Bar Tales: The Anxiety of Trying to Catch the Bartender's Eye

During my years of legal drinking, which now make up half my life, I have come to a few conclusions about the complex metrics of bartender-patron relations. One is that there is some kind of secret talent for catching a bartender's eye. Another is that I do not have it.

Now, this is not much of a problem in places that I frequent. No matter who you are, there are prerogatives to being a regular, and if you tip reliably and don't give anyone too much hassle, eventually most bar staff will come to treat you accordingly. They will recognize you, acknowledge you, remember what you drink. (In the Cheers song about everybody knowing your name, "everybody" very much includes the bartenders.) But on unfamiliar terrain, things change. A sort of veil seems to descend over me; if not quite a cloak of invisibility, at least a burqa of barely-being-there.

Often it is because the place is crowded. I run into this in clubs at concerts, where you get throngs four or five deep all vying for attention, shouting out orders for three different beers and two different cocktails. I try to be as polite and orderly as possible in those disorderly mobs, watching carefully who was there before me, trying not to jump in front of anyone. This is possibly part of my problem. The guys waving their arms and the women using their elbows and small size to slip through the crowd might seem like jerks to me, but they also get their drinks faster.

Once I reach an open spot at the bar, I try to lean forward expectantly but not aggressively, a $10 or $20 bill folded and protruding from my extended fingers. I am here, my posture says, I have money, I would like a beer please, as soon as it's convenient. Somehow, though, I never seem to be at quite the right place. If I'm at one end of the bar, the staff is suddenly occupied down at the other end. If I'm in the middle, I'm in some kind of no-drink-zone between adjacent service areas. I watch as other people place orders, and the bartenders walk right by me on their way to the tap or the well or the beer fridge, and then right by me again on the way back. I extend my arm a little farther, lean forward a little more. I hear the band start into one of my favorite songs, and I wonder if I'll spend the whole time listening to it from here.

Maybe it's because of my looks. I'm medium in build, just a half-inch taller than the statistical average American male, with indistinct medium-brown hair. I do have a beard now, but so does everybody. I can understand a harried bartender not being sure whether I've been standing there for 10 seconds or two minutes. Maybe it's because I like not standing out in a crowd. As a reporter, I've always found it professionally useful not to be noticed unless I want to be.

Whatever. The point is, it can take a long time for someone to make that crucial eye contact, that bartender signal of, "I see you, you're next." I sometimes have this happen even when a place isn't crowded. I walk in, walk up to the bar, notice the barkeep is chatting with one of the other patrons, and casually just plant myself somewhere in the general vicinity, waiting for attention. I don't like having to say "Excuse me," or clearing my throat, or tapping on the bar, or anything quite that pushy. So I stand there.

The thing is, this used to bother me more than it does now. Now I know that I will, eventually, get a drink. I have rarely walked away from a bar empty-handed. And the time I spend waiting is just a little time to myself, time to observe everyone else and appreciate the hubbub around me. It is time to be glad that for a few minutes, at least, my most pressing concern is whether someone might serve me a beer. Townes Van Zandt once sang that a lot of life is really just waiting around to die. Townes knew a thing or two about bars. If he wasn't already dead, I expect he'd agree that there are worse places to wait.