Jul 2, 2007

Bartender Heroes and Other Amazing Tales

Bartenders kind of hover between the super-cool rock stars of the blue collar workforce and the unforgettable peons who're there to serve the demanding public. Some days, obviously, are better than others. But we often forget that being in a customer-facing position of authority (and one that serves booze to boot) comes with a host of other responsibilities beyond mixing up liquid deliciousness or playing therapist to the after-work crowd. Robert Huegel recently scratched at the nasty underbelly of the drinks world when he discussed the absurdity of the new cocktail condom.

It seems the cocktail condom has been invented to prevent would be date rapers from drugging their unsuspecting victims. A noble cause, indeed. But is it effective? Robert handily dismisses such assurances, and I'm inclined to agree. The single most effective way to foil someone who intends to drug a victim is simple awareness on the part of both bar patrons and bartenders.

I've brought up the importance of bartender safety before, but there's another side to it that us bartenders like to conveniently leave out: we have a responsibility to our customers to provide a safe drinking environment. It's one of the reasons we can be personally held liable for serving underage drinkers, or serving intoxicated guests who then proceed to kill someone in a car accident. While I think much of the legislation holding individual servers accountable for potential problems often lacks the nuance necessary to effectively enforce such laws, I do feel strongly that bartenders have an obligation to their customers to do what they can, within reason, to maintain a safe drinking environment.

What does this include? Just how far should a bartender go to keep his or her clientele safe? I suspect that as a female bartender, I felt a little more protective of my customers than many male bartenders might (although I certainly know my share of chivalrous gentlemen barkeeps). I'll never forget bouncing a pool player one night when I discovered him lifting the skirt of a young woman—she couldn't have been older than 25—with his pool cue. The look on her face (kind of crestfallen, kind of scared) was enough to make me feel guilty. It was, after all, my bar. She really didn't know how to respond, so instead of confronting the guy she informed her friends in a low voice that she wanted to leave.

Rather than allow that to happen, I bought her a drink and asked if she minded if I confronted the guy (he was going to get ejected no matter what, but I wanted her permission to make a scene). I then promptly humiliated him in front of the crowded bar, letting him know that sexually harassing my customers was unacceptable. I made sure everybody in that bar knew exactly what he'd done (though not to whom). The look on his face was priceless, and I'd guess that he'll think twice before touching a stranger again.

This was a clear case of sexual harassment, in which the victim was well aware of what was going on and was visibly distraught; it was obvious that I needed to step in and handle the situation. But bartenders are trained to mind their own business—it's a fine line we walk between eavesdropping and "overhearing" conversations, for example. This is why I was careful to ask the woman's permission before getting involved to the degree I did. Take it a step further and you end up with many bartenders who simply turn their heads rather than deal with an uncomfortable situation.

Thank god cocktail waitress Karri Cormican and bartendress Hannah Bridgeman-Oxley don't feel that way. These two thwarted a potential rapist who tried to drug his date's beer. Twice. The waitress spotted the first incident when her female customer was in the restroom. Rather than pretend it was none of her business, she fed the couple a line about the beer being bad and promptly replaced it with a clean one (saving the adulterated beer for the cops). As the waitress was privately informing the woman outside about what had happened, the bartender caught him doing it again. This time they called the cops. The guy's been sentenced to a year in jail.

The woman, of course, was lucky that her hostesses were 1) paying attention and 2) felt an obligation to act. As this instance demonstrates, not every date rape case is the result of drunken stupidity a lá Girls Gone Wild (note: if you're ever in a bar that has actual signs posted on "How to Avoid Having Your Drink Drugged," that's probably not a bar you want to spend time in. And yes, I actually saw this sign in a bar once).

Which is all just to say:
Bartenders, pay attention! Your job doesn't end at mixing drinks and handing out change. You have an obligation to try your best to maintain a safe environment for your guests.
And drinkers, pay attention! Don't rely on others to save your ass; drink smart and make sure you're not opening yourself up to opportunists.
If we each took a little responsibility, we could probably prevent a lot of unsavory crap from going down, and you'd never need to utter the words "I'll take a pack of cocktail condoms" again.

[If you thought these bartenders were brave, you should read about my buddy J.]

1 comment:

Robert Heugel said...

I completely agree with your position on the necessity for bartenders to extend their awareness beyond the mahogony. While I would like to think that this issue applies mostly to the worst of bars, the fundamental issue is that the service of alcohol creates the potential for unusual and unacceptable behavior. God bartenders and bar owners shuld be prepared to confront this possibility with whatever means necessary from calling a cab to acting like yourself. Thanks for extending this discussion.