What do you do
From price gouging to public sex, what it's like to be a bartender in NYC
In the latest installment of our anonymous
interview series, we spoke with two bartenders who have mixed and served drinks in a range of establishments across New York City.
Bartender A is a veteran of the profession, and a fixture at the beloved Bushwick dive bar where he currently works. Bartender B is a college student and musician who bartends on the side as a means of generating some extra income.
Author, as told to
BARTENDER A: I started working as a bartender about 12 years ago. I'm from the Bay Area originally. It was a restaurants in Santa Cruz where I got my start. A friend of mine worked in the service industry; she said they were looking for people and thought my personality would be a good fit. I got the job and took to it. I'm a hypersocial person who was already drinking a lot anyway. It was a no-brainer. I haven't had a different job ever since. Before that, I was pretty much working odd jobs. Movie theaters, building maintenance, record stores, random retail. I was a commercial radio DJ for a minute there. I went to college at UCSC and was doing nothing even remotely related to my major. At one point, I was working five jobs at once. This was the most money for the least amount of hours. I was like, "Hmm, this is a good deal."
Most bartending gigs, especially in New York, especially in local bars, are not that easy to get. You have to know someone and then you just happen into it. In this case, I'd been drinking in local bars for years and knew a lot of people just from hanging around. Some of the other regulars knew the owner here. The bar had just opened. That was three years ago. The rest is history. We got to talking. He gave me a trial shift, which is common—put you behind the bar, see how you do and make the call later. I ended up working there full-time. It isn't technically a whole week but the amount of hours is well over 40. There are bartending schools that people go to, but they're generally just gimmicks or schemes. You don't have a better chance of finding work through that. It really is about who you know, especially in New York. It's so fucking nepotistic, but that's just the way it is. Besides, it's only really frustrating when you're on the wrong side. Once you've broken in, you're suddenly all about it. I've gotten all my jobs through connections.
BARTENDER B: I started bartending the same way most people get jobs that you don't need an application for, through low-level nepotism. You just have to hang around places long enough until you make friends with the bartenders, the managers, the owners, that kind of shit. I got into it because I'm an inherently a lazy person, and I saw a job that wasn't particularly strenuous physically or mentally. Of course, you'd have to lift kegs and take out the trash, but that was the worst of it. You'd also have to do math at the end of the night, which is admittedly hard when you're 14 shots deep. I've worked in upscale cocktail bars, mid-market cocktail bars, dive bars, DIY venues, you name it.
Service with a smile
BARTENDER A: In New York, you can expect to work very long shifts. We get to the bar at about 4:00 or 5:00 PM and we're here until about 5:00 or 6:00 AM. I do three-and-a-half shifts, so that's Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and every other Friday. I sleep during the day. I've become pretty adjusted to the late-night schedule. You're effectively getting up when most people are coming home from work. I'm pretty used to it now. At first, when you start following this kind of irregular routine, you feel like a total scumbag. You're on your way home and you see all these people jogging and drinking coffee, and just being upright young citizens. At the same time, I don't miss it. I've never been a morning person. I've always been super mopey and groggy. My natural expression looks like there’s this patina of I'm-not-awake-yet over my face for the first few hours of any day. I never quite shook it, even when I was doing day jobs. I was like, "Be there later."
BARTENDER B: People are people, and most of the time people are shitty. Dive bars are a cooler job because it's an easier job. You're pretty much only serving shots and beers. Plus, you get to see your friends, your favorite bands play, your friends' crappy bands play. Cocktail bars are worse. I worked at this fancy hipster bar across the street from the offices of a notorious media company. First off, I'm not a big fan of that shitrag publication because I have deep roots in the DIY music scene, and many of the venues it put out of business were like second homes to me. Secondly, either way you slice it, bartending is a customer service job, meaning you have to deal with people that you would spit at, shoulder check, or punch in the face if you saw them in the street. But you're being paid to be there, so you can't do any of those things. Instead, you have to put on a smile and say "would you like to see a cocktail list?"
