I remember when I first came across the wonderful novel Good Omens.
As an author, I’d just written a dreadful book called “The Vault Matrix”*, which had been considered then dismissed by Ballantine Books. The novel was basically the voice of Douglas Adams spinning an adventure with a character named Floyd who was hopping around the galaxy with a “geoblade” (an android with living skin, which fed off the static electricity created by a pair of gray, polyester pants).
At that point, in 1992, I had two jobs. By night, I was a bartender working in Eden Prairie, a suburb of Minneapolis. And, also by night, I was a stand-up comedian trying to see if it was better to ditch this whole writing dream for a life on the stage.
By day, I slept. And wrote. I crafted a series of short stories (and one screenplay), basically teaching myself “the craft.” It was an evolution. Trying to find my voice.
I quickly realized the life of a travelling comic wasn’t for me. So, writing would have to be the go’er because I learned, also quite quickly, I was shit at pouring drinks.
This is a quick story about how bad a bartender I was. It includes one of the greatest life lessons ever.
Now, let it be said, I made a LOT of money as a bartender. That’s mainly because I basically was practicing my stand-up comedy routine behind the bar. Folks would sit down on a Sunday night, and I’d be trying out the material I was working on. Honing it, editing, changing, depending upon the laughs I got.
But, despite some of the B-Level stuff, this was a bartender telling some pretty good jokes. Telling some pretty good stories. No Robin Williams but it was Bartender Plus and also helped me become a better stand-up comedian.
Then, on one of my very first solo shifts, I totally fucked up.
You see, I had been a “bar-back” before that. A bar-back is basically a slave to the bartender. You still do a lot of the crap a bartender does, but you are second to your “master,” the on-duty bartender. I poured drinks, tapped kegs (you get covered in beer the first few times you try this), and even had to throw out a customer or two who’d had too much to drink. This last move got a snifter glass thrown at my head as the drunk left the bar, reminding me that I did NOT want to be a bartender the rest of my life.
And it was that first night as a full-fledged bartender that the bar found out it didn’t want me either.
It was Sunday night, very slow, at the Applebees in Eden Prairie. And Leslie was over in the corner booth counting the massive tips we’d earned that night. See, as a bar-back telling stories and jokes I had drawn two dozen or so folks to the bar. I was conducting a one-man comedy show, as Leslie and I poured drinks.
The rest of the restaurant was empty (the waitstaff hated/loved me for that). Every patron was at the bar, trying to be a part of the comedy set. As the night wound down, they left. And people would leave enormous tips for the two bar staff because, basically, it was drinks and a show.
By the end of that night, we’d pulled around $400+. Head bartender Leslie was THRILLED.
Leslie: Christ, I love working with you, Dick! I’ve never seen tips like this. On a Sunday? Unreal!.
Me: Jeez, thanks, Leslie.
L: Yeah, fuck man, I’m going to request you join me every night. Sundays will be Leslie and Dick. Hell, we should lock down maybe Wednesday and Thursdays too!
Me: Great, yeah, let’s do it!
L: Here. Lemme tip you out. Great job, man. Love it.
That’s where she peels me off a ten-dollar bill.
I wish I were joking.
I watched as she struggled to shove that “never seen tips like this” wad of cash into her wallet. Easing it only by a single ten-spot.
Needless to say, I was ready to be my own man. Or at least my own bartender. And here it was, all coming together, a dozen Sundays after that first. Leslie was in the corner booth again, chewing on the ends of her dirty blonde hair, as she counted the money “we” had made that night.
I’m at the bar as the last patron from that earlier rush left. It was now a clean slate
Just forty-five minutes until closing. If I can get one or two stragglers, whatever they tip, that’ll be mine. All mine!
For a half hour, nobody came in.
Leslie was recounting the money. She was giggling.
Fifteen minutes before closing, a huge man came in the restaurant, blew past the host at the front door, and headed for the rail.
He sat down at the summit of my u-shaped bar, messing with some handheld electronic device. His rings glittered in the low light.
This was a Minnesota Viking.
For those not from the US, tha'’s an American football team. They make more money than anyone you know. The “poorest” of them make around $400,000 a year. And that’s basically for warming the bench.
So, my first day as a Real Bartender, and here is a big mutherhumdinger at my bar, rings making twinkling lights, and I knew if I treated him right, there’d be a pretty solid tip. I did a quick inventory in my head of the best jokes of the night, the stuff that really worked, and walked up to him.
For a rough-and-tumble athlete, this guy was pretty damn pretty. Clear eyes, smooth dark skin, and arms that even if you’re a hetero-dude, you would want wrapped lovingly around you to keep you warm and safe.
Viking: Gimme a shot of tequila and a lime.
Me: You got it. Hey man, loved you in the last game, the way you…
I lied there.
