Working Stiff: Bartending at Le Belle Chalet Supper Club

BartendingBessmer, Mich., is a small town about 10 miles east of the Wisconsin border, and in 1973 I moved there to replace a guy who had quit the part of El Gallo in a production of 'The Fantasticks.' For real money, I worked in The Abbey refurbishing it as a ski lodge. More on that later.

But then I got a second job as a bartender at this fancy supper club just over the border in Hurley, Wis. It was a fill-in gig -- mostly so I could help out the rest of the staff on New Year's Eve -- and I only got a couple of shifts beforehand to train.

Wasn't my first bartending job. Oh no. After my parents got divorced, my dad and my brother and I would make the Saturday afternoon rounds of bars where everyone knew his name. One was a joint called McGuire's. My dad knew the owner, Mac, and he and his buddies would follow the Irishman around to his various establishments, which changed location every couple of years. We would drink (sodas for the kids) all afternoon, then play pool and pinball and watch sports and sit at the bar talking like grownups only to stagger home in time for dinner.

The bartenders got to know me and my brother, Marky. They'd feed us bags of chips and those weird beef sticks ("pork lips and linoleum," as my wife calls them) and dad filled in as bartender a couple of times. He let me be a bar back -- get ice and reconnect the soda lines and wheel the empty barrels of beer out back. Wash glasses. Refill the potato-chip rack and the jerky jar and pickled eggs. And the hot nut box. I still love the hot nut box. And in recompense, I pretty much got all the free food and drinks I could consume. Might have fallen a bit too much in love with the whole free drink thing, leading to an adult fascination with the glamorous lifestyle choice of nightclubbing.

Eventually, the guys behind the bar decided it was cute to let the 12-year-old kid draw a couple of drafts.

"Hey barkeep, we need some beers over here."

"I'm busy."

"Let the kid do it."

And the kid was happy to do it. And the kid got good at it. Could pour a perfect beer at the age of 12. So, when the old-time bartender Ed at the Le Belle Chalet Supper Club asked if I had any experience, I legitimately was able to say, "Yeah, I've been behind the bar for quite some time." It's not that hard. Just keep out of the way, try to move with a modicum of efficiency, and predict when people need your attention.

Of course in Upper Michigan, the Upers (pronounced ooopers) didn't tax your cocktail skills with complicated drinks. Southern Comfort Old Fashioned Sweets were probably the biggest highball challenge. And, for some reason, a thing called the Golden Cadillac was all the rage back then. Ice cream, crème de cocoa, and Galliano, which is that yellow banana liqueur in the tall, skinny bottle you sometimes see in odd places on a bar shelf since it's too big to fit on normal shelves.

While I learned to tolerate Galliano, I truly fell in love with New Year's Eve. I had always chafed against its dismissal as "Amateur Night." Meaning the true drinking pros objected to their turf being taken over by reveling poseurs. But there's something about New Year's Eve: The promise. The noise. The camaraderie that builds with the countdown to midnight and the singing of an unsingable song. For one brief moment, the crowd actually believes that their lives could possible change. And, of course, everybody's seen that movie during which life-altering events are precipitated by a chance meeting on NYE.

There was a great Bowl Game on the television one New Year's, making it hard to watch the game and pour drinks at the same time. But the huge crowd, three deep, didn't mind. This wasn't a group that typically tipped; but that night, either because they were generous or drunk, I made enough money to buy a new radiator for my Studebaker.

And after serving and drinking and laughing until 3:30 in the morning -- which was Wisconsin's holiday bartime back then -- we all went over to Brian Butler's place and had another drink. Or two. Or more. Because that's what you do in Wisconsin.

And after New Year's Eve, and a grand total of three shifts, I was laid off. And that happens in Wisconsin as well.

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