number of bartenders currently employed in the New York metropolitan area
Hourly mean wage for bartenders in the New York metropolitan area
Annual mean wage for bartenders in the New York metropolitan area
The rich stay rich
BARTENDER A: I get in right around when the bar opens. Most of the time, nobody shows up for the first hour or so. Happy hour is pretty mellow, though it really depends on where you're working. There are plenty of bars with a really hot happy hour scene. This bar happens to be mostly a late-night scene. It only starts getting busy around 10:00, 11:00 PM, something like that. Because people are used to the late hours, they're reluctant to leave when they're supposed to. You'll end up having people here at 4:10 AM, and you're like, "Alright, let's move it along, guys... " At a certain point in the evening, the job always becomes babysitting. This usually happens around 2:30 AM or so, sometimes earlier depending on the night. One minute, everything's business as usual. The next minute, you look around and everyone’s fucked up. You provide the supervision and hand-holding.
Being a bartender, a lot of people will try to befriend you. Some people see you as their surrogate therapist. Others perceive some social cachet in bartending. Some just want free drinks. That's really amateur hour. Most people know the deal. They're familiar with the system of tipping. They get that bartender decides when buybacks happen. If you tip well and aren't an asshole, the bartender will generally look out for you. I think it's only happened once or twice over the years. Someone will say, "Hey, can I get this one on the house?" That's just egregious. Are you shitting me? It's the way to guarantee you won't be getting anything for free.
A funny thing I've noticed is that rich people are the worst tippers by a long shot. I guess that's how the rich stay rich, by pinching every penny. There's no upside to playing the fancy game. They treat you like a second-class citizen. They're piss poor tippers. The ambience is less fun. Their entitlement is out of control. They're just the fucking worst across the board. When you're working at some blue-collar a-beer-and-a-shot kind of place, it's much better as far as dealing with both people and money.
BARTENDER B: Tips are a problem in this profession, really, in the service industry across at large. Nine times out of 10, I will comp drinks or shots. My job is to keep people at the bar, so the way I'm going to do that is give them free drinks so they tip more. Let's say you order a $12 cocktail once and tip $1 on it, it's fine, but if you keep order it four times, then it's like, dude, I have nine to 12 people at the other end of the bar who are also trying to flag me down. You have to step up your game. At most bars, tipping is on a point system. I've worked with bartenders who were really shitty and kept stiffing me on the tips and other ones who were really solid and would split everything down the middle.
A lot of people don't tip period. Pretty girls. Poor hipsters. Rich people, which is I guess how they stay rich. People who are broke, I'll give them a pass. Especially if they come correct, like, "Listen man I wish I could give you more I just haven't gotten my paycheck yet," or "I just paid rent." I get it, we've all been there.
At that particular bar, at least 40% of the clientele didn't tip or tipped below 15%. Once, I was working the brunch shift, and this woman and her two friends came into and ordered a $45 bottle of prosecco, nothing top shelf. One thing I should mention is that most bars in New York pay about $5 for a well bottle, so they effectively recoup their money by serving a single shot. They're essentially making a 95% profit off everything else, which is insane. I served it to them in a bucket of ice. They started getting a little loud. At the end of the day, they tipped me $2.50 for the entire tab. At that point, if you're going to leave a fraction of a dollar and not round up, I'd rather not take the tip. It's insulting. A lot of people would run up a tab and still complain about how high it was, even after I gave them free beers or shots.
BARTENDER A: I've had to cut people off before. But it doesn't happen nearly as often as people think, maybe once every two or three weeks, maybe even once a month. It's not very common at all. The thing is, when you're cutting them off, it's because they're super drunk and not following the etiquette. It's all in how you approach it. Typically, I think it's best to come at it like we're friends and I'm looking out for you. You have to get real buddy-buddy with them. Sometimes there's no way around it escalating into an ugly scene, but most of the time, if you approach it the right way, it's like, "You're right. I appreciate it, man." It's a delicate situation, but I'd say people respond positively like 60% of the time. I mainly cut people off for obstructive drunkenness. Usually, it's a dude who's exhibiting creepy behavior toward a lady. Anyone can get drunk enough to warrant being barred from drinking more, but you see it manisfest itself way more with men.
