Thug Life

I’m unique in appearance. You can’t really make out what I really am. My entire life, I’ve managed to both fit in to every imaginable group, as well as feel excluded from those same groups from time to time. Usually, I can deftly move into just about any group (outside of Neo-Nazis) with aplomb. I can shape-shift my appearance, swagger, tone, lexicon and dress to fit just about any environment. I’m agile like that. Well, in my latest bartending gig, you can reasonably assume I’m making full use of my God-given talents, and fully leveraging my Thug Dizzle. That’s because, I’m once again living the Thug Life Pub Life.

In my Hospitality career, I’ve worked at a very wide array of establishments. I’ve done my time in everything from outer-borough, 8am old-man, depressing pubs, to (nearly) Michelin-rated, Midtown fine French/Italian bistros, to mega-corporate conglomerate hotel chains, to medium-sized, regional restaurant management type of bars. In class, stature, and price, they’ve run the gamut from dirty, cheesy, and dirt-cheap to black tie, celebrity-rife, and exorbitant, and just about everything in between. I don’t regret any gig I’ve ever had. Furthermore, despite having rubbed owners/managers the wrong way at times (and vice versa), I’m nothing but thankful for every experience they’ve ever afforded me. I’ve come away having increased my knowledge and experience from every single one of those jobs.

So, it was with little apprehension that I took my latest bartending gig. I’m working in a down and dirty, downtown pub. It’s not actually “dirty.” Rather, it’s pretty damned clean. When I mean “dirty,” I’m referring to the atmosphere. There’s a vast difference in terms of clientele, cocktail menu, dress code, music, pricing, and of course – tips, when you compare working – let’s say – an West Village pub against a high-end Chelsea night club. Surprisingly however, many things are exactly the same. Among others, those include: (1) endless incestuous relationships and far too easy hookups (2) a number of co-workers who you get along with swimmingly as well as a handful you absolutely despise (3) simply indescribable and rampant drug/alcohol use abuse and (4) more or less the same income.

Let’s drill down on the income bit shall we? As alluded to in previous articles, particularly in How to Get a Bartending Job in NYC, your experience, mannerisms, demeanor, and timing will dictate exactly which job you’ll land and how much money you’ll earn. After about a 6 weeks on the latest job, and off that dreaded trailing/training session, I’m not exactly surprised that I’m earning just about the same money as my previous two Meatpacking endeavors. It’s just as busy – there are about as many covers. The main difference? I have to work a whole lot harder, in the same amount of time, to make that coin.

What gives? The devil is in the details. My pub is setup not unlike many other bars in many other classes. They have the ubiquitous Point-of-Sale system and requisite (and onerous) cash-out procedures. There are numerous bartenders on the schedule; those with seniority, varying degrees of influence/power, and primo shifts. We have bouncers, a cocktail program, entertainment, promotions and appropriate levels of experienced management.

What distinguishes this gig (and many other similar pub jobs) from the last several I’ve had twofold (1) the uhh… clientele and (2) the labor requirement.

The Clientele 

Unlike most high-end clubs and lounges, my bar – and most of the surrounding bars – participate in an shockingly cheap Happy Hour most days of the week. During non-Happy Hour, our prices are pretty damned reasonable when compared to many other NYC venues. During Happy Hour however, most drinks drop to astoundingly low prices, reminding my of college days some 20 years ago. You can probably relate… you know – those days where $5 or $10 bucks could get you rip-roaring, retarded drunk.

The overwhelming majority of cocktails favor very sweet ingredients such as Puckers and Schnapps – crowd-appropriate. Fresh cocktail ingredients (such as fruit and herbs) and house-prepped, typical “mixologist” ingredients (like lemon juice, simple syrup, tea infusions, sour, etc.) are non-existent here. Pretty much everything is purchased and prepared on the cheap. Given the inexpensive pub theme, there isn’t much latitude to do otherwise and still turn a profit. So be it.

We do have a small kitchen. It’s clean and in my opinion, there just to keep people from leaving their bar stools and hitting the Taco Truck, pizza place or inhaling other “drunk food.” Manuel the Line Cook is pleasing and very efficient but, be warned: He’s no Danny Meyer, this is no Gastro Pub, and is quite the opposite of fine-dining. Most of the adequate enough to slow your intoxication but pretty much everything (save for burgers and such) is fried. Actual silverware is nowhere to be found.

