Monday, March 22, 2010

Last Call

I was a bartender with a catering company out of Pasadena called The Kitchen For Exploring Foods. This particular gig was a wedding reception held at a museum in Pasadena. It was an outdoor courtyard with cobblestone underfoot and vine covered light brick walls. What happened that evening has burned those visuals in my brain forever but I have blocked out the name of the museum. And what was in a particular glass.

The groom gathered us bartenders before the party to coach us on the liquor he was providing. He was some sort of wine expert or spirit salesman and seemed to be more excited about the drinks than the fact that he'd just gotten married. He seemed to want to drink with us.

I never drank on the job. I knew some of the bartenders did but it just wasn't my thing. So his insistence that I had to sample the rum he'd found just for the occasion that came packaged in round bottles with wicker jackets was mildly annoying. I needed to prep my station and this bore was droning on about the way this particular rum stayed on the back of your tongue and you had to drink it straight and I wasn't to make anyone any mixed drinks with it. They could have it straight but that was it.

Inwardly I made a note to make the first person who came to my bar a margarita with the shit.

His dedication to getting lit seemed to be an indication of the type of crowd we were playing host to. I was stationed in what was probably some sort of sandwich gazebo when the Museum was open. It was a cool late summer night. Perfect weather.

Some weddings you cater are tame, some ragged and wild. This was a strange mix of the two. It was a drinking crowd. And when I say that, what I mean is that they stayed at the bar as opposed to mingling amongst each other. Most weddings people will wander up, get what they need and wander back out in to the maelstrom.

But with these folks you'd have thought there was a flat-screen TV with a big game on. They stayed with me. They drank their drinks and asked for refills which I poured out over the bar into the plastic cups that they didn't bother to throw out.

The father of the bride was leading the charge. A big burly red-faced man he seemed the life of the party. He'd come to the bar with a group of guests and order drinks for all of them as if he were paying at a bar instead of paying our boss with a check. He always had a drink in his hand. Sometimes two.

He and the groom sampled the famous rum they'd gotten just for tonight. The groom double-checked with me to make sure I wasn't wasting it on something as gauche as a rum and coke. I assured him I wasn't even though there were probably three people within ten feet of him who were drinking that very rum mixed with whatever they'd asked for.

Dinner was an after-thought even though it preceded the dancing. Tables were half-empty even with steaming plates of food because the majority of the guests were up with me at the bar.

A light show started and the DJ started playing music. Even in the open air courtyard it was so loud that a kind of claustrophobic party vibe ensued. The one hundred and fifty or so people present crowded onto the dance floor the way people stuff themselves into a kitchen at a house party even though larger rooms are right there to be taken advantage of.

Now my clientele were sweaty and thirsty instead of poised and glamorous.

I remember feeling pressure from this group to party with them, as if any holdouts cast some sort of aspersion on their own behavior. This wasn't uncommon at these shindigs. I still don't really understand it, why a group who ostensibly know each other would need strangers included in their revelry. I had a general feeling of disdain running throughout my body.

Now, full disclosure here. In looking back on this time, misanthropy was the dominating aesthetic in my thought process. I did not look kindly on my fellow man. You've all seen the moment when a person rants about something and an onlooker rolls their eyes and says, "Projection!" I was a walking embodiment of the syndrome.

Dissembling aside, I did not hold this group in high esteem. I was impatient, I sensed that they would be drinking well past the time we'd been scheduled to be there and that I'd probably be the only one left on the scene, held hostage by the alcoholic urges of the groom and the subtle feeling I got that he wasn't all that eager to start his new life with his new wife. He'd just as soon stay at the bar as go consummate.

At one point the father of the bride staggered up to me. He was bathed in sweat from dancing and his shirt had more fabric moistened by his exertion than fabric that remained dry. His suit coat had disappeared. He tried to order a drink from me but seemed too drunk. I tried to figure out what he wanted but eventually he just smiled and waved me off, as if the effort to explain himself had made him realize that maybe, just maybe he didn't need one more drink. He shambled off towards the dance floor where I saw him rejoin his daughter in her white dress. The condensed crowd closed in around him.

The next time I saw him he would be technically dead.

A shout pierced the air and the music stopped. Even though it was a laptop, in my mind I hear the sound of a needle scratching off of wax. Cries of "Call 911" and "Oh no" filled the air. The temperature seemed to have dropped and breath was visible in front of all but one. Through the circle that surrounded him I saw the sweat stained shirt of the father of the bride.

Chaos ensued. Waiters hovered as far from the dance floor as possible except for another Brendan. A good looking surfer kid who'd become a friend. He had just become an actor and had the kind of physical presence and easy attractiveness of a Josh Hartnett or Ryan Reynolds.

He came up to the bar minutes later, angry. It seems that a doctor in the wedding party had tried to perform CPR. But the stricken man had vomited and the doctor had vomited himself upon attempting mouth to mouth. He'd not let Brendan try even though Brendan was a lifeguard trained in CPR. He knew he could have done a better job, mostly because he sensed that the doctor was drunk. In the moment I believed Brendan and I've always wondered whether that could have been the difference that saved the man's life.

The hush that fell over that courtyard was terrible. Our manager instructed us to pack up as quietly as we could but this soon seemed awful and he reversed the decision and told us to wait until the guests had all left. The ambulance pulled into the courtyard sirens blazing and I'll never forget the vision of a bride in a white gown climbing into the ambulance that held her father.

I thought of the moment when I'd last seen the man, when he had wanted to order a drink but couldn't articulate what he wanted. He must have already been dying at that moment. I tried to remember the penultimate visit he'd made to the bar, when he had ordered what wound up being the last drink he'd ever have.

I couldn't remember it. The name of the drink and the name of the museum still seem lost forever, lost like the dream of a little girl hurtled forward from childhood to the moment that ought to have been her most cherished but now is etched, transformed into a wound in her full grown psyche.

Before her father died I'd given it six months. I try to be more charitable now.

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