I've also had to 86 people [kick people out, forever]. That's less common. It happens, maybe, once every six months. But, again, it depends where you work. We're more of a local neighborhood bar, so we're mostly dealing with regulars. Sure, on a weekend we see a lot of randos, but more often than not, it's a friends and family vibe, and people don't want to violate it. Threatening physical violence is the main reason we would ever tell anyone to leave. Usually, someone is being a belligerent asshole, plain and simple. You can expect to hear a different stories from drunk witnesses so you never really know what exactly happened, but usually a picture emerges. Once you decide dude's got to go, you walk up to them calmly and escort them to the door. You don't ever want to put your hands on anybody because you could risk a lawsuit. You have to be stern but cautious because you're dealing with someone who is in a childlike state: petulant, reactionary. It's a minor part of the job, but something you definitely have to be prepared for. You have to be able to pull out the kid gloves.
Certain customers are total wastoids, and aside from cutting them off, you're legitimately concerned for their safety and wellbeing. Most of them make shitty customers because they're just so out of it all the time. Their behavior doesn't reflect who they are because they're so physically and mentally compromised. They aren't your buddies. They've usually pissed off most of the people around them. If a situation were to get out of hand, you'd have to call the cops, but I've never had it escalate that far. Most of the time, you refuse to serve them and they go away.
I've had to ban people like that on several occasions. The most recent one was this guy who was a regular. He was always really annoying and horrible, but we never had any grounds on which to dismiss him. Then, one day, we were standing outside as he was arriving. He was locking up his bike and he had one of those big, heavy bike chains. He was out of his mind, on mushrooms maybe. Someone must have said something to set him off because out of nowhere he started swinging the chain at the other patrons. That was it. Finally we had a pretense to get rid of him! Threatening physical violence definitely qualifies. The last time I saw him, he asked if he could come in and I had to turn him away. He didn't remember what had happened. But there have also been scenarios where I've lifted a ban. After enough time has passed, you can forgive almost anyone. It's like becoming friends with your ex or something like that. If someone crossed the line once but has now sworn off their own ways, I'll usually give them a pass. Everyone deserves a second chance
BARTENDER B: I've had to cut off or kick out plenty of people. Every bartender has. It comes with the territory. Weekends are the worst, especially in the summer, because people are day drinking. At this particular bar, the manager didn't come in until 8:00pm so we were left to our own devices. As a bartender, you're the intermediary, which basically means you're the therapist, telling people to slow their roll, plying them with water and coffee, keeping their spirits up. It's a lot of intangible labor that's definitely not part of the job description. A lot of times people come in after they've pregamed too hard or already been kicked out of another bar. If I can clearly see they're intoxicated, I usually won't serve them because legally you're not supposed to. Sometimes, though, you have to make a game time decision. I'm trying to make as much money as I can, and if a guy's over 21, it's not my fault he's a drunk asshole.
On several occasions, I've had people come in acting a fool, trying to grope women or start fights. Our manager was great considering how underpaid he was for all the shit he had to deal with. He'd been doing martial arts for a couple of years, so he could restrain a person without injuring him. Me, on the other hand, I won't pick a fight but if it's there, I definitely won't lose out the opportunity either. People have shoved me or spat in my face. They were just asking for it.
Once, I was bartending on the LES, and these three bros came in wasted out of their minds and itching to start something. I asked them to leave nicely several times, but they weren't budging. Finally, one of them leaned across the bar and punched me. Then they all dipped out. Back then, I had just moved to Bushwick, which was less gentrified than it is now. I'd recently been robbed at gunpoint, and had invested in a pair of brass knuckles to protect myself. That night, I happened to have them on me, so I hopped over the bar and chased them down outside. Two of the dudes had already booked it, but the third guy was still making his escape. It was like the Serengeti. I was the lion and he was the gazelle. I wasn't worried about catching an assault charge. Most of the time, cops will take the side of an exhausted bartender who started his shift four hours ago over some yuppie kid from Connecticut who's already wasted at 6:30 pm.
Pour it up
Bartender A: Friday and Saturday nights, we have two bartenders, and that's only after 10:00 PM. But every other time that we're open it's just one. I don't want to sound cocky, but after more than a decade behind the bar, it's become second nature. Say ten people walk in at once. People go out in packs, or they just all happen to show up at the same time. I'm totally comfortable in those type of situations. We work on a first-come-first-serve basis. You have that in your head, and then it just flows. We're not a cocktail bar. Let's be honest: the orders aren't very complex. It's usually just a can of beer, a draft, a mixed drink, a shot. I can't ever remember anybody's name but I have a photographic memory for drink orders. Granted, they have more of a limited repertoire. For some reason it's really easy for me to log five, ten drinks in a row. I've always tested well and been a good speller. Having mental speed and clarity helps for sure, but it's also a question of accumulated experience.
