Photo: Caesar Sebastian via Flickr
It’s one thing to be a bartender, and another to do it in New York City’s Meatpacking District. The area is home to the Gansevoort Hotel, The Standard and other establishments that draw in well-heeled, good-looking crowds.We met Paige* the other weekend and asked her if she’d be willing to tell us what it’s really like to work behind one of the busiest bars in Manhattan. She graciously agreed to meet us for coffee right before one of her 10-hour shifts.
She revealed that yes, bartenders often sleep with patrons — but mostly the male bartenders. She gets hit on by married men all the time, pours around 1,000 drinks a night, and makes nearly six figures annually. Here are the details:
How did you get into bartending?
I went to college on the East Coast for acting, but dropped out and went to New York. I wanted to stop studying and start living. The best way to start living is bartending. I immediately tried to get into it. I was only 20 and was using someone else’s passport. While drinking one evening in Brooklyn, I was talking to this guy there, who offered me a job.
Legally, you can serve alcohol at 18, and he invited me to come in and train. I learned how to make drinks, talk back to guests and keep grown men under control. You have to have fun with people. With men, they do best if you make fun of them. If you can shit talk with a man, they respect you. I’ll tell them, “Give me your phone, I’m calling your wife.”
Then I turned 21 – I’d been waiting tables since college – and I walked into a bar on the Lower East Side. I told the bartender I needed a job, and he was the manager and said a girl had just quit earlier that day. It can take years to find a bartending job in New York City.
Now I make almost six figures working 30 hours a week – so $1,500 to $2,000 per week [bartenders pool money and each take home a fair share]. I also have health insurance. I’m really lucky.
How did you get to that point?
I’ve had to pay my dues. In the Meatpacking District, employers wouldn’t even see people without three years of work experience, or without three really strong references.
At the bar in the LES, there was a Coyote Ugly atmosphere on the weekends. There I learned speed and efficiency. Then I worked at another Meatpacking District bar while also working at a club in Williamsburg. In Brooklyn, there was lots of cocaine and kids that dressed impeccably with way too much money. They’d give me bags of blow to get free drinks or better treatment. It would give them a sense of power. Everybody got high. What’s huge now is Molly and ecstasy. In Meatpacking, the fist-pumping, Swedish House Mafia music scene lends itself to those sorts of drugs.
What’s the toughest part of your job?
You spend 10 to 11 hours on your feet. You have to get drunk people to sign things and tip you when they can’t even read. I serve from 700 to 1,000 drinks a night. I’ll get a 30 minute break after an hour of work – but you have to take it within that first hour, because then it gets busy. As a bartender, you want to be on the ground as much as possible. Every 5 minutes I’m gone, I miss out on $10 or more.
There are three kinds of bartenders: 1. You want to party and you love the lifestyle, 2. You’re doing it for the money, and 3. You’re doing it for life – you’re hospitality oriented. You enjoy making all kinds of drinks. It’s really easy to oscillate between these if you start and don’t really know what you want going into it. There are so many actors, models, that get so caught up. They end up going nowhere. You have to know what you want when you work in the industry. I didn’t. I went to Catholic school, got good grades. I went to college, got good grades. But what I really wanted was to be part of the party.
Where I am now is very different [than my time in Williamsburg]. We’re not allowed to get drunk.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen?
There was one night in the LES where there was a deaf guy who came into the bar – deaf people love bars because of the vibrations. Whenever I can’t understand someone I try not to judge. Anyway, at 4:05 a.m. he asked for another Heineken, and I refused his service. He starts throwing things around the bar, and there’s another bartender subduing him. He took on three cops. People do the craziest things when they’re drunk.
In the Meatpacking District, there are lots of prostitutes in the area. You can tell who they are. If there’s a man with a Miller Light and a man with a scotch, they’ll go for the guy with the scotch. On Christmas Eve, I saw a prostitute circling the bar. She kept getting rejected and ended up crying at the bar. You see a lot of stuff you don’t want to see: cheating, puking, screaming — the worst side of human nature.
There was a Kim Kardashian-look-a-like who vomited in her glass, and then five minutes later, ordered another drink.
It’s crazy taking a cab home at 4 or 5 a.m. and I’ll see 40 girls in the streets, without their shoes, without makeup, searching in their purses for things that they can’t find – there’s this deterioration. And you know they started the night out just wanting to have a good time.
What’s it like behind the bar? You have to work so quickly.
