Images courtesy of the author
A year and a half in quarantine at a Brooklyn bar that only shut down for 24 hours.
Every bartender feels a twinge of embarrassment when they pull down the gates at the end of the night. It's impossible to yank storefront gates down along their tracks with anything less than an apocalyptic clatter.
But tonight—a night where you smell vaguely like a public pool fighting the high tide of the summer pee season as a result of washing down every surface to try to kill whatever plague might be clinging to the pine—you close the bar without any worry about waking up the neighbors for the first time in your career. Because it is eight in the fucking evening, and dropping the gate and letting gravity take its course is just one of a thousand empty bar salutes going off, scattershot, across the five boroughs.
For those about to lock down: we salute you.
“For those about to lock down: we salute you.”
St. Patrick's Day passes unobserved, so the coronavirus isn't all bad. During the day, there's nothing to do but shop for groceries, like everyone else, and wonder when this will all be over. Tomorrow? Certainly not. In a week? Doubtful. A month? A year? Best not to think about it. At night, the empty streets belong to buzzing swarms of electric bikes delivering food and sundries. If the world is about to go beyond Thunderdome, at least it's reducing its carbon footprint.
By day three of lockdown, you're open again. Like something that's returned from the pet cemetery, it's a sickly sort of half-life. The bar stools are stacked up in the back, tables have been scuttled altogether, a triptych of plexiglass barriers protect the taps. Thanks to the plexiglass, the ambient sound in the bar is now wildly off. You can't get the lighting right. It feels very much like all of human knowledge has been erased and you've been asked to invent the first bar from scratch.
To-go cocktails become the bulk of your business, and all of the glassware is stowed in the basement. When you first started out as a bartender, you were breaking glass on a daily basis, but you emerged from those early days as a twirler of glassware, a spiraler of bottles, someone who can stack pint glasses ten-high as you clear the tables on a busy night.
However, within seconds of deploying plasticware—pints, ten-ounce paper shot cups, and, god help us, paper straws—you've dropped roughly nine thousand cups on the bar mats, all of which you have to throw away for sanitary reasons. They stick together, the lowest cup always dropping away from its siblings the second before you realize it, getting kicked around as you go about your work in a minefield of unrecyclable plastic.
Still, some regulars filter in to drink from these plastic cups. For what may be the briefest of moments, the State Liquor Authority is letting bars sell cocktails to go, alongside bottles and cans of beer. Not a single regular seems troubled about paying for cocktails they could make at home—the brief interactions, lingering after they've paid to talk to you or the other regulars waiting inside, are a respite from the increasing isolation. Absolutely no one would live in New York City apartments if they existed in any other city. Even Parisians wouldn’t tolerate the close quarters, the toilets with no knee-room, the leaks from upstairs, the bedbugs from downstairs, the noise from the paper-thin walls of your bedroom. Having every bar shuttered is like having our living rooms cordoned off—it occurs to you that, when you remove the social aspect, the entire business model of bars is basically price-gouging.
There’s work enough to keep busy: you have to make signs telling people not to hang around drinking; you have to invent batchable cocktails; you have to make decisions about how many tap lines to shut down and what kegs to send back. It’s not bartending—very few things are, you’re realizing—but it’s something to do.
And that's when Cuomo issues a 100% work-from-home order for non-essential businesses. You find this out as you finish up the schedule and are about to flog the hell out of the take-out business to all socially distanced media. The owners discuss what exactly a “non-essential business” is. You insist that bars are pretty fucking essential to people with drinking problems and people addicted to people.
Your mother tells you to think about fleeing to the Shore, but you’ve decided you’re not leaving. New Yorkers don’t run. New Yorkers speed-walk, at best. If the ship is going down, we all go down with it, frantically bailing water next to each other and making fun of de Blasio.
You learn from a friend that they were exposed, which means you might’ve been exposed, and while that sets the countdown clock ticking, it doesn’t make the feeling of peril any more real. Another friend swears she had it, even though she got the all-clear and was prescribed antibiotics. You can’t seriously believe this virus would have anything to do with you. Which is maybe why it sort of doesn’t.
The bar is stuffy when you get there to unlock the gates, so you throw open the windows to air it out. It’s sixty degrees. Spiritually, the uptick in temperature is good for everyone, as long as they’re not sick. However, it’s impossible to dress appropriately for the inconstant weather, which means that you’re always either too cold or too sweaty, and so it feels like you might have the virus every few minutes.
