Photo: Journey Jeff’s Pix
Bartending, especially in New York City, is often viewed as a means to an end. Just ask Paige, the Manhattan bartender we spoke to earlier this year who wanted to escape her six-figure job. But there are some that defy expectations, like Luke (not his real name), a 29-year-old man who works at a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
He offered to share his story with us about how he decided to become a career bartender.
Luke says that more than anything, you’re always on stage, and some days you just have to say, “fuck it.” But he also equates bartending with love and says he’s the happiest he’s ever been in his life.
Below is a lightly-edited transcript of our conversation:
ON GROWING UP IN A BLUE-COLLAR FAMILY, AND BEING THE ‘BLACK SHEEP’
Growing up I was always one to be very social. And very extroverted. I was always interested in humanity and making some kind of connection. I saw things a little bit differently and never was really into the same thing everybody else was.
I went on to pursue graphic design and fine arts, but would ultimately fail. It was just something that was trying to escape out of me; it was a release. I went to SUNY New Paltz for my BFA, and I was raising two kittens, growing marijuana and living with my girlfriend. I was also writing my thesis on sustainability, working as a certified personal fitness trainer and preparing for an all-natural bodybuilding competition. I stopped drawing after I got my BFA in graphic design. … The idea became more important than the actual end result. At many points in my life I was always growing and failing at something, or leaving something behind, but always picking up something new.
I come from a blue-collar family; my parents worked hard for everything they have. My dad is a mechanic. He works for the Syracuse Fire Department. He’s been there for 15 years now. My mother was always into retail and cosmetics. She’s very well put together and always represented herself well. And they balance each other nicely.
I do have a brother, he’s three years younger than me. Oddly enough, my brother and father don’t drink. My father hasn’t had a drop in 20 years and my brother hasn’t had a drop in four. So I’ve always been the black sheep. I always saw my parents worked hard.
I lived with my grandmother between college and moving to New York City, where I aided my mother in dealing with my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease, a two-year progression where my mother’s life became dedicated to the aid of her mother.
ON BREAKING INTO THE SERVICE INDUSTRY
I worked at a cash register at Wegmans and I always felt like it was my personality that made it rewarding for me. You know, having a five-minute conversation with someone when you’re ringing up their groceries. And I took that with me even through to my manual labour jobs — loading trucks at FedEx, UPS, building fences. There were people I worked with who had these amazing personalities but they broke their backs.
I was 17 or 18 and then I got tired of busting my arse. Around 20 I started delivering pizzas and started working in the kitchen prepping stuff at this place called Gino and Joe’s. The owner turned out to be a pretty dark guy and his business went under. That was in Syracuse.
Before I left for college I had established myself at a restaurant called Pascale Wine Bar & Restaurant, and that was the beginning of the service industry for me. I was so fed up with busting my arse and breaking my back and after having that falling out with Gino and Joe’s, and the owner there, who was racked up in an armed robbery. After feeling very upset that all that happened, I went and applied at the best restaurant in Syracuse — Pascale’s — which was kind of a joke to me, but I got it and I was there for five and a half years. I learned everything there was to learn about service and food and wine from my manager Brian DiMartino. It wasn’t until I was there for about a year and a half that I made it to the waitstaff. From that point on, I carried what I learned there with me everywhere, even to places where it wasn’t appropriate.
ON SELLING HIS SOUL IN MANHATTAN FOR NEARLY 2 YEARS
When I moved to New York and I got my first gig after not really finding that design job that I was looking for, I had to go and make money somehow. So I applied to an open call ad on Craigslist for a BR Guest restaurant. We met in the Meatpacking District at Dos Caminos. While I was there I was the only one who was in shape, had a proper suit, was well put together with a portfolio in hand, and they interviewed me not for Dos Caminos but for Atlantic Grill East, their No. 1 restaurant in Manhattan — but what do they know? Honestly it was $600 cover on a Friday or Saturday night, but it was just a guise. The food was great, but the dining experience was awful. What I could offer was not wanted. You couldn’t be passionate about the food because people would want it steamed, or with no butter or no salt, and they were all fake-arse people with these ideals that had nothing to do with me or what I wanted. So it took away from the service. As it were, I lost my soul for a year and eight months there and then I was given another opportunity, so it all came full circle. I was without a job for 24 hours after being terminated from Atlantic Grill East for some kind of clerical error. It was Halloween and I was dressed up as Ozzy Osbourne and I was fired by Peter from Kiss while a sympathetic Madonna watched on. The next day I was hired [at a bar in Brooklyn] and I trained for three days, I opened three days, I closed three nights.
ON MAKING BARTENDING HIS CAREER
[At the Brooklyn bar] we were taught to build cocktails with our heart in place, to close our eyes and visualise ourselves as being content. And when we make a drink we remember that it’s a privilege to do what we do and that not everybody gets a chance to do that in our life. Anybody can mix a drink; a robot can mix a drink. But to actually have feelings when you produce that and put it into a glass and have somebody enjoy a piece of something that you created — few bartenders have that opportunity. At the end of the day, it’s all about giving someone what they want. They come there to see you. You invite them into your home. The bar scene can be a very scary place when it’s not done with love.
