To all drink slinging dames
You know your names
Keep your pouring arm strong
For your shift ends at dawn
May your patrons stay sober
Till your till runneth over
And may none of your tips be in change
Befuddlement quickly overcame relief. I’d arrived at the East Village lounge on the celebratory occasion of a friend’s birthday and, on a whim, asked hypothetically if they needed any extra bartenders. “Here’s an application, now get lost.” Or, “We’re fully staffed at the moment, get lost.” Or, “you don’t meet our tattoo to bare skin ratio requirement, get lost.” would have been much more palatable than the response I received. It led me to wonder how many other New York City drinking establishments harbored the same warped policy. I knew of at least one.
In the summer of 2011 I worked at Le Bain, The Standard High Line club infamous for its indoor hot tub. On the same floor sits Boom Boom Room. A place of premier parties and movie scenes, it caters to upper echelon movers. I rarely ran into the exclusively male Boom Boom bar staff, even though we worked in close proximity.
While preparing for my shift in the bowels of the hotel basement, I remember giving side eye to a seasoned veteran who usually arrived in head-to-toe leather, as if he had the power to disavow July’s sweltering heat with cool points he’d racked up. He and the rest of the Boom Boom Boys (BBBs) tooled around like demigods. Other hotel workers and patrons alike acted as lieges to their lordship.
At Le Bain, I spent my time making signature cocktails for conveniently confounded expats who couldn’t quite grasp the notion of gratuity. Candidly, I sometimes found it hard to control my frustration. I’m not proud to admit that on more than one occasion, I excused myself to the ladies room to adjust my unisex sailor shirt and blow off steam.
Stilted yells into my terrycloth towel stayed my nerves, but only temporarily. Across the way, I heard rumblings that the BBBs were pulling in six figures annually. After taxes and withholding, my paychecks hardly amounted to the paper they were printed on. Soon thereafter, I threw my churchkey to the to the bottom of the chlorinated Tinder meet up location known as the Le Bain hot tub never to look back.
Retiring as a bartender also meant saying “good-bye” to a fond part of my youth. As a 29-year-old Lower East Side implant, I’ve been on closing duty at every sort of barroom imaginable since before the law allowed me to partake in potent potables. From Jager Bombs at college dives to aromatic aperitifs at classier speakeasy joints – you name it I’ve mixed it.
I still maintain ties to the industry. Like a player turned coach, I now stand on the sidelines and call the plays as a beverage consultant. Some people take up taxidermy as a hobby, I compete in cocktail competitions. I read books on molecular gastronomy and I know how to say “cheers” in eight different languages. I’m really into this shit! Which is why this entire “no girls allowed” business tastes rather bitter, like a shot of warm Ouzo with a pickled herring back.The Equal Pay Act of 1963 “prohibits sex discrimination in the payment of wages to women and men performing substantially equal work, in jobs that require equal skill, effort, and responsibility, under similar working conditions, in the same establishment.” I was a bartender, the BBBs were bartenders. We were in equal jobs that required equal work, under the same André Balazs Properties umbrella, but I was not given equal opportunity.
Who could I blame for this injustice? Men, I assumed. It turns out the blame may also fall on women. Chinatown vanguard Apotheke, partly owned by a lady – Heather Tierney – opened its opium-den doors in 2008. Last month, a point person informed me over the phone, “We’re not legally able to say we don’t hire female bartenders, but we’ve yet to.” Curious.
At Apotheke, lab coats comprise the uniforms and lingo consists of words like “infusion” and “prescription.” Maybe Heather thinks the seriousness of it all is too much for the softer gender to handle. Not one to jump to conclusions, I tried asking her directly, but she hasn’t returned my calls or responded to my emails.
It makes no sense that a reputable, well-run business should intentionally limit its access to talented revenue generators. Especially when there’s clearly no shortage of qualified women for the job.
Maybe in part it has something to do with concerns related to brute strength, but most bars pay barbacks to lift heavy inventory. Maybe it has to do with safety concerns, but guess where a lot of college linebackers go when their careers end. Into the security business. And even at places without a bevy of bouncers, one could argue that it’s a lot safer for a woman behind the bar than on the opposite side.
Testicles do not a tasty beverage make and long gone are the male unions of old that touted maxims denouncing “the hand that rocks the cradle” as a worthy whiskey sour mixer. Sure, some establishments – Hooters for instance – opt to preclude males from their payroll…
In 1997, a group of men successfully settled a $3.75 million lawsuit against Hooters citing employment exclusion based on sex. Now the hot wing chain allows men and women alike to mix Hootercanes. If a court of law mandates a franchise with a business model built entirely around boobs to create equal jobs for men, then what leg could Blind Barber, Apotheke or Boom Boom Room possibly have to stand on?
“Hey Bartender,” a recent documentary film that chronicles the resurgence of cocktail culture over the past decade, features Julie Reiner of Clover Club and Audrey Sanders of The Pegu Club. The art of crafting martinis, flips and fizzes has become as lucrative as its culinary cousin, in main part because of women like Julie and Audrey. Even so, many respected liquor dispensaries remain hell-bent on upholding practices that violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a number of 1970s Supreme Court decisions that did away with laws prohibiting women behind bars.
I propose a toast to lady innovators of intoxicants and organizations that support them. To Meaghan Dorman, head bartender of Raines Law Room in midtown Manhattan and founding member of NYC’s LUPEC (Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails). To the Sanders and the Reiners of the spirits world. “Cheers,” “Slainte,” “Salud,” “Prost,” “L’chaim,” “Chin chin.”