Actually, I did not have that kind of cool patter. Hell, I didn’t follow football, so I couldn’t have commented on how well the guy was playing. I didn’t even know who this dude was. Could have been QB. Could have been the star Running Back. Could have been a coach. How the hell did I know?
This is how it really went:
Viking: Gimme a shot of tequila and a lime.
Me: Ha! Tequila is good.
I sucked. What an idiot.
Anyway, he was busy with the device, so I poured him his drink. Now, we used to “free pour,” which means there’s no jigger. We just pour to a level on the glass.
The one thing i had to watch out for is that the “fancy shot glass” looks a lot like the “fancy rocks glass.” Both had a stem with a cup at the top. You just had to make sure you grabbed the right one.
I grabbed the shot glass, grabbed the Jose Cuervo, and was about to pour… then he stops me.
V: Nah, man. I want the Del Porto.
Me: Ha, Del Porto. It’s good.
I had heard this name uttered just the one time before: AsomBroso Reserva Del Porto.
I looked up into the dark, wooden recesses above the bar. The Del Porto was literally on a top shelf above the top shelf. Despite no extra lighting up there, it glowed.
It would require a step ladder to get it down. Kept in a wooden box, this was amazing stuff, despite that—or possibly because—it came in a bottle shaped like a cock-n-balls:
One shot of this drink was going to cost more than I made all night. He wanted to hit that as a one-off.
Didn’t even blink.
After retrieving the Del Porto, I stood in front of the Viking, squared my bartender shoulders and smiled. Then, I flipped the bottle upside down, and it made a sweet, lovely noise as only a drink not used to being poured makes.
Usually, you can count in our head with the glass: “One, two, three.” That should take the drink to the proper level in the shot glass.
I think you might know where I’m going with this.
Yeah, I’d grabbed the wrong glass. So me and the Viking watched as I poured. And that “shot” had to come just below the rim of the glass. As it always does.
But this was a ROCKS glass.
So, to get it to that level the “one, two, three” became “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven—” and me and the guy briefly lock eyes, I look back down, “—eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve—” I look over at the clock, catch his gaze, and he’s looking at the glass, “—fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen.”
I’ve just filled a drink glass with top-top-top-shelf tequila that, if he’d paid the proper price, would cost, oh, a thousand dollars? Maybe? Who knows? Nobody knows because no one has ever poured a drink like this. Only me.
Viking looks at the glass. Then Viking looks at me. Then he looks back at the glass.
And, here you go. One of the greatest life lessons ever, for free. Ready?
It’s just this: Smile.
When you’ve seriously screwed the pooch, turded up the punch bowl, or somehow turned left on Right Road… just smile. Why not? It might make others think you did this crazy shit on purpose.
So, I smiled. And just kept smiling.
Until… he smiled.
You see, this guy probably then thought his bartender was a huge American football fan. Me, I was the Big Vikings Booster Club Bartender taking care of the star nickel-, quarter-, half-dollar-whatever-back.
Maybe he had a bad day at the game. Or at practice. Or whatever. Now here was the bartender saying— “Dude, you are so worth a massive, massive glass of top-shelf tequila.”
He looks at me. Look at his glass. Looks back at me.
Viking: I’m gonna need a few more limes.
God as my witness, I bust out laughing as that was the funniest thing I’d heard all night. And I was the comedian.
I gave him a few more limes. He gave me a hundred dollar tip.
Once he’d left, Leslie came over and said: “Holy shit, that was Blahdy Blahderson” (or whatever she’d said his name was, I didn’t even hear her). She then looked at the rail.
L: Hey, I’m still head bartender, so whatever he gave you I’ll give you a piece of it, but that’s my call. What’d he tip you?
L: Seriously, Dick, what was the tip? I’ll take care of you, but that’s part of my money.
Me (Giving her a stern look, then faux resignation and a melancholy smile): That fucker stiffed us, man.
The moral of the story is honesty is not always the best policy. Especially when you’re working with fucktards.
Oh, during breaks at that job I read Good Omens.
Now, the Amazon Prime miniseries Good Omens is worth it but kinda left me cold. I liked the new ending, that wasn’t in the book, but if it weren’t for that, it would have been a bit disappointing.
Don’t get me wrong, it was fun, but the story-telling was a bit all over the place.
I did love the Michael Sheen and David Tennant love affair. We need to see more of those guys together! Anything: buddy cop movies, escaped cons on the lam, whatever.
Another outing with Sheen and Tennant? I’d drink to that.
Just lemme get that bottle of the top, top shelf….
*Note: The Vault Matrix has since been re-imagined (I just liked the title a lot) and is a five-part series I hope to release later this year. It has no longer has anything to do with an android who wears gray, polyester pants.