I was sitting in a bar one day when Bad Bobby said to me, “You know why people go to bars? It’s not to drink. They could drink a lot cheaper at home.” It was a rhetorical question, of course, so I sipped my beer and nodded. You go to bars for the company.
I like bars. I like being a regular. I like being recognized when I go into a place, even if it’s just as “the laptop guy”. You can become a regular very quickly in at least two different ways: you can do something unusual more than once, like open a laptop and work on a novel, or you can talk to the bartender and the other regulars. Generally I go for plan A – I’m not a conversation-striker-upper as a rule. But when the battery is finished and my beer isn’t I’ll sometime come out of my shell.
Whether I join the rest of the ebb and flow of humanity at the bar generally depends on the bartender. Theirs is not a job to envy, on their feet for hours on end, serving the same old drunks and hearing the same old conversations, just trying to make ends meet, when the only thing worse than getting slammed is getting no business at all. A rainy day might mean you don’t make rent.
Yet bartenders are, by and large, a cheery and friendly bunch. I expect that the ones who aren’t don’t last long in the business. I have watched them give every appearance of being interested when some moron tells them the same story for the third time that night. I have watched them end fights with grace and diplomacy.
This may come as shock to you, but I especially like it when bartenders are attractive women. Let’s face it, that’s the only time a woman is going to bring me a beer whenever I ask for one, and it’s the only time a woman will laugh at my jokes (I tip well). Even better is when the bartender has stories to tell, opinions, and no compunction about sharing them.
Now I’m on the road, and being a regular when you’re not in the same place very long is difficult. I was definitely a regular at Charlie O’s in Scotts Valley, having visited four times in two weeks, and lingering the last two times to chat with other patrons (and, of course, Kristen, the bartender). Since then, I’ve been in a couple of nice bars, a chain bar, and up here in Tahoe a couple of “locals bars.” Not dives, but not fancy either. (Sam’s Place, my first non-California bar on the trip, made me remember that it was after the nonsmoking laws got passed in CA that I started going to bars.) I may be here long enough to regularize myself, but I have to find the right bartender first.
Specific stories about specific bartenders will have to wait, except for this one: Almost exactly a year ago I was with Mikie, Mike, and Art in Louisville KY for the Kentucky Derby. We were staying at the Sheraton Blah Blah Blah and the usual bartender in the little hotel bar was Heather. What a sweetheart. We had some great conversations, and I watched her pretend to have conversations with all the losers that were in there with me. On the last day, when everyone was pissed off that Empire maker had lost (except, notably, Mikie, who bet on Fungicide to win, Yours truly, who hit the exacta, and Art, who hit the trifecta), the bar was decidedly ugly. Everyone was drunk on mint juleps from the track, and there was a long-running feud between two groups that never got quite bad enough to throw them out, but the atmosphere was poisoned. She brought Art and me are drinks and said to me quietly in her charming KY accent, “I may be smilin’ but it’s fake.” She told me later after things had settled down that she had also just broken up with her boyfriend, but had nowhere else to sleep.
As a side note, I had been having beers with a guy in that same bar the night before the race, and he showed up again after, only to be mobbed by people. Apparently he was one of the owners of Empire Maker, who was the heavy favorite and considered to be triple-crown material. We managed to have one quiet beer before the hordes drove him from the bar. He was a nice guy, the kind of guy you want to have perched on the bar stool next to yours.
I haven’t seen Heather since that day, but she will always rank among my favorite bartenders. Wherever you are, Heather, I know you’ll hold it together.