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Think in the Morning has a number of posts on the Sea Gull Cellar Bar, a Mendocino watering hole that existed in the 70s and 80s. We’ve already told several of our stories from those times. A bartender is part chemist, part psychologist, part sheriff—multiple personalities. The job can be uplifting and depressing, exciting and boring, physically taxing and laid back all at the same time. I would imagine if you asked a dozen bartenders what their job is like you would get a dozen different answers—all correct. We hope other bartenders will chime in with some of their own stories in the comments section.
I was not really a bartender although I did fill in from time to time and even worked a regular shift when necessary. What I distinctly remember is how I felt “corralled” in behind the bar. That is, the bartender is trapped while the patrons sit across the bar and pontificate. Every subject is fair game. The tongue loosens up about the same time the brain freezes so what comes out is a string of overconfident banalities that the patron confuses with great wisdom and the bartender recognizes as pure drivel. The bartender listens, nods the head, and generally agrees or if that is impossible turns to another patron and hopes for the best. At least that what I recollect. It was a long time ago.
The patrons communicate between themselves and the bartender is a passive servant—makes drinks on demand, attends to various chores, garnishes to be prepared, sugar water to be made, supplies to be stocked, dishes to be washed. While the bartender hears and listens, it is important not to speak unless spoken to, never to argue (at least not too strenuously) and never to repeat what is heard in the bar when outside the bar. Unnecessary judgments and gossip will, in most establishments, result in immediate dismissal.
Romances are often formed at the bar. This is not the bartender’s concern especially when the bartender is the one romanced which is often the case. Opinions are sometimes expressed that will later be cause for regret. The best bartenders have no memory. Patrons have peculiar tastes. It is not the bartender’s place to argue. I was once called upon to make a “fleet deck landing,” a drink I’d never heard of. The customer told me it was light rum, dark rum and buttermilk in equal portions. I did as asked although it sounded disgusting at the time. [Note: buttermilk was to be had in the restaurant upstairs from the bar]
Once two male patrons decided to have a pissing contest. They went outside and stood side-by-side on Lansing Street and pissed down hill. Never under any circumstances should a bartender get involved in such outside-the-bar activities, certainly not as a judge.
There are occasional situations in which the bartender will be called upon to make game-changing decisions. For example, when the clock is turned back an hour at the end of daylight savings time, how late can drinks be served? Until 2 o’clock by the old time or the new time? This question doesn’t usually arise then the clock is moved forward. Everyone agrees that the old time should be used in this circumstance. This issue may not arise in the future depending on law changes but it is useful for the bartender to have some answers in his tool kit for such arcane but urgent questions. Another example, if the patron’s 21st Birthday is tomorrow, can he drink starting at midnight?
Difficulties can arise when a bartender moves to the other side of the bar and becomes a patron at the end of a shift. I remember a bartender (we won’t name names here) who was a prolific drinker (never on shift of course). Once this bartender had so much to drink that he fell off the bar stool. He lay passed out on the floor until he woke up, climbed back onto the barstool and ordered another drink. The new bartender prudently refused to serve him. When he inquired why he was refused the new bartender explained that he had fallen off his bar stool and passed out on the floor. The off-shift bartender thought about that for a moment and then calmly agreed. “I did? Well then, I wouldn’t serve myself either so that’s ok.” Bartenders are a reasonable lot and they understand the importance of following the rules.
Occasionally famous people would enter the bar. It is important to treat such people as regulars, to wait on them without fuss and to protect them from the curious. I remember one Sunday morning when Gene Wilder came into the Cellar Bar (it was the new upstairs version by then). I acted perfectly normal as if such things happened every day. No one else was in the bar. He drank his Gin Fizz and I went right on setting up. To my recollection neither of us spoke a word. Anonymity is an important feature that the famous relish when offered. I was terrified to say anything anyway. What was I going to do, tell him a joke?
A string of musicians came in and out of the bar in those days, both the old Cellar and the new one. Not to play but to drink. And hopefully without causing a stir. Lots of local bands and big names too like Tommy Tutone, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Argo Guthrie, Rita Coolidge and Kris Kristofferson, and lots more including Gene Clark.
