It was late in the night, or early in the morning, depending on your standpoint. Streetlights cut through the darkness of Whistler’s Village Stroll, highlighting cast-aside paper plates, a pizza crust here and there. A single, wordless call-out echoed through the night from a voice that would come to have no owner. The autumn fog settled around me as I walked alone along the stroll, the tourists and “local” partygoers having streamed and tumbled into the illuminated snake of taxis waiting like chariots at a gala.
My footsteps echoed off the windows of the restaurants, long since closed for the evening. I re-checked my phone to make sure I had remembered the right address in my notes. This is the place, I thought to myself. Slowly, I approached the door, taking one last drag on my hastily rolled joint before crushing it out with the heel of my black boot. It had been a long night, and I wasn’t sure I’d be up to the challenge of what lay ahead.
*Knock, knock, knock*
A long pause, followed by an approaching stranger on the other side of the heavy service door… not used for service, just the fashion for the time. There was a brief silence as the stranger presumably looked through the peephole, followed by a deadbolt unlocking. A huge man opened the door inward, ushering me inside. I heard the bolt hit home behind me, and walked through a dirty locker area with a lone pair of shoes that would not likely see their owner until the following evening. A turn in the hallway funnelled me to a larger room, where the big man behind me announced two words: “Aaron’s here!”
The crowd cheered and raised bottles, the nearest to the doorway giving me an embrace. I asked him how his night was.
“Don’t ask,” he replied simply, rolling his eyes. “Let’s get a beer.”
I have deliberately left these locations and names vague. This is the way of the Bartender Mafia.
BROTHERS AND SISTERS IN SPIRIT(S)
Much like Whistler itself having an unseen infrastructure of parking and maintenance beneath its fairy tale Village, there are multiple, overlapping layers to the resort’s service industry. In the same manner as military service people, nurses in trauma wards, and—even a little closer to home—lift ops kids on their first winter away, the men and women running Whistler’s bar industry share a special bond.
It’s a bond built on the intimate knowledge of the average shittiness of customers, and late-night stories abound that could only be believed if seen… or if they were uttered by one of your trusted brothers and sisters behind the bar.
“It was a decent Saturday night with a good mix of regulars and tourists. One of my regulars is known to have a smart mouth when he drinks, but it’s usually harmless. I have a big bar of about 15 seats, and everyone sitting there can see everyone else—it can be a great time!
One night, these four girls came in, on a birthday, or stagette, I can’t remember now. Four men who were already seated at the bar almost immediately began unashamedly hitting on them, and my smart-ass friend decided to shame them, commenting on their progress like David Attenborough describing apes in a nature documentary.
The other customers, myself and the rest of the staff, and even a couple of the girls were entertained. The gentlemen, less so.
In response, one of the gentlemen sent a ‘muff-diver,’ a shot covered in whipped cream, to my smart-ass regular. It’s meant to be embarrassing, as you’re not supposed to use your hands, and the drinker gets whipped cream all over their face. I warned the guy, ‘this isn’t going to work out in your favour,’—because I know my regular pretty well, and he’s kind of a rascal. But the buyer insisted, so I sent it over.
Smart-ass friend SCOOPED the cream off the glass with one of our laminated happy hour menus, raised the shot to cheers the buyer, and drank it. This sent the bar over the edge, and everyone was howling. Like all good acts, smart-ass knows when to go out on a high note, so he walked over, smoothly acquired one of the girls’ numbers (which was the icing on the cake, in my opinion), looked at me and said, ‘I have to pee, tip yourself.’ Then he tossed his entire wallet to me.”
OF CHAOS, ZEN, AND VIGILANTE JUSTICE
Bartending seems to attract a certain type of worker. Focused, able to multitask, confident in both their abilities and in approaching strangers, and not afraid to speak out if a customer (or for that matter, a co-worker) is out of line. There must be some aspect of us—or me, anyway—that is a little broken, because nothing fires me up more than a busy après shift with 30 tickets up on the counter for everything from pitchers of beer and espresso martinis to shot skis and caesars.
Once you allow the wave of chaos to wash over you, it’s actually pretty zen, if I’m honest. After a long shift, you look up from the service ice for the first time in hours, crack your back, and wash the olive juice and simple syrup off your forearms… I don’t think I’ve had a better beer than that first one after work.
We all know each other, because we have to know each other. A bigger restaurant might employ 30 to 40 servers, and maybe eight bartenders. While the servers may have their own special bond, oftentimes you’ll find a bartender on his or her day off, sitting at the physical bar rather than taking up a table. Maybe it’s some subconscious security blanket; maybe it’s just nice to have something in common with the person on the other side of the taps.
(On that note, don’t take it personally if we don’t remember your name when we’re not working. There might be 300 customers and only two or three people serving on the bar. In fact, if we do remember your name, it’s either for a very good reason or a very bad reason.)
