New drinkers marvel at our register. It sits like a monument towering over glasses and bottles on the back bar. They ask if we ever use it. After all, it’s an antique. But there are bills in the drawer. No one except Lon knows how much but they’re in there.
When I started at the Albatross he stressed that I should always ring up drinks. The left column of buttons goes up to $90; the right down to 00. cents. Hitting the total the register makes a satisfying sound. The mechanical sound of gears and wheels turning and colliding, culminating in the opening of the drawer. Except at the Albatross the drawer is never shut. That’s another of Lon’s rules: NEVER SHUT THE DRAWER. The key was lost decades ago so now he has to pry it open with a screwdriver, sometimes splintering wood in the process. Bending the fittings. The register doesn’t look so grand up close.
After my first few sales I noticed that the register tape moved in the little window and I could see the price imprinted into the paper but there was no ink visible. I told Lon but he said not to worry about it. He said not to count out at the end of the night either. Just take my hourly out, sweep up, and go home.
Throughout the night Lon comes back behind the bar and stares a moment or two at the register as if staring it down. He scoops out the $20s. He lifts the drawer to see if there are any larger bills and takes those as well. Then he disappears in the back. When I needs $1s or $5s or quarters he disappears back there as well.
Lon had me make up a pricelist for the bar but I’m the only one who sticks to it. When he’s working an Old Style is a buck for the old-timers but two or three for the newbies. Women drink for free more often than paying. Especially if they’re drinking alone. Free rounds are sent out on a whim. When he hits the keys on the old register it looks more like a slot machine. He pauses dramatically before slamming his finger down. Then watches the the total spin to a stop in the window.
Newcomers to the neighborhood order a round, then put a credit card on the bar, ask to start a tab. I want to laugh but patiently explain we’re cash only and to pay as you go. Lon has his own policies on that. Sometimes after one of his father’s old friends has put in hours, slumping eventually to the point of having to be roused, Lon comes around to where they’re sitting, helps them into their coats, and tells them what they owe for the night.
Few complain when I charge them more than Lon does. They know the prices at the Albatross are liable to be adjusted according to the owner’s state of mind. They don’t expect his employees to be as erratic and unpredictable. When he leaves to do his mysterious errands, which can last many hours, the regulars tell me stories about Lon. A few have known him since he was a little boy. They remember when he worked at the electronics store next door. The one that’s now a ramen shop. He’d bring transistor radios over and take them apart at the end of the bar. He always wanted to know how everything worked. He wasn’t so good at putting things back together.
Even now there are springs, gears, and dials scattered about the bar. Lon has long forgotten where they came from. I ask if I can throw them away but he says he will use them. When? For what? He can’t say. Out back he has five other cash registers in various states of disrepair. Does he think some other bar will ever want them? Most bars if they haven’t switched to a POS system prefer there to be ink for their register tape. They Z out their sales after every shift. They make the bartender count out the drawer and explain voids and overrings.
A few times a year Lon gathers a great pile of receipts and documents, throws them in a worn leather satchel and heads downtown to see his accountant. He tells me he’s three weeks late renewing the bar license and looks worried. Says the bar may have to close a few days. When he returns he says they somehow dodged a bullet again.
I keep ringing in drinks as if the $5s, $10s, and $12.50s are being totaled up by someone somewhere. Does Lon know how much the Albatross brings in? He pays the bills he can pay as they come in.
That satisfying sound the old register makes after adding up the charges might as well be one of those special effects from the movies.