Hustlin’

This piece was published in the fall 2015 issue of Glint Literary Journal.

 
Last night, one of my regulars bought me a shot of whiskey, then said to me, “You went to Columbia. What are you doing here?”

“Making money,” I said.

And yet, to me, bartending is so much more than that stack of bills at the end of the night. To be sure, it pays my rent, my hefty student loans, even enables me to afford Acaí smoothie packs from pricey natural food stores (forgive me—I live in LA). And yes, at times, I feel like a workaday cog in the nightlife wheel, cranking out vodka-Red Bulls for the WeHo masses.

So, when the nightly grind wears me down to the point where I doubt whether I can lift the bottle of Jack to pour one more Jack and Coke, I find strength and solace in Paul Newman’s words in The Hustler. “Anything can be great,” Newman’s character, pool hustler “Fast Eddie” Felson, says. “Brick-laying can be great if a guy knows . . . what he’s doin’ and why and if he can make it come off . . . he knows; he just feels when to let it go and how much ’cause he’s got everything workin’ for him—timing, touch. It’s a great feeling, boy, it’s a real great feeling when you’re right and ya know you’re right . . .ya play that game the way nobody’s ever played it before. ”

This is what I seek to do night in and night out behind the stick—to know what I’m doing and why, to tend bar in a way no one ever has before, to be great like Newman’s character is in that classic film. As I write these words, somehow, despite my exhaustion from routinely staying up ’til sunrise, I get excited because it’s 8:30 PM on a Saturday, an hour and a half before my shift starts. Another night. Another chance to do tha damn thang and do it properly. Here we go. Thanks, Fast Eddie.

Energy In A Bowl

This lunch packs protein, perfect after jumping rope on the roof staring at the Hollywood sign shrouded in midday haze followed by handstand pushups against the wall while Dubtribe Sound System’s West Coast house vibe thumps from the BOSE speakers in the living room. Baby broccoli that escaped from it’s mum, scooped up by a hungry, cheating vegan-at-times. Wilted on the stovetop in organic vegetable broth with Tuscan kale, hit with heat and Hawaiian ONO seasoning. While the greens wilt, I toss together tri-color quinoa, black beans, and carrots sliced thin, along with chopped parsley and slivered ginger for more kick, then dress it in macadamia nut oil, rice vinegar, freshly grated lemon zest, and more ONO. I scoop the quinoa-bean-carrot mixture atop the broc-kale base,  then plop a sliced avo onto the grains along with a couple of hard-boiled eggs, yokes still soft. Another sprinkling of rice vinegar, a few drops of hot chili sesame oil, and a shower of coarse grain ancient Hawaiian Alaea garlic salt, and this is a party for the ‘buds as well as building blocks for muscle. Good eating.

protein-packing power lunch

High West, ‘bucks Back

hi' times + 'bucks

I step behind the stick, take a sip of High West, and savor the lavender notes. My boss brought back our weekly whiskey ed at our humble little WeHo watering hole that keeps on humming, cranking out solid revenue numbers night after night. What better way to commence a promising, nippy November Friday eve than with generous shots of rye?

Between drinks, I plug pour spouts into my speed rack bottles, stock my station with cans of Red Bull, and stuff a dry bar rag into my belt to keep my cracked hands dry. Lime juice seeps into tiny cuts on my fingertips and stings as I garnish a vodka-tonic.

I gaze out onto Santa Monica Boulevard where WeHo wildlife flaunts its weekend jungle costumes and primes itself for an altered state in what my barback calls “an amazing place.” Throngs of skinny young men with expensive hair cuts, wearing tight jeans and designer kicks, barhop, while the older set, clad in collared shirts and tailored jackets, slices rare meat and sips Cab, taking it in from restaurant patios.

After the first few nips of High West I’m left with no choice but to chase it with Pike Place Roast from Starbucks two doors down before the joe goes cold and putrid. Two buzzes, one up, one down, set my adrenaline into overdrive and prep me to grind for thirsty revelers as the clock ticks toward late night happy hour. Despite fatigue from a week in which I conquered the GRE and grooved to Capital Cities’ set at The Fonda Theater the next night, then guzzled rye ’til sunrise, my liquid supper brings me back to life, as though I’ve tapped into some ever-present nocturnal energy current, infinitely deep, that carries me through every shift, from the first vodka-Red Bull to the final shot of Fireball.

Another night, another battle. I coil like a sprinter at the starting line and spring into action as the masses flood the bar. Bring it on! I think, as I swallow my last drop of High West and knock back my final sip of ‘bucks. I’m high, low, buzzed on rye and caffeine all at once, ready to go.

Keepin’ It Earthy

An acquaintance recently said to me, “I really like the fact that you’re bartending, with an Ivy League degree! Interesting and down to earth.”

I’d add that bartending is one of the most direct forms of grassroots-level anthropological research for any writer. It’s a very privileged glimpse into the human condition, a constant source of story ideas and characters to flesh out. It’s like people-watching for a living.

I love my job. In what other profession can you sip single-malt whiskey while working, banter with admiring clientele, and have large wads of cash thrown at you for smiling and serving them alcohol?

I don’t intend to sling drinks forever, but, in the meantime, it revs up my writing engines, and the money ain’t too shabby, either.

All Hail The King

As bartenders, we do whatever it takes to get us through the night. Often, that means shots, just to dull the pain a bit. My shot of choice? Fernet Branca. With forty different herbs and vegetables, not to mention a healthy Codeine boost, this Italian digestif gives me a buzz, but it’s more of an upper than, say, Jameson, my old default poison.

Last night, my boss dubbed himself The King of Fernet, and rightly so. He brings the elixir to the masses, to beautiful effect. Thanks to this great man, I became a convert myself.