I still get drink orders wrong every once in a while. Everyone does. It's just part of the job. Most of the time, people are cool about it. What's it to them? We just pour them another. The only time people have given me attitude for stuff like that is when I was working in a place like Midtown or Tribeca, where there's a bunch of rich, privileged pricks running around.
BARTENDER B: This media company helped pay for the bar and its employees got an extra 20-30% off coffee and drinks. In the time I was there, it experienced a tremendous period of third-wave gentrification where it went from middle class kids to rich yuppies. The customers I had to deal with there were not people I would spend time with ordinarily. It sucked because Verboten was around the corner and Output was down the block so we'd get the spillover. Something about club culture attracts a certain sort of shitty person. They're very privileged and demanding. They expect to get things without asking for them. For example, just because you've had this one cocktail at this one bar, doesn't mean I can mimic it if it's not a standard recipe. If it's a Negroni or a Moscow Mule, sure, but if you had, like, a Singapore Sling that was made a different way with different ingredients, I can't exactly replicate it for you right there on the spot.
The one drink every bartender hates to make is the Long Island Iced Tea. This is mainly for two reasons. First, it takes a long time—longer than your standard cocktail—because it's mixed with all these different ingredients. It's just a hassle to make. Second, because only a certain kind of person ever orders that drink. And 99.9% of the time, you know the outcome of that scenario. Either they're going to keep ordering them and get really trashed, or they're already trashed to begin with. Let's be honest, it's a basic person drink, the equivalent of a Vodka Redbull or Jack and Coke or something. We get a ton of East Hampton and Montauk type people who are in town for 4th of July weekend. They always ask stupid questions and make unreasonable demands. Just use your eyes or request to see a drink list, instead of wildly conjecturing about what we do and don't serve. These garbage people go out with the intention of getting fucked up. They treat the staff and the other customers, not to mention themselves, really shittily.
Hell is other people
BARTENDER A: Rich people, it's a different world. When you bartend for civilians, you feel a lot of camaraderie. You're basically one of them, you just happen to be behind the bar. It's lowkey and inclusive. But when you're bartending for rich people, they treat you like you're the help. They see you as being a rung or more below them. I played the "fancy game," as I like to call it, in Tribeca for three years, and believe me, I don't regret leaving it for a moment. Those people don't give a shit about you.
When I was working in Tribeca, it was the absolute nadir. I'm running around, it's a busy Friday night. There was a bar in the front and a dining room in the back and they were connected by a hallway. Along that hallway, there was a door to a single-occupancy bathroom. So I have, like, three drink orders I've just put in and I'm in total go mode. This lady opens the door to the bathroom as I'm walking by in a hurry and she's like, "psssst, psssst, come here." She's literally hissing at me to flag me down. She's beckoning me into the bathroom, and my immediate thought is, "No good can come of this. This is going to be shitty." So, I go in and there's this kid who's probably five or six at the sink with soap on his hands, just looking lost. She says, "The sink—it’s not working." It was one of those sinks that's automatic; you have to activate the sensor to get it to work. So, I'm like, "If you just put your hands under the..." And she cuts me off: "Yeah, it's not happening. Just do it for him." I get the water going and start backing away, and she tells me to stay put. Finally, I got it: she wanted me to stand there and continuously run my hand under the sensor so the kid wouldn't have to worry about turning the water on and off. I'm looking at the kid, and not without an ounce of pity. He doesn't stand a chance. He's at a disadvantage. He's going to be a shitty person when he grows up.
"Bartending is largely about multi-tasking and quick memory recall."
