Where's the Love?
Tuesday, November 17, 1998, Flagstaff, Arizona - It's Tuesday night and that means Latin night at the Museum Club, and that means dollar margaritas and a salsa beat you can dance to at the place the locals call "The Zoo." Christina Anderson is behind the bar, so everyone gets taken care of, and she even has help tonight, by way of a daring journalist whose resume highlight in this field is tending bar at frat house parties, and we all know that doesn't count.
"Hey Christina! What's in a Rum and Coke?" This is my attempt at humor. Christina gets it. She gets all my jokes - that's part of being a good bartender.
Imagine working in an office where the music is so loud you can't understand your boss's orders, where the boss either has an attitude or the hots for you, and there are about a dozen of these guys, each trying to pull you their own way, and they pay you whatever they're in the mood for. Imagine all this, then imagine working all day in the dark, and yes, you could be a bartender.
In setting up this interview, I had made it clear that Christina would get all tips I make tonight - a moot point at best, because I am making no tips tonight. After a while, I let her collect the money; "Christina, I gave three margaritas to the Mexican in the blue shirt - go get him." For some reason, these guys are more inclined to tip her.
Having grown up on the east coast, I can say that this is the first Latin night I've been to where the crowd is actually Latin. The music sounds great, but I don't understand a single word the entire evening. I'm also having trouble understanding the patrons' orders. Fortunately, most people want margaritas or beers - these I understand. Christina, anticipating a hail of glassware and ashtrays thrown at me, tells patrons that I am a Bartender in Training, and this seems to help.
Most people are reserved and quiet when they approach the bar, but Christina, six foot tall and very outgoing, takes care of that. "What would you like, sweetie? Ok, here you go. You're looking good! I haven't seen you here in a while." She's been greeting customers this way for four and a half years, working her way toward a triple-major college degree. She is spending thousands of dollars studying Business Management, Criminal Justice and Hotel Management, when, after working with her for a few hours, I'm convinced that this job could earn her a PhD in those fields.
I went into this gig hoping to be just like Sam Malone, but after a few minutes I feel just like Coach. I'm way too uptight behind the bar. I'm afraid of spilling drinks, breaking glasses or over-pouring liquor. I learn that you cannot be a good bartender until, with practice, you are relieved of such concerns.
Three guys in one of the far booths keep ordering Coronas and I get plenty of practice on the bottle opener mounted on the cooler. The hopper for the caps is too close for longnecks and I can't seem to get it right. I learn quickly that this job is a lot harder than it looks from the barstool.
I ask Christina how she likes her job, and she says; "I like it when they tip better!" She makes this point often throughout the night. Sure, she likes the pace and environment of working at a bar, but make no mistake - she, like most bartenders, is here for the cash. She rings a bell when she gets a tip. "My biggest tip was $150," she says. "He said it was for my legs. I said 'this will keep my legs looking nice!'"
Christina likes being behind the bar better than waiting tables, because; "There's three feet between you and the customer, there's more money, and back here, I'm in control." She likes to be in control; her blood is half Mexican, a quarter Scottish and a quarter Irish, and she apparently stole the rebel DNA strand from each of those bloodlines.
"This guy calls me Tweety, because he used to whistle for me and I said; 'What do I look like, your pet? I'm not Tweety Bird.'" Christina hates it when guys whistle at her. "It's all about respect," she says. "Once, I was working tables, and a guy put his hand on me me where he really shouldn't have and I followed him into the men's room and grabbed him by the back of the neck. I threw him out - I just couldn't believe he took that liberty with me!"
Every night, trying to earn as much money as they can without being treated like a piece of meat, waitresses and female bartenders walk a razor's edge. They wear outfits designed to attract the eye and they treat customers like personal friends. A good waitress will do all this while keeping professional decorum, but just try decorum with drunk people. "You know how the customer's always right?" Christina says. "In my book, the customer's always drunk!"
"Yes, I get hit on a lot," Christina says. "Sometimes I wear a wedding ring." Tonight she is wearing dark blue hose and a skirt that is so short, guys will probably be throwing their wedding rings at her.
