Inside, the décor is tropical. Island-y. Palm frond thatching here, bright floral print fabric there. A fishing net is draped in irregular droops from the ceiling near the bar; "snagged" in it are cheesy plastic conchs and sand dollars, sad papier-mâché sea horses and starfish. Wide, wood pier planking gives the floor a dock-like look and, to complete the illusion, fat 3-foot high pilings jut from the floorboards, all linked with thick mooring rope. This Caribbean atmosphere is undermined by the stinging, astringent smell of PineSol -- the cleaning crew's disinfectant of choice -- which is itself barely holding its own against the indelible odors of stale beer and cigarette smoke. "Dis paradise, mon, it stinks up to da hebbens," I inform the stuffed marlin hanging behind the bar.
It's a little before 7 p.m.
and I'm opening the place. Unlike my environment, I do not look tropical. I look like a bartender in a college bar of declining popularity. All denim and flannel. The way I figure it, with the way business and tips are, the owner should be grateful for every night I come in not wearing leiderhosen. Or chewing whale blubber.
Until we open at 7:30, there's plenty to do. First, I have to make as much noise as possible, so that the roaches know something bigger than them has entered their space. This is not so much a warning as a courtesy. Next, I'll stock the bar, cut garnishes and blender together the sweet, fruity, sticky mixes that'll go in the tropical drinks -- Headhunters, Mai Tais, Zombies, Flaming Volcanos, etc. -- we specialize in. These drinks take a lot of work up front, but in a few hours when some hot shit, toss-'em-back frat boy has emptied his wallet on them and is passed out on the bar with his face in a full ashtray, it'll all seem worthwhile.
The waitress, Iris, shows. She's right on theme, sporting a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops. She's also crying. "I like your shirt," I tell her. (A rule every bartender should live by: Never ask a crying waitress, "What's wrong?") I basically like Iris -- she works hard and doesn't do a lot of complaining. In the bar business, that combination in a waitress comes along about as often as a serious beer guzzler who never has to take a piss.
My first customer of the evening is my first customer every evening. Jack. Jack owns a small restaurant across the street, and every Monday through Saturday, after the dinner rush, he drifts by the Key Club for a few cocktails. Excuse me, he drifts by the Key Club to get totally, purposefully and remorselessly shit-faced. Over the past year, I've come to know Jack as a 40-ish, responsible, decent, well-read, good tipping, flaky scalped, rather tedious, long-winded, hopeless alcoholic. He would deny that he's an alcoholic if I were to tell him. And I would tell him if he were a lousier tipper. As it is, he sips his double Manhattans (Jack is not tropical either), smokes his Salems and pays me to watch him die. Did I mention I went into bartending for the non-stop party atmosphere?
The band starts lugging in its equipment at around 8:30; first set's at 9. This is their Friday debut here, but I think it's safe to predict I'll soon be listening to four or five aspiring somebodies performing some guitar-bass-drums Rock-related sub-genre at a decibel level capable of disrupting the electrical cohesion binding the individual molecules that make up my skull. Because that, my friend, is what a Friday night band in a college bar is. And if you don't know that, you didn't go to college. ©