I split my brain into thirds. The first controls one hand cracking egg, grip just tight enough to squeeze the whites into a glass, with other hand pouring out a long count of cognac.
The second does the counting. The second always does the counting.
And the third, my looking mind, stares out into the dimmed crowd. From where I stand, they always look like they’ve just stepped out of the night sea. Regulars in the eastern nook, clusters of weary friends at the other tables. As usual, couples dominate the bar itself. Every seat taken but one, its absence like a missing tooth between a lone man and the wall. He’s fiddling with a coin, twisting it between thumb and forefinger, and in the other hand is a smartphone.
Eggshell in the trash, shaker to glass. Dry-shake for fifteen seconds. Lone man is staring down, attention now focused on the tiny glowing brick of electronics. Inevitable as they are, I hate phones in my bar.
Pop the shaker seal, dump ice in and shake again. Crack that seal and then I’m pouring silky ribbons into a frail chalice. A woman in a summery dress squeals at the show. Smiling, I slide the drink to her and dash bitters on top.
“Can I get you anything?” I ask the lone man as I rinse my hands off.
“Nah,” he says, not looking up.
Less friendly this time, I say: “Waiting for someone?”
“Nah,” he repeats.
I turn around, scanning the room for anyone trying to get my attention but the sea is calm with intimate chatter.
“Listen,” I say, looking back at the man. “You can stay for now, but if people want your seat, then…” I let the conditional fade into silence, hoping he’ll fill in the blanks.
“Then what?” he asks, one crooked finger scrolling through a thick wall of text.
“Then I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
He huffs a laugh and smiles. “You can ask me to leave now to save yourself some time. Just gonna say no anyway.” The lone man chuckles again, shaking his head back and forth.
“You know what I mean.” My frustrating is beginning to show.
“Yes, I do. So why don’t you say what you mean then?”
I sigh, turning around again to scan the room. Still nothing.
“Because you’re a customer and I’m trying to be polite.”
“Technically I’m a potential customer,” he retorts.
“Fine, a potential customer. Same difference.”
“Not really,” the man says, idly. “A customer has already exchanged money for goods and services. They’ve given you the chance to impress them, to lock in more of their money in the future. A potential customer is a wildcard, an unknown. A probability.”
From afar, someone calls: “Excuse me!”
Order for two drinks, my choice. The couple asks for something with whiskey and sweet vermouth in it, stirred. But not a Manhattan. My first mind starts grabbing bottles while second mind dredges up recipes, stalling at the thought of dusty probabilistic formulae.
If the odds of a millionaire winning the lottery are X, and chance of winning the lottery is Y, what’s the probability that a non-millionaire will win the lottery if there are Z% millionaires in the world?
I serve up two Monte Carlos. “Rye, Benedictine, Bitters.” I tell the couple. “Similar to a Manhattan, but different.” I hear them repeat the phrase to themselves: “Similar, but different. Different, but similar.” I step back to the lone man.
“So tell me,” I say to him, noticing that he now has his phone held lengthwise between two hands. “What’s the probability of you actually doing something more than taking up space in my bar?”
“Your bar?” he asks, ignoring my question. “Do you own it?”
My lips fall into a pursed flatline. “No,” I admit.
“Why not?” The question almosts sounds genuinely curious.
“Are you really asking that?”
He nods his head up and down lazily, thumbs twisting to contort some image on his phone’s screen.
“I can’t afford a bar in the middle of Manhattan.”
“Few can,” he says with a summoned sympathy, as if he too once tried and failed. “Let’s say you saved up every penny you made working here. How long would it be before you could even put a 20% down payment on space like this?”
I looked back at the room, keeping my eyes focused on the sea of customers for much longer than necessary. I’d already done the math, just weeks ago; it wasn’t pretty.
“Ten years,” I say, my back to him.
“Ten years! You’d be what, 40 by then?”
“38,” I correct, turning back to face him.
“Still. Yeesh. How old is the owner?”
“None of your business.”
“Bullshit,” he spits out, laughing. “You basically just told me what your salary is but you won’t tell me how many candles the boss man gets on his cake? Whatever, that’s fine. I’m going to guess he’s no older than 35, probably closer to 30. Am I close?”
I stride away from him, running the rounds of the couples at the bar and seeing that the eastern nook wants its check. First mind is in overdrive as I build drinks in a row of pint glasses. Three on the left are sours, middle two pretty much straight spirits and the right two are up to me; I make them sours too. Most customers can’t tell the difference anyway; you give them a daiquiri with aged rum and they think you’ve discovered plutonium.
And why should I bother to do more? I’m here six nights a week, ten or twelve hours a day. When I go home my clothes reek, my lower back feels like a bent branch about to break and my feet swell so bad that my shoes get tight. If I’m lucky, my arms don’t ache so that I can do it all again the next night. All this, for what?
Drinks go out to the buzzed buzzards, their bloodshot eyes trained on me all the way from build to pour. Most of them say thank you and a few just give me an attemptedly sage nod.
“What’s your point?” I ask the lone man in a voice louder than I expect.
“No point.” He shrugs. “It’s just that I’m not taking up space in your bar. I’m taking it up in someone else’s bar that you work at. Go ahead, say it with me: This isn’t my bar.”
“You need to go, now. I’m not going to say it again.”
He slides his phone into his suit jacket pocket and leans back with arms folded across his chest. The look on his face is a half-breed, part sneer and part smile.
“I’ll go,” he says in a quiet voice as he stands up. “But just remember that most bars aren’t owned by guys like you. They’re owned by guys like me. Sure, maybe there are a few notable exceptions out there but that’s all they are, exceptions. You’ll be a lot happier once you admit that to yourself.” He pulls his wallet out from his back pocket and takes out five c-notes, placing them on the bar.
“For any trouble I caused you,” he offers, not waiting for a reaction. The adjacent couple of young 20-somethings look over, eyes fixed on the money.
“At least it wasn’t all bad,” says one of them, a shaggy-haired man in a dark polo.
I give a cursory smile and take the bills off the countertop, walking over to the garbage bin on the far side of the bar.
First mind crumbles the money in my fist, relaxing at the lack of restraint.
Second mind counts how many hours I’d have to work to make this much.
And third mind makes sure no one’s looking as I shove it in my pocket.