There is no profession (then perhaps the soldier, the doctor, and probably the psychologist) that on a daily basis witnesses human beings in their truest form other than the bartender. Any given time, any given day, we, as servants of the people, are privy to the joys, successes, and utter failures of the human experience. And the alcohol only adds to it.
Some one appears at the bar, orders a couple of drinks. They begin to ask me questions, or talk about themselves, or (more often these days) stare down into their phones.
Then, after a couple of drinks, one of them hits you right across the face.
Not kidding. This has happened.
One day, working a slow happy hour shift at The Abbey Bar, everything seemed business as usual. A man walks in, slightly loose fitting clothing, and smiles in that strange way that only perverts, child molesters, and potentially serial killers smile. I immediately feel something is very wrong. But I ignore, for the moment, my intuition. He orders a drink and I reluctantly give it to him.
You see, I believe, even the mentally ill, still deserve a drink. Stupid me. Right after the first drink, which he puts down with a dramatic chug, he slams the glass down hard on the bar. He then goes over to the two or three present regular drunks on my shift trying to make conversation. Yes, they are regular drunks, slovenly as all hell, but still possess a working mans swagger, an odd knowing, and both look at this guy as if he smells of shit.
The man already senses he’s the pariah. He turns to me, chin in the air: “I run that gallery down the street, Mac and The SeaBird.”
“Never heard of it. Hey man, are you okay?”
“Of course I’m okay,” he says calmly, but eyes go all sorts of hazy, pointed anger.
“That’s what I’m talking about. I feel that you are a bit inebriated.”
“A bit…” one of the regulars mutters under his breath.
The man looks over at them, he stare into their beers, then back at me. Out comes the hand, right across my face, palm to cheek. I freeze. The others look up, electrified.
I feel like an 80’s movie character that wants to stare right into the camera, breaking the 4th wall, and say: “are you fucking serious?”
So that happened. On other occasions over my illustrious career bartending I’ve jumped between at least 30 people, most who were far bigger than me, who were trying to kill each other, separating them.
I’ve had pint glasses thrown at my head.
Fun fact: All of them have been thrown by women.
2nd fun fact: Serious women alcoholics are the most violent. Always. You cut them off and they loose their shit. Be ready to have glass thrown at your head.
I’ve been only cut off four times in my whole life from service at a drinking house—one of which was from my boss at a place I was currently employed. The other from a friend right here on Bedford Avenue, one time in New Orleans, and the last was the night I was almost killed at The Turkey’s Nest defending a woman’s honor (if you do not know this bar, a minor Google search will reveal it).
The sad truth is that there will always be bar fights. The events leading to your inception probably ended after a scuffle with a loved one at a saloon. Not violently, but a lover’s quarrel, if you will. I’m sure I was the product of whiskey and cocaine, it was 1976 for Christ’s Sake. Speaks to my edgy temperament—a little nervous and confident at the same time. Whiskey and Cocaine. Makes perfect sense.
But there are things that can be done to prevent people from hurting you when you find yourself in one of these particular situations. Here’s a short list.
The Chicken Wing
Coined by fellow barman Joe, the Chicken Wing is a physical maneuver, grabbing someone’s arm and spinning them, forcing the arm up the intruders back and begin to push them towards an exit. Brutish, too be sure, but highly effective.
Note: It is illegal to put your hands on a customer. Remember this. But also remember that the NYPD always sides with the bartender/proprietor of the business, which is a righteous asset in these matters.
This is what happened to our palm-slapping assailant. After the slap echoed for eternity, the two drunks stared blankly at me. The man even knew, right then, he was in trouble. I came around the bar fast. “You want me to hit you,” this gentlemen asked me, lashing out his right hand. To which he found behind his back, rushing to the door. I pushed him hard off the steps into a parked car.
“You like this, huh? You like this!” he was frothing at the mouth.
“Seriously, go sleep it off. Get the fuck out of here.” I went back in, locking the door behind me. He ranted and raved, but I never saw him again. It was 4 o’clock for Christ Sake. And any time is too early to see the cops in your day.
The pool table is a dangerous and threating place. Not only is it the only true bar game that is gender neutral, meaning both men and women are equally matched, but it also is a game that employs a certain amount of bravado, no matter how subtle, which plays a part in the actual game itself. Damn, I wrote a whole novella about the subject (“The Last Brooklyn Romance”) in 2010.
So it’s common knowledge more bullshit fights happen around a pool table than in any other place. And it gets dangerous. Pool sticks make scary things when branished at people. Pool balls are heavy fucks when thrown across a room (windows get cracked, people get hit in the forehead, the racket alone from one being hurled against the wall will jolt a whole barroom out of torpor).
