Passing the Bar

I am writing this from my couch at 6 pm on a Sunday night while watching Football. Admittedly that is not something that seems so impressive as that seems like what any healthy (or maybe not so healthy) American would be doing on a Sunday.

But my Sunday nights have been different. For the last 5 years of my life I have bartended on Sunday nights. So instead of sitting on my couch like the world's most stagnant man, I was pouring drinks for strangers watching the TVs behind me.

Super Bowls, Oscars, etc. I bartended through all of it. Dressed like a drink Ninja and standing on my feet for 6 hours is how I passed nearly every single Sunday since April of 2005. It had become part of my regular workweek. Five days in the office, one day behind the bar.

But I quit 3 weeks ago and I can’t tell you how amazing it feels.

For a long time people had told me I would make a good bartender. I don’t know what that actually means. Like I looked trustworthy enough to pour drinks for people I don’t know? I might be really good at handling glassware? I look good in black? (It just so happens that I do.)

Whatever it was that those people saw bubbling beneath the surface exploded after I watched the movie Cocktail. For those of you who have never seen it, it watches like a loveletter to all things bar related. Tom Cruise is looking to land a job in business but can’t, and thus ends up living the wild exotic life of a bartender.

I tell you, that Tom Cruise certainly can sell a lifestyle. Wild nights, gorgeous women, and more cash than he could handle! I mean, granted the end of the movie where his Bartending mentor kills himself wasn’t exactly appealing, but ya know, all the money and the women kind of pushed that visual out of my mind. It was decided, I would become a bartender!

I had a big problem though. I had no idea how to make a drink. A vodka tonic was easy enough, and I had opened beers before obviously. But things like cosmos and tinis and shots I didn’t have a clue. I was halfway through my 21st year on the planet and only 1 year removed from the time I had my first drink. I drank beers and simple drinks. I wasn’t walking into bars asking for a Harvey Wallbanger… mainly because I didn’t want to get punched in the face.

It was winter break of my senior year of college. So I looked online for bartending schools. There were many. Very expensive, very cheap, online only, etc. But getting a bartending certification online seemed kind of like passing a road test over the phone. I needed the experience, I needed practice pouring and mixing, holding the tools, and perhaps, flipping them in the air.

So I found a place in Arizona. Two weeks, 5 nights a week for 4 hours a night. It cost 400 dollars. It was a big chunk of change, but I was pretty sure I would be able to make it back pretty quickly if I got a gig. So I did it. The ABC Bartending School or something. It is there that I learned a whole crapload of things that I can no longer remember.

I finished the class in the beginning of February and set about looking for a spot to bartend at. But bartending in a college town is a competitive gig and the only person I ended up pouring drinks for was myself.

So after the semester I came home to NY where I got a day job at a summer camp sharing my life advice with a gang of 7 year olds and of course, driving a school bus.

And yes, it is in fact a short bus. Please, no comments.

But I wasn’t about to let my hard earned bartending knowledge (and 400 bucks) go to waste. I started looking around my town for a bartending job. I drove my sailboat (1990 Crown Victoria) from bar, to hotel, to restaurant looking for an employer looking to hire a bartender with no experience but a hell of a certificate.

It was incredibly unrewarding. Here I was, a worldly individual nearly done with my degree which I was getting on full scholarship 2,500 miles away from home, and I couldn’t convince people I was qualified enough to pour rum AND coke into the same glass.

Managers would look at my resume and the job app I was filling out and kind of make a face or tell me they only hired from within. I would smile back and say thanks for letting me know but I really wanted to say “YOU TURDWAGON, I TRAVELLED THROUGH 9 COUNTRIES IN 30 DAYS BY MYSELF, I CAN FIX A COUPLE FRIGGING DRINKS!”

But of course, that is not appropriate bartending application etiquette.

I finally got some luck at a second rate country club that I should have known was going to be an awful experience. But I wasn’t sure it would come through so I kept driving around, eventually spending an hour at chain hotel to fill out an application. I left there and was on my way home when my mom gave me a call on the cell.

There’s a new pizza place that opened in Garden City. It says its looking for a bartender. Why don’t you go check it out?

So I did. I walked into Grimaldi’s. And even though it was technically the second bartending job I had been hired for, It’s really where it all began.

To Be Continued...