A few regulars who are known mostly by their dogs’ names pass by the bar, and one of them won’t let anyone pet his dog because he himself is sick. It turns out that, while dogs aren’t vulnerable to the virus, they are flat surfaces.
You gash your hand on an oversized toolbox downstairs while running to get ice, even though there’s no rush. You curse and keep moving until you see the blood pooling in your rubber glove. A trip to the hospital would elevate this middling cut to a matter of life and death, so you dress the wound yourself. You are the son of a nurse, and you were very nearly an Eagle Scout, and here you are using a bar rag to put pressure on the wound. Wow, that is a lot of blood, you think. However, all your time bartending has given you the ability to instantly eyeball any liquid amount by volume. You've probably only lost 1.5 ounces of blood. Not even an honest pour!
A regular who’s been in quarantine for ten days finally emerges, wearing a bandana like she’s on her way to rob a stagecoach. One of the owners calls, wondering if you have a driver's license. A friend of his needs their daughter delivered to Baltimore. You imagine a section of Craigslist that is probably now dedicated to finding plague-runners for kids whose colleges were shut down, who can’t pay their rent in the city they moved to without a job, who just need to get the fuck out.
The city goes quiet at night and the wailing of sirens becomes so much more noticeable without the background radiation of a nonstop city to wash it out. It’s New York City’s version of tinnitus, a ringing in our ears that you’re eventually able to ignore.
You wonder if you should buy a bike, but there’s a line down the block outside the bike shop, and those are people who already own bikes.By the end of the weekend, a stay of execution has been issued by the governor, because he has discovered what New Yorkers have known all along: bars are essential businesses.
Bars across the city all start crowd-funding campaigns to save themselves and their employees, and you're part of the vanguard. People donate like crazy. Unemployment kicks in, so there's no need to work. You work anyway, because you're the adult child of an Irish Catholic.
Your bar's trivia night moves online. It's been the most reliable part of your weekly schedule for five years and the backdrop of the most formative hours of your bartending career. Just like that, it's a thing of the past.
Your regulars start sending you Venmo tips while they're playing Twitch trivia, even though you're not serving them a goddamn thing. It's a heartening testament to your little community while still leaving you crestfallen that yet another thing seems lost forever.
Days off become intolerable. You wander the wasteland, poking out to buy enough cigarettes to keep you in the house the rest of the day. You watch Pete’s Dragon and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and you start to yearn for easily identifiable enemies like child traffickers and Nazis.
It feels like forever, but it’s only been a week. And nothing has really happened yet. We’ve stopped everything to keep the worst from happening.
You fall asleep early and wake up at three in the morning, just in time to get a text about doing video-chat shots with another bartender and a regular from the neighborhood. You do not know what Zoom is yet, but you're about to find out, like billions of people across the planet.
You end up grabbing a beer from 7–Eleven because your friends have wine and White Claw. You do three rounds of shots and watch five Taylor Swift videos. You end the night way earlier than you would if you were actually at a bar.
The city enters a curfewed lockdown for nonessential workers. The USNS Comfort arrives in Hudson Bay to large fanfare and little effect. The death toll in New York City rises to 1,000. The state surpasses any single country's number of recorded COVID cases, and Cuomo makes masks in public mandatory. Things are deteriorating rapidly. The whole country is acting like an old skel who is finally succumbing to decades of dissipation.
The bar is reborn again as a glory hole for alcoholics, window service only for take-out drinks only. A regular brings you a drugstore grabby claw and in no time at all it is just as much a part of your muscle memory as church-keying off a bottle cap and flicking it into the recycling.
Your then-girlfriend returns from spending the first three months of the pandemic hiding out with her parents in the Midwest and immediately seizes a black cloth mask you threw on the floor, certain they're the panties of her replacement. Soon the United States marks a grim milestone—100,000 deaths from the novel coronavirus. An old pandemic surges along with the new one: George Floyd is murdered by Minneapolis police officers.
The City That Never Sleeps is given a bedtime for the first time since World War II.
Not that there was anything to do at night anyway. What was there to see? The refrigerated tractor-trailers backed up to Methodist Hospital?
