[Nfbc-info] A Friday Night of Bartending, Without the Lights

Nancy Lynn freespirit.stl at att.net
Tue Apr 29 17:14:25 UTC 2014

A Friday Night of Bartending, Without the Lights
APRIL 26, 2014
It took me an hour to decide what to wear to my first shift at the Village Idiot.
I knew that the clothes should be tight, and I knew, too, what specific strain of
sexy was called for — namely, the “I know jujitsu so don’t get too handsy” variety.
It was the summer of 1999. I was 22 and had been acting Off Off Broadway since I
graduated from college and moved back to my native New York, so there was no shortage
of possibilities in my closet. I settled on an electric blue tank top with a roller-derby
logo on the front and faux snakeskin pants. I stuck a few butterfly clips in my hair
and was nearly ready. The thing that stumped me was the footwear.
I’d seen the bartenders dancing atop the bar when I dropped off my résumé on a weekend
afternoon, and every single one of them was in heels. There was no substitute for
the sound that heels made striking the wood, or the look of a leg set on tiptoes.
This made it hard for me to pass over the pumps in my closet in favor of the steel-toe
Doc Martens, but I did. Bartending blind would be hard enough in flats.
I was 19 when I learned I had
retinitis pigmentosa
, a degenerative disease that was starting to wipe out my nighttime and peripheral
vision. The diagnosis came at a fortunate time, the doctor said, because I hadn’t
yet settled on a career. “You probably don’t want to be a heart surgeon or a jet
pilot,” he clarified. He didn’t say a thing about bartending in the meatpacking district.
The Village Idiot was an urban saloon, complete with $5 pitchers, wagon-wheel décor
and bras dangling from the ceiling. Part of the reason that the joint was mobbed
come Friday night was that you could get obliterated for under $20.
But the big draw was the bartenders. Wearing midriff-baring tanks and “Dukes of Hazzard”
short shorts, the 20-something women behind the bar could outdrink linebackers, slamming
down shot after shot with defiance, pausing only to light someone’s drink on fire.
Then there was the dancing on the bar, which started up whenever the fancy struck,
and each and every time someone played “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
When I got the chance to join this band of barkeeps, I was thrilled. First, I needed
the money. Performing Shakespeare in junkyards on Stanton Street was edifying but
not lucrative, and in order to pay expenses, including my share of the rent in a
railroad apartment in Brooklyn, I was working a slew of part-time gigs. One was bartending
four nights a week at Brewsky’s, a beer bar in the East Village.
I liked working at Brewsky’s; it was so small and the clientele so tame that I could
work alone and keep all the tips. But there wasn’t much to keep; the closest that
Brewsky’s got to crowded was on weekend nights for an hour or two. I could easily
make double the tips at the Idiot, and I figured that I could earn enough in two
or three shifts to cover rent and expenses.
But apart from the money, I was excited that I’d been deemed tough enough, hot enough
and capable enough to command a stretch of its infamous bar. My vision loss had been
gradual in the three years since my diagnosis and, for the most part, I didn’t look
impaired. Yet my vision was at its absolute worst in low light, where my night blindness
and tunnel vision conspired to make accidents unavoidable. (After I reached 30, the
disease began to attack my central vision, clouding it over with cataracts, erasing
depth perception and bringing on color blindness.)
There’d been minor but frequent mishaps at Brewsky’s — twisting an ankle when I missed
a stair, knocking over glasses, struggling to find the light switch in the bathroom.
I had a moment’s hesitation before accepting the trial shift at the Idiot, but I
reminded myself that everyone knocks over a glass from time to time.
So as I laced up my Doc Martens for my first night, I thought I’d be able to handle
a little dancing on the bar. My step was steady at 4 p.m. as I walked in; to my great
relief, the bar was flooded with sunlight. I was greeted by the manager for my “training,”
which consisted of one piece of information and one piece of advice:
“The girls pool tips” and “Don’t say no when a customer buys you a drink.”
Presumably ready, I was put behind the bar with the three other longhaired girls
on duty. They barely bothered to look in my direction. There was no “Hey, I’m Georgia,
but they call me Peach,” the way I’d imagined. My smiles were met with stares that
clearly said: “This isn’t Hooters. Stop acting like a moron.”
The merciful summer sun lingered, and I managed competently enough so long as it
kept the bar bright. But when it set, about 8:30 p.m., two unfortunate circumstances
unfolded simultaneously: The mass of customers tripled, and darkness moved in.
The dark I see is different from other people’s dark; it has a few extra layers.
If I had to guess, I’d speculate that it’s what other people would see if they wore
sunglasses at night. Because I have tunnel vision to contend with, too, it takes
me a long time to discern objects in dim places, and details are wiped out. The darker
it is, the less I can see. And the Idiot was much darker than Brewsky’s, where patrons
needed to read the labels on their $10 beers. The Idiot’s was a kind of dark reserved
for establishments that rely on customers who make really bad decisions.
The challenges I faced were myriad. First, I had to remember how you made a Redheaded
Slut or a Screaming Orgasm. Then I had to struggle to read the labels on the bottles
I could only guess that I needed. Finding the face that ordered a particular drink
five minutes ago, among the horde of sweaty faces, was tough, too.
The big problem, though, wasn’t how I was making my drinks but how I was interfering
with the other girls making theirs. Every time I turned around, I’d bump into somebody’s
elbow or shoulder or face — and, occasionally, I’d jostle the bottle or tray of drinks
she was holding. I was stunned by the speed and accuracy with which these women poured
drinks; it was as if they had eight arms each, like Hindu goddesses — and these arms
darted in and out of the black holes of my peripheral vision, making it impossible
for me to avoid a collision. That was when the bartenders started talking to me:
“What the hell — you blind?”
It was a rhetorical question, of course, and didn’t really warrant the hysterical
laugh I gave in a desperate attempt to show that I got the joke and understood how
ridiculous it would be for a blind person to tend bar at one of New York’s busiest
hot spots on a Friday night.
By 10 p.m., I tried to do as little as possible while looking as if I were very busy.
I wiped the counter with great purpose, in tiny circles so as not to knock over nearby
glasses and beer cans. Every time I sneaked over to the one well-lit corner of the
bar to check my watch, I nearly burst into tears. The hours were not passing.
The silver lining of my incompetence was that I lost the privilege of dancing on
the bar. If I could break a half-dozen glasses with my feet on the ground, imagine
what damage I’d do up there.
It was my first, and last, shift. Nobody ever fired me. They just never called again.
Which came as an enormous relief, though not without a certain sting. I’d found another
occupation to add to the list of those not recommended for the blind, or soon-to-be
blind, and I had the distinct feeling that I’d stumble upon a few more before the
lights went out.
On the bright side, I hadn’t broken a single limb. Which meant I could make it to
my next shift at Brewsky’s, where the drunks were polite, the pitfalls familiar,
and the lighting just the right kind of dark.
NICOLE C. KEAR is author of the forthcoming memoir “Now I See You” (St. Martin’s
A version of this article appears in print on April 27, 2014, on page BU8 of the
New York edition
with the headline: A Friday Night, Without the Lights.

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