Illustration by Stephanie Sarley.

What I Learned from My Parents About Bartending in 1980s New York

I talked to my parents about their respective bartending experiences, which included mixology school, snide clientele, and tricks to play on drunkards. I also learned to neither presume a customer’s tipping ability nor fuck with your server.

Sep 22 2015, 4:00pm

Illustration by Stephanie Sarley.

When Noisey's resident teen columnist told us that he wanted to talk to his parents about their experiences serving booze to diplomats and scary men in trench coats, we could hardly say no.

My mom will drop an alcohol safety-themed platitude from time to time: "Don't get in the car if the driver's inebriated," "Don't drink solely to get drunk," or "Call whatever time of night if you need help." These lines are valid but also veritably parenty. Besides warnings, I knew that my mom had more to offer on the topic of alcohol, since she used to be a bartender. Oh, and my dad was a bartender too.

In a conversation that was just as hilarious as it was enlightening, I talked to my parents about their respective bartending experiences, which included mixology school, snide clientele, and tricks to play on drunkards. I learned about New York life in the 1980s and who Johnny Weissmuller was, as well as to neither presume a customer's tipping ability nor fuck with your server.

MUNCHIES: You attended the same bartending school, but at separate times.
Dad: Yes. It was the American School of Bartending in Montclair, New Jersey, and it was located, when I went there, on Park Street.
Mom: Yep, same location [for me]. Very seedy kind of building. I can't remember the exact street number.
Dad: I do. I know exactly where it is.
Mom: [ Laughs] Is it still seedy?
Dad: It's still kinda gross.

You once said you learned some tricks there.
Mom: First, just upfront, I didn't do any of these things. There was a shady character who was teaching the course. Instead of being a good bartender to get good tips, [one] of his tricks was you wet down the counter of the bar and you don't totally dry it, and then when you give the person change back you put the big bills on the bottom; so what he's found is that after a night of drinking, people are gonna grab their cash, but the big bill will stick to the wet bar [counter].
Dad: I wish I learned that. That's brilliant.
Mom: Yeah but that's terrible.
Dad: They taught us a lot of jokes and a lot of tricks to try to entertain our drunk patrons, so that they would give us tips. They were pretty corny jokes, but when you've had a few [drinks], they're pretty funny. One of them was: "What's worse than having a lobster on your piano? Having a crab on your organ." [mild chuckle] [The school] had lifetime job placement, so whenever you wanted a job, you can call their job placement office and they would have a list of restaurants and bars.

Could you guys possibly still get jobs from that today?
Dad: I think so. I got some private parties, and they got me a job tending bar in some New Jersey discos. They were filled with the kind of guys who were probably the parents of the cast of Jersey Shore.
Mom: The guys who tuck in their sweaters.
Dad: They wore gold.
Mom: They were very Jersey.
Dad: Yeah, they were Jersey guys. They were muscular and tan.
Mom: They overworked their biceps, didn't do any work on their legs.
Dad: I then got an opportunity to tend bar in a New York restaurant. I'd only been tending bar in these kind of disco places. The place was called the Park 10. It was on the corner of Park and 34th Street. They had a piano there and there would be singing. The clientele was a combination of washed-up Broadway types, functional alcoholics, strange people, and also people who lived in the neighborhood. Because of the way Manhattan was back then, you could live in a neighborhood like Park and 34th Street, on either a fixed income or a modest income, in one of their apartments. It really was [affordable]. So there were regulars that came in all the time to drink, and they were older.
Mom: I didn't think it was so affordable back then.
Dad: It was. These people all lived in the neighborhood, and they were not well-off at all. They were in their 40s and up. One of the customers was the brother of Johnny Weissmuller, who was an Olympic swimmer and he was also Tarzan in the 1930's in Hollywood.
Mom: Wait, it was the brother of Tarzan?
Dad: Yeah, that was his calling card. And it looked like some of the women may have been retired dancers or call girls or something.
Mom: Y'know, you're being so pigeonholing. Why would you say "call girls?"
Dad: Not dancers, like maybe, strippers.
Mom: Why would you even say strippers?!
Dad: I don't know! They dressed very loud, they had a lot of makeup. [Defeatedly] Alright.