We also get a lot of clueless tourists. There's a loft hostel around the corner and it always has a shitload of Europeans. We get French, Germans, you name it. The Germans would come in like, "eepa, eepa." It took me months to figure out they were trying to order an IPA. Honestly, my worst experiences—and it really bums me out how often people live up to stereotype—have been with the French. They kill it every time. I don't know how all these French people are so fucking French, but they just are. Europeans have a totally different service culture. It's really grating for Americans, though I'm sure they think the same of us. First of all, they don't tip. Secondly, they see no problem with snapping at you. Over there, they're used to getting a living wage. Over here, we're just relying on tips. There's pluses and minuses to both systems, but Europeans still weirdly haven't come around to the idea of when in Rome. Everybody hates dealing with Europeans.
BARTENDER B: This bar gets a lot of trap and electronic DJs. I don't understand the appeal of that genre of music but a lot of people come out of for them. It draws a certain crowd. These people think they can do whatever they want. Once I caught a couple having sex in the restroom. I mean, I've had sex in a public bathroom before but in, like, a discreet way. This bar has two bathrooms. One of them is where a bunch of people go to do their cocaine or girls go to pee in groups, so it's pretty much always in use. Some patrons started complaining because the bathroom had been locked for a while. I assumed someone was just taking a really serious dump. These things happen. All the while, I getting more and more complaints so I go over there and jiggle the lock. I saw shadows underneath, kind of this weird pantomime, and I heard noises, mostly moans and the slapping of flesh.
To make a long story short, I had to go back to the bar to serve this pileup of customer, and in that time, they'd managed to finish up and get out. The also managed to break the toilet. I guess that's not so hard to do when you're tanked and fucking in a room the size of a jail cell. The place was littered with baggies of coke. Somehow, I'd forgotten to ID these people when they came in, so we never found out whe they were. Anyway, the toilet started to flood, and everything that had been recently flushed started to come up. We had to close down the bar for the night! There was piss and shit all over the floor. What could we do? After we cleared the place out, the manager, who's a fucking saint, cleaned it all up. Thankfully, I didn't have to deal with any of that stuff.
Another time, I saw a dude getting head at a booth in full view of the other customers! At first, I thought, alright, I’ll give it a minute; I’m not there to spoil anyone's fun. I just pretended to do some menial inventory tasks. I'm was going to let them finish and hope they tip me really fucking well, but it got to the point where more people started coming into the bar. The girl's head was on the guy's lap, bobbing up and down under the table top. Mind you, this was maybe 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon. The barback went over there to clean up the table and give them the bill. I had written on the check: "You take a long time to come, please tip me for the trouble" And, you know what? It actually worked! They were totally embarrassed, and probably appreciative that I hadn't called them out in front of the whole bar. They tipped me so well, they could've gotten a hotel room to consummate the fellatio.
The hard stuff
BARTENDER A: Where there's alcohol, there's drugs. Don't ask, don't tell, that's every owner's policy, I think. No one talks about it explicitly. There's a tacit understanding that it's your business, not mine. Keep it on the low and no one will bother you. If you start doing lines on the bar in full view of the other customers, then we have a problem, but no one's ever pulled that shit because nobody wants to lose their drugs! You can usually tell when somebody's on something other than alcohol. It depends on what it is. The molly motherfuckers are just ordering water the whole night. Mushrooms or acid, you're like, "I don't know what that guy is on, but something's up with him." People usually don't want to drink on hallucinogenics. Besides, you don't often see people on hallucinogens at the bar. With cocaine, it's harder to tell because people can get chatty or aggressive on alcohol alone.
Like I said, this bar mainly draws regulars, but we also get some loose canons too. There's one guy, I don't know what his deal is but I think he's done a lot of drugs. He's basically a huge cokehead. The backstory is that he's a Wall Street dude—a trader—but he lives in the neighborhood because he's trying to be down. His way of looking at you is freaky. I can't really describe it, other than to say he regards you like a specimen. His whole vibe is very American Psycho. You'll hear all these weird stories about what happens at his afterparties. He's really into the power he has over people by giving them free cocaine. I'm just like, "I want nothing to do with this human being at all, ever." He legitimately scares the shit out of me.
BARTENDER B: Since this establishment was very club-centric, we'd have molly and coke dealers coming in asking for coffee at like 7:00 pm. Before that, they'd be at the bar just pounding down shots. Here's a protip: never ask a bartender where you can get some coke or whether they want to do coke with you unless you really know this bartender. That's pretty much a foolproof way of being kicked out of the bar.
