Excessive Expectations

A long, long time ago, I was a bartender. I was asked to tend bar at a popular resort-town spot, where I worked as a server, because I sucked so much as a server.

“You’re off the floor! You work the service bar now,” barked the restaurant’s owner after I was weeded for the billionth time that night with one table.

“But I’ve never worked behind a bar,” I told him, very close to tears.

“I don’t care. You have to be better as a bartender with zero experience than you are as a server on my floor. Go!” he shouted loud enough so that everyone, including my one table of guests, could hear.

His wife stepped in at that point, took me by the arm, dragged me off the floor and gently shoved me behind the tiny service bar.

“Here,” she said, placing a slim red book in my hands. “You can look up anything you need to know in this.” And so it was, with “Mr. Boston” by my side, I was promoted from server to bartender at age 17.

These were the days when martinis were made only with gin or vodka, and you merely waved the bottle of vermouth over anything ordered dry. The Cosmo equivalent back then was a Pink Lady. Appletinis were unheard of, but Grasshoppers were all the rage. Mojitos? No, but another classic–the name of which I cannot remember given my fatigue after working a double yesterday that started at 6 a.m. and ended at 11:30 p.m.–featured a muddled mess of bitters, sugar and orange, and I despised concocting it because it took so much time. Champagne cocktails, Scotch sours, Brandy Alexanders, Manhattans, and Mai Tais were all the seen-and-be-seen drinks of the day.

My first drink was a Collins of some sort. I remember this because I labored over mixing the the lime and lemon and orange juices just so in order to create the perfect “sour” taste. I was beaming as I sent the server out with a tray of my perfectly crafted libation, garnished, of course, with a speared cherry and orange slice.

“Um, RG, the lady wants to know if you could make this again,” said the server moments later, my perfect sour in her hands.

“What?” I asked, shocked. I had tasted the mix. Nothing could top it!

“Yeah, she says you forgot to put liquor in it,” said the server, looking intently at her feet instead of at me.

Shit. What the hell was wrong with me–I forgot the booze, for God’s sake? Okay, okay, relax. Breathe. Fix it.

I poured half the drink out, added a little ice, and poured a ridiculous six-count of Whiskey into it. “There,” I smiled to the server, “Tell her I’m sorry and the drink’s on me.”

“She loved the second one,” laughed the server later that night. “She says she only wants to come in on nights you’re bartending.”

I stayed up most of that night trying to commit Mr. Boston’s seemingly wise words and swanky recipes to my addled memory. I went back to work the next night with renewed confidence. I wowed ’em all at the service bar, shaking this, stirring that. A few guests even asked to come back to see who was making their “superb” cocktails. Mr. Boston was soon dog-eared as I propped up the tiny tome next to my rack.

Two weeks later, the bartender in the hugely popular upstairs cocktail lounge called out at the last minute on a Saturday. The owner’s wife called me in to cover for him. “You can handle it, right?” she asked, hardly hiding her skepticism, but also knowing I was the only back-up she had.

“I’ll be okay,” I told her.

Oh, I handled it, alright. Frankly, I rocked. The next day, the owner himself told me I was now working the upstairs bar full-time. And so it was that I was promoted to “real” bartender at age 17, a scant few weeks after mixing my first drink. I even developed a signature cocktail–a frozen version of a Grasshopper made with vanilla ice cream. I kept that job for three summers and loved every single moment of it.

Thus, when I was asked to cover some daytime shifts and a few “plum” night shifts a week for a bartender friend down here, I figured I could climb back on that bike and ride again. But I was nervous.

“Did you tell the manager it’s been more than a few years since I’ve been behind a bar?” I asked my friend. I have always been honest with anyone who’s hired me in this biz. It’s never cost me a job, and it’s always worked out well for me.

“No! I told him you had plenty of experience,” she scolded. “That’s all he needs to know. It’s easy there. Seriously, you’ll be fine.” I was now very, very nervous.

