Too often in journalism, people erroneously think the most fascinating interview subjects are celebrities. Anyone who’s worked in this business knows the drill—”What’s Derek Jeter really like?” and “Wow! You met Young MC’s wife! What’s her story?”
Truth to be, I’ll take a construction worker over a ballplayer; a teacher over an actor; the guy who mops the Starbucks floor over Lady Gaga any … day … of … the … week. Their stories are (usually) real. Their struggles are gripping. Yeah, they lack the screaming fans and blinding lights. But—if you think about it—screaming fans and blinding lights are mere mirages. They have nothing to do with the real world, and serve primarily as obstacles to a person’s true self.
That, truly, is why this week’s Quaz is so good. Marcia Herold is a bartender. A veteran bartender. She sees people at their happiest and their lowest; knows what it is to witness a guy passing out in a pool of vomit and how it feels to receive a $500 tip. She’s worked at some of New York City’s coolest bars (these days her home is Greenwich St. Tavern in Tribeca), slinging drinks, listening to stories.
You can follow Marcia on Twitter here. Trust me—her honesty and insights are refreshingly awesome.
Marcia Herold, cheers! You’re this week’s Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Marcia—first question. Give me your absolute best story from your career as a bartender. I want the craziest, grossest, most memorable experience. And make it a double …
MARCIA HEROLD: Best probably differs from craziest or grossest—in fact I’m sure it does—but I’ll go with craziest, grossest, most memorable … and hope you aren’t sorry you asked.
My first bartending job was at a nightclub in South Florida in the early 1990S. And you probably wouldn’t associate this with Florida, but it had this huge kind of underground goth/industrial scene, and this club fancied itself on the cutting edge of it. I was relatively normal (and young) compared to my coworkers; I was the only person working there who was still in college, but like every jaded 20-year old, I thought of myself as worldly and unshockable.
And this club was constantly trying to shock.
Marilyn Manson played there locally before he got signed and I’d seen him do many shows, which included (but wasn’t limited to) naked people bound on stage, real chicken feet strung up like Christmas lights, and a plethora of simulated sex acts, all of which solicited little more than an eye roll from me.
Hey, I was worldly! I’d seen everything.
Soon into my bartending career, this club had decided to host a fetish night. It wasn’t my thing, but I figured everyone has their own thing, and this is my job, so I went to work.
The beginning of the night was surreal. It was a complete S&M crowd … and it’s not nearly as sexy as Fifty Shades of Grey makes it out to be. At the time, I had a second job at a deli across from the courthouse in Ft. Lauderdale, and I saw a judge who I served sandwiches to in the afternoon now in the nightclub I worked at being led around on a leash. People were wearing various leather contraptions, or next to nothing. Next to the bar I was working, there was a cage, maybe 8 feet by 4 feet. In that cage stood a guy, as Biff-y as you can imagine; white Izod sweater, perfect hair, and stoically still. All night, people abused him. They kicked him, spit on him, put cigarettes out on his flesh, and still he didn’t flinch. When I expressed concern to my bartending partner, she laughed and said “That’s why he’s here.” All of a sudden, a girl in a rubber dress (sans undergarments) decides to crawl on top of the cage and sit there. Biff took one look at her naked ass and started freaking out, screaming “let me out! let me out!” He was nearly in tears. Spit on, kicked, burned … and a naked ass was intolerable.
That same night, a band called the Genitorturers performed. The main part of their show was the lead singer sewing the lips together of a man wearing lingerie.
I’m now fully aware that I haven’t seen everything. I’m traumatized just recalling it.
I hope I haven’t freaked out your readers so soon in the process.
J.P.: You started tending bar when you were 19, and you’re still going. It strikes me as sort of a downer gig, in that the party’s always going on, but you’re merely an observer. Like, everyone’s getting wasted but you, everyone’s partying but you. Am I off here?
M.H.: I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but for me, yes. You’re off.