I had this one coke dealer come in, super ratchet, barely legal—I definitely checked his ID—and he just started accosting the regulars sitting there on their laptops: "You want to party?" Naturally, it made people uncomfortable, like, "No, it's 8:00 pm, I don't want any blow." We'd have these young thuggish guys come in and try to push their stuff. I'd be outside smoking a cigarette, and they'd try to be friendly and start a conversation with me. I hated their sketchy vibes but was pretty much powerless to do anything about it. I had to be polite and hope they buzzed off on their own volition becaue otherwise, you have to call the police, wait for them to roll up, file an incident report, wait around for them to assess the situation, all of that. These best thing to could do is politely ask them to leave.
Drunk on the job
BARTENDER A: Every bartender has gotten drunk on the job. You can hardly get fired for that but, again, it depends on the place. One night, I was working at a restaurant bar on my birthday. There were a lot of customers coming in and everybody wanted to have a shot with me. There was a special on Jameson that night. I got hammered pretty quickly. Luckily, it wasn't just me working that day. There was a bartender and there was a server. At the end of the night, I had to count the money, but I couldn't even stand up or see straight. She was very understanding, like, "Sit down, honey, I got you." That's the only time I got really, really, really shitfaced.
I usually knock a couple back when I'm working. Of course, I have plenty of days when I'm dry. I'm just not in the mood, you know? As a bartender, people always want to do shots with you. It’s part of the culture. It's a kind of we’re-all-in-this-together thing. What people don't realize is that it's not just you, it's every other guy that comes into the bar. So, when I decline the offer, it's nothing personal. Most of the time, I'm really honest about it, like, "I'm not drinking tonight, but thank you." But sometimes, if you can sense someone is going to be persistent or you just don't want to come up with an excuse, you can fake it. There are certain hacks, or tricks of the trade. I've known plenty of bartenders who'll go as far as having a fake bottle of whiskey or vodka or tequila behind the bar, which is really dangerous because if someone like an officer or an inspector shows up, they'll think you're trying to cheat the customers. The way it works is that you take an empty liquor bottle, fill it with water, and voilà! You have to have a special place for it, so you can reach for it at moments notice and aren't accidentally serving customers watered-down booze. I know a guy who only ever drinks whiskey, so he made a bottle of "whiskey" with a couple squirts of Coke to get the color right.
I go out a lot even when I'm not bartending. It's become this hypersocial cycle. I've always done it. I go to bars. I go to shows. It's New York, so I've been making a concerted effort to go to more cultural shit, like plays and openings. Sometimes, I even come to this bar and just hang out. Bartenders are all functioning alcoholics. Writers and bartenders have that in common. It's not so bad. The operative term is "functioning." As long as I can pay my rent on time, I figure I've got my shit together more or less. You can't be a total wastoid.
BARTENDER B: Officially, every bar has a tab for comping drinks. It works a couple of ways. Obviously, if you're the owner you're not even going to count it unless you're a real hardliner with finances. If you're a DJ you have a tab going up to a certain amount, or at worst you get 50-75% off drinks. If you're a bartender, it varies: you might get x number of drinks per shift or x amount of dollars per shift. The best customers will always buy you drinks, but at that point, I always refuse because I don't have to pay for them in the first place. It's a courtesy.
I get drunk on the job all the time. I mean, I work in customer service, and have to deal with shitty Williamsburg and Bushwick creatives, not to mention bridge-and-tunnel types from Long Island, Staten Island, Jersey Shore, and so on. It's the epitome of insufferable, like, "Oh, cool, you're an artist. How great that you spent four years in art school just to start a blog."
I've discovered that my threshold for drinking on the job is 12 shots paced evenly throughout a shift and taken with food and water. After that, I can't do the math anymore, which is a professional liability. I remember I had to work on my birthday one year. I had partied pretty hard the night before. I was hungover and had food poisoning on top of it. I ended up vomiting halfway through the shift, and thought, oh, I feel better now. At that point, my friends started coming in to celebrate with me. That was the beginning of the end. I was really depressed at the time. I was going through a bunch of shit, like moving and a breakup. There's that saying "fake it 'til you make it." You have to find your own happiness in life, and mine is getting drunk at work. Sometimes, it's my only solace.