Gene [Clark] ventured into the Seagull Cellar Bar in the town of Mendocino, where he befriended proprietor-bartender Martin Hall. Gene became a frequent visitor to the Seagull and to his delight was treated no differently than any of the other locals or passersby. No one knew he was Gene Clark of the Byrds. Martin informed Gene that he had a cabin for rent across from the Andiron Lodge in Little River. Gene soon rented the cabin and, inspired by his rustic surroundings, begin writing a body of songs that represented a more basic approach to his muse-just just acoustic guitar and voice. Mr. Tamborine Man: The Life and Legacy of The Byrds’ Gene Clark, John Einarson
The Sea Gull Cellar Bar was busier on foggy and rainy days and also at night. Serious drinkers prefer the cover darkness provides. At such times the occasional troublemaker will enter the bar and try to take it over. Bartenders must be skilled in the Rule of 86—that is, how to get rid of a problem without bringing attention to it.
Sometimes the oddest situations occurred during the slowest times. I had a local arrive one morning when there were no other customers in the bar. I was setting up and making Gin Fizzes and Bloody Marys for the breakfast crowd upstairs in the restaurant. The poor guy was severely hungover. He ordered a Fernet-Branca which he downed in a single gulp. Then he started crying uncontrollably. As best I could tell he’d been jilted by the love of his life. I poured him another Fernet-Branca on the house and suggested he go home and sleep at least until noon. He concurred. Several days later he returned and thanked me for the good advice. It goes with the territory.
Many bartenders become alcoholics. It shows a lack of discipline. Personally, while I understand the circumstances that lead to such a dreadful situation, I look down on it. It’s an expensive habit both financially and medically. If you are a bartender prone to addiction, I suggest abstinence as the best policy but if that proves impossible restrict yourself to after hours drinking when the establishment is closed and sleep it off before driving home. A few drinks to unwind after a shift is normal behavior. I remember one evening getting drunk on Tuaca with another bartender, busman’s holiday sort of thing. I was never able to eat Butterscotch brownies again.
It’s always good to have something useful to read when things get slow. One of our bartenders studied aviation and became a pilot with Hawaiian Airlines. Others joined in with the napkin artists where they found camaraderie. Some became immortal when local artists painted them. Many Sea Gull bartenders appear in the famous Sea Gull Paintings by James Maxwell.
A bartender can earn their place in history by inventing a drink. One of our bartenders (initials DB) invented the Dirty Bird. It was our most popular drink and I have devoted much of my post-Sea Gull time introducing it around the world to the delight of many unsuspecting drinkers who have found it equally delicious and deleterious.
A good bartender is an unappreciated treasure. Leave a big tip next time you have a drink and you won’t regret it.
Nice post, KD. So who won the pissing contest? How was victory measured? Size of hands?
Thanks for the remembrance.
AHH-H-H-H!!! Yes! . . . . . Another lifetime ago!
I was a bartender in 1971 in the cellar. Lots of interesting times and visitors. Gene Clark, Peter Fonda, Hell’s Angels and so on. I was usually the only person working in the bar and if I had to use the bathroom, I asked one of the patrons to watch the bar for me. One of my popular drink for some patrons was the Fog Cutter which I borrowed from Trade Vic’s drink book. By the way, like most Sea Gull bartenders, I learned on the job and sometimes I needed help in making the drinks from the patrons. When a patron wanted a beer, I said we had Bass Ale and Anchor Steam in a bottle and then the asked for Budweiser which we did not have.
How do you make a Dirty Bird?
I can’t remember the circumstances, but we came up with some kind of concoction made of vodka, tequila, Kahlua and half and half in a blender strained in an eight ounce glass for a buck-fifty. Dick Barham at https://thinkinthemorning.com/the-sea-gull-saga-part-1/
I recommend equal portions of all 4 ingredients but you can vary to taste.
Good flick about bartenders….
I bought Bonnie Riatt an Irish Coffee upstairs one afternoon….