When I started bartending, I was still in school. I was an above-average student, and I never got caught up in the party—it was a job. I was a theater major and had a ridiculous schedule, and that job was just one more thing I had to do. When I graduated, and stupidly decided to take a year off from all things productive, bartending was a way to party with my friends and get paid for it. A number of bartenders are able to drink at work. Some are even encouraged to. If you can’t handle it, it gets really dangerous. Luckily, I didn’t stay off track for long. I’ve talked to people who feel the way you mentioned, but I think a bigger number of bartenders run the risk of problems, because for many bartenders, you’re job isn’t just to observe it, it’s to be a part of it.
Now that I’m older, I’m a bit of a hermit. I have no desire to be a part of the party. It’s not a hard job, but one aspect of it, for me anyway, is that I try not to bring my shit to work. It’s my job to make sure everyone has a good time, and that’s what I try to do. I’ve had enough fun for three lifetimes. I still go out, but I find that my tolerance for drunkeness is a lot lower than it used to be. But I never feel like I’m missing the party. I feel like it’s my job to be the party. Which, when you get older, is not as easy as it used to be. But It’s still a job, just like any other job.
J.P.: I’ve never asked a bartender this, but I’ve always wanted to: From your perch, what does alcoholism look like? What I mean is, you’ve probably seen some real ugliness in addiction … in the need to drink. No?
M.H.: If there’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s that people who don’t normally drink in bars have very little perspective on what it’s like for those who do. Alcoholism is easy to define for those who don’t drink—it’s very cut and dry. You drink this much, this often, you must have a problem. I really think it’s more nuanced than that. I know plenty of people who have high-powered jobs who drink every day, and probably much more than someone from the outside would think is healthy. Some people call it functional alcoholism. I’m reluctant to call it that. I think everyone is different in how they deal with alcohol. I’ve seen someone have 10 drinks and seem perfectly fine, some who have three and are toast. Some people can have a drink at lunch and go back to work. Even myself, if I’m having one, I’m probably having five. One just makes me hung over and tired. So for me, when I’m serving, I try to take each person’s relationship with alcohol on it’s own merit.
Having said that, I have seen some really sad stories. And although this may sound callous, I’ve been able to compartmentalize what I do, and my need to tell adults what to do with their lives. Don’t get me wrong … I cut people off all the time. But for the most part, I leave the decision on how much to drink up to the individual. If I lived somewhere other than New York City, it would be a lot easier (albeit a lot more responsibility) to cut someone off because of the driving factor. But because no one drives in New York, it’s basically, “if you can get yourself home, you can have it.” Don’t get me wrong—it’s backfired, and I’ve often paid for cabs to get people home who couldn’t do it for themselves. I have some sense of responsibility in that regard. But as far as people drinking to cope, it’s more common than you know.
I’ve only one time had a real moral dilemma over this. I was working in a bar, and my coworker was an admitted alcoholic, who had been sober for a number of years. After one particularly busy shift, he asked me for a drink. I protested, he insisted, and I gave it to him. It ended up how you might imagine. I told my boss I would no longer serve him, but my boss—himself a potential alcoholic—encouraged him to keep drinking. It ended in disaster, with my brother and friends having to carry him up to my boss’s apartment, and I vowed at that point I would never again serve a known, no-doubt-about-it alcoholic.
M.H.: After I graduated college, and had my year of debauchery, I woke up one day and decided it was time to start acting again. I got my first acting gig pretty quickly, and worked steadily as an actor for the next five or six years. As any theater actor will tell you, that doesn’t pay nearly enough to make a living. My job was extremely understanding. Even though my shift started at 8:30, my boss would let me come in after me shows ended, usually between 10:00 and 11:00. To refer to your previous question, I never felt like I was missing the party bartending, but I did feel like I was missing out by having to go to work directly after shows. By 1995, I had a second job on South Beach. Every weekend, I would have a show on Saturday night, literally throwing off my clothes after the curtain call, and race to Miami to work. I would finish there at 6 am, only to have to be at a Sunday matinee. The thought of doing that now seems unbearable. But, when you’re that young, you think you can do it all. And funnily enough, when you’re that young, you can.
