Slammed by Justin Stone
Once upon a time, I had a job with a chair, a desk and a door – a job that required nothing more than my presence, contribution and consistent delivery of what were called “deliverables”. Some of you out there in the readership may have this sort of position at your workplace. There may even be some in the food and beverage industry holding management positions who also do a fair amount of clerical desk work during the early afternoon or wee hours while at the restaurant, years past their last floor shift. As a manager at Tavern Road, I spent a good part of my late night ensconced at table 61, click-clacking away at spreadsheets, reports and ScheduleFly while my bartenders poured endless glasses of libations till the bitter end of 2:00 AM, commencing a 13 hour shift with aplomb. On Friday, October 4th, the tables turned (no pun intended) and I found myself back behind the bar in an apron carrying two buckets of ice, a bar back once again.
I have been considering apt cinematic comparisons for my return behind the bar over the past three days while my body ached and cracked at all the hinge points. Eastwood's “Unforgiven” comes to mind, as does Disney's “Fantasia”. At its worst, the job reminds me of the rooftop finale of Ghostbusters, four guys debating whether or not to cross the streams [read: whiskey]. Two nights ago, during a fitful sleep, I had a dishwasher dream, cycling glassware in some kind of Cohen brothers Lebowski abstract hallucination. My Chuck Taylor Converse have gone from clean, comfortable things I wear to the bar on Sunday afternoon to some vague semblance of the footwear chosen by coal shovelers on a steam engine. I can hear the smack-slam of John Henderson's tins in a double shake over and over in my head like the inner-workings of the Iron Giant. Smack-slam-shake. Visions appear, a panoply of three-deep needy faces, their eyes desperately trying to make contact with mine while I dodge their lasers and look for dirty glassware, a sci-fi zombie movie of sorts. And the yoga poses, all of the odd positions required of the bar back, a less-than-rejuvenating series of vinyasa-esque motions: the “duck under service bar”, the “third shelf bitters reach”, the “dishwasher to dry rack pivot” and the all-important, “behind you” slide. I am not built, both mentally or physically for this, not yet, and at 34 years young, I still have a lot to learn.
“How's it going?”, asked a line cook as I skid-slid my way through the dish pit towards the walk in, on a mission for an emergency ration of olive brine. “Feels like a snowball fight,” I replied as I feverishly searched the shelves for a funnel to separate the brine from the giant gallon jug in the fridge. The bar, only 12 seats plus another four or so for standing room, filled up fast that Saturday night following my initiation on the 4th. The bartenders and I had a bit of a hurried start, with football fans and random Fort Point wanderers filling the bar at 4:30 PM and not desisting until the witching hour of last call. Friday night was a beating that I had not anticipated on my first night back behind the stick. The bartenders were grateful that I'd been there as support, for it truly was an consistent stream of tickets and revelers. That numb sense of awe that you feel when the drinks and bodies keep coming, well, it wore off on Saturday as I returned to the bar with a sore back and five hours of sleep. On Saturday night I was a man behind the black ball, from start to finish. All three bartenders and I played catch-up during the shift, the bar a Maginot Line, constantly tested by our guest's persistence. The novice does not realize the atrophy one night of high-volume bartending can have on the next night. If your resources aren't reinforced and replenished, the following night will be a consistent 86 of massive proportions. It's a bar back's responsibility to make sure this does not happen, whether it's before, during or after the shift. Fire, reload, repeat.
It's the physical objects, not the guests that end up getting you down. My enemies on Saturday night were a rag-tag bunch of mechanical, man-made dungeon implements and torture devices, from shattered glassware, to the POS and the unmerciful liquor cage lock. The man-killer was a guillotine-styled device that some know as “the service bar”. There are various kinds in the bartending world. You have your average, “over counter” static service bar, where servers pick up their drinks as they are passed over the bar. Easy done, but frequently in the way of guests, either to the right or left of an elbow. Many bar designers place their service bar towards the end of the L shape on a hinge, away from the reach of guests, in such a place that limits the transit of the bartender freely from behind the bar. Our select species of service bar flips up to allow walking access to the bar. Good for the servers, but a portal straight to hell for the 6'7'' bar back.
I have not traversed a lot of sewers in my short time on this fair earth, but on Saturday night I was under that service bar at least 20 times, in and out like a Ninja Turtle. To add insult to future injury, both trash barrels sit right in front of the pass, along with the service wells and ice pit. It's a wet, filthy, three-foot high world of knees and crotches. To get under the service bar without toppling the cocktails resting above my head, I have to pull some kind of “Dwarf in The Hobbit” rabbit hole maneuver that's meant for no more than the mightiest of penguins. One false move to raise myself back to standing height and your “Carroll Gardens”, Allagash Black and prosecco split turns into a Newtonian physics experiment. When the going got tough, we had guests standing directly in front of the service bar exit, me a troll from the underworld in a wet apron asking them politely to move or else be trolled. Here's a good ergonomics experiment for those in the business – How does one get two buckets of ice under the service bar in a full crouch, past a busy bartender without tipping six drinks and tripping on the mats? Answer: you can't, but I managed to get it done in some odd mish-mash of parkour and brute force altruism. I'd like to thank my bartenders for accommodating my passage into and out of Hades throughout the night and I'm looking to Advil as my next corporate sponsor.
All jokes aside, high-volume bar operation is a ballet fit for only the mightiest of hospitality pirates. Servers cannot relate, nor can managers. At the end of the night, the very bitter tip of the cigarette break at 4:30 AM, the bartenders magically transform into placid money counting machines, dolefully recounting the night's highs and lows: “The girls at 10-13, how did you not get a number?”, “Did you catch that chick putting her cocktail in her purse?”, “Anyone know that pizza delivery we got the other night?” At the end of a 14 hour shift, there's nothing to do but reflect, call a cab, count your money and if you're lucky, crack a High Life, put your feet up for a while. Me, I walked it off around the dining room, marveling at how in just a week's time, I went from administrative paragon to whatever you want to call bar-backing (Russian factory proletariat?). There is some nobility, a vague reward that you served your guests in the most physical of manners. The journey of clean, chilled glass to cocktail, into a guest's hand and back onto the glass rack is quite the tale. It's worthy of a children's picture book at least. I wish Maurice Sendak was around to capture it, maybe we could call it The Night Kitchen, although I believe that's already been done.
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