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Distilled: Trying to keep everything afloat

click to enlarge JESSIE SPACCIA
  • Jessie Spaccia

Working the bar is like going to war on a ship. Scurrying down that narrow gangway between taps, bottles and bar top; bumping, stretching, snatching, scribbling, grabbing, pouring, sorting and shouting. Shoveling drinks over the side in a demented bailing; fighting the chaos that threatened to overwhelm the whole operation. You could drown if you aren't careful.

The people stack up like waves, surging from unknown depths in their thousands of pounds of screaming pressure. Egos, moods, agendas smashing against the wood, second by second. You could feel the rocking, pounding rhythm of the crush; its ebbs and flows driven by some mindless violent impulse.

"What a helluva way to make a living," one of those old guys says. Those sweet, head-shaking old guys who order bottled beer and know exactly what it costs and pay cash and tip at least a dollar for every drink. Their kind are like lighthouse keepers for bartenders — someone with whom to surface, safe, and breathe. You exchange a knowing glance and go back below decks, your bearings momentarily restored.

With the rest, you fight them with the same futility a ship fights the waves. You fire shot after shot. Whole volleys. Six shots at a time, sometimes. Every vodka Red Bull, every Jäger bomb is a salvo: This is the one that will hit him below the waterline, make him turn keel and call for his tab.

Sink the menace, salvage his scrap and hold fast until you send the last of them to the cold dark, where they'll sink and finally lay down.

Then it's so silent you can hear the boards creaking. You peer through the gloom at the flotsam — crushed plastic cups from when you ran out of clean glassware, straws, napkins, so many lime and lemon wedges, the occasional slick of vomit. The air is still hot and stinking of spiced rum, aspartame, sweat, cologne and perfume. The ammunition has run low but the plunder has been good.

It's strange to round the bar and walk the floor, pull the stools and chairs and remember each as orders. This one was the sonofabitch who wanted four Duck Farts. This one was that leering tourist who tried to teach you how to make "the perfect" Long Island ice tea. This one thought she was at a wine bar and kept asking for samples.

Sweep and swab. The toilets are a disgrace. Wash and wash and wash your hands. Pour near-boiling water on everything. Rearm the coolers, check the kegs and pull fresh fifths from the storeroom. Don't worry about cutting new fruit. Get the glassware cleaned and stowed.

The most satisfying part is rubbing down the bar. First hot water to remove the sticky film left by the sugary spillage of shots gone wrong. Then disinfectant to remove whatever bodily fluids might have been left behind. Then the wood polish. That astringent, medicinal smell erasing them all, replacing their chaos with utility. Something maintained rather than dissipated. Restored rather than injured.

The bar must be fully polished and gleaming before the till can be reckoned and the tips counted out. The stacks of money look best, somehow crisper despite their frequent sogginess, against a clean, shining surface. The counting is calming, coming in ordered denominations; the fractions noted and carried over, combined when possible to make wholes.

With the till closed, tips divided and ice machine humming, the lights go off and it's time to go ashore. Out in the dark, the cigarette cherry, like the light of a buoy, will lead you home. ♦

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