Cabaret types, maybe?
Dad: Yeah maybe cabaret. Alright, don't say call girls.
Mom: Oh my god.
Dad: "Entertainment" types.
Mom: We're gonna come off like old farts.
Dad: I'll tell you my story of what I've learned from this experience. The big lesson was do not fuck with your servers. Don't do it, because they have contact with your drinks and your food, and they can contaminate it.
Mom: But you didn't.
Dad: I didn't, but a guy did it on my behalf, and here's how it happened. One of the customers was a diplomat of some sort, and he came in frequently and I'd never served him. He came in with two or three women, and he had some money. He would hold court at the bar for them, order around the bartenders and refer to all the bartenders as "Monsieur," and he would beckon to them and want them to come and serve him. These giggling girls were around him all the time. So one day I was serving him, and he asked for Courvoisier neat.
Mom: [It's pronounced] Cuh-vah-see-yay, anyway. You're saying Cuh- vwah-see-yay.
Dad: If you're French and you've got some couth, it's Cuh-vwah-see-yay. If you're from Jersey it's Cuh- vah-see-yay.


So he ordered a Courvoisier neat. Now, I'd been tending bar in these discos, and nobody ordered Courvoisier neat. So I turned around and looked at the rack of all of the higher-end liquors, and I was looking for Courvoisier neat. I saw Courvoisier, I didn't see any "neat." I said to one of the guys I was working with, "Where's the Courvoisier neat?" He said, "What're you talking about?" I said, "This guy, he wants Courvoisier neat."

So he goes, "Oh, that's the 'neat' guy." I said, "What is that?" He said, "He wants his Courvoisier without ice. 'Neat' means without ice. Be sure to warm it, because he wants it warm." I said, "Oh, alright." The way you warm a brandy, Courvoisier is a brandy.
Mom: [Mumbles] Cuh-vah-see-yay.
Dad: You put it in a snifter, which is an elaborate glass, and you pour the Cuh-vwah-see-yay in the glass.
Mom: It sounds silly with you saying it because you have this mega Jersey accent, and you're saying Cuh- vwah-see-yay.
Dad: No, I'm classy.
Mom: [Laughs]
Dad: That's the thing. I've got couth. I'm el-uh-gant.
Mom: Yeah, well you sound silly.
Dad: I'm warming [the snifter]. I give it to the "neat" guy and I put it down and walk away, and he goes, "Monsieur!" I walk back and he said, "That's not the way to warm my Courvoisier. You should use a lighter." So I took the stem of the glass and I held the lighter, quickly passed it underneath so it wouldn't burn when you held the glass. Then I gave it to the guy, and then he beckons me again. He says, "Monsieur!" I said, "Yes sir, what is it?" He said, "That's not very much Courvoisier. You can do a little better."

I looked at the guy I was working with, who had served him in the past, and he shrugged his shoulders. So I poured a little bit in, gave it back to him, walked away. He said, "Monsieur!" I said, "Yes?" He said, "That now needs to be warmed as well." So I did the warming thing. I guess I was giving off silent contempt, because I was getting pissed off. He seemed to be enjoying it, and the girls he was with were giggling at all of this. I gave [the drink] to him. He said, "Monsieur, are you being racist at me?"

"At me?"
Dad: He was Middle Eastern, but he didn't have an accent. He was just misusing the term, I guess. I said, "No, not at all." He said, "I believe you're being racist at me." I said, "No, no." He said, "Well I think you are, and I'd like to speak to your manager." So I get the manager, comes over to him, and he asked for someone else to serve him who'd give him more respect. I was sort of pushed to the side and this other bartender started working with him, the guy who told me what "neat" was.

So the manager went back to the kitchen and told the chef, and the chef comes out. This guy is having his drinks and the girls are being entertained. Chef comes up and says, "What's going on?" I said, "This guy is just an asshole." He said, "Oh yeah, that guy's a dick. Tell you what, get Tommy over here." So Tommy is the other bartender. He says, "Tommy, hereya go." Tommy takes something from the chef and Tommy puts it into his vest. I didn't know what was going on, I said, "What's going on?" He said, "That's Visine. He's gonna put it in the 'neat' guy's drinks, and the 'neat' guy's gonna have a little indigestion later on." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "I dunno, stomachache, diarrhea, something. It works."

Now little did I know that this chef was notorious for spitting in customers' food. When waiters came back and told him that somebody was saying the steak was too hot, too cold, not enough marking, not well-done, after a certain point he would spit into their mashed potatoes and stir it around or do something. So this was a no-shit-taking guy, and he stuck up for the bartender who was going through his situation. My big lesson from this was, if you have a problem with your food or your drink, you [tell the server] in a way that's respectful and shows dignity to the server; don't talk down to them, don't be entitled.

