Sofia Szabo

actress/writer

Prologue

P.D.T., R.I.P.

In the wake of Sex and the City, and in the dawn of the Mojito, came the Mixologist - but don’t call him that, because, well- he just wants to make great cocktails. Ask him for his opinion however, and you will get a fancy gold monogrammed business card with a funky picture of a bar tool on it and a tab of 5K tacked on for the simplest advice.

This was a time of “cocktail opulence”. A “There Will be Blood and Sand” time, if you will, full of make shift suspenders, old fashioned hair gel, and moustaches that crept up as high as the egos that followed. We took ourselves very seriously, and if the hand that cracked the ice remained red, raw and frozen, well - it was a just a sign that our job was well done. We took instruction from the creme de la creme, how must one stir a cocktail, never shake with juice, which bitters are in season, and what the correct time to flame an orange zest might be. All the etiquette and more to help us serve the finest Absinthe in Switzerland to the oldest old fashion in old town Chicago. We were onto something here, a movement that finally let us contemplate, love, and understand what the art of the barkeep was really about...If it wasn’t for that incessant customer over there who’s been complaining to get his drink now for over an hour..

See that was the thing about the Fitzgerald Philosophy. There was a time and a place to be golden. And by God, this wasn’t it. 

Forward

FORWARD

  I have worked in some of the finest of fine dining in Tribeca to the private cigar lounges in Midtown Manhattan.  I’ve servedto the shady neighborhood beer bar on the Lower East, the shadier speak easy on skid row, all the way the most exclusive membership-only clubs in Hollywood- and EVERYTHING in between. I would say I’m a few notches below expert level, if only for the sake that I loved the relationships I cultivated in my jobs more than the knowledge I sought.  I accepted early on that I cared too much about the people around me, a wonderful downfall in an employee, which meant that I would never be right for management- God knows I tried.  No.. I am a bartender- true and true.  

 

  It should be known that I have failed as much as I have succeeded.  I am not a master mixologist, a competition winner or a P&L wizard- nor do I intend to be one.  I respect the ones that have taught me the art of the business as much as I do the ones that taught me the art of the conversation.  I have been able to “fake it” through a world of eye droppers and douche bags, both behind the bar and not.  I have found love, respect, pride and success with most that I have worked with, and I thank the ones that showed me otherwise for those lessons weren't taught without value.  All in all, I thank them all, for really, having made me MADE.

 

    In my tenure as a bartender, I’ve learned to take the good with the bad; that tips do average out- and that not all idiots are drunk, and not all drunks are idiots.  Amongst all the chaos and cacophony, can come a greater sense of self, a strength that cannot be taught.  I’ve learned lessons that must be lived through fully in order to come out stronger.  i’ve made terrible decisions, knowingly, and better ones on blind faith.  I suppose, in it’s entirety- I’ve been made by life behind the stick.

--

  I worked in restaurants from the time I was 13 years old.  I started in a bakery, I hosted, I expedited, (insert chiropractors bill) and served.  I always respected my job, myself and my co workers as best I could, but it wasn’t until I was behind a bar that I really felt in my element.  It wasn’t that I loved the restaurant industry so much, the hours or the nail bitting paycheck to paycheck existence, but the conversations and trust that guests would give while I made them the drink that they were probably dreaming about since their first 10am meeting.  Which is to say that while they crunched numbers and stared out of windows, I was free to do as I choose- the primary reason that I loved the industry so much.  Here was a life less ordinary, and for me, it was the only way.

When I picked up my first bottle of Crystal Palace at a hole in the wall bar in Murray Hill circa 2006, I never thought the road would lead me here.  I suppose I imagined a more of a Coyote Ugly/Devil wears Prada introduction to my life back east.  As I learned the hard way, the road to the best jobs was not a clearly paved one.  But of course, as all journeys go, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.  

Tater-Tots, Soiled Shirts and Whiskey Shots

  When I started bartending, we were still making gimlets with roses, sour mix came out of a gun, and frozen drinks were common (before they were kitsch).  No one, I worked with knew what bitters were- we barely understood what Vermouth was, though we still always nodded when someone said, “dry”.  We shook cocktails with Boston pints and did a crack pour to finish.  Rarely was a muddler used, and what the hell was a julep??

  You see, starting out in the industry at such a time meant that changing, accepting that there was a better way to do things- to drink alcohol, at the very least- was hard to do.  I mean, I had just learned what the hell was in a Manhattan, now you're telling me I have to stir it?  How do you stir?

   So that’s about how it went.  The old school bartenders started rebelling, they were going to keep their upside down shot glasses in front of their regulars and continue to pour their black and tans.  The idea of using fresh juices, everyday, was beyond foreign to them, and rarely kept up the right way.  There was still a lacsize approach to the bar.  Show up, and you make money- good money.  On the flip side, there didn’t seem to be much of an interest in the way the whiskey showed up for you.  There was a major disconnect, but the gap was starting to close...