Bartending is like love: everything has an assigned value. When you have a relationship with another person you can decide that what you have is incredibly valuable and treat it as that. The second you do something like cheat or are untrue to that person, you decided that it’s not worth it. How long can that other person go on believing that it’s worth that?
I can’t sell anything with the selling point being the bottom line. People say to me all the time, “Oh my God, you should come work for us, you’d be a great salesperson, I’d buy anything from you!” But really, the only reason I sell is because I’m passionate about what I’m selling. I remember what it’s like, and I am empathetic and put myself in other people’s shoes. I’ve been taught by my parents to work hard and think about other people. I was always passionate about having the audience and communication with someone else.
I thought, if you don’t make it as a world-renowned graphic designer, you can do something that you already do really well, as long as it comes naturally. This is the newest obsession for me; this is the ultimate juggling act. Where you’re talking to people, you’re making drinks, you’re running a bar and working with the waitstaff and kitchen. You’re basically a bouncer, host, accountant, manager, psychologist and a performer. More than anything you’re on stage. And that’s what it has been for me. I’m the bar manager and head bartender. And that’s humble. I don’t get paid a salary.
ON PARTYING AND STAYING HEALTHY
As much as I am a creature of habit, I try to create balance and I party hard just as much as I work hard. And when I say I party hard it’s always been leaning more towards the responsible end. I remember always being the one to roll the nicest joint in the room but also wanted to be most cautious about where we were going to smoke it. In the bar scene in NYC, there are many things floating around. I have seen bartenders drink so much that they have to go and lay down. I’ve seen my head bartender pass out. But I’ve always been an intense individual. I’ve experienced every kind of night. I’ve split mushrooms with my other bartender. He took most and I took a little. That was two months ago. A couple of guys had came in and were tripping. They kept muttering something about their mushroom experiences. Then these two guys enter and as I was talking about ingredients to some other guy at the bar, they started muttering, “We’ve got your ingredients” and I didn’t know what they were talking about. I knew them from the bar but I’d never seen them in this state. Then I saw the bag on the bar and they were out of it, so we took them and I ate a small piece. That turned into a 5:30 AM experience.
Later I got a phone call from someone who said they were someone’s fiance. It was one of those nights where you’re glad that you’re on the other side. I have to play by the rules. I’ve always been interested in the counterculture and the alcohol and drugs and their place in the social scene. There are many different ways to use them and different ways to go about delegating your use with these things. People go to a bar to get high and have drinks and get loose. With that comes marijuana and cocaine.
ON WHAT IT’S LIKE BEHIND THE BAR
One of two things happen in our bar. One is, two people have the experience they want to have with each other and nothing gets in their way. Two, they become so interested in what we are doing that we become the discussion and the show. Now we are performing artists and they are interacting with us.
It’s about honesty. I try to be as honest as I can be with people. But I still need to be in control. I love my job and it’s worth everything that it is to me because I allow it to be that.
I’ve had jobs where you can’t build a relationship with anyone because the turn is so quick. Within 10 years that I have been in the service industry, I have made my way from the lowest position to the highest position. I’ve seen everything in between.
As soon as I realised that all I want to do is be a part of a seamless good time … I’m into making days better for people, moments and memories better for people. Because who cares about being famous when you can simply be remembered? I think the rewards are just as worthwhile as the work that you put into it. It is my life because I choose it to be my life. The important thing to remember is that it isn’t everything, but everything is within it. At times, it’s not that deep, you have to be able to just say “fuck it” because it never stops.
ON FEAR OF BEING A BARTENDER FOR LIFE
Am I scared? Yes, because I want to have insurance, I want to have holidays, I want to have kids. But I get to see the sun come up over the skyline as I go past McCarren park on my bike on Saturday nights. And I remember that as comfortable as I am in Brooklyn, there is a city of opportunity across the bridge. I’m not married to things that I once was. I still do some graphic design, such as the menus. But now I do it for myself. I still get to do what I like to do. As long as I can find all the things I like to do within this thing we call service. I’m currently working on the Upper West Side as a personal fitness trainer at Crunch and slinging drinks on the weekend.
Every day you’re younger than you’re ever going to be. You have the most opportunity that you’ll ever have. Make those mountains into molehills when you need to but then take the shit that really means a lot to you and blow it up. You see artists tormented and struggling and they look tortured. But you have to be able at some point, especially when you’re in NYC, you have to take your space, stand out tall and be comfortable with yourself. Re-learn yourself. If you don’t take care of yourself, no one is going to say, “Hey slow down, you’re killing yourself.” I’m not the healthiest I’ve been, but I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.
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