Notes From the Frontline: Bartender Edition

Tuesday nights I’m bartending in a basement dive/lounge that plays primarily metal and hard rock. It’s a long shift and a late night crowd; drinks are cheap, other substances are most likely imbibed on the sly. Much of the clientele lives on the edge, if you know what I mean, and at the moment it’s sort of an experiment in how much I can take for the purpose of new/old adventure.

This week a man came in appearing possibly drunk, and I was prepared to refuse him. He was small, of some kind of Latin descent, wearing a mustache and a baseball cap. I’m going to call him Mario for the purposes of this blog, as I can’t remember what his real name was and he sort of looked like one of the Mario Brothers. When he sat down and ordered a drink he spoke articulately and pulled out a wad of cash, so I amended my first assessment and poured him a beer. He thanked me, tipped, and sat happily nursing the beer and singing. He knew all the words to practically every song DJ Mr. Tim threw on, and when Patti Smith’s “Rock and Roll Nigger” came on, he sang along cheerily and shouted to me, “This song is a sign! It’s a sign! I’m an asshole!”

Okay, I’ll bite. I asked why, and he told me that an hour earlier he had been woken up with a shove in Tompkins Square Park by some sort of park official, who called him a drunk and told him to get out. He said that the brusque treatment and name-calling made him so mad that he called the man a nigger. The man then closed the gate between them, and once it was safely shut, spit a big loogie in Mario’s eye. He stated, “It was gross, I had to wipe my eye, but I deserved it! It was a shitty thing for me to say! What do you think the lesson is for me?”

I said, “The lesson is to not use the n word, and to not get so drunk that you pass out in the park. You got lucky that you didn’t get hurt.” He mulled that over for a few seconds and threw his hands up and said, “Ah…maybe…” and went back to singing.

I liked him. He was smarter than he appeared on first sight, his energy was friendly, he wasn’t needy for my attention, he pulled his money out as soon as he ordered. He stayed there, drinking and singing along with the songs for some time. He spent a lot of money on shots of whiskey and beer, and I monitored him to see if he was getting too drunk but he seemed to be one of those people that could just go until they collapsed. Finally, to be on the safe side, I told him no more shots. He was fine with that and stuck to singing and holding on to his beer.

Soon after a young guy came in wearing a plaid shirt and a backpack, short hair, looking sort of clean cut nerd-indie. He seemed friendly enough and he sat next to my drunk friend. I think his name was Dave. So Dave said, after backpack removal and PBR purchase, “God, I love this place! But I miss the sign that used to be over the register. I’m going to make them a new one. That’s how long I’ve been coming here! Since that sign was there. Since I moved to New York!”

Okay, I’ll bite… “How long have you been coming here?” He said, very proudly, “Three years!”

Sigh…All right, it’s not a contest to see who is the most ancient and has lived in the East Village the longest. And I like a lot of the new kids I have gotten to know, and he could be awesome and there was no reason to comment upon the flimsy quality of his neighborhood “cred’ at that juncture. I smiled and listened as he listed the bars that he frequents in the neighborhood, and he mentioned Blackbird, where I also work, and which is owned by friends and my fairly famous ex-boyfriend, whose name people love to drop. 

I said, “I work there.” And he said, “Oh, I know X, Y, Z and [famous ex-boyfriend] and he is always giving out drinks to the girls, but he never gives ME a free drink and oh I know him so well, but he’s all about the girls…” And I think, ooh, better nip this in the bud before he starts saying something really shitty, because I have a rule in which only I am allowed to publicly slag the men in my life. So I stopped him before he got too far and said, “He’s my ex.” 

And the guy got very excited that we know the same people and he stopped gearing up to shit talk and in return I gave him a break and didn’t tell him that there’s a professional reason that bar-owners give an attractive girl a free drink rather than his lame, nursing a $3 can of beer for an hour and a half, just got here three years ago, backpack wearing in a bar, not really dolling up the joint or bringing in any revenue ass.

I got distracted by other customers and the night rolled on, until a few minutes later Dave got up from his seat next to Mario, and moved to the other end of the bar. He said to me and the customer next to him, “That guy at the end of the bar is trying to pick a fight with me. I will fucking kill that guy. I will kick his ass!”

Mmm hmm… I walked down to Mario’s end, and asked, “What’s going on? Are you picking fights now? Do I have to kick you out?” And he said, “No! I promise I wasn’t! I was asking him a question, but he didn’t understand me! I was trying to explain…” I said, “All right. Just be careful. He thinks you’re trying to fight with him and you know you’re kind of drunk and I don’t want any drama.” 