 

    

THE WONDER YEARS

 

    Understand that the 80’s was a cocaine party of neon and ridiculousness, making syrupy liquors like Midori and Grenadine, and Malibu popular.  The emphasis was less on the process of distillation, and far more on the process of intoxication.  There was a general understanding of what was needed to open a bar, and few really searched beyond that so as a result we had the things that every other bar had.  In order to compete and succeed, we purchased the brands that people called for, the garnishes that were required, the generic trays they sat in, the rubber mats we mixed on, and the boston shakers that we once in a while might use.  Basically in those days, when I learned, we were trained on how to make shitty drinks, how to hustle, and how to make money.  We seldom were told anything other than, know how to make these drinks:

 

    Manhattan

     Gibson

    Whiskey Sour (no egg whites)

    Cosmo

 

    Other than that, we didn’t know shit about shit.  No one walked into a bar and said, give me “bartenders choice”.  It was either what was on the plastic triangular menu (created by someone silly at best) or you had a flavored vodka with what you and your bartender struggled to think might-possibly- be the best juice or soda would work with it.  Straws were red, often in twos and napkins were thin and stuck to the glass.  Glassware was heavy and came in three kinds.  Shot, Rocks, and XXL Martini.  Martini glasses looked like a real like Dita Von Tesse was going to pop out of them.  Should you for some reason have a 4oz coupe in those days, they would have shunned you off the block and shuttered your doors within weeks. (we will discuss those “education” years later)

  This was pre-9/11, so the nightlife in NY was far more about bottle service and less about a bar.  Bars were more of a pre-game meet up spot or somewhere to watch a game. They were neighborhood spots that real people visited and hid away in.  They were were legends came and intermingled with normal folk.  They were CBGB’s and The Village Vanguard.  Live music, entertainment etc stole the show for bars in the city.  All other forms of entertainment was reserved for large scale clubs above Chelsea and soon enough, the Meat Packing district.  Martinis were a generic term for your cocktail list.  And man, was the lychee making it’s slutty way to everyone.

  Chain restaurants and restauranteur groups were something other than how we function now.  Breaks weren’t honored, employees worked overtime all the time, often leaving their bartending jobs at 6,7, and 8 am.  Depending on how much money you made in those days, it was totally worth it.  Rent was cheap-or affordable if you wanted to make it work, and we lived all over town.  It wasn’t lame to live in the UES, and it wasn’t pretentious to live in the LES. (In fact, it was dangerous.) The fact was, the city was a bit more welcoming that the one that I left. 

Brando-ed Together

 

“Friendship is everything. Friendship is more than talent. It is more than the government. It is almost the equal of family.”
— The Godfather

  Anyone that has stepped behind the stick in either coast knows who the founding contributors were.  With any great doctrine comes a new society which follows new rules and values a completely different way of life.  I "grew up" at in a unique time that is not amiss to me.  

    I think about my days as a young bartender, coming up in NYC at a time when suspenders were just becoming fashionable.  I was serving a myriad of micro-brews, a hodgepodge of hops to the lowest bidder on the lower east side.  I had no idea what was going on in the “main stage” because I chose to hang in the wings with the more approachable audience. 

    I knew who the heavy hitters were, I was a proprietor of their bars..well..I showed up at least, I can’t remember actually paying for a drink..but that was the thing.. The Sam Ross’ of the world came rushing through and nodded as though they should probably know me, but with little concern to solidify that doubt. They shook with open palms, poured bitters on the backs.  They nodded and laughed as they sipped their spirits- neat- fondling bottles, turning them over in their scarred hands; educating each other on the distillation and the flavor profiles of them all.

    I watched these giants and never asked for their guidance.  I never asked them to teach me what they knew, and as a result, I never learned.  I came upon the industry at a time that ego was already in place.. so I quietly watched from off stage trying to learn their lines for the day that they were ready for an under study.

 

Anthropomorphism of a Bar

    If you’ve ever seen Bar Rescue, you’ll remember scenes in which Jon Taffer quickly looses his marbles when an owner refers to their bar as having some sort of “soul”.  As he states, it, “bar’s don’t have a soul- they are a source of revenue”, and then swiftly tries to encourage the failing bar owner to remove their head from their ass. We watch as he storms off through some decrepit doorway, his height forcing him to duck under poorly installed piping and flinging liquor licenses out of his path.  The owner is left feeling even more lost, as though hanging from a cliff, Taffer is yelling from above to cut off the dead weight that is your child. In all fairness, he’s right.  The bar is nothing but metal and wood, and a wheel that has stopped turning. He’s there to rescue these people from their own anthropomorphism and how it has gotten in their way of success.  

