There comes a point in one’s Hospitality career where one must make a decision – veer left or veer right. Get the hell out of the Service Industry or concede that you’re well on your way to becoming “Lifer.” You’re not going to be doing “much else” besides slinging drinks and serving slop to alkies, social imbibers, and the dregs of humanity – or so the social elite (my parents, unfortunately) keep telling me.
Although I hold down a corporate day job now-a-days, and have taken a couple of bartending hiatuses over the years, I recognized a long, long time ago, that I’d be in the bar business forever. It’s my passion. It’s what I crave. It’s what runs through my blood. Sitting at a desk in a monkey outfit, soaking in nauseating fluorescent lighting, and cursing out some executive on the other end of the planet via some massive conference call (after first making sure my Mute is working) does not inspire the soul. Pitching gussied up PowerPoint presentations, fixing elaborate Project Plan dependencies, and incessantly troubleshooting catastrophic network connectivity problems also makes makes me want to blow chunks. Bartending, on the other hand, is nothing short of a nightly endorphin rush, rife with surprise, laughter, danger, awe and instant gratification.
I cut my teeth really early. At 12 years old, I landed my first [illegal] stock boy job at a neighborhood delicatessen for the grand sum of $2.50/hour. This year was 1983. At 16, I “graduated” to the much desired job of dishwashing at a Sizzler Steak House – earning me a tidy $3.35/hour – minimum wage at the time. I didn’t care though. I wanted for naught. My $75/week or so check was plenty-o-cash for a 16 year old in 1987. I guess someone saw something in me because not 4 or 5 months later, I was the cold side prep guy making tubs of Russian dressing, filleting slabs of beef into single portions, making salads, etc. Towards the end of my Sizzler run, I was line cook and then a waiter.
I just kind of fell into it. At the time, I was’t planning on working in a restaurant. They just happen to the be the first establishment that hired me. I needed Summer cash for buying crap like Lik-A-Stiks, Baby Ruth bars ($.50 at the time) and cheap .$.50 soda cans. There was a five-and-dime around my way that also sold cap guns and explosive, pull-string caps (liberal wankers succeeded banning that shit in Bloombergistan). My needs were simple.
Fast forward to 2012. I sometimes feel like Mr. Hedly (of Living Color fame) with “four-tin jobs, man.” In all those years, I’ve held down every bar/restaurant gig imaginable. I’ve been the dishwasher, the porter, the cold-side prep boy, and the butcher. The butcher gig was pretty bitchin’. Along with learning the fine art of filleting perfectly proportioned and marbled loins/strips, I’d gnaw on scraps of Prime Rib and Filet Mignon all shift long. I then graduated to various positions on the cooking line – fry guy, expediter, grill man, etc. Then came the requisite Front of House years as server, manager and finally, bartender in various venues in and around New York.
It’s gotten to the point that I have a newbie routine. When I get hired at a new bar, they typically have mass training or introduction. I stand up, raise my south paw, and sheepishly proclaim “Hi, I’m Freddy… and I’m a lifer” That’s usually followed by some light comedy, a big grin, a brief bio, and some thrilled to be here blurb (which is entirely true). As are my job hunting processes, my Bartender’s Anonymous speech is nearly down to a science.
I may be a lifer, but I’ve still got some aspirations. I’ve done ok financially. I own my own house, party it up here and there, indulge in the odd holiday, and dabble in investments. My dream, however, has always been and continues to be to open up my own bar. Not surprised, ay? Lots of ex servers and bartenders go down that road. And why not? It’s what they know best. I’ve seen numerous venues both prosper and fail. In doing so, I’ve accumulated massive wealth in the form of extensive experience and broad industry knowledge. I’ll put it all to good use one of these days.
The term “lifer” is taken from the playbook of – you may have guessed it – our country’s prison system. It’s obviously a nod to the most violent felons; those who will be staring at a closet-sized concrete bunker – adorned with an ingenious, combination stainless steel sink and toilet – for the rest of their natural lives. That connotation kind of adds the air or mystique of “service industry professional” don’t you think? Unfortunately for us, outsiders tend to pass judgement on servers and bartenders something awful. In their minds, we’re one small notch below being incarcerated.
In any case, boys and girls, today’s lesson: the Service Industry is not much different than the mafia. Once you’re in, you’re always in. For those who stay a while, it becomes part of you fabric – your raison d’etre. Oh you may go dabble in other waters, but you always come home. Just ask our boy Hoy Wong (above) of The Algonquin fame. 90-something years old, still ticking like a fine watch, still slinging Martinis, and still claims to be intoxicated by (and tapping) the odd piece of ass that falls his way… That’s how lifers get down.