several months), we were not disappointed. 
I was a second generation “Pony” bartender as my mom had worked there in the ‘70s when I was a kid.  This revelation got me 10 minutes with a reporter and a few quotes in our local paper the next day.
On that first night, the whole place was hyped up with the reopening of the iconic establishment. The owner told us that we could have a drink or two – while on shift – to toast the milestone. 
At my previous bartending job, it had been taboo to drink while on the job, so I was not in the habit.  I was a complete rookie – and 22 years old – so I took advantage of the perk and it was a big mistake.
I had too much to drink and couldn’t count out my bank and tips. Luckily, I worked with another female bartender—who would later become my friend – and she looked out for me that night.  I left with huge tips and an even bigger hangover.
After that situation, I had an epiphany and began to look at bartending like it was my own small business.  I made some rules: no drinking while working ever; no smiling; and no socializing – I was there to make money.  The smiling part was because if you were too friendly too many guys – and gals – got the wrong idea.  I can’t tell you how many Lesbians thought I was on their team.  Go figure!
At about this time, I started getting calls from some of the other bars and clubs that I had submitted applications.  Before I knew it, I was working at about four different establishments throughout the week -- on their busiest nights and sometimes even on school nights – and I was making pretty decent money.  I would even work at other random bars to sub for fellow bartenders who needed a night off.
But, the pinnacle came when I worked at club called Blondie’s, and met some girls who lived in New York City.   They told me about a friend – who owned The Cat Club in the Big Apple– and needed a female bartender.
I was so thrilled when I got the job and even more pleased when I was bringing home about $500 a shift.  The only problem was that I wasn’t living in the city anymore, so it was a long drive home after closing at 3 or 4am. If I stayed at a friend’s house, I would have to haul ass home in the morning to make it to one of my other gigs.   Also, I was low, low man on the totem pole, so I didn’t always get the best shifts if any at all for weeks at a time.
Even though I earned great money during those shifts, it just wasn’t dependable enough so I went back to my locals clubs. I felt relieved.
As much as bartending had been a hip, fun, cool experience in my 20s, there are some things that I hope I never have to do again like being a short order cook, seeing someone throw up on my bar or getting walking Pneumonia.
At that time, the serious downside was that I didn’t have health insurance so, when I got sick, which I did often because I wasn’t getting enough sleep or days off to rest, I couldn’t work which translates to not making money.
These were very stressful times for me.  So you can imagine how happy I was to shelve my “Mr. Boston” book and finally graduate from my University cum laude – who would have thought with all those late nights – but I did it.  And today, I prefer to be belly up to the bar as opposed to behind it.

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