In 1996, an ex-boyfriend of mine offered me a room in Brooklyn if I wanted to move to New York. I’d always wanted to move to New York, so I agreed to take it, sight unseen. I thought I was going to be tough, and rough it out in Brooklyn. Little did I know the apartment was in Brooklyn Heights, one of the nicest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. I’d only been to New York once before, and had fallen in love with it. And when I saw where I was going to be living, I was really in love with it.
Although I thought about acting, my first goal when I got here was to get a job. And because I didn’t know New York, I explored my neighborhood for bartending jobs.
My first job here was a place called Eamonn Doran’s. It was an Irish bar located directly behind my apartment in Brooklyn Heights. It was filled with lawyers, judges, men … it’s located right near the downtown courthouse in Brooklyn. The bar was staffed completely by Irish men. I waited for three hours to be interviewed. I was in New York for three days … in those three hours, I got bought dinner, flowers, and someone gave me Knicks tickets. All tempered by the fact that when I finally got to speak to the owner, I was told “we don’t hire women behind the bar.” My reply: “Your loss. It sure looks like this place could use some women.”
And I went to the Knicks game.
I got a phone call the next day offering me the job. Bars with regulars—and I mean real regulars—are often heavily influenced by those regulars. They like you, you’re in. I became their token everything. I held the dubious distinction of being the first female/American/Jewish person to ever work at that bar. Also, the first time I learned that many Irish people had never met a Jewish person.
I stayed for a year.
After that, I moved on to Dewey’s Flatiron, on 5th Avenue. I stayed there for eight years. I tried to mix acting and working, but, for me at least, it just wasn’t realistic. And I fell in love with living in New York. Acting just sort of fell by the wayside. The reality was, if I wanted to stay here, I had to work. Through bartending, I got a job working as a producer for a high-end Korean fashion company. I made it about a year. If you really want to see an ugly side of New York, view the fashion industry from the inside. I went back to bartending. Less addiction, surprisingly.
One of my bosses from Dewey’s decided to open his own bar in Tribeca. That bar has since closed, but I still haven’t left Tribeca. It’s good to be a neighborhood bartender in a good neighborhood, and I’m a big fan of Tribeca. It’s one of the few neighborhoods in the city that actually feels like a neighborhood. Also, fantastic for celebrity sightings, if that’s your thing.
Currently, I work at Greenwich St. Tavern in Tribeca. Great place, food, atmosphere, and one of the most affordable happy hours in the city. And I’m not just saying that because I work there.
I know I can’t bartend forever, and I’m not sure what my next step is, which is scary. But New York is different than other places as far as the service industry goes. Bars and restaurants are such a big part of the landscape here, and as long as I’m still good at doing it, I’m still doing it. Bartending, in New York anyway, is a great way to connect to the city. I’ve met more people—both famous and non-famous—than most people will in their lifetimes. I dig that.
I recently got a paralegal certificate, and sometimes do sports updates for 106.7 Lite FM here in New York. Both of those things I find really interesting, and wouldn’t mind either being a part of something I’d do in the future.
J.P.: For a lot of people my age, Cheers came to define the best a bar can offer. A sense of community. Companionship. A bond. But Marcia, does that really exist? Have you worked in places with Norm and Frazier and the gang? Or is that merely bullshit TV?
M.H.: I love this question so much, Jeff. Mostly, it’s just bullshit TV, because the truth is Norm and Frazier and the gang exist, but in addition to being quirky and affable, they’re demanding and think they’re VIP because of sheer frequency of being there; they want TVs changed, thermostats adjusted, things done special just for them. If Sam ever had to struggle to get Norm and Cliff to leave the bar at 4 am when the lights were up and he just wanted to go home … well I didn’t see that episode.
