Sunday, a few hours after I take down my art from the Rainbo Club, Jimmy calls to ask if I can fill in as second bartender. The doorman’s sick and no one else is available. It’s a call I’d expected many months back but had mostly given up on. It comes nine months after I quit bartending at the Skylark. I thought I was done with all that. I’ve settled into a routine revolving around freelance work, personal projects, and the occasional short-term side-gig. I’m about to turn fifty-two. Is there any place for me in the service industry? Do I want or need that?
After quitting the Skylark, I told people who asked if I’d pour drinks again that I had some conditions: no TVs, no drinks with more than three ingredients, preferably cash-only, and I pick all the music. This eliminates about 99% of current Chicago bars. What I was saying was basically Rainbo or bust and Jimmy wasn’t calling. That didn’t upset me. Working at my all-time favorite bar is a double- or quadruple-plus-edged sword. No surer way to ruin the magic and mystery of a place than going in the back and finding out what’s in the closets, the attic, the cellar.
I filled in as second-doorman once and the guy I worked with never remembers me, cards me every time I come in. I sort of like that. If I start bartending here, he’ll eventually start to recognize me. I’d rather be a stranger.
All these misgivings and others race through my head but I hear myself not hesitating and saying yes to Jimmy on the phone. He seems kind of surprised. Maybe I am too. But I don’t want to pass this up. It may be my only chance.
Biking north on Damen, I pass Mike, the afternoon bartender, going south. He wishes me a good shift, calling out over the traffic. Mike’s probably the reason this is happening. After running through everyone on his list, Jimmy likely asked his bartenders if they had any friends who could step up. I’d told Mike and the others more than once that I’d be up for it. The Rainbo’s not the kind of place you fill out an application or have a formal interview. This is how it happens. A gap needs to be plugged and a call is made. If you answer the call, it could become a thing.
Matt shows me what’s where. It’s quiet and doesn’t ever get hectic. He doesn’t really need me there but it’s not safe to have just one person running a bar all night and this is the perfect way for me to get my feet wet. I’m rusty but after a few hours it starts coming back to me. The rhythm of scanning the room to check how low the glasses are getting. Gauging how much or little to say to drinkers. I’m second-banana and don’t yet know the ins and outs, so not very much is expected of me.
A few people who come in do a double take when they see me on the other side of the bar. I don’t blame them. I feel the same. It may never happen again. If it does, I hope I get to pick the music.
—Listen to Onda Vaga.