And I might have been fine had my first night not been a busy Friday, when the bar was crowded with locals and even another bar owner checking out the newest place in town.

I was slow, but I managed to make a couple of margaritas that got rave reviews. I was awkward, but I finally got faster at pouring spirits with a healthy three-count. But I was so clumsy at pulling drafts that the manager figured out pretty quickly that I had almost zero experience with that basic aspect of tending bar. Which made him question my experience, period. Which made him angry. And nothing was right for me the rest of the night after that.

After the shift, my friend said I had better get it together fast, because I was slower than slow. “Those people ate you up tonight,” she told me. “Ate you up, girl!”

The manager said I should have known everything I didn’t, and that I had better know everything the next time I was behind that bar. “You have to, okay?” he said, shaking his head in disgust.

Thus, my Cinderella II story spiraled down the tap drain along with the foam of all the beer I wasted last night. I fear I may have jeopardized my friend’s job since she’s the one who recommended me. I fear I may also have jeopardized my friendship with her.

Clearly I cannot go back. To salvage something out of this, however, I can at least recommend someone who is a first-rate pro and who can and is willing to step right in. She’ll be everything I wasn’t, because it’s what she’s done for years.

Although I did not quit my dive waitress job for this one, I did cut back my days in anticipation of four shifts tending bar. Those days were immediately snapped up by another girl. So now I have to figure out what’s next in the way of a second job–not so easy these days. But, it’s my own damn fault.

I should never have allowed my friend to talk up anything more about me than the ancient-history experience I actually had. Because given that, I didn’t suck so much last night. Ironically, I was pretty pleased with how much I improved in a few short hours, especially after having already worked a full shift at the dive restaurant. But the expectation meter was set too high, and in my manager’s eyes, I merely sucked.

I could likely ramp it up as a bartender over the next few weeks, because that’s my pattern in new jobs. At my fast-paced, insane dive restaurant, I was beyond an idiot at first; very quickly, however, I found my groove, and now I’m kicking ass and making bank right along with the other girls. However, I am certain I don’t have the luxury of time to find my groove behind this bar. They needed a pro last night; they didn’t have one. They need a pro next week; I am not her.

“You can do anything, go anywhere, Mom,” counseled RG Daughter as I cried on her shoulder via cell phone well into the wee hours. “You are lucky enough to be able to do anything you want to do with your life.”

We’ll see. We’ll see.







6 responses to “Excessive Expectations”

  1. last one home Avatar

    the drink you hated making is called an “Old Fashioned”–it was then and it is now. Just rationalize the bar job and you’ll be fine–I’m sure you’ve worked with or for some horrible, horrible people in the past–probably worse than your new boss at the bar–just think about how much better off you are now than you were then and the job will gel right away. Good luck!

  2. Restaurant Gal Avatar

    last one home–Ah, Old Fashioned. I must have muddled a billion of those each night back in the day. As for horrible people, I have only worked for one horrible manager, one who no-called and no-showed on opening day of lunch at one of my DC restaurants. Others may have had their quirks, but other than the one, they have been top-notch professionals. This manager is a good guy; he simply called it as he saw it, and he was right. For better or worse, I have agreed to go in Monday and Tuesday for the day shifts. If I stumble and fall both days, then I’ll know it’s time to pack it in. Ironically, I was pretty much offered another server job at another dive place today, where the money is great and locals all love to go. Some days I do wonder, how did I get here from anywhere?

  3. mikepete Avatar

    You’ll get in the swing!! I loved my days as a bartender at a busy college place! It was owned by I great older guy-former baseball player and boxer. He used to come behind the bar and give us lessons on pouring draft beer! You know what the foam at the top of the pitcher/glass is called? “It’s the head”, we would reply. “No” Dick said, “it’s called profit!”

  4. Kim Ayres Avatar

    Under promise, over deliver, and everyone will love you. But if someone else over promises you… sigh

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