Photo: Lilapants via flickr
A few months ago, we introduced you to Paige, a bartender in the Meatpacking District, who shared with us what it’s really like to work at one of the busiest clubs in New York City.To get a different perspective, we visited Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, where we met a few more bartenders willing to share their stories. One of them introduced us to Thomas (not his real name), who agreed to sit down for an interview.
Here are the best parts of our conversation, edited for clarity:
Where do you work?
I work at a bar [down the street]. But before that, I was at this amazing dive bar, The Abbey Bar, in Williamsburg for five years — but it took a while to get there. Before that, I was working in bars all over New York City.
How’d you break into the business?
Eight years ago I moved to New York City to be a writer. People become bartenders by accident. Easy money, access to dating pools.
But in terms of the service industry — I started as a barista in California. I was also a restaurant waiter, wearing bolo ties, at a margarita bar in Harvard Square, Boston. I worked in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans, among other cities.
When I first moved to New York, I was living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and working in Hoboken, NJ. I crossed two rivers to get to work. But it’s what you have to do. It’s New York.
Why did you want to work at a dive bar?
Either you go into the club world and turn into a machine, or enter the dive bar world. And to me that was freedom. Paige had the money, the insurance, barbacks for protection — and those are the golden handcuffs. But to me, a club is slavery. The dive bar world is freedom.
I worked in Morningside Heights, Battery Park, Harlem, Upper West Side, everywhere. I got the jobs by checking Craigslist. Any bar where you send in a resume is bullshit. I wanted to get here, in Williamsburg. But I knew no one, so I had to find people.
The Abby Bar is the Shangri-La of freedom. No managers, you’re in charge, no doorman. You’ve got to bust your asses, but you’re in charge. The only way you get a job at the Abby Bar is by drinking there. Alcohol reveals your personality, and the bartender is always watching. I was a regular there, talking about how much I didn’t like my job, and one day, this bartender was like, do you want a job? I was the first person hired there in about three years.
In bartending, there’s a cult of personality. Even if you’re pulling in the money, clean as a whistle — if something about your personality is off, you’ll get fired.
What sort of shifts do you pull?
Shifts are from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. You work when everybody doesn’t. We’re sleeping — or sleeping with other people — when the rest of the world is awake. You get used to it.
So you’re on this weird schedule. Are most of your friends in the service industry?
Yes. And you date people in the industry. Who else can start their day by getting up at 3 p.m., having brunch at 4 p.m., and getting to the job a few hours later?
At one point, I was with three women a week. I’d take girls to New Orleans. What girl doesn’t want that? It’s like a whirlwind romance, all exiting. We’d meet, she’d stay over and if I liked her, I’d say, want to come with me on a trip? There aren’t many industries where you can take off for a few days in the middle of the week. At the time I was making about $1,500 a week, all cash, no taxes. So it was easy to travel.
If the Abbey Bar was the Shangri-La, why’d you leave?
I got fired. To give you the backstory, the Abbey Bar is owned by this management group that also owns The Cove, Alligator Lounge, and other establishments in New York City. One of the owners would walk into a bar and fire the whole staff just to keep it clean. There are a lot of jaded bartenders walking around the streets of Williamsburg.
Anyway, my boss told me never to work at any of the other bars owned by the company, since he couldn’t protect me. But I did anyway. And one day I didn’t have a job anymore.
What was your worst experience bartending?
I’ve had a woman hit me in the head with a pint glass at 4 a.m. I’ve been punched in the face by a gallery owner over on Driggs Avenue.
When you have someone walk in to a bar all disheveled, bartenders know when it’s the trouble person. The ones who are weird stand out.
Once at a bar in California, a woman kept saying to me, “What if you couldn’t go home? What would you do?” It was weird. So I thought, I won’t give her more than three drinks. I asked her, “Are you running from the law?” She said no. Then my boss comes in and says, “You’re on break.” So he took over. I get back, and there’s an ambulance, with a stretcher carrying this woman into it. She had taken a steak knife and threatened to kill herself right there. She was OK. But boss was angry, asking me why I didn’t tell him.
Were you angry at yourself for that? How responsible are you for your patrons?
If someone appears intoxicated, you have to cut them off.
But clearly that doesn’t happen – so what’s the real line?
If you have someone who’s a danger to themselves or others, you cut them off.
Dive bars expose the underbelly of society. It’s the only place before madness where you can still get a drink. It’s interesting, nine times out of 10, women are the ones throwing the pint glasses, hitting the bartender.
Why continue working someplace where you might get knocked in the head any given time you come in?
I have no fear. The benefits outweigh the costs.
What’s the most interesting part of your job?
Alcohol reveals people’s personality. All day long people have their guards up.
To put it another way, a dive bar is like a zoo. The drinkers are the animals, the cage is the bar, the alcohol is the food. And once the booze starts flowing, then the real animals appear.
Freud would be pleased by the dive bar. The Id can escape from it’s prison and run rampant, at least for a couple of hours and a few bucks.
It must still take a lot of energy to entertain people all night.
Bartenders must take any news they get from a patron and make it funny. It’s a show. It’s a carnival environment and your personality determines how much you get paid.
In what other job do you come into work and get paid to drink and talk?
NOW WATCH: Ideas videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.