He agreed. But he thought he had to make amends, so he got up and walked down to Dave the neighborhood veteran and tough guy, and apologized, very sincerely. But Dave, instead of accepting the apology decently, just kept repeating, “GO DRINK YOUR BEER.” Like he owned the place, and like Mario was a moron, which he was not. I found this all very irritating, but it wasn’t my fight so I let it go.

And luckily, Mario was not a violent man, and he quickly gave up and went back down to the other end of the bar. He called me over and asked, “Are we all right?”, meaning me and him. I said, “Yes. Of course. I’m not going to give you any more booze but you and I are cool, and I appreciate that you tried to apologize.”

Now, while this magic is unfolding, one of the regulars, who is a rock and roll dude and very sweet, but loses all filter about halfway through each night, said, “I read your blog. It was decent. You’re a pretty good writer.” I said “Thank you.” I should add before continuing that this regular regularly mentions the fact that I am older than he is, not in a directly critical way, more in a generational reference way. But he likes to mention it A LOT. You know, that I’m OLDER.

He went on, “But in your bio it says you’re a rock wife.”

I said, “I am.”

“But you’re not married. That was your boyfriend, right?” Drew had stopped in to say hi earlier during this never-ending good time that is my Tuesday night right now.

I said, “We’ve been together for 9 years, we both consider ourselves married at this point.”

He rolled that over in his brain for a moment, but couldn’t accept it. “But you’re not legally MARRIED. So you’re not a rock WIFE, you’re a rock GIRLFRIEND.” Sigh…check my phone, 2:00 am, two more hours to go. He goes on…

“So let me ask you this. How many years younger than you is he?”

“He’s X years younger than me.”

“Oooohhh! So you’re a sugar mama!” 

Now my blood is starting to simmer. I’m tired. It’s 2:00 am, I’ve been opening cans of beer since 8:00, I’ve got two more hours of babysitting drunks and yes, I KNOW I’m OLDER THAN YOU. I want to snap sarcastically, “Yes, dear, you caught me. This desperate cougar has to PAY some guy to be my boyfriend, so thank you for always tipping on those Budweisers.” But I take a breath and say, “Actually, no. We support each other equally, although he probably pays more dinner tabs than I do.” 

And he says… “Oh! That’s really nice, that doesn’t happen too often with age differences!”

At this moment, Dave, who has finally pulled out the big three bills for his second PBR of the night, points at Mario, who is sort of blearily looking in our direction, and says, “That fucking guy is staring at me. I will break his kneecaps, I will fucking kill him.”

I’d had enough. I snapped, “Really? Are you gonna bust his kneecaps? Are you gonna walk over there in your little plaid shirt and your backpack to do it? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure I can fucking take you, dude, and I’m totally sure that guy can as well, so maybe you should stop throwing out empty threats for the time being and GO DRINK YOUR BEER.”

Dave pretended he didn’t hear me, which seemed prudent and his only recourse under the circumstances. Meanwhile, contestant number three, who hadn’t been paying attention to this exchange, says, “Hey! What’s the name of this song? You should know this, being OLDER and all!”

New York City 2012. It’s still not for the faint of heart.



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The First & Last Time I Tried Stripping

My ipod has been on an awesome shuffle run for days, you know how sometimes every song that comes up is something you hate and didn’t even know was on there, and then other times it kicks into one perfect song after another? I’ve got the latter going, it’s all Ike and Tina and Faces and Cheap Trick, and I’m afraid to stop the shuffle until it peters back out into throwing up old Fugazi songs and second-rate death metal samplers I downloaded for free ten years ago and forgot to delete.

One of the songs that came up during this awesome and ongoing randomizing was “Possum Kingdom” by The Toadies. Guy would often spin this at Squeezebox during peak hours, and it became one of my favorite go-go dancing tunes. Michael Schmidt, who created the party, had sort of induced me at its inception to get up there and shake it every other week, and once I got over the initial panic of imperfections on display, I came to love it. When the party was packed at peak hours with everyone moving on the dance floor, the music at a high decibel, and a song like Possum Kingdom came on, I could completely lose myself in it. Separate human energies would click together as one and it felt great to move, everyone sweating and smiling. When we were all in that sync I could direct the dancing crowd below from my platform. It made me feel beautiful and free and connected to everything and everyone.

Of course there were off nights where you wore the wrong shoes and your feet hurt or the crowd was a little obnoxious and not as much fun as other times. One waste case regular would always spill her drink and leave broken glass under my feet. Someone burned a cigarette hole through my favorite fishnet bodysuit and into my stomach. I was a total nazi about “straight’ girls and models who always rushed to take my spot there the minute I went for a drink. Get off my fucking pole, sorority girl! But for the most part it was a joyous way to make a little bit of cash, filled with moments like a drunken Leonardo DiCaprio wrapping his arms around my legs and hanging on for dear life while his angry date pried his fingers from my thighs, or John Waters simply smiling up at me with a drink in his hand.