To my surprise, he also swears by Goji Berry juice, saying he takes two shots daily to help weather the draining effects of working Wall Street hours to keep our little empire of a bar running on all eight.

That berry juice seems to be working. As far as I can tell, my boss is indestructible. I’ve never seen anyone take that many shots of Fernet night in and night out and still do his job better than any general manager or owner I’ve worked with in my seven years behind the stick.

Perhaps it’s no mystery, though. He’s got his uppers and downers all figured out, his Goji Berry yin to his Fernet yang. Let us all heed The King’s sage advice, and obey when he tells us to take our medicine. For Fernet is medicine indeed, for the bartender and patron alike. At times I wonder how I ever survived the nocturnal grind without it.

Greens In a Glass

greens in a glassPlus protein. How’s that for efficiency? To make this liquefied superfood behemoth, I added unsweetened coconut milk, an organic banana, a dash of raw agave syrup, four heaping tablespoons of hemp protein powder, and loads of frozen kale to a blender and whipped the whole mess to a smooth, creamy consistency. Vitamins from the kale, protein from the hemp, potassium from the ‘nana, and medium chain fatty acids from the coconut milk make this vibrant smoothie a nutritional quick-fix when grad school application deadlines, standardized test dates, and the mid-week bartending grind loom large. A busy bartender mustn’t allow life to get in the way of his getting his greens and post-workout protein boost.

Slingin’ the pots and pans

sunday dinnerWhile the Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Wild ale takes effect, I remember there’s cod in my freezer, parsnips in my crisper, and Russets on my counter, waiting to satiate my craving for something…substantial. After two nights in a row of grinding behind the stick ’til 2 a.m., wiping down bottles and straightening bills ’til 3, getting home and vegging out on beer, pretzels, potato chips, and Netflix, I hunger for good, hearty, whole food. Time for some Lagunitas-fueled kitchen magic! While a live concert rages just outside my kitchen window and my roommates take shots from an errant bottle of Bacardi that ended up in our freezer, I bake spuds, roast ‘snips, and cook the cod to flaky, succulent perfection. With help from California Estate Arbequina extra virgin olive oil, Cypriot Pyramid Salt, freshly ground rainbow peppercorns, and juice from a lemon that fell from a tree in a Hollywood backyard, the whole ensemble comes together just after 11 p.m. for a late-night Sunday feast, much needed after the Bushmill’s beating my liver took last night thanks to a regular who needed a whiskey-inclined drinking partner while his fussy accomplice sipped Grey Goose martinis.

On Sunday, I say, Give me some respite from the bartending slog. Give me cod. And, since it’s in the fridge, give me a Lagunitas.

Karma, Come Hither

Last night a young dude who’d tipped me a dollar a drink for his first two vodka-tonics came up to the bar towards last call and ordered a third. He handed me four bills, which, as he began to stroll away, I unfolded and found to be a fiver, two singles, and a Benjamin. Morality swooped in instantaneously, prompting an internal struggle in my buzzed head. Should I stuff the big bill into the tip jar, and act as if nothing had happened? Choose a middle ground by maintaining silence and setting the hundo aside in case the young blood returned to reclaim his unintentionally gigantic tip? Or do the “right thing” by getting the guy’s attention and giving him his money back? Bar three-deep with thirsty knuckleheads screaming for drinks, I had to act fast. I went with my gut, hollering “Yo!” several times, but amidst Madonna’s “Ghosttown” blaring from the speakers and the skeleton-shaking  bass machine, my call went unanswered. Unwilling to abandon my lofty cause, I jumped over the bar and chased the fellow out to the patio, tapped him on the shoulder as he lit up a Parliament, and said, “Are you ready?”

He looked at me like, “Wha? Huh?”

“Did you mean to tip me one dollar or one hundred one dollars?”

He stared at me, raised his eyebrows, smiled. I handed him his hundred, said, “Remember me, brother,” and walked away.

Every night, some people tip me exceedingly well, whereas others stiff me. The majority fall somewhere in the middle, tipping a dollar a drink or fifteen to twenty percent on tabs. I could have easily justified keeping the hundred and sealing my lips, for the greater good of my own coffers and those of my fellow bartender and bar back. Yet, at the end of the day (or, in my case, night) I was able to go home and sip a single malt Japanese whiskey at peace with my actions and my decision. I pray to the bartending gods that the global drinking collective will give back to me for being an honest drinkmonger.

Wake Up and Stretch

What is the cure for the next-day pain from four shots of Tullamore Dew 12 Year Old Special Reserve, five of Fernet Branca, and one of Bushmill’s? Yoga, without a doubt, if not in the park then in my room, my Zen sanctuary. Twisting and back-bending, beads of sweat drip onto my mat as I wring out the whiskey and Fernet. Afterwards, I flood my cells with Zico coconut water and, for a brief moment, feel radiant once again. Detox to retox, the saying goes.

Rye to the Rescue

Studying for the GRE makes me thirsty. That’s where Bulleit Rye comes in. With the first sip, my standardized-test-induced angst melts away as the whiskey warms me from within. Its smoothness, oaky aroma, and hints of vanilla, honey, and spice make this rye go down easy. Plus, at 90 proof (45% ABV), it delivers an uplifting buzz that assuages my post-practice-test fatigue and primes me for anything WeHo throws my way on a warm Wednesday night the week after Halloween.

Whereas I used to knock back shots of Jameson like it was water, then indulged in a prolonged affair with Bushmill’s, of late, the greater spice and complexity rye offers has stolen me away from Irish whiskey. Praise the spirit that’s made a glorious comeback!

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