Drawing Affection

As another Mother’s Day comes and goes, I find myself feeling frustrated. It’s something I have noticed more with each passing year since saying goodbye to college. It isn’t the day itself that frustrates me; it is the fact that no matter how much thought I put into it, I am unable to come up with anything better than flowers to get my mother.

For all my thinking, one thing has become painfully clear to me; with everything my mom has done, and all she has given me, I will never be able to truly say thank you.

I don’t make nearly enough money to buy her something really impressive, like a trip to Paris or a BMW. But even based solely on gestures, I struggle to find a single act or otherwise that would come close to the feeling of gratitude and love I have for my mother. Nothing I could ever find would do that justice.

Even in my wildest fantasies where I am a man of boundless means, my mind keeps wandering backwards to a gesture from my childhood.

I couldn’t have been more than 5 at the time, back when I still felt considerably smaller than the world. Dad was working, my sister had already started school full time, and my mother hadn’t yet gone back to work. So it was just the two of us at home those days.

I’d run errands with my mother, “helping” her do the things she needed to do, grocery shopping or waiting with her while she got her allergy shot. We traveled around New Hyde Park, buckling and unbuckling me from the back seat of that big powder blue Pontiac.

My memory has held tightly to a trip to the dry cleaners, though the specifics are hazy. It was a place around the corner from our house, not more than 2 blocks away. One day we went to pick up some clothes. I remember standing just short of the counter and feeling the mood change.

Something bad had happened. They had screwed something up, ruining a coat perhaps. My memory tells me that my mom had brought a sharp cream colored blazer there and when she got it back there was some awful ink stain on it. Whether or not that was the case is really of no significance.

But I remember my usually friendly and smiling mother losing her temper and getting very upset with the dry cleaners. I know whatever concessions they offered were not enough because my mother left there fuming and possibly in tears.

I’m sure I knew what had happened, but I also didn’t know what to do about it. I may have asked questions but I probably knew that it was better not to. Something about the situation told me to be quiet. It wasn’t like when my mom got mad at me. The rules and roles for that were obvious. There was an uncomfortable difference here. My mom was very upset, it wasn’t my fault, and I had no idea what to do.

We went home and my mother went into the office in the back of our house. Maybe to cry, maybe to call my father and vent about what had happened.

Uncomfortable and confused I felt so useless in this situation. I was only 5 but I knew I wanted to make her happy again. I felt that I needed a gesture. I needed to do something. So I did.

I made the grandest gesture I knew how; I drew her a picture.

I took a white sheet of paper and my crayons and I just started drawing. I probably didn’t lay out any kind of outline, I just drew the things I knew how to. There was green grass, a blue house, a small flock of crudely drawn birds, and a rainbow. And written in blue in the sky was what I hoped would be the cure for what ailed her;

“I love you mommy.”

When you’re 5, your ability to influence is dependent on hugs, tears, and crayons. It seemed like the third one was the best option at this point.

So I finished my drawing and walked into the office where she was sitting, and still visibly upset.

I approached her, hesitant, possibly a little scared, proffering my drawing before me like a document needing to be signed by the king. She took it from me, looked at it, and gave me a hug and a kiss, and I think it made her happy to see my work. She even pinned it up on the bulletin board.

And all was well with the world.

There it stayed for the rest of the day, for the rest of that year.

In fact in all our years in that house, she never took it down. It hung there until we finally had to pack up the house when we sold it last year.

Honestly it was just a piece of paper covered in colored wax, nothing artistically brilliant or creatively courageous. It was just a house and a rainbow and some birds.

But it always stayed up on that wall, through a renovation of that room. Even though that space could have been used for something more important, some necessary calendar or tax document. It hung there, scrawled in my 5 year old affection, “I love you mommy.”

Granted I wasn’t trying to say thank you at the time. I wasn’t indebted for anything. Hell, I was only 5 and my universe was barely bigger than my own neighborhood. But I wanted my mom to know how I felt, and while I didn’t have much to give, I gave her all I had.

It seems fitting that my little hands could only create a gesture as big as a piece of paper, but I think it was far larger than anything I could craft today, anything I could buy, anything I could do.

Perhaps it is impractical to place so much importance on a drawing I did when I was a boy. Perhaps what worked then couldn’t possibly work now. Perhaps I have found my very own Rosebud and developed a fondness for a thing and a time that exists only in my memory.

