The bar scene in Lincoln, Nebraska is about what one would expect. The “main drag,” such as it is, of the city consists of about seven or eight bars, all with the same generic college-bar feel to them. I was fortunate enough to land my first real bartending job at a place several blocks away from this uninspired zone. Newly opened, red9 resisted the cookie-cutter feel in favor of an ambitious layout you’d be more likely to find in cities like Los Angeles, New York, or Austin; it boasted four separate areas, each with their own bar, their own feel, and their own liquor selection.
Specialty cocktails created upstairs, in the swank martini lounge area, couldn’t be replicated downstairs (which had a more traditional Nebraska bar feel, complete with mounted head yanked from some unfortunate beast). The parking lot was fenced off, a fountain and a stage were installed, and mini-cabanas dotted the edges.
And, tucked in the back, was a giant open space with industrial beams crisscrossing the ceiling and a concrete slab for a bar top that stretched fully across one end of the space. A tiny stand-alone bar was tucked into the opposite end to service patrons with basic cocktails and bottled beers. Finally, central to this area was a stage where, week after week, various cover bands would offer their own versions of the same songs played by other cover bands across the entire country. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a knee-slapping, boot-stomping, Country and Western rendition of Outkast’s “Hey Ya.”
This was the Stage. This is where I found my home.
I first began my bartending career slinging milkshakes, flavored lemonades, and, occasionally, a sugary, liqueur-filled perversion of a classic cocktail for a corporate restaurant chain. I had only been in the restaurant industry for all of three months, as a server, before my managers put me behind the bar and told me it was where I belonged. I soon found they were right, as my fellow bartender and I made drinks at what felt like light speed for a packed restaurant and a full bar top. I learned to love the speed I needed to keep up, the flair of tossing full bottles of liquor around, performing for an audience at the bar. The adrenaline rush of a ticket rail stuffed with drink tickets never got old. Nor did the compliment I heard quite often, typically when I asked someone if they needed anything: “No, I’m fine. I just really like watching you work.”
Place me behind a real bar, serving real drinks, while the music reverberates in my ribcage, and I was in heaven. It’s what pushed me into nightclub bartending, and I never looked back.
Anyone who’s worked in bars for more than about two weeks knows that there are regional differences in drinkers’ tastes and drink recipes. When I moved from Lincoln to Seattle, I had to re-learn a handful of drinks because of this. Luckily, a lot of the drinks I made in the Stage were, as in all high-volume bars, fairly simple: Rum and coke, vodka and Red Bull, gin and tonic, and beer.
Lots of beer.
So much goddamn beer…and tomato juice. Together. Dear God.
I’ve not made a single red beer for anyone since I left Nebraska; but, in the Stage, I had to keep jugs of the stuff next to the beer taps. Almost every beer was red. The one night we ran out of tomato juice, I almost feared for my life. Luckily they didn’t expect me to pour tomato juice into freshly opened bottles of beer.
More on bottles of beer. I soon learned as well that beer connoisseurs are plentiful in Nebraska, and a lot of them wear trucker hats and spit chaw. These aficionados had very distinct preferences and weren’t afraid to voice them (loudly). I lost count of the number of times I began to pour a tap beer and was corrected, “No, I want the bottle!” or vice versa.
Those bottles flew out of the cooler, too. Busch Light, Bud Light, Miller Lite, Coors Light – nobody noticed the lonely case of Stella sitting in the corner. My barback would bring me two cases of Whatever Light from the back cooler, and I wouldn’t even bother throwing them in our cooler – those cases were gone within fifteen minutes on a busy night, long before the beer started to warm.
Regardless, the Stage holds a special place in my heart. It’s where I first learned the unadulterated thrill of running a packed bar, and where I learned the basics of being a bartender outside of drink recipes and proper pours.
Being a bartender isn’t all about knowing eight thousand drink recipes, though it certainly helps. More so, it’s about the interaction between customer and bartender, and about the thrill of pure job satisfaction and enjoyment. I grew addicted to things as simple as the joy I felt as I slammed out fifteen drinks, tossing bottles and shakers from hand to hand in a passable imitation of flair so the people watching forgot how long they’ve been waiting at the bar (even if it’s only been two minutes). I reveled in the attention I garnered from the casual wink, the sly smile, the eyes across the room, the absolutely terrible line “Here’s your beer, that’ll cost three dollars and your phone number.” I took pride in building a solid base of regulars who came in for me.
That was what meant the most to me. The responses I received were enough to make me forget all about the twenty-five cent tips and trying to break my personal record of guessing whatever light beer the next twenty guests were going to order from me one at a time. Even the red beer rage never really bothered me.
The only thing that truly bothered me, in my bartending infancy, was the lack of respect I found in Nebraska for the profession. One older man asked me “What the hell kind of bartender are you, boy?” after I told him I had no idea what the score of the last sports game was, or when the next one started.
Then there was the oft-repeated question “So what do you really do?”
Fuck you. I’m a bartender.