Bartenders love empty streets. Our happiest hours are the time between last call and sunrise, when even the drinkers who have stayed out past last call have long since wandered home. The only people you’re liable to see are other bartenders, still struggling to get that last pin and padlock into place so they can get to sleep. There’s a weary solemnity to being the last person on the street, long before the joggers launch themselves into their pre-dawn routines.
But when you find yourself walking the avenue at two in the morning and don’t pass another soul for blocks, something is very wrong.
The police start hassling industry folks who are caught out past curfew, even though you're technically all exempt. You draw up letters for all of your employees, attesting to the fact that they are service industry and thus exempt from curfew restrictions. You label the envelopes "Letters of Transit."
It’s like the world has passed through into tomorrow without you, and all that’s left is to wait for the Langoliers to eat the past. This might be what a weeknight looks like in Center City Philadelphia or Downtown Boston or the Inner Harbor, but not New York City. Not goddamn Brooklyn.
It’s a blackout in reverse—all the lights are on, but the people are missing. New Yorkers have gone dark.
Somewhere in Albany, people are telling Andrew Cuomo that he is doing a great job. No one is banging on his door, demanding to know why it is locked. No one is walking away from him in a huff for merely explaining the new rules. He is utterly unmolested by the effects of the coronavirus regulations he has levied on the workers that he has deemed "essential."
You're required to sell food with every single takeout purchase, creating an entirely different work flow for your employees. None of you know what the fuck you are doing.
"I'm not hungry," you hear about ten times a day. And: "But we just came from dinner."
"That wasn't me asking," you tell them all. "That was Cuomo commanding."
The amount of food that customers throw away, completely untouched, is morally reprehensible to anyone who remembers that there are hungry people suffering all over the city.
Cuomo is briefly a national hero, but New York's bartenders never forget how much they actually hate the guy.
"Cuomo was an asshole before this," you tell your mother, who is in Philadelphia and is understandably charmed by his air of capability and clarity. "After this is all over, he'll still be an asshole."
Life in NYC grinds to a halt. The one thing that does change constantly are the rules. You can do take-out, but no one can enter the bar or use the bathroom. You cannot put a straw in a customer's drink or it constitutes an open container. Everything within 100 feet of your bar becomes your responsibility, according to the state and the city. That means that you now have to pay attention to all the people soaking up all the social radiation they can get while openly drinking from their open containers in the street.
You and your coworkers get preternaturally good at corralling people with only a few words.
"Guys, I know you would rather be inside," you say, slipping into the more resonant range of your lower register, "but if you keep drinking on the fucking sidewalk, in full view of the cops, they are going to shut us down. And then they will shut down the next bar you go to. And then the next bar, until there are no bars left. Just you guys standing outside of 7-Eleven with tallboys of High Life."
You do a routine where you dissect the intimate details of the new food mandates and bar curfews. People ask you "What's new?" all the time, and for once in your smart-ass life, you actually have answers. Wearing a mask means no one can see your smile—the smile you usually give when you're fucking with someone, the same smile velociraptors give in camera takes when they're about to do something insidiously human in Jurassic Park.
The signs start multiplying, and because you're the one putting them up, they have the same dialectic slant: "Due to current restrictions issued by Governor Cuomo," one says, "we're offering takeout service only. When Cuomo closes a bar, he opens a window."
No one reads them anyway. Of the three sets of windows at the front of the bar, only one is open. The other windows all bear signs that say, "Nope, Other Window!" When the weather warms up, people try to order from every possible portal until you eventually are able to put out tables that block their unstoppable assault.
The police start coming by more frequently. They are never there to roust the small gatherings of people—and in fact your canny regulars learn quickly to take a lap around the block when they see anyone in blue—but to hassle you about the 311 noise complaints they're getting. Some neighbor has decided to be an unpaid COVID compliance officer from their window, despite all indications that this thing doesn't circulate well outdoors among masked people.
Now you're in charge of making sure people stay around the corner, on the street side of the building. The snitch must be on the other side because suddenly, there are no more police visits, no more 311 complaints. After five years of staring at the buildings across the street during smoke breaks, you think you can put together a list of suspects, but you realize you don't know as many of your neighbors as you thought.
“It will shock you how much it never happened.”
You used to make fun of people who wore masks in public—didn't they know they weren't protecting themselves at all? Now you wonder how many of them were doing it to protect the people around them.