This is a clip from the documentary, I’m only in it for a few seconds at the 2:39 mark, but you get the picture.

So, thinking about this time in my life while listening to The Toadies naturally led me to think about another altogether different dancing experience, which I wrote a piece about for a reading a while back. It doesn’t read that well out loud, so I’m putting it down here.

THE FIRST AND LAST TIME I TRIED STRIPPING

1989. It didn’t even seem like a good idea at the time.

In the 80’s and early ’90’s I hated strippers. They were the cockroaches to my little rock and roll scene: dirty and regularly appearing when least welcome. In fairness, they probably kept music alive in some ways, at least they kept the boys alive financially. Many of us have read the accounts of how Guns n’ Roses survived almost exclusively upon the kindness of loose women. But I had a deep snobbery about it at the time. I didn’t like the competition. We were the rock chicks and we felt that they were interlopers. We had worked hard at creating a niche for ourselves, against the constant misogynist disrespect of most male musicians, just in time for these skanky girls to show up in bad outfits and an overage of cheap perfume, fully prepared to invade your dressing room to offer your boyfriend a blowjob in the bathroom while you stood across the room arguing with your bandmate over who got the last beer. A girl had to be steadily vigilant once the party got rolling and the strippers entered the room. Those bitches did not care, and as far as I was concerned, there was a war on.

But through a series of dramatic non-coincidences, I became friends with a stripper named Nadege. She was French and had the kind of truly shitty attitude that I found appealing in a woman. She dressed great, chain smoked, obsessed over Christopher Walken, and was white-knuckle sober because she’d had a raging heroin habit for years. And she had indeed, true to her profession, fucked my boyfriend and we’d had a big problem, but in the end it brought us together and that is another tale altogether.

So there we were, stripper and aspiring rock star/bartender, and stripper always had way more cash. She usually had a stack of crumpled bills on her dresser that looked mighty appealing, especially as I was going through a dry spell with lucrative bartending jobs. I hated bartending anyway, and the more broke I was, the less I sneered, until dancing seemed like a possibility. I started envisioning myself as a modern day Tura Satana, shaking it with style, untamed and wild. I was enthralled by her character in “Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill”. My Cycle Slut persona was inspired by her, so maybe, I thought, maybe I could be that onstage. Perhaps I could break the tacky mold and turn it into something dangerous and interesting…




Nadege was dubious, but willing to introduce me to her craft. She said, blowing a cloud of smoke in my direction, “You are goeeng to ‘ate it”. I chose New Jersey as my testing ground, because it was as far away from the East Village as a person could get without a car.
And is wasn’t legal in the state to go topless, so I could keep my…ahem…dignity. Like it made a difference. But all of the Cycle Sluts were prudes in some ways, regardless of the band name and reputation. I didn’t want anyone on the scene to know what I was doing or to see my naked boobs, which in retrospect was ridiculous considering the constant rotation of rock dude “romances” in my life.

And thus, we began.

First, costumes: Costumes were imperative. I dug around in my dresser for g-strings and stockings and anything else remotely dancer-ey. I was woefully low on stripper gear, but my particular musical career incorporated some very similar clothing, and soon I had put together a big, bulky, impossible to carry bag just like the other girls.

Then transportation: A cab to the bus and then another cab, lugging that giant duffel. Sweaty, annoying, expensive.

The Club: I have no recollection of the name or the town it resided in. I can tell you that it was a nondescript white cinder block building with a sign over it that featured a cartoon of a reclining woman with an anatomically impossible tiny waist and enormous breasts. The interior was grubby, painted red, and dominated by a tatty linoleum floored oval stage with two poles on either end, and a bar circling the whole mess. The dressing room was also red, tiny, and unwashed.

Time: A weekday afternoon, when clubs tried out new girls.

Name change: No one used their real name, so for my alias I chose the name Varla, an homage to Tura’s character. Nadege couldn’t pronounce it properly, and instead called me “Vala”.

“Varla!” I said.
 


“Vala!” She said.


“No, VaRRRla!”


“Vahhhhla!”


For my first set I put on my standard-issue thigh high Cycle Slut boots, a black g-string, and a black lace bra. Back then no one did the kind of hardcore pole work you see now. And that was a blessing, because I was way too busy partying and rocking out to have the ab muscles necessary for that kind of crap. Stripper requirements in those days were much less stringent. You just had to have a decent body and the willingness to show most if it while doing some rudimentary ass-pointing.


