After a weekend of slinging drinks and then rocking out hard to The Strokes at Fuck Yeah Fest on Sunday, I need to make my Monday mo’ betta. I start with this smoothie: vanilla coconut milk, banana, roasted flax seeds, dates, and spinach. Crafting a cocktail and building a smoothie are two distinct yet similar art forms. The creator must take into account ingredients, flavors, and textures, among other elements. I seek to take all of the experience and knowledge gleaned from my years toiling behind the stick and apply it to this nutritious A.M. ritual, which actually happens closer to 5 or 6 P.M., when I eat breakfast. No matter. Another day, another smoothie. Man cannot live on whiskey alone.
Just when we think the dog days of summer are coming to an end, the mercury in the City of Angels is still flirting with triple digits. Not in the mood to make dinner, but very in the mood to drink beer, I pick up a six-pack of Sierra Nevada Flipside Red IPA and a box of Trader Joe’s pumpkin biscotti to satisfy my late-night suds-induced munchies.
TJ’s Fearless Flyer recommends pairing the biscotti with coffee or tea. I say, wash ’em down with a good, spicy seasonal ale. Because let’s face it: beer makes everything better.
The tropical fruit and citrus hop flavors of the beer complement the cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and ginger kick of the cookies perfectly. And of course, the beer’s ruby-red hue looks pretty darn sexy alongside those little orange bars of crunchy pumpkin goodness.
My advice for an LA October summer eve? Light some spooky skull candles, get comfy, alone or with your lover, crack open a Red IPA, tear into those pumpkin biscotti, and call it a night.
“Do you carry Fernet Branca at this fine establishment?” the self-proclaimed King of Fernet asks the bartender.
The king whips out the coin – the Fernet challenge coin, that is. He pounds it onto the bar. The bartender looks at it, smiles. I observe, in a haze from two glasses of caramel-like Angel’s Envy rye and halfway through my second Abita Wrought Iron IPA, hoppy and then some.
“Do you keep your Fernet chilled or at room temperature?” the King asks the ‘tender.
“Room temp, but I can chill it for you, if you like.”
The King frowns. “Never put Fernet in a shaker,” he declares. Then, he turns to me. “Would you like one?”
How can I refuse? His Majesty turns back to the barman who now has the bottle in hand. “We’ll have two,” he says, holding up two fingers.
The bartender gathers four small rocks glasses and pours us two shots as well as one for himself and one for his bar-back. The King and I clink and lock eyes. “To your health,” the he says.
“To yours, brother.”
“I’m a rye guy,” I said to the bartender at the Mud Hen Tavern on Highland last Wednesday night as he displayed a bottle of WhistlePig rye whiskey. He popped the cork off and held the bottle to my nose. After I nodded my approval, the bartender poured me the tiniest of nips in a shot glass and slid it towards me. I swirled, sniffed again, and sipped. Already buzzed from a Swami IPA (ABV 6.8%), I can’t recall the notes or images the rye elicited. I’d call apt the words WhistlePig uses to describe its product: Courage. Quality. Character. And a fair amount of courage I had to muster to down that whiskey.
Having survived my two-week alkaline stretch, I’m back in the saddle, as my bar boss would say, meaning, I am drinking again. Can’t say the rye went down easy. I think it burnt my throat a bit, but that’s likely a result of my ever-lowering spirits tolerance. Nonetheless, I sat and savored the entire atmosphere and not just the whiskey – the quiet bar on a slow-ish Wednesday night, the bartender rocking a Will Ferrell-esque ‘fro and a beige apron, the blackboard on the wall next to the bar, on which a server’d scrawled in chalk the night’s specials as well as the cocktail du jour, a cucumber jalapeño margarita.
The vibe of the Mud Hen Tavern lived up to what its website promised – “a casual neighborhood place that feels like your second home.” While I chomped on fried oysters, chicken and waffle croquettes, and pumpkin ravioli, I whet my lips with WhistlePig, and chased that with Drake’s Denogginizer DIPA, a massively imperial India Pale Ale, clocking in at 9.75% ABV. As the one-hundred-proof rye and ultra-hoppy ale surged through my bloodstream, the ‘tender reminded me more and more of a koala bear swinging from a vine, especially when he held the beer draft handle with one hand and a pint glass in the other while pouring pints for patrons, glancing over his shoulder at a regular and asking her, “What do you want?”
