Confessions of a cocktail waitress

A trip through the twilight zone of waitressing in a neighborhood Chico bar

Photo by Tom Angel

This photo illustration does not depict the author.

I’m three minutes late. In bar time, that’s almost half an hour. I’m running through the crowded parking lot with an apron full of cash, pens and hair clips clinking by my side. My white collared shirt is still warm from pressing the wrinkles out after last night’s seven-hour shift. The ironing was also an attempt to rid it of the smell of cheap colognes rubbed on me by men almost twice my age wanting “one last hug” before they headed home. I’m a college student. I can’t afford to do laundry on a daily basis.

Entering the bar, I glance at my reflection in the windowed door and see a woman who’s ready to converse, serve and laugh it up with this establishment’s collection of barflies. My eyes are dark with eye shadow and my lips painted deep red with a touch of gloss to make them shiny. I wear a tight black skirt and ugly black shoes that I’ll probably walk four miles in over the next six hours. My curly blonde hair hangs well past my shoulders.

I’m a cocktail waitress. “Bar maid,” as my boyfriend puts it. I’ve just entered my personal twilight zone—otherwise known as Friday night.

My eyes dance quickly around the tables I’ll be serving, recognizing familiar faces and pinpointing groups that I’ll baby-sit throughout my shift. Through the maze of people I throw a quick wave to my bartenders and try to read their facial expressions for how the night has been so far. One of them raises an eyebrow, another just smirks. Should be an interesting evening. They weave bottles in and out of their fingers, impressing onlookers who eagerly await their next drinks.

I grab my small tray and change box, get updated on each customer from the waitress I’m relieving and head to my first table.

There are seven of them: loud, drunk and not leaving anytime soon. Empty pitchers of Pale Ale litter the table, along with crumbs, wet napkins and dice. I can already tell three things about these guys. One, I won’t get tipped except maybe for some spare change they might find in their pockets. Two, they will send back every drink, complain about every song played, and relentlessly try to get my phone number. And best of all, at least one of them will puke in the bathroom—which, as I’m closing the bar tonight, I’ll clean. But I shrug it off, part my lips into a smile and try to understand the slurred words as they come at me with another order.

I head outside to the patio, where cigarette smoke and fresh air compete for space and the DJ is blaring “American Girl.” If only Tom Petty could see me now. Just then I notice another table packed with faces recognizable to anyone who works here. I refer to these people as my “Cheers crew,” since I know them by name and I’m always glad they came. I remember what each of them drinks, how long it takes them, and to always keep the rounds coming. As I approach, I’m welcomed with warm smiles and hazy eyes, and arms begin to slide around my waist as part of my greeting.

I ask how everyone is, how their children are doing. I ask some about their latest fling and others how their work week went. I glance around, clear the table of empty glasses and note in my head what to bring them. They know I don’t need to ask.

My memory has been one of the areas where I’ve made vast improvements while cocktailing. It’s a must to remember not only drink orders, but also faces and names. I haven’t always gotten the names down, but I do always know what my regulars are drinking. I refer to them as “vodka-cran,” “scotch-rocks” or “tequila shot.” As for names, I like “honey,” “sweetie” and whatever else I can muster up in a split second.

After getting an order, I attempt to go directly to the bar and regurgitate the information to my bartender, but at times I use my handy-dandy cocktail napkin to jot things down, just in case. Stacked on my tray are 15 drinks. Tall draft beers, short glasses of vodka tonics and rum and cokes. Flavored shots, bottles of Bud Light, and let’s not forget the glass of lemons and extra napkins. I pray each time I lift my tray off the bar that I don’t drop it. I look up at the ceiling (literally) and ask God not to let me trip and fall, which works most of the time but not always, unfortunately.

Over three hours have passed, and after a good 17 trips to my loud-mouthed table, they’re once again snapping their fingers at me, yelling, “Hey baby, come here!” The group has increased by a few, and the people who once sat at the tables around them have scattered. The smell of sweat and beer fills my lungs as I approach. More than anything, I’d like to pull a “Coyote Ugly” on them and spray each one down with water—I don’t think they’ve hit a shower in the past month. Luckily, all they want is their tab, which I’m sure they’ll pay with change they’ve found on the floor or scrubbed off sober friends who have come to relieve me of their company.

I do have tables that don’t cause a whole lot of anything. A couple sits by the window for an after-dinner drink or a post-movie cocktail. They’re in their mid-40s and dressed well. I can tell they enjoy each other’s company—and mine for that matter. They tip me generously, engage in light conversation and ask me to sit with them, discussing what I’m studying in school.

A small group of girlfriends sits outside, sipping on martinis and smoking menthol cigarettes. They are trendy college students who seem to be the best of friends—they’re straight out of Sex and the City. Genuine smiles are plastered across their faces and etched in their eyes. They pay little attention to anyone else in the bar, listening only to each other, once and a while doubling over with laughter.

Then there is the people watcher. He’s sitting alone, sipping on red wine. I guess he’s in his 80s. His hair gleams white; his clothes match perfectly. He looks reflectively at each table and seems to enjoy being in a lively setting but not wanting any company.

When I finally get a spare moment, I catch my breath, wipe down a few tables and head to the bar. Not for a drink order this time, but to chat with my co-workers, whom I also refer to as friends. We catch up on the night’s endeavors, take a shift shot … or two … or three. We shake our heads, we gossip, we try to shock each other with stories from the evening. After a few laughs, we remember the tables waiting, the customers antsy for another drink, and we are once again the servers.

Two hours and 45 minutes later most of the patrons have finally filtered out of the bar. Those who linger are waiting for cabs, drunk dialing a latest love interest or sharing one last smoke on the patio. They gingerly wave goodbye as I sit on a barstool and rest the feet I’ve walked back and forth on for over six hours. My bartender mixes us one last drink before we begin our closing duties.

A place that just minutes ago was packed with noise, people and flowing alcohol is now quiet and calm. The air is clear of smoke but resonates with the smell of spilled beer, mixed perfumes and bleach, which I’m using to fumigate the tabletops, chairs and bathrooms. The DJ is long gone; in his place is the jukebox, playing AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” How fitting.

I empty trash cans, stock straws and fill napkin holders. I rinse out ashtrays, replace toilet paper and, finally, I shut off the lights.

Another night, another shift at one of the most diverse bars in Chico. The people I encounter make me smile, make me cringe, and sometimes make me crazy—in good ways and bad. The one thing I can always count on is my customers leaving me with stories, all of which I will listen to, some I may even re-tell. I love my job. I love the challenge, the mixture of people I encounter and the laughter I’m guaranteed every time I enter that windowed door to the twilight zone.