But as I chase nostalgia even at this young age, I find myself holding that drawing up not just as a memory, but a symbol. A symbol of who I was and who I’m trying to be. A symbol of a time when my thoughts didn’t impair my judgment, when my imagination didn’t outpace my ability, and when I could tell my mother everything she meant to be with a little blue crayon.

I love you mommy.

Life Is a House

We will all say a million goodbyes in our lifetimes. We will say goodbye to places and things, jobs and possibilities. Some of them will be easier than others. However, the hardest thing is almost always saying goodbye to your firsts. Be it your first bicycle or your first love, something about it being the first makes it infinitely harder. It's as though that person or thing had some early intimate knowledge of who you were and are because they were there for the beginning.

I said goodbye to the home I grew up in last week. It was the first and only home my family ever knew. The place where a girl became a woman, a boy became a man, and a couple became a family — it was more than a childhood home. It was my family's home. And despite the fact that we no longer have keys to 24 Redwood Road, it will always be my family's home.

It took so long for my parents to sell the house that I honestly came to wonder if it was ever going to happen. I remember them putting the sign out on the lawn just as I was starting to look for my own apartment. It seemed scary and kind of unnerving that strangers would soon be walking through my house trying to decide if it lived up to their standards. I would sit on the couch avoiding eye contact as they walked through and made comments. But all I really wanted to do was scream "GET THE HELL OUT OF MY HOUSE, YOU DON'T DESERVE IT!"

Our house had no flaws, only wonderments. It all seems kind of ironic considering I spent so much effort trying to leave it. Going across the country for college, and moving out just a couple of months ago. I try to put every aspect of my house into the context of my daily life. I think, whether or not realize it, I seek to recreate the type of feelings I got from experiencing my life through the different rooms in my house.

Saying goodbye to your childhood home feels a lot like saying goodbye to a vault. There are so many things that are locked up within the walls of that house, more than anybody could ever imagine.

It was the only constant that made it through family photos, sadness, cancer, Little League, puberty, Easter, remembered birthdays, forgotten birthdays, fires, floods, break-ins, sneak-outs, surprise parties, 3 a.m. phone calls, records, tapes, and DVDs. It saw blackouts, proms, and emotional breakdowns. It saw it all, absorbed it all. It never asked a single question and never refused a single request. It was a second skin, a blanket of love that I was constantly wrapped in. We all were.

Even now as I feel the heat behind my eyes, I didn't expect to feel the sense of loss that I did when I walked out of that house for the last time. I knew the day was coming when I would have to say goodbye.

It was like watching a dark cloud approaching from off in the distance. I knew it would arrive, but it was just a matter of when. But it didn't feel real. Kind of the way you know your mom is going to tell you that playtime is over and it’s time to get inside before it starts to rain. But as those weeks turned into days and the days turned into hours, I could feel the change. The ending came quick and startling, like those thunderstorms in the summer that flooded our lawns.

I tried to say goodbye to my home. As I did my last lap around the house, not knowing exactly what I was doing, I would point to spots around the house and try to recall a memory. I could have done it for weeks. But reliving a thousand memories there would not have made it easier to leave. Dare I say it would have made it infinitely more difficult?

I have this thing I do with cards people send me. After I’ve held on to them for a certain period of time, and before I throw them out, I kiss them. I’m not sure why I started doing it, but it felt wrong to throw something away without giving it some sort of affection, some sort of a thank-you.

So that’s what I did with my house. I walked around the house and kissed a wall in every room. Even as I write this I know it sounds ridiculous. It was just a thing, a pile of wood and stone and glass and paint. But I didn’t know how else to say goodbye.

I wanted that house to know that I loved it. That I was so grateful for every tear it had absorbed, for every scream it had ignored or acknowledged. That for as many things that I broke, scratched, scraped, or dented, whenever I felt broken, scratched, scraped or dented I could always find refuge in that house. I could always find sleep in that house. And I would never feel as loved, as absolutely cosmically loved as I did in that house.

And I suppose that is all any of us can ever hope for in our lives — to come from a place so absolutely saturated with love that anything less than that seems completely unsatisfactory. I know that I am lucky that two such wonderful people chose to create a beautiful family in a big white house on a quiet street in Suburbia. And as I do not get to play a part in the future of 24 Redwood Road, its past is forever locked up inside my heart, constantly reminding me of all that I have and all that I am lucky to be.