The End Of The 40 Year Old Bartender Redux

The Best Of The Zola System

The panic is just beginning to set in. It seems no one knows what is coming next, the paranoia over bank closings, unemployment and the possibility of unrelenting inflation has fallen squarely from the skyline to the streets of Manhattan. The first segment of the economy to take the hit is the service industry.

And taken the hit I have. Now over two weeks into my job search and there appears to be almost nothing available in the way of shifts in New York City. My thoughts turned to timing. Perhaps I was missing out on certain gigs that would be right for me because I was getting there after the interviewer had seen 40-50 people. It was all about trying to put the odds in my favor as I had seen just how many people were looking for work. I ran into that cluster f*** last Tuesday when a friend called me to say a bar on East 36th Street was looking for a barman. The interviews were scheduled to begin at 2pm. I was there at 2:05 only to find a 1,000 sq. ft. room filled with nearly 60 perspective applicants, all in the 24-28 age range. I have an excellent resume but I was stunningly intimidated by the turn out; not only were there all those people in the room but I was the oldest one there.  I filled out the application and left my resume with the manager on duty.

I re-grouped once again. Over the weekend, I made a list of people I know, friends, people I have worked, drank or had run wine tastings with. Anyone in the saloon business that might be helpful with getting me that little edge I need to get that job and get off of the unemployment rolls. When I got done with my list, I noticed a full half of the folk there on were in fine dining, my segment of the industry and I knew they would be of no help. Although working, their jobs were fragile and the wagon’s were being circled. If I were to ask them if anything were available or if they had heard of gigs coming up, they would answer no. Better to keep what you information you have in your back pocket in case you need it.

I ran into my friend Linda, the beverage and special events manager for Chelsea Piers. She was on my list of people to talk to although I knew she wouldn’t have anything for me. Chelsea Piers was opened fifteen years ago as a high end Sports and Entertainment Complex and was the near exclusive stomping grounds of the Hedge Fund class that could afford it’s yearly rates.

Linda asked how my job search was going and expressed regret that she didn’t have any shifts to give me. “I don’t have enough work for the people I have on staff as it is,” she told me. We chatted about the quick slip into depression. “All the corporate guys are spending what they have left on their parties. I’ve had to book some events from some people I wouldn’t have given the time of day to this time last month,” she said. “Pretty soon, after all the Wall Street guys are gone, Manhattan will be populated with the really, really, really rich and the kids that are all over this neighborhood.” We commiserated about watching the city slide into an economic crisis that will looks to be worse than that of 1987-92 before I turned on my heel to see if any new job listings had been posted on Craigslist. When I logged on to the site, there were few new postings for bartenders and the three or four that were there wanted a headshot along with a resume. The 22-28 demographic of Manhattan would be the oak counter psychologists to those that chose to remain.

“That’s one of the reasons I left the city,” my friend George told me later that night in an infra dig phone conversation about the faltering service industry of New York. “Mike (the owner of the joint on Park Avenue we both worked at) was hiring kids, not industry pros. It was a matter of time before I got my walking papers.”  George also wanted a better quality of life so he moved back to Mobile, Alabama where he now works at a small New York-esque bistro behind the stick and is studying wine.

“Once I get my wine accreditation here, I’m coming back to New York for a year or eighteen months, work as a sommelier and then move to Virginia or Baltimore or Charleston so I can have a good quality of life.” We both agreed it was a good idea for both of us to get our wine certificates and look to move from behind the stick into the new arenas of beverage management and wine stewarddom. For the time being, New York cred travels well.

The economy has given a swift kick in the ass to another part of old New York that will soon be out the door and no more: the neighborhood bartender.  The aggregate age of the average New York bartender is now 25. It appears bar owners are now equating a larger crowd with a pretty boy/girl behind the stick. With the city getting younger and younger, it does make a degree of sense to have a service staff that reflects the crowd. However, I wonder how good these kids are. Tomas, a dear friend who is one of the finest cocktail barmen in New Orleans, is mystified by the turn of events. “How can you just have these kids behind the wood,” he wonders. “If someone wants to know about wine or how to make Negroni, who is going to show them what to do or how it’s done?”

My buddy Dan-O, an old school New York barman and General Sales Manager for Costello Wines has a different take on the topic. “When I started behind the stick, I was in my early 20’s and I was paired with a guy who was about 40. Just from watching him, I learned how to talk to people, make odd and classic drinks and, most importantly, how to run a bar. These days, they throw five kids behind the wood and if one turns into a decent barman, they got lucky. It’s not a respected profession anymore; it’s a way to get over.”

I came up the same way Dan, Tomas and most other bartenders did before 2002, with a faded hipster mentor to help you through the rough patches. Bartending was an honorable profession you learned. If it was to help supplement your creative income, the reason I ended up behind the bar, then if all else failed you had a skill to fall back upon as you re-grouped and figured out your next move. That obvious skill of being personable has now been lost on a generation that believes that throwing out drinks and picking up chicks is the only way to roll.

The economy is not only tanking, it’s being pushed into feeding the trees. The bars, saloons, restaurants and other public houses are trying to get leaner, meaner and attract those who may still have any disposable income. What is lost is a base of knowledge which is moving out of New York City into the suburbs, exurbs and small towns of the United States. Is it another hallmark in the fall of New York as America’s Imperial city? Perhaps. However, if one of the major problems/issues the 18-29 year olds is an air of unearned arrogance; the humility it takes to learn has been totally lost.

Whither the 40 year old bartender as the depression approaches? I don’t know. However, due to the lack of a permanent dole found in Europe (thankfully!), look in an out of the way roadhouse, at the airport or in the small bar in your town. It’s my guess that is where the lost art of commiseration, bartending and hospitality can be found as the post-industrial economy turns.

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