Urgently needing to make a wire transfer, I log on to my banking website. Immediately a challenge confronts me: “Halt!” says the site. “You shall not proceed until you enable cookies.”
Fond as I am of cookies, I follow the site’s instructions to re-enable their entrance. In my browser’s preferences window, however, I see that cookies are not, in any way, blocked. And why would they be? I love cookies – all cookies, but especially my own. At a loss, I try to cajole them into returning. “Come hither, little cookies,” I coo. “I adore you, my cookies. Don’t run, little cookies! Don’t be afraid.”
The cookies ignore me. They are nowhere to be seen. Not a Chocolate Chunk or an Oatmeal Raisin, or, heaven forbid, a Snickerdoodle, in sight.
“Alas!” I wail, “I’ll never complete this wire transfer, at least not as long as those timid cookies avoid me as they flit hither and yon.”
Technology has vanquished me once again. I lie down on the floor under a white, furry throw rug and decide to write a check instead.
Enduring 10 years behind the stick is not easy. Over time, I’ve developed ways to respond to the chaos and stress of bartending by imposing a very strict regularity and routine to my diurnal existence, including yoga, a rigid fruitarian diet consisting mainly of organic avocados and bananas (which I recently abandoned in favor of the more well-rounded alkaline one), meditation, and rigorous daily workouts. Through all of this I sought to normalize the outlandish mayhem that I battle with each night serving drinks at breakneck speed to highly demanding crowds.
Just as I am currently trying to balance the pH level in my body to treat my chronic acid reflux, as a professional bartender I constantly crave respite from the nightly grind of taking shot after shot of Fernet and whiskey, working ‘til 3 am, going to bed at dawn, the same birds chirping and the sound of the fountain trickling outside soothing me as I throw my weary body onto the bed.
Before I committed to the alkaline regimen, my body screamed for mercy, and yet I could never give it a rest or say no to a shift. For it is not in my nature to turn down easy, fast cash, especially when I can earn it doing something I’ve done for the past eight years, coast to coast. I’ve reached a level of proficiency that enables me to go through the motions without thinking, and the green is irresistible.
Granted, as a bartender, I work on a set schedule – Wednesday, Friday, Saturday – and yet, qualitatively, the lifestyle and the routine itself is anything but run-of-the-mill or consistent – each night brings a unique set of challenges, characters, and threats, all with their own idiosyncrasies: a belligerent kid from Virginia who wants to fight me over a spilled shot of vodka; a guy who gets huffy about the ten dollar minimum that my bar strictly enforces for credit card transactions; a twenty-three-year-old girl from Arkansas who calls me a dick because, she insists, I’m holding on to her ID, when, in reality, l carefully placed it in her hand as I handed over her check for her to sign.
These episodes are as integral to my job as serving drinks in a fast and friendly manner. Many pros behind the stick will say that to tend bar well, it helps greatly to be a “people person”, as we deal with humanity in its most raw, unapologetic, and often aggressive state. It’s enough to drive a bartender to drink.
Yet when you suffer from chronic, excruciating esophageal pain, taking a shot of Jameson is like pouring gasoline onto the fire. What is the solution? I often asked myself. I’m still searching for that happy medium I touched on in “Acid, Begone!” One day I hope to find it – to execute my work with passion and commitment and yet disconnect myself enough emotionally so that I don’t have to rely on alcohol to get through the night.
Of course, one or two shots is different than six, or, as used to be my norm during a prolonged shift, ten, eleven, or more. Regardless of the quantity, I think many professionals, bartenders and civilians alike, would agree that a job that constantly drives one to drink can’t be the healthiest. On the other hand, I think it safe to venture that many of us, on both sides of the bar, want nothing more, at the end of the day, than to hash it out over a cold one with a friend, or with the bartender. We want to vent, and if we can indulge in some medicine during the session to dull the suffering, even better. The difference between bartenders and most people, however, is that many bartenders drink on the job, as well as after it’s done.