If you’re keen on traditional food service, an elaborate wine list, and an organically-tinged, fresh fruit-laden cocktail menu, this pub – not unlike most – is probably not what you’re looking for. But that’s OK. You have to set your expectations accordingly.

The music. On busy nights, what you’ll hear playing is very loud Hip-Hop and Dance music. I often find myself shaking my rump and mouthing lyrics whilst simultaneously preparing drinks. It’s pretty cool. However, 8 – 10 hours of that, most every day, will not only drive you to check in a Creadmore, but will attract mostly a particular demographic. I’m not sure if that’s what the intention is but that’s what you get regardless.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love our guests. They’re my bread and butter. They pay my bills and are are my Raison D’être. 95% of them are beyond peaceful, paying, fun-loving, problem-free customers. 90% are looking for a bargain. 80% tip decently. Due to the nature of this type of bar, as described above, 75% are – uhh… – “casually-inclined” shall we say?

Earning a few dollars in tips is often the equivalent of pulling teeth with these folks. Unlike some of the other venues I’ve tended bar in, here, I rarely have time to address cheap-asses who completely stiff me or tip extraordinarily poorly. I still get dejected however. As you might expect with a cheap, largely ghetto crowd, the frequency with which this happens is quite often. If you’re the type to freak the fuck out when getting stiffed, or even getting an disproportionally lousy tip, then you’re probably better off looking for gainful employment elsewhere. In no other type of establishment will you have savor the flavor of working for (or nearly nothing) as in a dive bar.

My “ghetto” reference has little to do with color. It’s a label referring to personal “disposition” not race. Poor upbringing knows no color or socio-economic lines.

Also unlike many of the more “sophisticated” bars I’ve worked, where I could (a) work up several hundred or even several thousand dollar tabs, expecting proportional gratuities and (b) fill my tip jar with routinely obscene gratuities on the regular, I now have to depend on volume sales to earn decent money. It’s a nickel-and-dime type world.

No complaints though. I’m simply telling it like it is.

The Labor Requirement 

Here’s where many a bartender simply can’t deal.

Just about every bar has varying levels of responsibility and associated titles. On the bar side, you’ll have Porters, Barbacks, Bartenders, Head-Bartender, Bar Manager, Floor Managers, a General Manager, maybe a Regional Manager and finally – ownership. The more diverse/distributed bars will have pretty distinct responsibilities for all those positions. A Mom-and-Pop or Sole Proprietorship pub however, can be quite different.

Whereas you might have had a Porter take the trash out, wax the bar, and hose down the mats, in a pub – you (the bartender) often have deal with all of that.

Have you gotten used to the Barback stocking hundreds of bottles of beer all night? Well, tough luck. You’d better have a decent back because you’ll now be required to lug a dozen cases of beer up two flights of stairs every night. Can’t Clean-and-Jerk a couple of full Kegs (half-barrel) and change taps yourself? You might be in trouble.

Have dainty nails? You’re in for a treat. Your hands will be immersed in dirty dishwater all night, every night as you are now also responsible for keeping every single glass in the bar clean. You might also have to drag out the trash, as well as drag the heavy rubber bar mats out the sidewalk each night for a bleaching/scrubbing.

Don’t like refilling ketchup bottles, windex’ing mirrors, marrying bottles, cutting buckets of limes, pulling liquor inventory or scrubbing glass shelves? The pub life may simply not be for you.

Like hanging out after work? Forget it. You’ll have the “dirtiest key” out there. You’ll now be the first in and the last one out at the end of the evening. The sheer quantity of regular work and sidework will keep you there far beyond the time that everyone else has gone bye-bye.

For all these reasons, it takes a very special breed of bartender to withstand and stay working at a pub for very long. In a large pub with a large bar staff, there tends to be higher turnover than in many other venues.

And here you were thinking bartending was nothing less than the glamorous life – swimming in C-Notes and banging strange, aye? Sometimes, yes but it’s much more work than most people imagine.

Despite some of these “issues” and tactical maneuvering required to make this job pay, I’m beyond grateful to be behind the stick here. As mentioned, it’s pretty casual – a far cry from the corporate goon life I’d grown accustomed to the last few years.  The money is relatively steady and most of my coworkers are very easy get along with. The owner is fabulous and hands-off. That counts for a lot.

Pub Life it is for the foreseeable future I guess.

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