By Shawn Hart

The helium-charged balloons, once as fresh and firm as a good breast augmentation, now hung at all levels of the lounge like a large molecular model of a depression-causing enzyme.

It was 3 a.m. Smiles, that earlier, like bone-white doves, had fluttered and lit, had now flattered and left, or were caged within their respective skulls and had ceased to coo. It was spooky quiet and dead slow but for the bar clocks, which, as always, ran 10 minutes fast.

Surveying the wreckage they would shortly undertake to clear, a bartender and a trio of cocktail waitresses slumped on stools exhausted, staring at the detritus like cyclone survivors. For seven non-stop hours they had sloshed green beer and Irish whiskey to an SRO crowd of ersatz Celts while watching layer after layer of inhibition and propriety erode away and mayhem take its place.

But now it was done, another St. Patrick’s Day endured, and while the profanities exchanged by these spent servers might call to mind the bleeps in the (very funny) Bud Lite “swear jar” commercial, no brewer would use this moment to promote bonhomie or beer. It feels nothing like Miller Time.

Bartending (and beer drinking) are glamorized with television images of sun-tanned hunks (or hunkesses) serving mountain cold gratification to back-slapping buddies who’ve earned a few rounds for bringing in the harvest of America’s heartland. And while you’ll never see a commercial showing a cue stick clocking a bartender who just shouted “last call,” it’s a sad reality that billiard balls and pool cues are routinely moved to a storage room on ‘holidays’ that are celebrated in the name of a saint.

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“You’ll drive some poor woman to drink or religion,” my own sainted Irish mother used to say. Long since deceased, she’ll never know how right she was. While visiting Philadelphia years ago, I was asked to sub a few shifts at a small restaurant in Chestnut Hill called George’s (now Roller’s Flying Fish). George’s was an elegant little mecca for macrobiotics who loved the finer things in life, including top shelf liquors like Hennessy Paradis and a clutch of rare single malt scotches that were served in snifters and sold for as much as I’d make in a night.

Starting my first shift, I found glasses that hadn’t been properly polished and so little prep work completed that I was ‘in the weeds’ before I’d even tied on my apron. The bartender who’d left the mess was a striking blonde, a favorite of the customers and maitre d’ alike.

I whined to the manager about wanton disregard for the protocol of leaving the bar as you’d like to find it yourself. It was suggested I keep my criticism guarded, lest my slovenly counterpart take one of those crystal snifters to my throat. I ignored the advice and battled with her for weeks before finally giving up and ultimately marrying her. Now I do the dishes, and she’s found another career as a Lutheran pastor; I like to think those complaints about her spotted glassware were heard as a calling to her current vocation, but I suspect she chose ordination over homicide.

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A bar is both cage and a stage, and bartenders are necessarily chameleons, changing colors to blend with those who have them trapped. He or she is a counselor, a fixer, confidant, referee and entertainer, improvising performances for tips and the approval of the clientele…and his own ego. His ear is available to everyone who can bend an elbow and afford a drink. The best are capable of conducting several conversations at once, a trick like composing horn arrangements for a Dixieland jazz standard. At their best, bartenders are stars, and St. Patrick’s Day and New Year’s Eve, universally known as “amateur nights” in the libations business, demand command performances.

Long ago, while I was tending bar at a Salem, Oregon country club, I was invited by a local college administrator to add a bartending class to the school’s Hotel Food Services curriculum.I created a syllabus and had the community college’s facilities department build a back bar and a serving bar to train students in a course we called “Hospitality Beverages.”

Tavern owners, who entrust their liquor inventories and operating licenses to their bartenders, know they’d better hire someone conscientious, well-trained and trustworthy. However, it’s equally important that a bartender be attentive, personable, a multi-tasker. It is too common a misconception that “anyone can do it.” Anyone can mix a drink, but not everyone can tend bar. I knew this and tried to drive the point home ad nauseam throughout the semester.

But attention and personality are difficult, if not impossible, to teach. I made a deal with my employer at the club to permit a few kids per shift to work the bar under my supervision, to give them a “hands on” sense of what the job requires. Like most “19th holes” McNary’s had a large group of regulars, including the club pro, who’d hang around most of day playing high-stakes gin rummy games and running a tab into the hundreds. While I attended to their needs, I’d have the kids serve the handful of customers at the bar.

On this issue of attentiveness, Hammurabi, whose eponymous codes are some of the oldest deciphered writings in history (“an eye for an eye…etc.”), proposed rather severe standards for poor service: For a first infraction, an innkeeper (read bartender) would lose a hand; for a second, his head. One assumes bartenders of Hammurabi’s time — nearly 4000 years ago — performed their duties with exacting zeal, in contrast to the ‘offhand’ approach we sometimes see today.

Well, each time I’d return to the bar from the tables filled with thirsty card players, I’d find two or three dirty ashtrays while my students washed glasses, cut fruit or hauled ice. I reminded them of their inattention with an ultimatum: I would take a 15-minute break, and when I came back, my bar had better be about full drinks, clean ashtrays and happy customers or they’d all be sent home with a failing grade.

Upon my return to the bar through the dining room, I saw the smirks first on the faces of the regulars at the tables, and then I saw the smoke. Obliviously, my students continued to pour beers, rinse glasses and clean ashtrays…NOT ONE DIRTY ashtray marred the bar. But they’d forgotten to wet the napkins before using them to scoop the trays, and now the trashcan smoldered with dry cocktail napkins and still-burning butts as the room filled with smoke. Is it any wonder that I too have found another occupation?

Nobody’s perfect, not even the best heavy-pouring bartender. And even those servers who deserve our disdain may just be fed up with ungrateful, poor-tipping customers who have a proclivity to quote Hammurabi’s Code. But this isn’t Babylon, and we devilishly drunken revelers, particularly on this saint’s day, can redeem ourselves by showing some courtesy, some sympathy and some taste.

This St. Patrick’s Day — being a Saturday to boot — when, around midnight your bartender is overwhelmed with orders from abusive leprechauns and up to his apron in alligators, show a little patience. Instead of belching, “Hey, whattya gotta do to get a drink around here?” sing another verse of “A Nation Once Again” and relax.

After all, he’s not going anywhere until all this is cleaned up.

And don’t forget to tip well.