Bartender Superheroes: Watching Your Back from Behind the Stick
For the last seven years I’ve been lucky enough to work at a neighborhood bar in Astoria, a cozy, once primarily Greek neighborhood in Queens, New York. For the most part, the neighborhood hosts a vibrant community of night owls, but there are also a few unhinged barflies, who are terrorizing bartenders and committing legitimate crimes. Luckily, we—like bartending communities across the country—have a system to stop these hooligans.
From the LES to Bushwick, Harlem to Hell’s Kitchen—show me a concentrated block of bars and I’ll show you a mass text thread between the neighboring staff. Used primarily for fun, that text chain is also our Bat Signal. We are the Watchers on the Wall, the eyes in the candle-lit room, and we are quick on the draw with our iPhones.
Here are four stories from the files of just one of the world’s many crime-fighting rings of bartenders.
Take the infamous check-jumping Russian, for example.
"This was her second visit to Mar's. The first was last week, when she showed up twice in less than two hours with two different men." My friend, a fellow Astoria bartender who was never one to mince words, was regaling me with the story of a woman who just stiffed him on the check—again. "She didn't pay then, so I guess she means to not pay ever." The woman in question was a five-foot-three blonde with a heavy Russian accent and a reported lack of sanity. When my friend informed her that not paying simply wasn’t an option, she looked directly at him and slurred, "You can't do anything to me. You're just a bartender."
His response? "Smile for the birdie!" And she did. She actually posed as he raised his phone up to snap a picture. Within minutes, the photo of the serial dater with serious disdain for those behind the bar was splashed across the cell phone screen of every bartender from Mar's all the way down to Singlecut Brewery. They had been warned against her. And they retaliated in a way only bored bartenders can. As you can see, things devolved quickly:
The Russian walkout hit a chord in all of us, not because of what she did, but because of what she said: "You’re just a bartender." Like I said, most times we're happy to be those nameless creatures pouring your poison of choice while you bitch about your boss. But let's not forget that we do have ears, my dears, and your name is right there on that credit card you just plopped down to open a tab. Or, if you’re like The Russian, your face is on our phones, and you’ll never drink in our bars again.
The Guy Who “Used to Bartend up the Block”
I met John in passing during a shift change one day. He mentioned that he used to bartend up at the Quays, one of the most popular music venues in the neighborhood. I poured him a beer. He took a sip and went outside. I assumed he was going across the street to change over his laundry, but half an hour later, he still hadn't returned. One unpaid beer wasn't the end of the world, though, and I wrote it off as a drunken mistake on his part. I mean, the dude was a former bartender. He wouldn't intentionally walk out. Right?
I forgot all about our interaction until a few weeks later. I was behind the bar with Mike when both of our phones started going off and did not stop for the rest of our shifts. Johnny Boy had been hitting up bar after bar with his “I used to bartend up the block” bit and amassing a wake of unpaid bar tabs. There were also reports of him passing out counterfeit bills—a crime the authorities take a bit more seriously than skipping out on a few checks. At least six bars in our area had experienced the pleasure of his "patronage.”
One of our long-time regulars, “Long Hair,” who just so happened to be an old-school regular of the Quays, had come in for a few pints just before the buzzing of our phones began. In true crime-fighting fashion, the bartender on duty had snapped a photo of John while he was fleeing his barstool after being recognized at Crescent & Vine. Homeboy had actually given him a thumbs up on his way out. I leaned across the bar to show Long Hair the glamor shot and text stream. Turned out the guy wasn't lying; he had in fact worked the Quays a few years back, and coincidentally, Long Hair was friends with him on Facebook. I highly doubt Zuckerberg had this in mind when he designed The Facebook, but props to him as it sure comes in handy when tracking down petty criminals. John’s profile picture had clearly been taken about a decade earlier, but there was no mistaking him. Screenshots were taken and pinged through the neighborhood with righteous determination. Suggestions for taking action also got thrown in the mix:
Within 48 hours our phones began chiming with joy: A report had been filed with the precinct, and the cops had caught up with dear old John at another neighborhood bar. He is now enjoying his meals in a location that is far less conducive to dining and dashing.