But nothing stands up to one Tequila soaked night two some-what regulars were playing pool together and I heard four balls clack on the wooden floor boards of the bar. I look up, concerned from behind the bar. I was just consoling a young lady after a break up, so I tell her I’ll be right back and move to the back of the bar.
I should have known. It was already a dark and grey day, the kind the Northeast knows all too well, groggy and cold, and with a strange breeze sneaking it’s way through the streets. I find the two somewhat regulars by the pool table starting to shout, spitting up, into each other faces.
“Boys, chill out. Come on now,” I say, rushing towards them. One of them, the smaller one storms out of the bar, but the other fucker stays. “It’s cool man,” he repeats, over and over again, not looking at me but staring down at the green felt, circling around the table.
“No, it’s not cool to fight in here, man. It’s not cool. I know you, so it is cool, but you gotta go.”
And right before my eyes, he meets mine, and snaps his pool stick in half, both jagged ends now severe points both pointed at me. His lips were moist with Tequila, he sneered. I backed up behind the bar.
“It’s cool man,” he said.
“It’s not cool, man.”
He starts to move to the wood bar.
“Buddy. Put that shit down.”
He stared at the two sticks he held up to me, but said nothing.
“Seriously pal, let me remind you,” gesturing to the two broken poles pointed at my chest, “you got two weapons.” I looked over my shoulder at all the bar bottles behind me, the whole bar stock, “I got 56. Do not fuck with me.”
Least to say, he smiled again meekly, threw down the sticks and walked out. I locked the door behind him (least to say with me and the recently sullen girl, who cheered up when I poured us out some shots).
Avoiding the Violence
Everyone knows, fighting is bad and should be avoided at all costs. Especially when you dealing with a deranged customer who obviously is on drugs/fresh out of jail/ running from the police. Just the other month, I had a lovely run in one of these characters, and I knew if I had handled it in any other way I would have been seriously injured/robbed/otherwise emasculated.
So, like the old joke: “One day this guy walks into the bar…”
This dude already comes in hard, angry, shuffling in a Mets hat and a bulky hooded sweatshirt. He eyes are crossed, both wide in frenzy. He comes in, “Yo, yo, what up son? Yo, lemme get some Hennissey.”
I look at the clock, it’s 2pm. “We don’t got that. Beer maybe? Other alcohol?”
His grin also frightens me. You can tell that he’s some form of criminal, and he proves that when he starts talking: “So yo, listen man, my dog, a serious killin’ pit bull, I’m talking trained to fight, is loose in the neighborhood, man. I’m pissed, man.”
“You lost your dog?”
“Yo give me a Heineken. Shit, man, that dog is a killer.”
“That sounds a little dangerous.”
“Yo man, when you work here, man, your boss around?”
His eyes glance over to the register.
This is the moment. I can feel it. I fondle the tip of the baseball bat we keep behind the bar. I swear any moment he's going to pull out a pistol.
He pounds the beer down halfway, rubs his sweaty face in his hands. Then the confessions begin: “Fucking pig cops man. Look at this shit.” He pulls up his sleeve. His arms has a rabid gash across the his forearm. “Fucking pig cops, man. Chasing me around the hood. I just got out too, man.”
“Yeah, out of jail.”
“I see. Rough week.”
“Say that shit. Whatchu know about it?”
Here it comes. His eyes looked at me with crazed, misplaced anger.
“Man, you have a dog loose, cops chasing after you…”
“I been up all night too man, high on that yayo, man.”
“I see. Maybe you should get some rest.”
He squints at me. Everything I say is immediate provocation to him.
“I gotta cut you off man, you can finish the beer but it’s illegal for me to serve obviously intoxicated…”
“What man? Fuck you.”
“That is also not a way to…”
“Fuck you, whatchu gonna do?”
It’s a stand off. It’s mid-day. I know this is only going to go bad. I make my move.
“All right man, listen. Let’s pound a beer.”
“What mother fucker?”
“Pound a beer.” I bring out two Bud Lights. “You and me. We pound beers, and you go find your dog. No harm, no foul.”
He lighten up a bit and takes the offer. We put them down hard. “Now come on, man,” I say leading him toward the door. He looks me up and down.
“You aint even that big, motherfucker. But you all right.”
“Thanks. Go find your murder dog.”
“I like that, murder dog. That’s hot. I’m using that.”
I get him out of the bar, half the battle, and close the door, locking it behind him. I go right to a bottle of whiskey and take a shot.
It’s going to be a long day.
Stay tuned for next week’s installment of The Bartender Knows. Thanks for drinking.
THE BAR. A BATTLEGROUND FOREVER.
THE POOL TABLE IS DANGEROUS PLACE.
THIS IS WHAT YOU DON'T WANT TO SEE ON A SUNDAY AFTERNOON.