I wasn’t happy about going into work. It wasn’t the work so much, but it was the shift. Ironically, it was “happy hour.” It didn’t help that I worked with the crabbiest cocktail waitress there was. And she was literally a “waitress” because that was her official job title. It was a different time, long before politically correct terms like “busser” and “food server” existed. It was back before restaurants had HR departments, too, but I digress.
I walked in the door of the enormous restaurant. Back then, corporate chains were all the rage, and they liked to be big — really big. Like big enough to have a waterfall, a pond and a bridge in the bar. In fact, there was even a little grotto underneath the waterfall where couples often went to find some privacy. Well, as much privacy as one can find in a crowded public place. Let’s just say the bussers didn’t like cleaning up that area.
I think now of all the bartenders who cringe these days over making something like an espresso martini. It’s three ingredients: coffee liqueur (or Irish cream), vodka and coffee. Big deal. Try making a blended version of exactly the same thing, except in a 22-ounce glass and garnished with a mountain of whipped cream. Or layering all three ingredients with a spoon in a shot glass, calling it a Mudslide, and making them by the dozens. “Dozens” is not a typo. I can literally remember making two dozen at a time often. That is exactly how many fit on a cocktail tray.
But back then, drinks were cheap. The trick to making money was volume, both for the establishment and the bartender. Nobody was paying $22 for a 6-ounce margarita. People would have expected something like that to have gold in it. Ironically, some liqueur literally did have gold in it. Even more ironically, we often served that gold-infused liqueur for $1 as a promotion.
When I arrived, Crabby was already there in her Hawaiian-flowered rayon, skintight, well-above-the-knee party dress. Like I said, it was a different time.
Happy hour was busy. Free food and discount drinks bring them in, or at least it did. Ironically, when bars run out of ideas, the fallback always seems to be deep discounts. Bars that are already doing well don’t offer to give things away. Why would they?
But it wasn’t the work that was the problem. It was the people. One might think that people who are getting deep discounts and free stuff would be especially grateful. Wrong. Boundaries are the key. Being empathetic without boundaries quickly becomes co-dependency. We have all had that friend that we tried to help, only to eventually find ourselves being blamed for the problem we were trying to help them fix. And in the service business, balancing empathy with boundaries is always the difficulty. Because people who don’t respect boundaries also don’t respect the people who have them.
That cocktail waitress in her slit-up-the-back dress certainly had it rougher than me. She didn’t have to make the drinks but she did have to carry them through a crowd of boundaryless people — in 3-inch heels no less — and if that wasn’t enough to try anyone’s empathy, I don’t know what is.
California has since changed the laws on happy hour. These days, bars and restaurants may not offer free drinks, two-for-one drink specials or anything of value in conjunction with the sale of an alcoholic beverage. A food and drink combination for a special price may be allowed, as long as the drink is not free or complimentary. And the price paid for any drink (or combo) may not be less than the wholesale cost of the products.
Anthony Bourdain once wrote that he hated brunch. “No matter how badly I screwed up in my life or how unemployable I was, I could always get a job as a brunch cook because nobody wants to do brunch.” For bartenders and cocktail servers, it’s happy hour.
A year or so later, that bar hired a new cocktail waitress. I overheard her telling a customer that she liked her new job, but some of the other employees were kind of crabby. I smiled at that, because I knew who she was talking about. It wasn’t until later that I found out she was talking about me.
Leaving me with these thoughts:
• Sometimes setting boundaries means leaving a situation altogether.
• “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster,” once wrote Friedrich Nietzsche.
• Brunch and happy hour might be heaven to go to, but they are often hell to work.
• Happy hour is illegal in Massachusetts, Alaska, Indiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah and Vermont. Just saying.
• And just in case you were wondering, I married that first cocktail waitress just a few years after she quit being one.