For the most part, people hew close enough to the new guidelines to prevent confrontations. The idea is that eventually we'll all be rewarded, as a city, for our good behavior. Outdoor dining will return, the first real sign that this may, one day, be over with.
You tell people that when the pandemic is over, it's going to be like it never happened. You start quoting Don Draper freely: "It will shock you how much it never happened." People almost universally disagree with this sentiment. "It's never going to be the way it was," is the chief view of your patrons.
One of the most important things to know in life is that, if you find yourself arguing with a bartender, you are almost certainly dead wrong.
Bartenders, by and large, believe in full moons, although the precise night that there's a full moon isn't necessarily the epicenter of weirdness. Everyone gets weird either a day or two before or a day or two after. Less common is your own personal belief that drastic changes in barometric pressure cause far more lunacy than lunar cycles. Almost nobody believes that Friday the 13th is a thing.
However, on June 13th, 2020—a Friday, if you can believe it—New York City decides to descend on the bars of the outer boroughs all on the same day. Your bar and the only other bar in your neighborhood that has been open this whole time are swarmed. After only three months of the governor's pandemic rule, the citizenry has decided to become ungovernable.
You have never seen anything like it. Your side street and the other bar's side street—despite them not being a corner bar—are so jam-packed with people that some are in the fucking street. You're not working, but when you see what's happening at the other bar, you head back to yours with a head full of whiskey to help your coworker corral the patrons.
The police, as always, are no help. They haven't cited a single person for breaking social distancing guidelines since this all started. They're policing the bartenders, not the patrons. This is probably for the best, anyway—bartenders excel at de-escalation and rarely, in the course of performing their duties, do they end up killing a customer by accident.
You've spent the last three months yelling at people to respect the rules for the sake of your liquor license, but today, you absolutely shine. You are a human megaphone, a shepherd of drunks with a drugstore grabby claw for a staff. "I'm going to need half of you to take a fucking lap," you shout. The herd quiets immediately the moment you raise your voice, a power your coworker covets. You start pointing to small groups of people. "All of you, take a lap around the block. Be leisurely about it. Everyone else: when they come back, you take a lap. Repeat this until the pandemic is over."
They do as you say, surprising everyone except your coworker.
Despite every bartender's best efforts to maintain order—and some are better than others—the governor comes down hard on the industry. Liquor licenses are now subject to a three-strike rule. Your bar is singled out by the police, although you escape with a slap on the wrist.
More bars reopen ahead of outdoor dining coming back, and one of your colleagues at a different bar comes up with "bar golf." Designed to keep patrons moving between bars instead of lingering within 100 feet, this game involves a card with boxes to check off for each participating bar. When a patron has visited every bar in a given day, they get a free shot of well liquor. The wisdom of encouraging people to visit eight bars in one day in order to be rewarded for being eight drinks deep with a shot is questionable, but the game does the job for which it was designed. The police are so grateful that you're keeping people moving that they specifically thank your colleague for coming up with the idea, despite the fact that open container laws are still in effect. Gives them less people to potentially shoot, probably.
Cabin fever is a real phenomenon, but it's hardly evocative of what the people of New York City have been feeling during lockdown. It's more akin to being stuck in a taxi that is stalled in traffic, that feeling of going nowhere as the meter ticks ever upward. Cab fever.
Indoor dining returns as the summer officially begins. The city, having been cooped up in bad weather, relaxes collectively. Bars begin reclaiming their sidewalks, waiting patiently for alternate-side parking to empty the spots adjacent to the bar so they can extend their seating into the street.
There's a shortage of wood city-wide as the barricades go up. At first, the street seating is demarcated by a simple set of wooden barricades eight feet wide and fifty feet long, looking like a cross between a police barricade and a track and field hurdle. However, the new guidelines mean that you have to rebuild the barriers as a closed, boxed-in structure that can both withstand the impact of a car and also be moved at a moment's notice. The Department Of Buildings sends inspectors around on a seemingly hourly basis. One bar even gets paid an inexplicable visit by a TLC agent—the Taxi & Limousine Commission.
The city starts requiring these perpetually movable barriers to be completely filled with sandbags. One of your bar's owners picks up your city allotment of sandbags, a total of about 5,000lbs. This barely covers the bottom of the barricades. You do the math and find that, to completely fill the barricade, you'll need 50,000lbs of sand.