During the night, Christina and the waitresses (discreetly) swoon over the guys - "Ohh, helllooo beefcake!" But they keep their hands to themselves. "I've got a boyfriend," Christina says. "But I'm not dead."
I decide to work on my swagger. That's right, I need to relax and just pour the darn drinks. Someone orders two Coronas and I yank them from the cooler, dip 'em down to the opener and pop them tops. Sure enough, I pop them a little too hard and the beers head-up, spewing foam all over my hand. I wipe it off with my rag, like this is how it's supposed to be done, and I place them on the bar. "Christina! Uh, two, um, Coronas, over here..."
Some stocky cowboy pulls up to the bar and orders a Bud. Christina pulls a longneck from the cooler, pops the cap and sets it on the bar. He puts a few bills in her hand and she looks at it like he just handed her dirt. She gives him a smile, slaps her hand on the bar and says; "C'mon, sweetie. Where's the love? C'mon." The cowboy grins sheepishly, pulls another bill out of his pocket and gives it to her. "Thank you!" she says. Ding!
The liquor bottles have plastic spouts, and they're all pointing the wrong way for this southpaw. I fumble with the bottles, I grab the wrong bottles, I pour the expensive tequila in the dollar drinks, I use the wrong glasses... Every mistake you can think of, I make, but Christina is patient. She is not afraid to correct me, help me and encourage me. I even manage to mix a pretty good margarita in just under thirty seconds.
I gaze in awe as Christina makes three cocktails in the time it takes me to make one, and I decide to concentrate on easy chores; serving beers and margaritas, refilling the ice well, washing glasses and - my favorite bartender duty - the Wiping of The Bar.
Christina is graceful, a dream to watch as she moves, balancing her tall, slender frame before the glass. This is not merely a drink she is making, but a dance she is performing and her partner is you. In the quarter of a minute it takes for her to serve up your wishes, she is all yours and she is happy to be here for you.
In that brief time, you can imagine all you want, you can dream all you dare, for these are your seconds and you will pay for them. In your eyes, she could just as well be an angel granting your wish, or a nurse tenderly treating your wounds. She could be your very best friend, or she could even be wearing your rings on those slender fingers holding the glass. Whatever moves you - this dance is for you.
As she slides the drink your way, you feel special, you feel privileged to receive such attention, and the best way to express your feelings at this time is to just say thank you and be polite and not leer, or whistle or manhandle her. And the best way to applaud this performance is to simply give this bartender a big, fat tip. This is how you show your love.
At 12:30 a.m. Christina starts mixing up an impressive cocktail. The name brands are coming off the top shelves and I can tell this is not just another dollar margarita. Into a tall glass she pours Grand Marnier and Jose Cuervo. She doesn't use a shot glass to measure - instinct and timing will make this drink different from any other. Years of practice, and more practice, make this concoction her trademark.
Bottles rise from the well with a swoosh and drop with a clunk, liquor decants with a gurgle and ice meets glass with a clink. Close your eyes and you can hear the symphony of mixology.
Christina adds fresh lime juice and sour mix. She caps the glass with a stainless cup and shakes the libation to perfection. Then she pours it over ice into a large salted glass. I make some comment about how this drink must be for someone important and she puts the glass on a napkin, and with the smile of a performer after a perfect set, she slides it over to me.
I'm speechless. I guess she is just thanking me for my Wiping of The Bar all evening, but in an awkward, thoughtless moment of cold-hearted professionalism, I demur. But then I come to my senses and pull the masterpiece to my lips. This is the finest margarita I have ever had.
I enjoy the drink during last call. Christina and the wait staff go through their routine of closing up the bar. The DJ plays his last song and the patrons file out between the Ponderosa Pine legs. It's one in the morning and time to leave work. Where many people can socialize after work, there is no such option here. "There's nothing to do after-hours in this town," Christina says. "I go home and read a book for an hour just to wind down."
Riding back to the hotel, the icy Flagstaff air cuts into my face. I'm not affected by the margarita, but I keep a cautious lookout in my rearview mirrors, because it just now occured to me that I forgot to leave Christina a tip.
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