I had always wondered why the girls favored white clothing, now it became clear. There were black lights everywhere and under it my partner on the other end, a nearly underage girl wearing cheap blonde extensions, white stockings, white pumps, and a white teddy unlaced down the front, glowed very prettily, like an angel, if angels had camel-toe.

I am not a terrible dancer and was accustomed to being onstage. But five minutes into it and I had already run through all my supersexy moves. I was dancing too fast. Time seemed to stretch and bend into the distant horizon and I knew I would be dead at the end of a half an hour of that pace. I tried to slow down and sway my hips in a more timely imitation of the other girl and felt as if I were moving in slow motion. The music was awful and did not move me. I did finally understand that I wasn’t really there to dance so much as show people my ass and g-string under the purple lights. But I was not especially limber when it came to the required bending over and crotch thrusting. And my feet hurt already. 


Then there was the floor work: flop to your knees on the ground and roll around with your ass in the air, then back on your ass and elbows to spread your legs. At least I could lay down. But then my knees hurt. I could feel bruises flowering every time I hit the floor. And the stage felt gritty with dirt and old glitter, a perfect recipe to make the skin on my back break out.


The blonde left and Nadege climbed onstage and hit the floor for her set. I did a sexy crawl toward her, thinking at least we could have some fun and goof around a little. Her eyes widened in terror and she crab-walked backwards away from me at a supernatural pace. “No, no, no!” She whispered. “Customers don’ like lesbian shit!” She pronounced “shit” as “sheet”.


Sigh…Back to my side of the stage for another small eternity of butt display.


20 minute break. Second set, gotta come up with a new outfit. I put on a red zip around g-string that went with an expensive stage outfit I’d worn only once so far when performing at the Ritz with Joey Ramone. It was designed to be worn over leggings and it seemed a crime to use it for this purpose. But I had to use what I had.


Once I got out and started rolling around on the filthy stage I realized the g-string was not made for this kind of work. It slid all over the place and the zipper hurt delicate parts with every movement. Another sigh... 

There were four customers in the place, two of them friends of the bartender. I got on the floor in front of an Indian man who sat alone, silently sipping his drink. I did the standard leg spread and accidentally flashed him everything I had. He handed me a dollar and said, “Thank you.” He seemed genuinely grateful, which was sort of sweet. But I had just sold the goods for one measly dollar. I blushed and crawled back to my pole in shame.
 

Third set: At least I was free of that zipper. An obese, sweaty man had taken the place of the polite Indian fellow. And because it was pizza day at Ye Olde House of Inexpensive Beav, he was happily chewing an enormous slice of cheese pie.


I worked at my craft: hip grind, bend over, wiggle ass, swing around on pole, hip grind, bend over, knee slam to the ground, butt in the air, wiggle, flip over, leg spread, smile. The smiling was the hardest part. Every minute up there felt like slow death. But Jabba the Hut seemed friendly enough, and he grinned, his blubbery lips shiny with pizza grease. He swiped his mouth with the back of his hairy hand and said with an enthusiastic, gravelly voice, “I’m pretendin’ this pizza is you, baby!” He waved a thin dollar at me, squeezed between fat, oily thumb and finger. When I reached for it, he snatched it back so he could put it in my g-string himself, leaving a finger streak of grease on my thigh.


That was enough for me. Nadege was right, I was o
fficially done, I knew I could never go back. We packed our gear for the long trek home and I counted my earnings. With minimal shift pay I’d made about $70 total, not the wealth I’d imagined. By the time we paid for the bus and cabs I’d be down another $20. 


The owner asked if I’d be back again, I could tell he didn’t really care. I was non-committal. 


He asked, “What’s your name again?”


I said, “Varla”

“Vala?”

 “No, Varla.”

“Yes. Vala.”

“Yeahhhh…” I sighed. “It’s Vala.”

When I got home I sat on the bed and rubbed my feet and poked at my black and blue knees. World takeover would have to wait for another day.


Labor Day

Fall is coming, and the thought always fills me with a tinge of dread. I am reading the first book of Game of Thrones and re-watching episodes in tandem, and thus the Stark family comes to mind: Winter is coming. Granted, their winters were seven or so years long, and it’s still warm in New York in September, so I’m being (as usual) a bit dramatic. But I am one of the few that loathe the change from summer to fall, because summer to me means fun and frolicking and I’m never cold unless I’m over-air-conditioned. Fall means winter is not far behind, and being a girl from the whipping winds and endless snows of Northern Michigan, I do not welcome the winter.