And again, this thing has to be movable.
A DOB inspector tells you that your seating area is too far into the street, forcing you to measure it in front of her to prove that it's not. She then tells you that it's too long, even though it doesn't reach the end of your bar's side wall. You ask to see where in the guidelines there's a limit on how long an outdoor seating area can be, and she fails to find any such rule.
Despite all of this, the outdoor seating is absolutely worth the cost and consternation. Every single outdoor seat in the neighborhood is occupied from open to close almost every day throughout the entire summer. Patrons you haven't seen in months resurface, saying you're the first person they've talked to since March who wasn't their cat. One couple refuses to budge from their table during a torrential flash storm. They sit in the rain and cover their pints of Guinness.
There is, however, one problem: you can no longer legally serve anyone inside at the bar. The physical bar, where people have always walked up and ordered their drinks, and on which you have always put those drinks, is now off limits, despite the roughly two thousand dollars' worth of plexiglass now mounted on the counter top.
By law, anyone approaching the plexiglass in order to buy drinks has to be wearing a mask, but you can't serve them at the bar top. However, it's entirely fine, by Cuomo's emergency edicts, to take the orders of a group of people seated at a table who aren't required to wear masks, with nothing separating you from them except the thin layer of your own mask, which isn't meant to protect anyone but the people around you.
What's worse: the governor mandates table service outside and inside.
You didn't get into this profession to be a waiter. You are specifically bad at carrying a tray of drinks and even worse at pretending to be the kind of person who comes up to a table and asks, "You guys know what you want?" as if you're both a server at TGI Friday's and a therapist.
Street seating doubles capacity. Now, shifts that could easily have been handled by one bartender are almost unmanageable with two.
One bar in the neighborhood brings on "lifeguards"—staff who are there simply to keep everyone in line. They make customers observe guidelines and occasionally help serve if the bartender gets into the weeds.
This evolves into having a server at the bar and then someone going out to the tables to take orders who is ferrying drinks and food, keeping an eye on the crowd's compliance. Bartenders are reduced to working service bar.
A consultant brings in meatballs and plantballs, along with more and more crockpots. The pinball room becomes a storehouse for pandemic wares. The machines are blocked off by eight-foot shelves jammed with plasticware, straws, and massive cans of marinara and sauerkraut, like the bar is doomsday prepping. Maybe it is.
Along with table service, anyone seated outside is also subject to the strictures of the food mandate. Barely two weeks of outdoor service pass before you get called into the bar because a pair of SLA officers have an issue with your menu. They staked out your bar from across the street, making sure everyone leaving had been served food first. The customers had indeed been served food, according to the indistinct guidelines you've been given so far. An "aide to Governor Cuomo" told the New York Post that chips were good enough—which is the reason "Cuomo chips" have come into existence—but you now discover that according to the SLA, chips don't constitute a "substantial meal," and so your bar gets its first official citation, meaning that it's two more away from your liquor license being summarily revoked. Functionally, this means that the owners will close the bar if you get one more strike.
Perplexingly, a hot dog does count. Like the ever-moving curfew, the goal posts seem arbitrary and impossible to clear. From there on out, everyone gets at least a hot dog. The bargaining gets more dire: "Do we still have to order food?" The only answer possible to any such probing query is, "Yes, officer."
You masquerade the hot dogs as low-brow gourmet foodstuffs, dressed in sauerkraut or kimchi. Because your bar is named after a car, so are the hot dogs: the Volkswaggin' and the Daewoof. You're not proud of yourself but that's what has to happen. You start experimenting with exotic toppings—the Spitfire, with wasabi mayonnaise and sriracha ketchup; the Deville, with hot dog relish and whiskey maple barbecue sauce; and the Alfa Romeo, with meat-infused marinara sauce from the crockpots and long-grain grated parmesan. You are the only person who dares eat these abominations, and so you are the only person who knows how confusingly good these monstrosities are.
By the end of summer, you find yourself inside other bars after curfew again, a sure sign that the city is healing. These other bars are drawing noise complaints now, taking some of the heat off your own bar. Indoor dining returns a month later. More people are in more bars and they are staying out later. With an 11 pm curfew, it hardly feels like you're breaking the law. You're surrounded by other service-industry folk—bartenders, cooks, and the like—the captains of our particular industry.