    On the other hand, if you’ve ever been to one of Taffer’s remakes- you’ll feel something is missing- some element of unique that has left the neon glowing touch screen jukebox and mini filtered self serve skinny margarita machine to be desired. There’s so much catered to the “basic bitch and boring bro, that you stand around thinking, I would never come back here..ever.  If you think about it, pre-measured shot machines and uniforms made in China, the endless sounds of football games and the overflowing of brand names on glassware, even the bleach smell from the dishwasher and the rubber from fresh bar matts can’t masque the feeling that…this place has no soul.

    

    

 

“Anthropomorphism helps us to simplify and

 make more sense of complicated entities.”

 

    So many things go by in a night at a bar, in a restaurant- things that don’t happen anywhere else, say maybe a circus.  In any event, a bar is complicated in that what happens changes daily- is always striving to put out fires, and ignite desires.  As a bar owner, there is always something new to deal with- wage increases, licensing expiring, community boards and customers threatening to sue.  In the end, how can so much drama, so much ridiculousness and happiness come from one place? 

 

    When I was working at a bar downtown, we encountered a lawsuit that would crush the spirit of Zeus himself.  It was, perhaps, my fault as I encouraged the owners to rid itself of the filth that was running their bar when they weren’t looking.  A group of boys, I dare not say men, were consistently giving the bar away.  They would screw girls in the bathroom, put blow up their nose and drink to their hearts desire-getting on the roads, drunk, and leaving crumpled receipts and unbalanced registers in their wake. When we fired them, a lawsuit of racial discrimination and unlawful termination followed soon after.  It was devastating to watch the owners who had loved and put so much stock into these boys, be forced to defend themselves through the law.  I had seen it all along, and although cutting a cancer out of your body is never painless, it had to be done. Where then can you rationalize these feelings? These shake your head moments that keep you up at night? How can you ever look at those four walls the same? 

 

    ***************

 

My sister won’t mind me saying this, but having her as my sibling has taught me patience and fortitude.  It’s taught me that people make mistakes, and if you respect one another and accept that which they cannot change, their limitations as a person and as yours, you will have a better realtionship- be more successful together.  I’ve learned that sometimes, Sis just has her days and that everything will be ok.  Sometimes those last six months, sometimes it;s the afternoon.  The point of the matter is that sometimes you just have to go with the flow of who they want to be in that moment.  You have to acknowledge that they have seen better days and they will again.  

    If we must do this with people, get through the difficult times, and shine with them in the golden ones, how could we not personify the bar as a living breathing thing with a lifespan that we hope lasts long, but will certainly have it’s days? We can’t.  So Taffer-be-damned bars will continue to have a soul, and owners must take their deep breaths and know that everything will be ok.

 

    When someone breaks a sink, steals a fixture, a tap handle or a pair of antlers, stupid as it may sound, this hurts if you care.  If you see the bar as your home, if it get’s manhandled, like a bully stealing it’s lunch money, you feel for it and if you care, it upsets you.  Those are the days you never forget. 

 

    Once I was talking with Nate at the Marshall Stack and some shady character asked about some sort of beer or what have you, and as I quickly answered him how much it was, I turned back to make my point to Nate about whatever argument we were having at the time.  It was about then when this idiot must have somehow unscrewed the Long Ireland tap handle and made off with it.  I’m not even sure when we noticed it- I think Matt saw it the next day, but the shame and upset that caused me, has never left.  

 

    Graffiti on the walls, gum under the bar.  It’s all something we deal with- why, I have no clue.  It’s not something we should have to live with, but here it is, and we scape it off our backs every night.  It’s hard throwing a party every night and there are so many goers with self esteem issues, you never know what they’ll leave behind or take with them.  You invite them into your home, and if home is where the heart is, how can we not take it personally?

 

Perhaps the greatest way we anthropomorphize the bar is in this way.. If you care about your job, if you put     your all into it, you put a part of yourself in it.  Your blood sweat and tears are in fact in the wood, in the floors and in the money you count.  So, in essence, when a bar closes or burns down, or gets worn with time, a part of you does too.  When the owners, who we jokingly refer to as Mom and Dad, decide to fold or call it quits, we become a child of divorce, of failings and of bitersweet memories.  It has taught us things, and if you are self reflective in the very least, you are a better person for these things, you have given it as much as it gave you. 

 

When you return to a bar after having worked there, the memories hang there like invisible cobwebs.  Like a scene in Lord of the Rings, you can see conversations you have had, people you have loved morphing and changing, the highs and lows.  A bar is a time machine, it will keep your memories safe and sounds, and there should you choose to return, a part of you will be looking at yourself on the other side of the mirror, waving and nodding reminding you or a younger, more naive self.  A nostalgia will always reside when you work in a bar, and it’s part of why the seats that are worn in, the chalkboards that reveal past bartenders handwriting like a Da Vinci painting, and the dust on the wires can give you the chills.. As much as we hate to admit it, you never forget that bar;s soul.

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