{ behind the bar }

I rolled into Iowa City fresh out of four years of liberal arts college on the East Coast and poured myself from the catering business into a bartending job in one of the trailer park bars. There are two kinds of bars in Iowa City: college bars where UIowa Students get trashed, and trailer park bars where locals get drunk. The college students call the local bars, without exception, dives.

Memories was a dive. I called it a trailer park bar because 90 percent of my clientele lived in one of Iowa City's bustling tin can condos. The customers all knew each other, what each other drank, and what to do to piss each other off.

As a college graduate, I had to learn the art of not responding to slurs about dykes or niggers without getting threatened with getting fired for getting in their business. "Larry's my friend, and he owns this bar!" Trying to stay out of conversations was even harder. "Hey, come over here and settle something between me and Charlie here!"

One of the regulars, a guy who was known as Fargie, recited his address every night on his way out the door. "76 Hill Top Trailer Court. Just knock and come on in. And wear those leather pants!"

Good night, Fargie.

Fargie was one of the most harmless of the regulars. No felonies, I mean. He and his cohorts worked at the recycling plant, or the Proctor & Gamble factory, or the tire shop, or some other honest, working stiff job. Many of them had been to jail or rehab at least once. One of them, Bill, was the half-brother of one of the other bartenders, and the right-hand man of a strong arm who was the closest thing Iowa City had to the Mob. Bill's favorite line was, "Where did you get that mouth?"

Good night, Bill.

Bill had done time in a tiger cage in Vietnam and a state prison for manslaughter. He had amazing blue eyes, and his favorite drink was called the Landmine, which consisted of a shot of tequila loaded with Tabasco sauce. That was nearly the fanciest drink I ever poured in Memories. It was a beer bar whose top-shelf brand was Corona. Four beers on tap, two of them Old Style and Old Style Light. Most of the mixed drinks were of the 7-and-7 or screwdriver variety. And I poured a lot of whiskey.

Jim and Jackie, the other two bartenders (who were married to each other), taught me the value of a clean bar, a good game of darts, and a tall glass of whiskey and coke. Pour yourself a Coke at the beginning of your shift. First whiskey drink you make, give your glass a nudge. Keep it filled like that all night and you won't get tired or tense. Jackie had a lot of bad tattoos, was a self-professed "fence-sitter," and could break up a fight just by looking at you funny.

Good night, Jackie.

Jackie's husband, Jim, kept a hairbrush behind the bar and had big bug eyes that stuck out of his aging rock star face. Jim would periodically kick whiskey, as would a lot of the other patrons when they got so far gone that they had a fight or a fling with someone who wouldn't ordinarily register as more than another regular. One of these whiskey-quitters was Janine, a fat girl with mean eyes and whiskers on her chin. To celebrate, she drank Yukon Jack, a whiskey liquor with a burn and a smooth slide down the back of the throat. Janine had a lot of friends who only really appreciated her truck.

Good night, Janine.

Janine was a gossip who'd two-time her own mother if it meant she got to deliver a scoop. She often scooped both about or to the owner, Larry. Larry drank Old Style in a can, played a mean game of darts, and installed videocameras behind the bar. My first day of work, Larry told me that I'd have to learn how to cut people off. No matter how strange it seems, it's illegal to serve liquor to a person who's drunk. Bartenders do it all the time, but they need to learn when a customer really is too drunk to drink. They need to serve a glass of water or coke and call a cab or secure a ride with a non-drinking patron (there were several regulars who only drank Coke). Larry also told me that when he and his girlfriend, Roxie, were too drunk, I would need to cut them off, too.

Right, Larry.

One day I walked in and could tell that Larry and Roxie had been occupying their posts at the end of the bar for the majority of the day. A lot of the customers come in as soon as they leave work and don't leave until way into the evening, often ordering pizza from next door to tide them over while they demolished most of a case of beer, often without any visible effects on their affects. Not this time. Roxie was slurring her speech so bad she sounded like a crackhead. She was nodding off into her beer, and when she got up to play darts, she was throwing toward the wall, but nowhere in the vicinity of the dartboard. Roxie was a dart league champ.

You okay, Roxie?

They'd been fighting. They fought a lot. Larry ordered another round and I told him that Roxie was too drunk to have another beer. He ordered the beer and ordered me to serve it. I refused. I called a cab and told them to get in and they dismissed it. And then he dismissed me.

"You serve her that beer or you quit," he said.

"That's damn illegal and you know it," I said.

"Then you're fired," he said.

I got my shit and left.

They got an ex-bartender, also drunk, to finish my shift. She stole $80 from the till and blamed it on me. I left that dysfunctional family of barflies there. When I checked in occasionally over the next year, they were all still there, all still drunk, all still nodding into their drinks and barely recognizing me, not at all recognizing themselves in their friends sent to detox for repeated DUIs.

Me, I stopped drinking on the job, because I stopped bartending. I recognized myself in the bottom of the glass. I haven't been there in years.

Are you a regular?


{ "tainted" font by rob irrgang }