Inevitably, someone contracts COVID, and of course, you were at the same bar after hours with them, alongside representatives from a dozen other bars across the avenue. The next day, every single bartender and half the regulars in the neighborhood are trying to get tested at the same time. You hold each other's place in line and bring each other bottled water.
The battlefront becomes keeping people masked when they're moving from indoor tables to the bathroom and back again. You have to tell people to sit the hell down when they're drinking—a state law even before—and to mask up while they're standing.
The city tenses up for the election, lying in wait for a final result for four days. It's an experiment in emotional tantra as you all edge closer and closer to orgasm or agony. Bars are packed all over the city, and your bar rings up its highest-ever sales since the pandemic started, which is saying something. Business has been better than anyone had reason to expect.
By December, indoor dining is once again illegal, just as the weather is finally turning truly cold. People stick it out in the outdoor seating area, now topped off with a tiny roof and surrounded by see-through plastic. The war of regulations escalates, and now any outdoor area that's more than 50% enclosed is considered indoor dining and has to either lose a wall or close down entirely. Restaurants start openly flouting the enclosure limits—every sushi spot, for instance, builds completely enclosed sectional sheds like personal sex booths, and one diner gobbles up the entire sidewalk, leaving far less than the required eight feet of open space for pedestrians. You want to snitch so badly, but every restaurant is struggling to survive, while the neighborhood bars are really doing just fine.
The city eases restrictions on outdoor heating, allowing gas-powered lamps for the first time, but only if you have a state-certified technician on-site at all times. The gas tanks have to be removed from the premises and stored off-site every night and then returned the next day. The lowest estimate for heating the outdoors is $200/day. Electric heaters have to be enough for most bars, but by the time the shortage is over, it seems like spring is only a few tolerable months away.
New York City has been owed a winter like this for years. Snow drifts jam up your street-side seating—now called "the garage," because, again: cars. The city could not care less about snow plows clobbering street barriers across the neighborhood. Yours is unscathed, although it is beset on both sides by massive piles of plowed snow. There are 400 more square feet to shovel than last year.
You use the snow to your advantage, creating massive walls of it between tables on the sidewalk. Strangely, it has a buffeting effect, like makeshift outhouses in Alaska. People are still coming to drink outside, against all odds and in spite of the wind chill advisories.
In the middle of January, some of the city vaccination sites start listing "essential workers, public-facing" as eligible for the vaccine, and you luck into an appointment bonanza at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, along with what seems to be the entire population of Sunset Park. Even with an appointment, it takes two hours for the line to cycle through to you. You become possibly the first vaccinated bartender in Brooklyn, which means you're only three weeks from being fully vaccinated.
By February, Cuomo lifts the ban on indoor dining, with a cap of 25% capacity. Your bar can now safely fit twenty-one and a quarter people, which maybe means one woman who is two months pregnant. Bartenders become vaccine eligible on every possible state and city website, and you use your experience to get appointments for every single one of your coworkers, plus some of your colleagues.
Believe it or not, you don't actually like having to yell at people. You never have. The flood of adrenaline at the slightest confrontation makes you want to take flight, not start a fight. Usually, it's not very difficult to dodge such a predicament—hell, it's part of your job to de-escalate situations—but the more restrictions are put into the emergency orders, the harder it is not to find yourself up against one rule or another.
Despite the new normal, you are still prone to finding yourself at 7-Eleven at a late hour, in your cups to one degree or another. Tonight, there's a cadre of maskless kids—you say "kids," but they're in their early twenties—giving the clerk shit. One of them joins the group from behind you, and you step back to maintain distance. Maybe you shake your head, give a quiet, clipped sigh of exasperation.
"There a problem, bro?" the alpha says.
"Just keeping distance from your maskless buddy there," you say, as if it's his business how far away from his friends you stand.
"Oh, you mad he's not wearing his mask?" They've all turned their attention to this interaction by now, all eight or so of them.
"I don't really give a shit," you say. "All I did was step back. You're the one with an issue." He approaches you, his own mask under his nose, closer than six feet. "Dude, would you keep your distance if you can't figure out how masks work? Unlike—" and here you name the clerk "—there, I have no obligation to just stand here while you get your breathing holes closer and closer to me."
"Yo, I've been coming here since I was a kid, I take care of him." Is he saying that he tips the clerk whose name he clearly doesn't know?