Where, then, is the relief? Ultimately, it is a personal choice. I’ve encountered many a drink slinger that slings but never imbibes. Earlier this year I abstained for eight weeks in a row, and not a drop has passed my lips for the past two as I detox my insides of pepsin and acid. When the pain became too great to ignore, it outweighed the need to escape the stress of tending bar. Better to save my esophagus and stomach than revel in momentary intoxication that could lead to no good end and might, years from now, cause serious medical problems.
And yet, even now, in these late stages of my induction reflux diet, I yearn for a glass of vino or a hoppy IPA. In due time, and in moderation, I promise myself, I’ll have it.
On a recent Sunday, my girlfriend in Japan, I find myself in need of suds and buds, so I join my roommate and our friend in WeHo for a romp in drink-dom. We meet at Mother Lode, a half-empty dive bar bumping clubby beats, its wooden interior reeking of Bud Light and Jaegermeister. To get the engines revved I order a shot of Fernet, which the bartender, a short, middle-aged woman wearing a baseball cap, pours heavy; it’s more like three shots, a giant gulp of chilled herbal sublimity in a frosty rocks glass. I chase it with a Lagunitas IPA. Then it’s off to Here Lounge.
The Fernet and Lagunitas begin to kick in. I wallow in my Sunday buzz, sipping and staring, taking in the throngs of young, muscular, scantily-clad men on the dance floor and patio. Amidst the in-your-face flamboyance that surrounds me, I decide another shot’s a good idea. “Want one?” I ask my roommate. He shakes his head, his blue eyes already glazed over from who-the-hell-is-counting-at-this-point many Bud Lights. Our feisty amigo, however, says, “I’ll do one with you.” Having already downed half my Stella, I signal the bartender’s attention.
“You ready?” he asks, frowning, avoiding eye contact.
Holding up two fingers, I say, “Two shots of Don Julio, a Stella, Corona, and a Bud Light.”
He leans in. “Three shots of Don Julio?”
“Two,” I say, “unless you want one, brother.”
“I don’t drink.”
Shot, beer. Shot, beer. I bob my head to electronica mashups, finish a Stella, and smile at our friend. “What do you want to do?” he asks me. “I wanna keep drinking,” I say.
My roommate having long since grabbed a slice from Pizza Rustico and hopped in an Uber, wasted and homeward-bound, I stroll with my buddy down the street to Micky’s where the crowd is drunker and the go-go boys wear fewer clothes, most of them toting nothing but a bandana draped over their man parts. My accomplice knows the bartender at the front. He grins when he sees us coming. Another Lagunitas for me, a Mandarin and soda for my bud. My drink-count nearing the double digits, the menagerie of intoxicated men and garishly dressed girls around me starts to spin. I find myself on the patio smoking a Parliament. “You chillin’?” asks a young Middle-Eastern guy with gelled, jet-black hair and a gold chain dangling from his neck. “Chillin’,” I reply.
I will say this: WeHo gets down like nobody’s business on a Sunday night. The deejays keep the crowd jumping ‘til the joints close, spinning everything from Calvin Harris to Rihanna to EDM remixes of the Bee Gees and Gwen Stefani. Boys dance, girls scream, and the bartenders get into it, too: a tall, buff, speedo-clad guy behind the stick at Mickey’s shakes a pair of Kamikaze shots with such gusto he inspires a high-pitched howl from the stocky, tattooed girl watching him. Nine drinks deep, I give in, let the beats take over my body, and I start to groove, or, rather, sway.
No doubt about it, this is a party town, seven nights a week, and as a veteran bartender, I appreciate a populace that’s down to rage for no damn reason at all on any given night. The MO here is simple: get smashed and have a blast, and be open to whatever that may lead to. The whole scene is an escape, from the looming Monday morning blues, from the weekend coming to a close, from life, in general.
And so, on this particular Sunday, I throw myself into the thick of it and get lost, on the other side of the bar. It doesn’t matter at this point whether I’m in WeHo, Hollywood, or Venice. After enough shots of tequila and Fernet, I forget where I am, anyway.
Alkaline magic is happening in this bartender’s Hollywood kitchen. Last night’s dinner was a smashing success. Roasted wild salmon, steamed spinach with freshly grated ginger, and a sweet potato that needed nothing more than a stint in a hot oven and some salt sprinkled on top after I split its skin to reveal steamy, orange perfection.
I could get used to this lifestyle.