Having said that … when everything is clicking, when your regulars are there, and everyone knows each other, gets each other’s jokes, are just genuinely having a great time, it’s one of the best jobs in the world. It shocks me that every place I’ve ever worked had customers who I saw almost every day that I was there. I can’t imagine going to the same place every day, talking to the same people every day … maybe that’s why bartending is so appealing me. But some people are creatures of habit, and if you work at a place that is part of their routine, you’re in their life. I’ve been in a lot of people’s lives, whether I wanted to be or not.
M.H.: In general, you can’t. Not only can I not tell who will and won’t tip me well even after they’ve sat at the bar, I’ve had people fawn over how great I was and leave me 15 percent. And customers I’ve barely spoken to leave me 40 percent. There are true stereotypes in the tipping world, unfortunately, and I’ll just leave it at that. Stereotypes don’t mean all, but there are patterns. I wish there weren’t.
Although I will say this—A good general rule is: Contruction workers, electricians, laborers generally, are great customers and great tippers. If someone hands you an American Express black card, you’re getting 20 percent.
I really can’t remember the greatest individual tip I’ve ever gotten. I know I’ve gotten $500 a few times. I remember great nights much more easily than I remember great tips.
J.P.: I’m guessing you’ve had m-a-n-y drunk, gropy, ‘Hey, let’s fuck’ guys throughout your career. Does it offend you? Do you dismiss asshole guys as alcohol creations? Have you ever needed security to kick someone’s ass? Have you ever actually met a boyfriend/spouse/whatever via your gig?
M.H.: I think every bartender gets hit on, regardless of physical appearance. By the end of the night, guys are drunk, their options become less, their desperation becomes more. And I’m the one still talking to them, so in their head, it makes sense, I guess. Unless they’re complete jerks about it, I’m not offended. By the same token, I’m rarely flattered by someone hitting on me when I’m working. I always think it’s because I’m the bartender.
Asshole guys are asshole guys. Alcohol just makes it easier for them to believe what they’ve probably always thought anyway: that being an asshole is somehow cool.
The security question is a good one. I don’t know how it works in other places, but in all the years I’ve worked in New York, Webster Hall is the only place I worked that had bouncers (I didn’t mention it earlier because it was a horrible job and I only stayed there three months). Before now, the last three places I worked, not only did I not have a bouncer, I was the only bartender, had keys to the bar, and often no boss around. So security was non existent. I was security.
Here’s the thing: when you’re a female bartender, authority is everything. The saying “the customer is always right” doesn’t apply to bar customers. And I’ve been lucky enough to not work in places where the drunk asshole wins, and I just have to sit there and take it. I have a high tolerance, but I’m not at all afraid to get in the middle of a problem. For the most part, if I see something brewing, I try to diffuse it before it escalates. If it’s me having a confrontation, it rarely escalates. What are you going to do? Hit a girl? Plus, men are still generally chivalrous in that if they see you being threatened, they’re ready to jump in and play hero. In fact, that’s often a problem. I don’t want the men at my bar who are being protective to jump in and save me. It’s important to me that I’m able, for the most part, to handle these things when they come up. I don’t want to be seen as weak by my bosses, or by my customers.
Which is also why I rarely date people I meet at work. Don’t get me wrong … it’s happened. But when it has, it’s usually someone who I’ve never seen there before and who doesn’t frequent the place. It goes to professionalism, although that seems like a weird word to use for bartending.
I remember dating someone who I met at work. He didn’t really come in there before I started working there, but was there frequently when we were dating. When we broke up, he still wanted to come into the bar. It was like, “Hey. It was my bar coming into this (my job!) and I get the bar in the divorce.”
I really try to avoid it. Bartending makes stalking easy.
J.P.: It seems like, with the blooming of eHarmony and jDate and a gazillion other dating websites, the idea of going to a bar to meet people has fallen off. Have you seen any sort of social dropoff in your world due to the Internet? Also, as someone who observes social interactions in a very casual setting, do you think the emergence of iPhones, iPads, etc (everywhere, in every hand) has damaged our abilities to interact with one another on a personal, intimate level?
