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Ty Wenzel thinks she’s a rock star, and she’s not ashamed to admit it. Wenzel, a former New York bartender, purports to offer a definitive industry tell-all à la Kitchen Confidential in her memoir and debut, Behind Bars: The Straight-Up Tales of a Big-City Bartender. But Behind Bars discloses nothing more shocking than the size of Wenzel’s ego.
Wenzel discovered bartending after she dropped out of the Fashion Institute of Technology and became predictably disillusioned with “dream jobs” at a PR firm, Bloomingdale’s, and Cosmo, where she was a fashion editor. Unhappy with the shallowness and cutthroat attitudes she found prevalent in the fashion world, Wenzel quit working entirely to figure out her next step. When her carefree days of clubbing and drinking threatened to end along with her unemployment checks, she realized that bartending would be a perfect short-term solution to both her problems. She learned a few drinks from a friend, and, after a handful of short-lived gigs, found a home at Marion’s, a Lower East Side restaurant, where she ended up working for 10 years.
The book starts out with a quick glimpse of Wenzel’s last night at Marion’s before delving into her background and what led her to “mixing.” (Though the term and its variations”mixer,” “mixologist”are technically correct, her pretentious use of them gets to be annoying.) Each chapter begins with a drink-related quote (“The hard part about being a bartender is figuring out who is drunk and who is just stupid”) and a cocktail recipe, and each chapter steers the reader into a slightly different area, such as “To Tip or Die in Manhattan” and “Pink Drinks and the Downfall of Culture.” But there’s little narrative structure; Wenzel hops from topic to topic seemingly randomly.
Besides stories from her time at Marion’s, Wenzel discusses her personal life, including the guilt stemming from her anti-alcohol Muslim upbringing (she was born in a small Turkish village), the sudden onset of her panic attacks, and her husband, Kurt. These anecdotes, however, don’t necessarily follow in chronological order, and Behind Bars’ lack of organization quickly becomes distracting. Worse, Wenzel, like the drunks she serves, is inclined to tell the same details over and over. In the first chapter: “I had a huge bartender fetish, thanks to the divine mixers at Lucky Strike, a regular destination for my friends and me, given the view! I wanted to be the rock stars they became when they were serving up their gorgeous drinks and making me weak at the knees.” Two sections later: “I used to think my favorite bartenders at Lucky Strike got the same attention as rock stars. It’s one of the reasons I started mixing to begin with.” Wenzel likewise reprises: her shots with the wait staff, news of her pregnancy, andmost oftenthe gobs of money bartenders bring home. The author paints a picture in which every bartender you meet sees dollar signs over your head and cares about nothing else: “I’m your bartender, and I’m after your tip,” she states matter-of-factly. And, more coldly: “If your grat isn’t strong, your next drink won’t be either.”
The rest of Wenzel’s industry-insider “scoops” are also less than illuminating. Her insights range from details most readers likely don’t care about (on looking up recipes: “Reality check, people. That’s how bartenders learn to make drinks. One by one”) to clichés that anyone over the age of 16 will have already figured out for herself (the most financially successful bartenders are “selling their sex appeal,” and “[a]lcohol is a great way to soften the blows of life”). Though Behind Bars ends helpfully, with 20 popular drink recipes and advice on breaking into the business, most of Wenzel’s tips stem from self-absorption: “I liked to use the phrase ‘I’m on it’ all the time.”
Though her comparison of bartenders to rock stars is overt, Wenzel avoids putting a label on the similarities between “mixers” and less esteemed professions. Nonetheless, she makes the case, offering her “‘Platform’ theory” of female-bartender-worship: “The stage is set, the spotlight is shining. She’s wearing something tight, something that demands that you empty your wallet to prove your worthiness to her.” When talking about flirting as part of the job, Wenzel says, “Yeah, you’re going to get a hard-on and maybe so am I, but I’m doing it for the money, not the sex.” Wenzel also includes a section on health inspectors in which she pronounces her hot self a necessary mitigator, only to feel oh-so-dirty afterward: “And after all the horseshit of having to dally with a man that I was not in the least bit interested inwho was justly trying to protect the publicall I could think about was getting home and taking a long, hot shower to scrub it all off.”
The writing is less than polished, with awkward transitions and clumsy phrasing such as “it is a statistical fact” and “the anticipatory anxiety is substantial.” The latter sentiment, however, does get adept and insightful treatment, in the book’s most vivid sequence. The chapter “At the Kahiki Lounge” is a briskly paced, start-to-finish description of Wenzel’s typical day of work during the late-summer period, when Marion’s adopts a tropical theme. Beginning with Wenzel hitting the snooze until midafternoon and drowsily grabbing a coffee, the chain of events that follow conveys the life of a bartender better in one chapter than Wenzel’s ramblings throughout the rest of the book:
With my hair dried, I begin adding the embellishments that will transform me from the bitter, groggy New York crank into a flirty, slightly slutty Hawaiian hula-babe. I’ve been so wrecked after shifts that I haven’t had time to do the laundry so, reluctantly, I shimmy back into the Betsey Johnson number. The next thing that goes on is a layer of glitter cream, on the face and shoulders, which will give me an ethereal quality in the candlelight. My hair is looking too proper pulled up, so I loosen it a bit, tresses falling all around, trying to capture that sexy “just got out of bed look”not exactly a stretch. Then, I pin at least fifteen flowers all around so that I resemble a kind of fairy from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The makeup is heavier than usualmore sparkly eyeshadow, lip gloss, and blusher. Now I look more like a naughty fairy who’d do it with you in the bathroom. That’s the impression I’m going for, so I check the clock and realize it’s three o’clock. I swallow hard. I have half an hour to go.
Wenzel then takes you from the bar’s labor-intensive setup to a play-by-play of her busy shift (“Within an hour I am drowning in a sea of lushes on their third frozen drink, leis up to their chins and swaying in tandem to Elvis’s “Blue Hawaii.”…By eleven-thirty my right foot is numb and I can actually smell myself”) and finally to her collapse on her couch. Readers with restaurant experience will feel her relief and the almost palpable soothing of the hot shower she takes before crawling into beduntil they hit “I shut my eyes and pray I won’t have one of those nightmares where my shift continues and I wake up even more exhausted than before I fell asleep…”
Behind Bars aims for a humorous tone, with a list of Wenzel’s 20 “pet peeves” scattered inside the chapters, dead-on categorizations of types of barfliesthe Expert, the Babbler, the Whinerand, of course, cues that a customer is not going to tip well. You get the feeling, though, that Wenzel thinks she’s much funnier than she is; her high opinion of herself permeates nearly every page. She lets you know on Page 1 that she’s “award-winning,” and she continues to give herself props on how far she’s come: “A lot of the nightmares and fears I had as a spineless, frustrated Islamic Jersey girl had faded. For once, I wasn’t afraid of anything. And my regulars were attracted to that.” On her ability to read people: “I can tell a person’s drink as she’s walking through the doors. I’m not saying I’m right every time but more often than not, I’m dead on.” And throw them out: “I’m a tough chick who wouldn’t think twice about chucking [patrons] out onto the cold street.” And, most important, how simply goddamn wonderful she was to watch: “People loved to comment on the way I made a martini.” If Behind Bars teaches the aspiring bartender anything, however, it’s that the love of the regulars is never nearly as crucial as the love you give yourself. CP