As much as I’ve reveled in the yoga-coffee-whiskey-cigarette routine for the past several years as a bartender, it took a toll on my stomach. Millions of Americans will agree, I’m sure, that chronic acid reflux hurts, like a dull, hot knife rubbing against the inner walls of the esophagus. Tired of living with constant pain, and unsatisfied with the temporary high I derived from guzzling spirits, which only stoked the internal fire, I decided to seek out a cure, or at least some relief.
Now, it seems, I’ve found a remedy. Sticking steadfastly to a list of reflux-friendly foods that all contain a pH of 5 or above, as well as twice-daily shots of organic, SoCal-grown aloe vera juice, known for its soothing properties, and a minimum of eight glasses of filtered, alkaline water per day, I’m concocting meals to heal my damaged digestive tissues, and they’re tasty to boot.
Breakfast, I’ll admit, was less exciting: watermelon, coffee (it’s acidity cut with a generous splash of soy milk), and oatmeal, a bowl full o’mush, like my brain at the end of a Saturday night behind the bar. For lunch, however, a protein-packed, spinach- and salmon-based superfood salad revved my taste buds into party mode.
This Cinco de Drink-o I’m abstaining from the usual slew of tequila shots, tacos, and Pacíficos and opting instead to write, munch, and heal.
I’ll be back to my whiskey-drinking ways in no time. Hopefully, when I return, I will discover the proverbial happy medium we call moderation. For the next couple of weeks, however, I’ll wallow in this rare opportunity to live the good life as nature would recommend, feeding from her bounty. With its silence, my stomach expresses gratitude.
“The rep came the other day and bought five shots of the El Silencio black,” says my boss, suggestively. “However, she never poured them. Would you like to try it?”
How could I turn down a shot of mescal?
I reach under the bar for two of the three heavy shot glasses that are made of actual glass, which I use when sampling the special rye and Scotch whiskeys the Guvna brings in to educate me.
We clink and down ’em.
A rush of warmth, a burst of energy, an instant high that mescal delivers time after time. The shot gives me a kick in the pants. All of a sudden, I’m wiping down my speed rack bottles with gusto, executing my closing duties with speed and vigor, closing out my checks, scrubbing off the sticky bar top and the filthy drink well, eager to get out of there and drink an IPA at home.
Tequila, I’ve noticed from experience, can have an invigorating, as well as highly intoxicating, effect on me. Mescal moves me in a similar way but the buzz is more subdued, more mellow, like sinking into a giant, super-comfortable leather chair in an old, secret library with mahogany shelves and leather-bound volumes, smoking a cigar and sipping a single malt Scotch in a snifter.
The taste stays on my palate long after the last sip. I can’t tell whether it’s actually still rousing my hyper-sensitive taste buds at this pre-dawn hour or whether the mere memory of its robust earthiness triggers the sensation of a warm buzz from head to toe. As the sun rises and the morning birds chirp, I drift off and El Silencio comes with me.
Like many Mondays after a Sunday fun day that turned into a late night rampage, drinking ‘til the bars close, a night in which my bartending-induced angst highjacked my innocent intention to go out for a beer, and one beer turned into two shots and seven beers, I woke up feeling like I got hit in the head with a bottle of Jack. To assuage the pain, I hiked up the steep slope of Runyon Canyon, cranked out sets of pull ups, chin ups, dips, leg raises, and squats in the park, and tried not to think about the constant onslaught of poison and punishment I inflict on my body.
Today, however, is different, for it is the day I begin my alkaline diet and cleanse. I’ve stocked up on melons, bananas, spinach, broccoli, wild salmon, organic, free-range chicken breasts, whole grain bread, brown rice, edamame, beans. Today is the first day of the rest of my life and it starts with alkaline healing. Alkaline magic. I will detox my way to happiness.
This time, however, the writer’s well will not run dry as it did the last time I stopped drinking, for a whole two months, in February and March. This time, I will keep writing.
Sweet potatos are in the oven. Wild salmon is in the skillet, with just a teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil, mind you. No pepper. Just a pinch of salt. Organic spinach is a-steamin’ in my steamer that I bought in Japan. Ginger’s gonna get grated. I’m on a mission, to feed my mind, body and soul, to cleanse and strengthen. The time is now.