As I stuff a load of glasses into the dishwasher I try to make enough noise so that people begin to get the message; they don’t have to go home, but they can’t stay here. It’s last call, and I don’t need the City of Boston Licensing Board coming down on me because somebody wants one more absinthe to fuel their aesthetic dreams.
“You’re sure about that Truman Capote?”
I started tending bar right after I got my “TIPS”—Training for Intervention ProcedureS—certification, but soon as I made enough money from tips of the lower-case kind I started working on my AJIBA—Aesthetic Judgment Impaired By Alcohol—certification. It was grueling, lemme tell you. We’d get these Master of Fine Arts girls who were looking to supplement their poverty-level adjunct professor wages with some test subject cash, and we’d have to draw some pretty fine distinctions between stuff that’s borderline chick lit and enduring art.
“I’ll have another shardonnay,” one of ‘em would fake-slur, and I’d look her straight in the eye while I bought some time.
“What do you think of Anne Sexton’s latest?” I’d say, seeing if my tester could remember whether she was alive or dead.
Sexton: “Please don’t hate my poetry because I’m beautiful.”
“She’s the top.”
“The Eiffel Tower?”
“How about Adrienne Rich?” I’d ask as I pretended to have trouble unscrewing the cork.
“What’s up with her hair?” the woman might respond, comparing the two on the basis of the shimmering surfaces and not the substance beneath, and I’d have to cut her off. “Sorry,” I’d say, although I wasn’t. “You’ve got to look beyond the pretty picture on the back cover of the book,” and send her on her way.
But that’s what AJIBA training does for your poor harried publican—gives him the tools he needs to tell when a customer is no longer capable of forming a sound critical judgment and is about to slide off a barstool into maudlin sentimentality or a preference for the second rate.
I work Saturday nights at À Rebours, named after the Joris-Karl Huymans novel with the hyper-aesthete protagonist, Jean des Esseintes. The tips are good, but they’d better be, because the crowd is tough. You get some hard cases; the James Gould Cozzens crowd who taunt the fans of his rival by repeating his crack “I can’t read ten pages of Steinbeck without throwing up.” I have to step in and play the peacemaker. “Guys, please, stop it!” I shout. “They’re both overrated!”
It doesn’t help that this is a college town, so we get a fair number of English professors in their cups; guys who can’t keep up with their female students anymore but haven’t given up trying. One of them lifts a finger attached to a hand at the end of his upstretched arm, like a too-earnest freshman about to ask “Is this going to be on the final?”
I make my way down to him, sensing as I come that he’s an illegal immigrant across the border between sober and blotto.
“You ready for your tab?” I ask innocently, hoping for the best.
“We’ll have another, barkeep,” he says, as he casts a leer at his companion. She’s so young I doubt she can find Vietnam on a map, while the guy is old enough to remember when it had both a North and a South, like Dakota and Carolina.
I mark time by pretending to dry an Old Fashioned glass–there’s nothing old-fashioned about it, it’s used for Old Fashioneds. “Say,” I say. “Whadda ya think of Herman Melville’s claim that Ralph Waldo Emerson had ‘a defect in the region of the heart’?”
“Melville? That writer of boy’s tales and fish stories? What a tedious . . .”
“That’s it pal—you’re shut off.”