"You're not stopping your friends from standing across the counter from him without their fucking masks on, so I kind of doubt it. And I've been coming here since you were a kid, too."
"Dude, what is your problem?"
"I literally just told you. Just pay for your shit and leave. You clearly don't give a shit about—" the clerk. "I just got off work, and I cannot be fucked about this anymore. Move along."
"Just got off work, ohhhhhhh, where do you work, my m—"
"Hey!" the clerk says. "Pay for your shit and go."
Once they do, the clerk thanks you for sticking up for him. You point out that, unlike you behind your bar, he really can't talk shit to customers who break the rules, and it's your pleasure to be his inner voice made external.
In only a few months, you will watch a similar scene play out, with another kid in his twenties straight-up not wearing a mask at all, and in the thaw of spring, the clerk will tell the kid to get the fuck out of his store.
During one particularly busy night in the slowly thawing spring, two guys come to your bar who you've never seen before. One looks like Timothée Chalamet and his friend has to be told not to sit on the end of the street-side barricade drinking. So he stands up instead. You have to tell him to sit somewhere, anywhere, except for the barricade.
This is a rule that pre-dates the pandemic—if your outdoor seating is "unenclosed," it's illegal for anyone to be standing and drinking, because it technically counts as "drinking in public." There's a similarly arbitrary law that says that if you're drinking on your stoop and the sidewalk gate is open, you're drinking in public, but if you're drinking on your stoop with the gate closed, you're on private property.
New York State's motto is "Excelsior!" a Latinate translation of "Ever upward!" but it might as well be "Exarbitrior!"—ever more arbitrary!
The tall kid—who you're describing this way for a specific reason—seems only mildly fucked by your admonition.
A half hour later, you look at your phone to find that a regular has texted you from the pinball room. The message is a simple, "WTF?" with a picture attached of a dude's back as he pisses into the drain in your backyard. You know for a fact no one's been in the front bathroom for a good forty-five minutes, if not longer, and the picture was sent all of fifteen minutes ago. You go outside.
You approach Timothée Chalamet and his friend and say, "Okay, cough up twenty bucks."
"What? Did I underpay?" the kid asks. He is clearly not comfortable at bars, not experienced enough to think he isn't always about to be arrested for underaged drinking, even though you both know he's over twenty-one.
"No, but you did piss in my backyard, and that comes with a $20 asshole charge."
The kid curses to himself. He thought he'd gotten away with something. He starts rummaging in his bag.
"I just really had to go," he says, unable to find his wallet in the IKEA bag he calls a messenger bag, "and this girl was in the bathroom forever."
"She was in both bathrooms forever?"
"How was I supposed to know there was another bathroom?" he says, even more annoyed.
"Hey, if I have to pee really bad, and someone's taking some biblical shit, I'd ask the bartender if there's maybe a second bathroom. Almost every bar has at least two for exactly that reason."
The kid is still struggling with his bag.
"The twenty bucks was a joke. The real penalty is that I get to give you shit for it. It's not a big deal—just, you know, for future reference, ask your bartender. We're usually pretty familiar with the bar."
The kid throws up his hands. "Okay, look, I'm sorry."
"That's all you needed to say, darling," you say.
"No, no, it's okay, we're leaving anyway," the tall kid says. He unfolds all six-foot-six of himself. He towers over you, which doesn't matter much to you—one of your assets as a bartender is having a mouth that's spent four decades making up for your lack of height.
"What, do you just watch the cameras back there all night?" the tall kid says. "Like, we don't give a fuck about your bar, dude." He sounds very much like he's about to ask you if you even trade stocks, bro.
"There aren't any cameras in the backyard," you say. "A regular, who actually gives a shit about this bar, sent me the picture."
"Oh, okay, you're one of those short guys who gets off on enforcing the rules, huh?" the tall kid says, trying to square up with you. The thing tall people don't understand about trying to start fights with shorter people is that, by and large, it just looks like they're trying to breastfeed us.
"Nah, I'm a bar manager in a fucking pandemic, and you each did one thing tonight that either put this business in jeopardy or showed that, given the chance, you would do something to put it in jeopardy."
"Dude, let's just go," Timothée says.
"Nah, you're one of those short guys—" he starts to repeat.