Mom: To this day, I am so afraid to send anything back. When I send food back, I first apologize.
Dad: So now you tell your story.
Mom: Well, I don't have a long, drawn-out story like that. So, first of all, I got nothing through the American Bartending School.
Dad: They treat their alumni right!
Mom: Not me! Maybe there was a little gender inequality back then, I don't know. I didn't get anything through them, it was all on my own. I wound up working at a gourmet Chinese restaurant. It was a service bar. A lot of people would sit there and wait for their food if it was takeout, but primarily I was there to help the waiters and serve drinks to the people that were seated. The way I got that was I went in there one day and I saw it was really really busy on a Friday night; and I saw that the bartender was having trouble, he seemed overwhelmed. So I asked if they needed an additional bartender and they said yes.

One main thing that I learned, but I kind of knew it before, especially at the bar in this restaurant: you can never tell by the way a person looks how they're gonna tip you or how much they're gonna appreciate your service. I at first expected the people that were dressed very formally or, the way they carried themselves, they seemed to have a lot of money—I thought they would tip accordingly, or at least fairly. They wound up to be the absolute worst tippers, ever. And then people I found to be the best tippers were, if they were sitting at the bar waiting for food and we talked, if they were coming home from work—they worked for a living and they were mostly in blue-collar professions. Especially the people in the service professions, they would tip me incredibly well.

You can never really tell [the tipping ability] by the way a person was dressed. They could be in a long dress, dressed in a suit; I would expect a great tip and not necessarily [get one]. I shouldn't say all the time they would tip terribly. My memory of this was the people who came in dressed casually, seemed to be coming home from work, coming in for takeout, and then they were just waiting at the bar and they'd have a drink, they tipped absolutely the best.

I remember this one entitled—can I swear?

Mom: I remember this one entitled fucking asshole reach over my bar, like [there] was no boundary, reached into my speedrack, pulled out the vodka, and started adding to his drink. I was a 21 year-old, but it was as if I was reprimanding a small child. I was like, "What do you think you're doing?! Put that down! Do not touch that!" And he's like, "But I needed more vodka." I was like, "Uh, you ask me! I'll easily get that for you." The age that I am now is probably how old he was, and I was thinking he was this old guy. Just that he felt entitled to reach into my speedrack, and he was part of a group that seemed to definitely be on the wealthier side. [He] just felt like it was his bar. I couldn't believe it.

So what else?

Garfield, New Jersey?
Mom: So in Garfield, New Jersey, I worked in … I guess it would be considered a "dive bar." It was very local. A friend of mine was a co-owner and he asked me to come and work on the opening weekend. Not that it was a scary part of Garfield, but it wasn't in a really nice section of Garfield. The clientele was all guys, all coming in after work. Compared to the drinks at the Chinese restaurant, which was Scorpion Bowls and Mai Tais—
Dad: Elaborate. Lots of juice, lots of ingredients, pain in the ass to make.
Mom: Pain in the ass to make. All these guys ordered beers and shots. It was a bartender's dream. So all I had to do was pour shots, pour beers. They kept buying each other beers and shots. That was it! And they tipped me so great, I made the best tips. If you looked at this bar and if you looked at the people going to this bar, you'd think you're not gonna make any tips. I guess the takeaway [is] you cannot judge the clientele by how they're dressed or what part of town you're in—you just don't know. The people that I thought wouldn't tip me wound up tipping me the best and being the most appreciative.

There was a guy that came in—kind of a scary-looking guy in a trenchcoat—[who] pulled out this big wad of $100 bills. We'd just opened and I knew that in our cash register I did not have enough to break a hundred. Literally, the bar just opened, we did not have enough. So I said, following the rules even though he looked a little scary, "Sorry, Joe, I can't break that. Do you have anything smaller?" And [my friend] comes running over, breaks [$100] out of his own money and [he's] like, "We have it, we have it! It's OK, it's OK!"

What it made me think of, I guess, [was that] Joe carried some weight in that bar area, and it was very important that he got taken care of in a certain way. Then I was thinking back to the Chinese restaurant, there were certain people there that got treated with extra-special care by the management/owners. It always struck me as so unfair. Why do these people get special treatment? Why does everybody else have to follow the rules? There was Joe in the Garfield bar and then there was this other guy that got treated very gently in the Chinese restaurant.

Dad: You should've had Joe come to the Chinese place and take care of the assholes there.
Mom: Yeah, but Joe was getting special treatment, where these other dudes were not getting special treatment. These other dudes deserved exactly the same treatment. He wasn't demanding treatment, it just seemed like people were jumping to help him.
Dad: I think the people at the Chinese [restaurant] were jumping because they were impressed by his money, but the people at Garfield were jumping for Joe 'cause they feared for their lives.
Mom: Well I think so. There could've been some weaponry under that trenchcoat. I don't know.