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A life behind bars

45 years and countless drinks, conversations, and observations

Longtime bartender Reggie St. Paul, 70, talks to friends Lonnie and Marcia Hillson; he’s known Lonnie for 60 years. Longtime bartender Reggie St. Paul, 70, talks to friends Lonnie and Marcia Hillson; he’s known Lonnie for 60 years. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / August 21, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE - Reggie St. Paul, 70, isn’t ready for last call.

One of the longest-serving bartenders in Greater Boston, St. Paul has poured drinks for Miles Davis and Mort Sahl, catered to the Big Bad Bruins four decades ago, and watched the public’s taste in alcohol change more than a banana in a blender.

“I still like coming to work,’’ says St. Paul, a former schoolteacher who has served tens of thousands of drinks, sized up countless customers, and performed a barkeep’s ballet of tipping bottles, pulling taps, and stacking glasses since 1966.

“If you’re not happy you’re there, the customers won’t be happy you’re there,’’ says St. Paul, who has worked for 20 years behind The Blue Room’s ash bar in Kendall Square.

In a field where youthful looks can trump experience, St. Paul is a balding and white-bearded lifer who has calibrated cocktails for longer than most of his peers have been alive.

He served Davis at Lennie’s on the Turnpike in Peabody and watched St. Louis Cardinals ace Bob Gibson carouse there until 4 a.m. before Game 1 of the 1967 World Series.

He remembers when drinking was serious stuff, when tastes were dramatically different, and a bar could go through eight to 10 bottles of whiskey and bourbon a night, compared with only one bottle of gin and one bottle of vodka.

David Craver, president of the Atlanta-based National Bartenders Association, a trade group, said that among the estimated 100,000 bartenders in the United States, people like St. Paul are anomalies.

“It’s pretty unusual,’’ he said.

“Bartending tends to be a transitional occupation,’’ Craver explained, meaning that people who gravitate to the hospitality industry tend to frequently move on to something else. People may bartend while they are in college, for example, then head in another direction.

St. Paul is down to three shifts a week, from decades of working five, but he handles The Blue Room bar on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays with a focused grace and nimble athleticism that belie his septuagenarian status.

“I know every day is going to be different,’’ says St. Paul, who lives in Watertown. “And I like it because I work with people who are young.’’

St. Paul says he has no plans to end a bartending odyssey that has taken him from Cape Cod to the legendary Lennie’s to the Casablanca in Harvard Square and finally to The Blue Room.

Through the decades, he has watched drinkers rediscover cocktails and seen smoke-filled rooms consigned to the ashtray of history. And he has done this in a career that began almost by chance, when St. Paul talked his way behind a Falmouth bar in the summer of 1966 to supplement his $5,100 salary as a teacher in Wakefield.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t have a plan,’’ St. Paul says.

Soon afterward, he landed a job at Lennie’s, the renowned music club in Peabody, where stars such as Stan Getz, Joe Williams, Erroll Garner, and Buddy Rich performed. “It was a great job,’’ St. Paul says.

St. Paul stayed at Lennie’s for five years, listening to those stars and laughing at impromptu turns by comics Sahl and Dick Gregory, who dropped in unannounced on the same night.

He also left teaching. When a school official said, “I don’t like you working two jobs,’’ St. Paul answered, “Neither do I.’’

Lennie’s proved to be an education in music and people, as well as a living, St. Paul says. In one memorable bar-side conversation, a customer asked Miles Davis if he would sing “Melancholy Baby.’’ The trumpet player replied with a two-word epithet before adding in his strained and raspy voice, “I can barely talk, never mind sing.’’

In 1971, St. Paul moved to another legendary venue, the Casablanca in Cambridge, where a Bohemian milieu of professors, artists, writers, and Harvard Square regulars would gather for conversation, cigarettes, and multiple drinks.

The bar was a place where straight and gay patrons coexisted, where the jukebox was silenced so customers could watch the nightly news on television, and where at least half the clientele would stand and sing the “Marseillaise’’ when the movie “Casablanca’’ was shown.

“It was a real melting pot,’’ St. Paul recalls.

It was also a time when whiskey and bourbon were the drinks in heavy rotation.

“When I started at the Casablanca, we had two bottles of wine, and they had dust on them,’’ St. Paul says. “I don’t remember ever picking them up.’’

Drinking habits have changed dramatically since then, often circling back to decades-old tendencies. Cocktails are popular once more, wine is nearly a given, and bartenders must learn or reacquaint themselves with the mechanics of an intricately mixed drink.

“We’re doing cocktails of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s,’’ St. Paul says. “It’s become exciting.’’ One big difference, he says, is that “to some people now, the glass is more important than what’s in it.’’

Other changes include the use of credit cards, which now account for 75 percent of payment; less drinking to intoxication; and the role of the bar and restaurant as destination for entertainment.

“I can count on one hand the number of times I went out to dinner with my family as a kid,’’ says St. Paul, who grew up in Medford.

But some things never change for bartenders, including their interaction with customers, the social psychology they develop, and their ability to defuse potential confrontations. And then there are the physical demands.

“In the mid-’70s, I was 5’ 9’’ and wore a 10 1/2 shoe,’’ St. Paul says. “Now, I’m 5’ 9’’ and wear a size 13 shoe. It’s from being on my feet all these years.’’

The career has had many benefits, despite the no-break shifts, the vagaries of the economy, and the dicey intersection of alcohol and attitude, St. Paul says. His wife was once a customer, he’s made lifetime friends, and the memories are indelible.

“It’s a very simple formula in this business,’’ St. Paul says. “The better you do your job, the more money you make.’’

Don’t prejudge people, he advises, but be alert for problems. Pretend to be interested, even when the conversation is boring. And keep an even-tempered, long-term perspective whether the gratuities are generous or not.

“When someone gives you a big tip, and when someone gives you a lousy tip, don’t make a big deal about it,’’ St. Paul believes. “You say, ‘Have a good night. I’ll see you again,’ even though you may not want to.’’

Whether the tips are good or bad, St. Paul leaves the bar behind when he heads home after a long shift.

For him, it’s often a book or the television.

“And sometimes,’’ he says, “I’ll just grab a beer and sit on the front porch and wind down and cool off.’’

MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com

Other notable bars St. Paul has tended


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