"I'm average height, dude—you're the weird genetic anomaly. Get the fuck out of my bar, and don't let me see your tall head swaying in the breeze around here again."
They stumble across the street, where they will pace for half an hour, waiting until one of the Ubers that they call will actually take the chance that they won't puke in their car.
One month later, bars and restaurants return to 50% capacity for the first time since December. Now your occupancy is capped at forty-two and a half people, which is six more people than there are socially-distanced seats. After another month, the food mandate is dead and bar service is no longer banned. Limited seating returns to the bar itself. In two weeks, all capacity limits will be lifted.
The lifting of these restrictions is manna from heaven, but the biggest bombshell isn't detonated for a few more days: at the end of May, all indoor curfews will be lifted. Arguably, this means that the bar will be completely back to normal.
In the last few weeks before restrictions are lifted entirely, the industry goes insane. You've been on edge for over a year. You've hit so many pandemic walls that your LinkedIn profile should list your profession as "wrecking ball."
After-hours becomes later and later as you careen towards no restrictions. No one is going to police you anymore. Everyone is now aggressively and flagrantly defying the few remaining guidelines wherever possible.
Menus start returning to tables, draft lists to chalkboards, glassware to patrons' hands. Plexiglass is taken down, barriers are removed. Every day gets a little bit more normal. Now your hands are dried out from washing glasses rather than hand sanitizer. Schedules are reworked as hours expand back to their pre-pandemic times. Food options return to what they were in the Great Before, which is to say, minimal at best. Sorry, we don't really have food: I'm a bartender, not a waiter.
You look around the bar. It is in its tenth or so iteration of wartime configurations, and suddenly you can't remember how it used to run. Every shelf behind the bar is in use, but with stuff that wasn't there before. You stare at the place with the spare chips and hot dog buns, and you have no idea what used to be there. The shelf above it was exclusively for glassware, but this shelf . . .
Where the fuck did you used to store pretzels before the world moved on? What used to live in the two wine fridges underneath the panini press? Oh, right: fucking wine, in the days before you needed batched bottles of margarita. Even the buttons on the register have been reprogrammed, and you can't for the life of you remember how the buttons worked before.
It's as if the past no longer exists except anecdotally, the blurry memory of a night out long, long ago. How did you get home then? How will you get home now?
As in any good time-loop story, as you near the end, you have to start doing things differently, or else you'll just have to go back to the beginning of the loop. You bring armfuls of glassware back upstairs and clean them all. Your fear is that you will immediately start breaking glass again, or worse—have to burn and replace ice once or twice a shift. But soon you are moving two pint glasses into the sink with the violently rotating brushes of the BarMaid and then into the quick sani-sink dunk and dry. The muscle memory is still there. It appears that, while muscles may atrophy, the routines that they've been taught do not. It's like riding a bike, drunk. Within minutes, you're playing the game of rearranging and stacking dried pint glasses, never more than three high to keep them from sticking together, a game of sixteen-card Monte where nothing is hidden underneath the cups. You one-hand two pint glasses by their bottoms to scoop ice into them for double cocktails. You pour a couple of pints for people sitting inside. Your pour is so tight and the head is so close to the absolute limit of the glass that it would be within manufacturing tolerances for LEGO.
You retire your drugstore grabby claw and mount it in a place of honor above the backbar, a fitting tribute to the MVP of the pandemic. It's almost a shame—you've gotten so deft at using the claw that you can now serve two shots in one go. Once, when a customer dropped a dollar bill out of their change, you snatched it out of the air like a frog lassoing a fly.
It's enough to make you want to cry. Every vacation you've taken in the last fourteen months has only put your anxiety on hold, where it has resumed its previous levels the second you've come back.
Tomorrow, we will serve faster, unleash our charms on patrons from shorter and shorter distances, until one fine morning, we will wake up, unaware that yesterday was the last day we had to walk out of the house wearing a mask.
It already feels like it's over. It already feels like it never happened.
It will shock us how much this never happened.
Patrick Hipp is the author of two novellas—All The World Is Lost and The So-So Gatsby—as well as short fiction published on two continents and the occasional non-fiction essay, like the one you just read and "Fuck You, I'm Not A Millennial." He lives in Brooklyn, where he alternates between being a character from Cocktail (the novel) and one from High Fidelity (the movie) and is at work on the third novel in his "Occupational Trilogy," about bartending.