My friends and acquaintances know that I do love a seat at the bar (skiing Mahogany Ridge, I like to call it). They all know that I don’t do a whole lot of sitting at the bar anymore, but not all of them know about my behind-the-bar history.
My first bartending job was at a bar here on Long Island known as Diamond Lil’s. To say it was a dive would be generous understatement.
It was the last resort of the biker crowd, which had been banned from every other bar in town (and there were at least a dozen in town back then). When it was packed on a Friday night with a cover band playing — the bands as a rule really rocked –, it was fun alright, so you didn’t notice, but if you also worked on quiet Sunday afternoons, as I did, it smelled bad. Stale beer and stale cigarette and cheap tequila and piss. Bad. It was dirty. It was dark. The ceilings were so low, they squashed expectations. The jukebox played “Plastic Jesus” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” at random — and often alarming –intervals. The pool table was off-kilter. So were the toilets, probably from so many large bikers sitting on them in reverse, in order to use the tank to cut cocaine. If I came in hungover, the hangdog divorced lonely Sunday afternoon guys — who were often hanging about by the door waiting for me to open at noon — took great delight in ordering shots of tequila all afternoon, to see if they could make me puke. I will not tell you whether they were successful.
Photo: Barbara Cinque Reuschle
I don’t think I was actually of legal drinking age at the time, but at the time, times were different. As the day progressed, we watched nature programs together (“Nature is brought to you by the Mobil Corporation”) on the mating habits of flightless birds, which now seems rather significant, while on the far end of the bar, two wise guy types sat in the shadows sipping Black on the rocks (I still remember, though they warned me not to) and talking in low tones. They actually had pinkie rings. One Sunday a month the Long Island Bluegrass Association jammed on Sunday afternoon, which meant great music, great energy, and loads of tips, the only downside being that I didn’t really know how to make drinks for people who actually cared what went in them (on Fridays I made shots that were pink and shots that were green, and those were your choices. Keep It Simple, Stupid). It was an exhilarating time if you liked that kind of thing, which I did. A lot.
As much as I liked being behind the bar, the whole part about having to remember how to mix drinks was a bit too challenging, so I stayed on the easier side of the woodwork and grew up and sipped wine. Until it occurred to me that at a winery, all you had to do was pour the pre-made stuff right out of the bottle. And you got to talk about the wine all day long and people would actually listen to you. The crowd was a bit more refined (not always, mind you. Bikers follow code. Bridesmaids on a bachelorette binge do not.) and the hours were more civilized. Everything smelled nice.
So, having done several articles for different magazines on Long Island’s Loire — the North Fork — and then having summers free once I started teaching, I saw my opportunity. I asked the folks at the Long Island winery I love the best – Paumanok – if I could have a summer job in the tasting room.
The Massouds said yes and I spent a very happy Summer of 2005 with a rental in nearby Greenport across the street from my buddies Deborah and Bill’s hotel (The Greenporter), a three-day-a-week tasting room job in which I could eavesdrop on the Massouds as they talked about wine with guests, professionals, and each other, and the rest of the time explore clamming, gardening, eating, and writing. I worked with Karen, now the sales rep for the winery, and Carolyn, now owner of Love Lane Kitchen, Alana, now the owner of Fabric wines in Western Australia, and Susan, now author of The Hundred Year Diet.
All this comes because last week –eight years later!?! — Ursula Massoud asked me if I was free to come in and help out over the Memorial Day weekend. And I was! I used to do guest shots on occasion when they needed someone to fill in during a big weekend, but not since my son was born. This time my parents took Leandro for the day and I went to work my ass off and have fun.
I have just expended all my writing energy talking about the past, so I don’t have much left to say about the present, except that I was on my feet for seven hours, forgot to eat, was visited by Kathy, Jairo, Rock, and Artie, sold a lot of wine, talked a lot (oh heaven!), enjoyed my new colleagues (especially Barbara Cinque Reuschle who took the lovely pictures while I worked), and did very little of the back up work like restocking and manning the glass sanitizer for which I hope they will forgive me. I loved hanging with Kareem and Salim, loved running around, and loved the fact that the register that used to mess with me has been retired in favor of something a lot friendlier.
Tasting Room Associate – amongst all the odd and not-so-odd jobs that I have had in my life (and we are talking Salvation Army bellringer – yes I got paid -, golf course maintenance (Bethpage, NY), au pair (France), apple and grape migrant harvest worker (Italy) and I don’t know what else..) Tasting Room Associate is still one of my top three. And that’s not just nostalgia talking. I just did it again and loved it just as much!