So with the coming autumn, I am sticking to the spring plan of stepping into gainful employment once summer came to a close. I had a glorious time off through July and August playing Borderlands and The Darkness on our Xbox for days, with unwashed hair piled on top of my head (until I sprained my left index finger from overuse of sniper scopes and in no way is that depressing for a woman my age), practicing yoga, hanging out with friends and family, vacationing in Cape Cod and Michigan, and simply regenerating my creative spirit. It has been one of the best summers of my life and I had no idea how burnt out and wounded I was from my 11 year stint in the world of PF until I stepped away from it. Now I feel tentatively ready to face a few more days of work a week, and regardless of personal readiness, the bank account demands it.

So with that, I’ve gratefully accepted a couple more bar shifts, Tuesday nights at Three of Cups with DJ Mr. Tim:

Saturday nights in the VIP room at Blackbird, which is the gorgeous new lounge situated in the old Lakeside space. And there’s still every Friday at Bowery Electric. This particular one already passed but Tim made me such a great flyer for the week I got back from vacation that I’m going to post it here anyway:

Here’s the current one for our upcoming 6 month anniversary, featuring the always amazing rock and roll rebel, Ms. Puma Perl:


 Oops. Aaaaannnd one more, because I’m doing a special guest star happy hour with the BFF next Saturday:

 Okay, enough of Tim’s awesome flyers. Sorry!

Anyhoo, I am blessed with good friends and family who work and own in the nightlife industry, and worked in it for so many years prior to stepping into the world of fashion that it is almost second nature to me. But it is still daunting in some ways. I am not a young girl, and bar/club work, especially in NYC now, is designed for the young. I wonder what people see when they look across the bar, and sometimes feel insecure about it. But I try to remember that I bring something other than the beauty and freshness of youth. I bring a wisdom (hopefully) and an understanding that comes with middle age. I am the tattooed relic of a golden rock and roll generation, and I’m okay with that. Sometimes customers ask me questions in that direction and I’m happy to answer.

Some are confused as to why I would ignore talents and skills that could offer a more solid day gig, with insurance and a real paycheck and some status in the world. It does look counter-intuitive, and occasionally the ego smarts a little when I can see in a stranger’s eyes that I am less important to them because I am merely their server. I am at times too quick to explain my history, to state that I voluntarily quit a world that revolved around spreadsheets and brainpower and famous fashion types, rather than got ejected from it.

But that’s just an ego-lesson that needs to occur anyway. And it’s one that I’ve been through before, albeit this time it is infinitely more gentle. In the early 90’s I  bartended in the shittiest of coked out biker bars after losing a record deal, with Beavis and Butthead in constant rotation on MTV on the television overhead. They extolled my band and played our one video and banged their cartoon heads happily, but it was too late to do me any good. It seemed so unfair that my time in the sun was over almost before it began, and the world looked very dark indeed. People would point at the screen and shout, “What are you doing here, aren’t you rich?”. “Nope”, I said, tersely, sullenly, as I scooped up their beer money. It was humiliating and I was depressed beyond expression.

This time around it is my choice. My energy and heart are clear and draw to me a much lighter experience, even if the act of pouring the beer is the same. I long got over feeling the need to explain to anyone that I was once Kind of a Big Deal. I know this is absolutely meaningless, as it probably should be, to the kid in front of me waving a twenty dollar bill. There’s another old saying that I love: That and a token will get me on the subway. 

We are all more than we appear upon first sight, and all more valuable than the world would have us believe sometimes. Don’t ever doubt that about yourself.

So this is primarily a state of the address for those who are still struggling with hating their job or wondering if they could be doing something else as they watch a clock in a room into which they dragged themselves, soul kicking and screaming. I got so many responses and emails from people when I first posted about my own change that it seems that this is a topic on many minds. If you’re wondering how it’s been working out to free-fall from a job that once served me but eventually felt like a trap, I can tell you that I’m feeling great. It’s scary; I don’t have as much money right now, but it’s wonderful. Every morning I wake up and know that I am free.

I do realize that I am lucky to have choices and friends to count on that some don’t have, and I am not encouraging anyone to up and quit their job without some thought behind it. We all need to feed our children, to sleep somewhere warm and occasionally go to the doctor. I only want to tell you that in my experience, following an inner voice has raised the level of my day to day existence in exactly the way I had hoped it would. It is scary at times, and I certainly don’t want to die one day as the oldest bartender on record. But for now it feels quite magical to be embarking into new adventures, and I want to encourage all my friends to look around and see where they can make changes according to their true selves. We are all artists at soul, and the world gets happier in increments each time one of us finds his true calling, whatever that may be.