The Sexual Predator
Sometimes even Batman needs saving.
A girlfriend and I had come back from dinner and decided to grab a drink at a bar on 30th where my friend Sean was bartending. We immediately found ourselves in a bad sitcom. Whenever the stool next to us emptied, it was immediately filled with an overly eager, mostly drunk guy spitting half-witty one liners at us. Some of the guys were less entertaining than others, but we chatted politely and then went back to talking to each other without any real hassles.
The last candidate to arrive told us that he was a firefighter and that he liked to ski. We talked, we laughed, but at no point did I shift myself toward him or make any physical contact. "Give me a kiss," he said. I declined. "Come on, give me kiss." Again, I said no. My mouth was halfway through forming the vowel when he grabbed me and mashed his face into mine for an eternity of seconds until suddenly he was flying backwards away from me.
"She said no, man, get the hell out of my bar." Sean had been watching the entire interaction. As soon as it went too far he’d lunged over the bar and served justice.
It’s chilling that online groups like Bartenders Against Sexual Assault or the “Ask For Angela” code even need to exist. But we bartenders are watching and we are listening; we want you to have a great night and get home safe. If we receive word about drunk guys getting too pushy and forcibly making physical contact with women who are explicitly telling them, “No,” then these men are no longer welcome in our bars.
The Bill-Skirting Bros
Even when bartenders are off duty, we’re on duty. And since we don’t wear uniforms, we’re hard to spot. In fact, we might be all around you.
One Tuesday, our little bar suddenly found itself brimming with staff from another local bar celebrating the anniversary of its new-ish establishment, as well as a group from a nearby brewery on a staff outing. To an outsider, it may have looked like chaos with drunk dudes hugging one another and singing along to the iPod, but to us it was absolute sanity. Every bar stool was filled with someone we knew.
As raucous as the industry folk were, they were nothing compared to a group of construction bros who settled in at the bar and started slamming Narragansett tall boys and shots. One of them had ripped his Carhartts and his tush was on display for the entire room to enjoy. Then they started to get really rowdy.
I was running food to the brewers’ table when Mike yelled over his shoulder for me to watch the bar as he dipped out the side door. The construction workers and the Carhartt Coppertone Baby were refusing to pay their tab and had bolted up the block. I should mention that our bar is mostly windows, so for those of us still inside the bar, the entire interaction took place like some version of silent cinema. Mike and our barback Jesse went out to collect payment, and were immediately met with hostility and the threat of bodily harm. Back and forth they went in front of the windows with silent gestures of booze-soaked anger. And then, one by one, the off-duty bartenders and brewers inside set down their beers, got up, and walked outside. Silently and deliberately, no less than 15 able fellows lined up behind my coworkers and, in a moment of beautiful timing (thanks to one covert phone call), a cop car with its lights off slid onto the block and stopped. Credit cards were rapidly produced and bravado deflated. The bros slunk away into the night muttering that we could make them pay but we couldn't make them tip.
Gentlemen, you may not want to tip us, but here's a tip for you: If you're going to be rude and attempt to skirt the law, perhaps you should rethink your privacy settings on social media. Hell hath no imagination like a room full of elated bartenders three drinks into the night who just memorized the names they saw on a few bad guys’ credit cards.
So remember, if you’re a bro who relishes a certain style of "locker room" talk—we’re watching. If you’re a counterfeiter—we’re watching. If you jump your check—we’re watching. And if you’re that purse thief who has been targeting bars from Broadway to 30th Ave, the gal with the pink backpack and red headphones, we’re definitely watching. And it's only a matter of time until you and your accomplice are served up a little justice—Astoria style.