“If I had a nickel for every time someone drank whisky out of my scrotum after hours at work, I’d have about three or four nickels. Not a lot of nickels in the grand scheme of things, but that’s a lot of shots taken from my nuts…
Oh, here’s a story. One time, when I was working at a club, I saw a guy slip something into a girl’s drink—she happened to be the manager’s close friend, but I would have acted the same regardless. I stole the drink back, jumped over the bar and made sure to connect with his jaw on the way down. The commotion brought the bouncers to the bar, and they dealt with him (this was years ago, so I can’t remember how the rest of his night ended, but this was back when there were security camera blind spots in certain areas—so I doubt they kissed him on the forehead and sent him off into the night).
The next morning I got a call from the boss asking for me to come in during the day… The whole way to his office, I was sure in my heart I was getting fired for attacking a customer.
When I arrived, I knocked on his door, then sat down. Boss said, ‘you saved us a lot of headache and a lot of bad press last night, that was some fast thinking.’ Handed me a handle of Crown Royal as a gesture of thanks. Did not see that coming at all!”
HIGHS AND LOWS
Of course, with the highs invariably follow the lows. As with all parts of this community, the loss of a friend hits hard. At the beginning of 2021, we lost Beacon bartender Jesse Van Roon to a skiing accident. I won’t pretend to have known him very well, but there was a mutual respect whenever we frequented each other’s establishments. Losing Jesse in particular was a surprising gut-punch, because he was so young, and precisely because I didn’t know him well, I was surprised at the hole he had left.
Outside of the “industry,” we as bartenders are privy to special moments, be they celebratory (I’ve lost count of how many wedding receptions I’ve worked) or sorrowful. What I have found is that the latter still brings out a joie de vivre that might seem out of place or even inappropriate. But if anything, it cements a pride in this town: we’re here for a good time, not a long time, and some wakes achieve legendary status to rival even the wildest of birthday celebrations—as anyone that attended revered Whistler artist Chili Thom’s 2016 celebration of life can attest.
“Where to begin… I’ve got orgies; staff more messed up than the customers; serving Pamela Anderson; our fateful Ghost Pepper Sauce phase where one guy ended up in hospital because he got it all over his junk…
Having a high powered sprayer installed behind the bar, basically giving me a water weapon I could use to spray people outside the front door; après battles with neighbouring restaurants; and the time a chick tossed a full salt shaker at my head and I hurdled the bar and football tackled her…”
IN GOOD CONSCIENCE
Years ago I heard a line: servers are the face of a restaurant; the kitchen is the soul. That makes the bartender the inner monologue of the restaurant, or even the conscience. Or maybe we’re more akin to cowboys—making a drink up on the fly because a customer is (for example) allergic to an ingredient, and figuring out how to ring it in to the computer later.
In contrast, servers might have to run to the kitchen to see if they can work around this allergy, and risk the wrath of the stereotypical chef on the line (side note: we love all you little goblins in the kitchen—thanks for the mistake food).
Many of us can—or could—drink like sailors in our heyday, and if you meet one that doesn’t get hangovers, run like hell. We know the scene you’re looking for and how to get in, lemme just make a quick call and see if they have room for you over there.
And hey, if you forget to pay (because you’re nice people, I’m sure it was an accident) don’t worry! We can use those same lines of communication to track you down, so that there’s no misunderstandings for the rest of your vacation.
“We have a selection of craft B.C. beers on our taps. This one dude—had to be the dreaded tourist on a conference—asked if we had Stella Artois on tap. No, I explained to him, but we did have a European-style pilsner that might scratch the itch. I poured it for him, mostly so he’d stop talking at me. He drank the entire thing, then said, ‘yeah, I didn’t really like that one, can I have a couple ounces of each beer you have so I can try them all?’ My response: ‘So you want two free beers? Firstly, who the hell do you think you are? And secondly, if your basic tastebuds didn’t like the basic beer you just drank, I KNOW you won’t like the Double IPA, Oatmeal Stout, Raspberry Sour, or any other of what’s on tap,
so I’m not gonna waste my time. Here’s a
bottle of Kokanee.’”
CUPS RUNNETH OVER
It would be preaching to the choir to say that our lives are better than most people’s vacation—that’s half the reason some of us moved here for one season… 15 years ago. But it certainly takes commitment to work a job that has you face to face with some high-falootin’ tourists that invariably ask you “what’s your real job?”… and you’re not allowed to punch anyone in the face.
I know I could have that job security I keep hearing about, but I’m not alone when I say that after almost two decades, I still love my career, and day to day, my stress levels are scarcely ever more than “am I late?” and “are my shoes tied?”
But this piece of writing has only scratched the surface of some of the things I and my brothers and sisters in spirits have seen or heard over the years. Buy me a drink or two, and I might tell you a couple more.