M.H.: All of that stuff has absolutely had an impact on bars being a sort of pick up place. Also, my job is a place where the clientele is 90 percent men, so I might not be the bartender to ask. I do think smart phones and such have impacted people’s abilities to interact socially—my standard joke is “Stop Texting each other. You can talk to him. He’s standing right there!“—but I also think they’ve given people who might otherwise be uncomfortable going to a bar alone the opportunity to be there by themselves and not feel awkward.
J.P.: I’m allergic to beer, so I know nothing. But I always hear beer snobs ripping American beer as watery liquid shit, while praising some European thick beer as amazing and awesome and blah, blah. Marcia, does America make shit beer? And is there a such thing as the insufferable beer snob?
M.H.: If America makes shit beer, then give me shitty American beer. I have the palate of a 12-year-old boy. I drink pissy light beer, and the only reason I can tell a $20 bottle of wine from a $200 one is because of my job.
There is absolutely such a thing as an insufferable beer snob. And an insufferable wine snob. They’re the same people who are offended by you eating your steak well done and putting ketchup on a hot dog. I know, because I do both. And never hear the end of it. It’s so bad, I won’t even order steak in a restaurant.
I’ve never understood why anyone cares about how you like your steak, or if you’re drinking a Miller Lite. Taste is a personal thing.
J.P.: How did the New York ban on smoking in bars impact your career?
M.H.: When it first started, I thought it would be awful. But it’s probably the best thing that ever happened to bars, for smokers and non-smokers alike.
For non smokers, the reason is obvious. But for smokers, not only did it keep people from mindlessly chain smoking, but it also gave men the chance to approach women they normally wouldn’t. Even for me … I smoke *cough* and people who I wouldn’t normally have a conversation with, I’m talking to while we’re outside smoking. A group of strangers outside smoking will always have a conversation. It’s almost impossible not to.
It only sucks when it’s cold or raining.
• Hardest drink to make, and why?: Anything with muddling. Old fashioneds, mojitos … and they’re not so much hard, as time consuming. You don’t get tipped more for making a mojito than you do for pouring a Jameson shot. And the person who drinks the Jameson shot is usually much cooler.
• I loved Zima in college. As a result, people routinely asked about my vagina. Fair or unfair?: Completely unfair. Wouldn’t stop me from doing it.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Piels, Jim McMahon, roasted peppers, IHOP, The X Factor, Vin Baker, Memphis, beef jerky, Bob Costas, tampon commercials, the New York Post, Sean Hannity, Lance Mehl, Long Beach Island, Justin Timberlake: This might be the hardest question you asked, but here it goes—Justin Timberlake, Jim McMahon, beef jerky, The New York Post, Long Beach Island, Memphis (shout out to Gary Parrish and Geoff Calkins … and Justin Timberlake, of course), Bob Costas, The X Factor, Piels, IHOP, roasted peppers, Vin Baker, tampon commercials, Lance Mehl, Sean Hannity.
• Worst place you’ve seen someone vomit in a bar?: On the bar. And then passed out in it. Pictures were taken (not by me). Hard to recover from that.
• Worst pickup line you’ve ever heard: Someone offered to take me to the nude beaches in the South of France. Public nudity and French people? That’s what nightmares are made of.
• I’ve got a tiny beige wart on my wrist that won’t go away. I’m considering digging into it with a screwdriver. Thoughts?: I’m against it.
• On a scale of 1 to 10, how much are you worried about death?: I feel like it went from a 4 to a 6 in the last year.
• What should we do to this kid’s parents?: As someone who was raised Jewish, pray that kid marries a Catholic. Or a Muslim. Or (God forbid) doesn’t get married and dies alone. That oughta do the trick.
• Five things you keep in your purse?: Hair clip, makeup bag, phone charger, ibuprofen, bottle opener.
• Would you rather lick clean the entire floor of your bar five minutes before closing, or spend one week locked in a room with Tim Tebow, Celine Dion and a chronically excreting parrot named Beth?: Without Tebow, it would have been a really tough choice. But I’m a huge Gator fan and an unabashed Tebow-lover, so … *ducks*