Yes — it’s vodka soda, vodka Coke, Jack-and-Coke, vodka soda. If people are having a good time, they tip better. The best ones know how to work the system. If someone orders a round of drinks and gives me a $20 – if there are four people in front of me, I’ll always serve him first. I’m at work. I’m here to make money.
I try, as do most bartenders, to treat and serve everyone fairly and as quickly as possible. And if the guest that tipped well in the beginning totally ripped me off in the end, I’d remember their face for next time, and how they played me. We remember everyone.
There’s a type of guest who treats me like I’m the help – doesn’t understand that I’m in charge of the alcohol — he’ll order a bunch of drinks, and when I ask for $88, he’ll get angry and ask why. I serve people who are nice people. If you’re buying Miller High Life, which is the cheapest drink at $4, and not leaving a tip, you should leave the bar, get yourself a six pack and go home.
What are some other weird things you see?
Girls change guys’ tips. They’ll cross out a $10 tip and make it $5.
I’ve gotten extravagant tips from people who think they’re showing off for me or think I’ll then owe them favours. The No. 1 thing I was taught: it’s my bar. The bartender has discretion over who they’ll serve. It’s up to us. I’m not here to be a servant. I’m not a prostitute. I get people kicked out all the time for an inordinate amount of attitude.
Bottle service girls will sell four bottles per night, at $2,000 each, and they get 18%, and then anything else the men leave them. But I’ve never, ever wanted to do that: because then the men can touch you. Same with waitresses. I have a bar between me and another person.
Have you ever hooked up with a patron?
Girls rarely sleep with men clients. Maybe 1 in 100 do. The guys are drunk. It doesn’t have much to do with me. I’m the one attractive person who can’t run away. I can’t go anywhere.
There was one guy who came in, I made fun of his shirt and then he asked me out. I said, if you are back here every day for a week, I’ll go out with you. You’ve got to prove you’re serious. He came back every day and I ended up seeing him for a few months.
I get hit on by so many married men. You know how men operate so you’re less likely to go out with them. On the other hand, male bartenders sleep with patrons all the time.
Have you ever gone beyond your job description? Helped out a patron?
One time I overheard a guy at a bar – it was 2:30 a.m. on New Year’s and he was talking about breaking up with a girl. She was locked in the bathroom and none of her friends could get her out. I found the girl and told her, “Don’t let it ruin your night, and you could have stayed with him and had him treat you like this for the rest of your life.” That wasn’t my job. But most of the time, I don’t. If a stranger came up to you and said, your girlfriend is cheating, they won’t hear you. People hear what they want to hear.
One thing that bothers me the most is women who can’t tell men to leave them alone. Don’t waste his or your time. There are a lot of guys partying in the Meatpacking District who just want to show off how much money they have. There are lots of financial guys, and it’s so obvious when the women aren’t interested. But maybe they don’t care. Maybe they just want the attention.
I don’t know of anyone who’s met someone in a bar or a club. Things girls and guys are looking for in a club are different. Most guys that go to clubs sleep with several girls a month. The one guy I saw for a few months was really lustful. All we ever did was get wasted. It was terrible.
Are you still pursuing a career in acting?
I go to auditions during the day – if it’s at 10 a.m. and I have to get up at 8, that’s really tough if I get off work at 4 a.m. I do commercial acting and films, with auditions in Midtown. I have enough money saved not to have to work for a year. There are bartenders who put their money into clothes; they’ll own Marc Jacobs and Louboutins, and if you saw them on the street, you’d never know they’re bartenders.
Do you want to get out of the business?
It’s a good place for people to make money, and it’s fun. It’s really intensive labour and I always get a workout at work. It’s great to be comfortable being social. But it can get you down, seeing how many people make bad decisions. You see some people drop off – people you work with. I’ve had friends who almost drank themselves to death. Got into coke. It’s a high reward for high risk.
Do all bartenders in the Meatpacking District make as much money as you do?
The majority of bartenders make much, much less money than I do. I have worked hard for years paying my dues and putting hard labour in to get to the tier I am at, just like with any other profession. I’d say 80% of bartenders make less than $800 a week working full time, no less.
I make $4 an hour but it all goes to the government – all of my checks say VOID. But at tax time, I’ll owe $9,000 to $10,000. Most bartenders make $3 to $4 dollars an hour.
Though not at the very top, I am very lucky. It’s a competitive industry where people are discarded constantly and somehow I have managed to maintain steady jobs all these years.
*Name has been changed to protect her identity
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