I have a theory that most, if not all, of the best characters in movies and TV shows are bartenders. The O.C.’s Alex Kelly. Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Lloyd in The Shining. Lil in Coyote Ugly. Dwayne in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Sam Malone in Cheers. Tara in True Blood. Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Nick Miller in New Girl. Steve Brady in Sex and the City.
Well, maybe not that last one. Regardless, bartenders (fictional or real) are always fascinating by virtue of the fact that, in addition to knowing how to mix a little bit of this with a little bit of that to make it taste delicious, they also give off an air of having “seen and heard it all.” When you think about it, they’re basically cocktail-schilling confession booths for the wildest and rawest of uninhibited human experiences.
I asked four New York bartenders to tell me their most absurd tales, so whip yourself up an amateur Aperol spritz and find out what’s it’s really like to see and hear things from behind a bar. It’s basically like bedtime story hour for grown-ups.
Alysha has been bartending for over 10 years. She is currently the Assistant General Manager at Harlem Tavern. Follow her on Instagram here. Check out her YouTube channel where she posts bartending tutorials here.
I was bartending at a notoriously wild, pirate-themed bar in the West Village on a busy Saturday night. It was dark and dive-y and smelled like old beer and ship wood. It’s the kind of bar where fights on the dance floor and sex in the bathroom happened a lot to begin with, but a local rock band was performing there that night so the place was even busier and more chaotic than usual. At least four bartenders had to be on call every weekend night to man the bar space. Our typical crew consisted of me, two other female bartenders and one guy.
A couple in the crowd managed to squeeze two barstools up to the bar to have a seat. After serving them a few drinks, I noticed the girl had disappeared for what seemed like five or 10 minutes. I was just about to ask one of the bartenders where she went when I realized that every single person nearby — which was a lot, because the place was packed — was staring at the guy. That’s when I finally spotted my missing customer: She was leaning over, giving her date a full-on blow job underneath the bar.
I immediately called security. Funnily enough, I realized the one male bartender that night had a clear view of what was happening the whole time and didn’t say a thing.
That’s definitely the craziest experience I’ve ever had while bartending, although I hear ridiculous stuff all the time. I’ll never forget these two customers who were boyfriend and girlfriend. I always thought they looked alike, but I figured it was just a coincidence — like, they loved themselves so much they found lovers who looked exactly like themselves? Well…one night they were even drunker than usual and confided in me that they were actually half-siblings. To top it all off, apparently their parents were aware that they were dating.
Gates has been bartending for 26 years. He is currently the Chef de Bar at The Standard, High Line, which includes The Standard Grill and Top of the Standard. Follow him on Instagram here, and The Standard on Instagram here.
The place was hopping, the lights were low and it was 3 a.m. A very intoxicated man pushed his way through the room and threw himself onto a recently vacated barstool. Slurring incomprehensibly, he pointed at the menu. I ordered him a burger and fries with a note to the kitchen to rush the order; we needed to feed this man and get him out the door! Minutes later, my bar-back arrived with the food, which he set next to the man’s untouched glass of water, then pulled his hand away seconds before the man dove right in.
Now, I’m not judging here, but let’s just say the guy was having a very “interactive” burger experience — enough so that I brought extra napkins twice. Fortunately, his barstool was centrally located, so I could tend to the rest of the guests while still keeping an eye on him. As I stood at the register, looking at him in the back bar mirror, I watched the messy horror unfold. A french fry stuck to the back of his hand, a piece of tomato slipped down his shirt, his eyes closed and head began to nod between stuffed mouthfuls…and then it happened: with scraps of food surrounding him on the bar, he pushed the plate away, downed the glass of water, paused for a moment and then…picked up the squeeze bottle of ketchup, unscrewed the top and CHUGGED THE WHOLE THING!
He slammed the plastic bottle down on the bar and said, “Ahhhhhhh” with such delight, you’d have thought it was dessert. Then he looked up and asked for the check, which I slid across the bar with some trepidation. At the time, a burger and fries was only $12, but with his beer goggles on, he clearly read it wrong because he handed the check back to me with six $20 bills and said, “Hey, thanks, man! Keep it!”
I stood there with $120 in my hand and looked at him. I just couldn’t do it. Folding up five of the twenties, I tucked them into his vest pocket and said, “Y’know, you’re probably going to need some of this for the cab, so how about I just take one of these, and you can bring the rest back to me later if you’re still hanging around.” He looked confused but lumbered off and somehow managed to make it through the front door without stomping on anyone.
I looked down at the $20 bill in my hand and turned to put it in the register. My bar-back was standing right there. He had seen the whole thing. He grabbed me by the arm with a sad look in his eyes and asked, “Why didn’t you just give him more ketchup?”
I got arrested while bartending — for bartending. The state of New York makes money by fining bars for serving underage minors, so there are a lot of sting operations to try and catch them in the act, and that’s exactly what happened. An undercover cop sat down at my bar and ordered a beer. He must have walked right past our bouncer at the door. I didn’t card him, but if I had, I’d have seen that his driver’s license said he was 19 years old, even though I later found out that he was actually 31, which explains why I didn’t think he was underage.
I set down his beer, turned around to ring him up and when I turned back around with the bill, he and the three other guys who were sitting next to him had disappeared. My manager immediately goes, “You’re about to get arrested.” He told me to give him my phone and keys, because once the police confiscate your things it takes them time to process everything and give it back to you.
Earlier that night one of my bar patrons had given me two Xanax because I’d been having trouble sleeping, so I had them in the front pocket of my shirt. I panicked and swallowed both of them after handing over the rest of my stuff to my manager. Needless to say, I was SUPER CHILL while I was being arrested.
The police paraded me down the street and their van was like, eight blocks away, so we walked the whole way with four cops surrounding me, and I was like, “I’m not going anywhere!”
I had to ride around in the van with them until the end of their shift at 3 a.m. We finally got to the station and they processed the charge and everything, but they didn’t keep me for long because I’d never had a prior arrest and it was just a ticket for a misdemeanor. The same officers who arrested me drove me home around 4:30 a.m. They ended up coming to one of my comedy shows the next weekend.
The other really weird thing that happened to me is that I met this guy in London while I was bartending his daughter’s 21st birthday party. Ever since, he has attempted to send me $6,000 by PayPal every month just to take care of me. I can’t take the money though. He texts me too much — it’s annoying. If this is what he’s like when I don’t take the money, can you imagine if I do take the money?
At a previous job, I had a bar regular who used to come in all the time. He would get pretty schwasted, but he was really good at keeping a good poker face so it was hard to tell how drunk he was. He was a musician so he was talkative and would go around trying to interact with other guests. Some people enjoyed it, but most found it annoying. We’d always have to ask him to calm down and leave the other patrons alone.
He came in one Sunday night and had a couple of drinks. He was chatting with other guests but didn’t seem any drunker than usual. I turned away for one second. When I looked back, he was standing up, pants dropped to the floor, peeing on top of the bar. He thought it was the bathroom. I immediately asked him to stop, letting him know he’s definitely not in the bathroom. He said, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” I told him his behavior was unacceptable and he had to leave right away. A manager came over to help remove him from the bar and escort him out to door. We let him know that he was permanently banned from the establishment.
He showed up for brunch the next weekend like nothing had happened. I said, “Hey, you’re banned,” and he goes, “Oh, don’t worry, I’m not going to order any alcohol.” I was like, no, that’s not what banned means.
Photos by Maggie Shannon.