It was just another Friday night up at Brother Jimmy’s. Hip-hop music was blasting, two sexy blond waitresses were dancing on top of the bar, being playful with each other and pouring shots of Southern Comfort down customers’ throats.
But the main attraction was the bartender, Ashley Walker. Or to be more specific, the small of her back, which was exposed and marked by two perfect dimples.
“This bartender is smoking ,” said a prematurely balding guy named Chris. “I mean absolutely amazing!”
Like many of the barmaids of Amsterdam Avenue, Ms. Walker-who has long, thick black hair, bright eyes and creamy, tanned skin-is why men like Chris, who happens to be unemployed, drag themselves out on a weekend night.
“They’re eye candy!” said Chris. “For some guys, it’s like Scores Lite. Here you don’t get the lap dances. It’s a PG-13 Scores sort of experience.”
On a weekend night, a barmaid can make a minimum of $250 and sometimes as much as $600-if she has mastered the highest art form of the Amsterdam Avenue barmaid, which is to know how to create fun behind the bar. The naughty-but-nice kind of fun. She must weave the illusion that the beer-stinking frat-man-boy types who flock to Amsterdam Avenue are desirable and witty rakes whom she would love to go home with, if she only could. This doesn’t always turn out well. These men are, after all, strangers-strangers who can become obsessed with you. And you have to put up with the comments: “What do you think about a picnic in Central Park tomorrow?” or “I just have to tell you, you are so beautiful” or “I’d really like to nail you!”
And to get the biggest tips, she has to drink when the customer wants to buy the barmaid a drink, so that he can maintain the fiction-even for the nanosecond it takes for the shot of hot whiskey to sluice down her throat-that this pretty young woman is drinking with him. And most barmaids will tell you that you’d better say yes to the drink if you want more than a wet, crumpled buck on the bar. So in one shift, a barmaid may very well have 10 to 15 drinks herself. And it goes that way until 4 a.m., when she cleans up, counts her money, then hits a diner or after-hours club with co-workers, and gets to bed very late … then sleeps all day and does it all over again.
That’s the thing: Several of the barmaids of Amsterdam Avenue like to drink. Love to drink. This can come as a bit of a shock to those who assume that the carousing is just part of an act, and that the ladies are going home to clean-living boyfriends in Reebok sweats and tall glasses of carrot juice.
It’s a very young woman’s job. Unlike men, you don’t see many female bartenders over 30. While most barmaids have a side gig or ambition (acting, cooking school), it’s very easy to get stuck and burn out by 27.
Ali is 21, but looks 27. She’s pretty and voluptuous and has been working at the Dead Poet for three years.
“I like the … uh … the money,” she said recently as she looked over my head at a couple of regulars. “Vodka seven, Bacardi and Coke?”
The Dead Poet is a narrow hole in the wall where people go to drink, period. Nine men were at the bar, and Ali knew the names of six of them. Ali said she didn’t want to give her full name, lest her parents read what she’s up to when she’s not studying at Hunter College.
“I’m a huge Guinness drinker and a huge Jameson drinker,” said Ali, who lives in the East 80′s on purpose. “I keep an entire park’s length away from my job because I’ll become an alcoholic. I’m like on the border. Drinking kills you. Why do people do it? Because it’s all about the moment.”
The night before, she said, she’d gone out with friends and had five beers, four shots and two “car bombs.” A car bomb involves dropping a shot into a half-pint of Guinness and consuming it very quickly. One evening, Ali said, she downed 17 car bombs.
“You know what that’ll do to you?” she said. “I was sloppy .
“I’ve got a hole in my throat or something,” she said, adding that she can usually beat most guys who “challenge” her with car bombs.
“It’s like you never order one in here without ordering me one, or I’ll scream at you,” she said.
“Why are you leaving me?” she asked a customer. “You’re just so lame .”
Ali grew up in Suffolk County, Long Island. Her family is in the bar and restaurant business. “It’s my father’s worst nightmare, me being a bartender for the rest of my life,” she said. By the time she was 12, she was “a wreck” and dating a “scumbag.”
At 18 she moved to Manhattan and got her job at the Dead Poet-the owner was her high-school English teacher.
Lately the nights have been getting rougher, Ali said.
“You know a bartender has always been an available woman,” Ali said. “Prey, almost. You have to be strong, and that’s a big reason why I’m allowed to be here by myself: I have a strong personality. You can’t be a bartender and be weak. You can’t let somebody take advantage of you.”
One night, she was playing pool with a guy who threatened to drag her outside by her “fucking blond hair.” Recently, she had to smack another guy who grabbed her ass when she was at the register.
“I was like, ‘Does my body look like I’m a prostitute?’” she said. “Just ’cause I’m a bartender and I have a low-cut shirt on? When you’re tipping me, it doesn’t mean I’m someone for you.”
Ali hangs out at the Dead Poet when she’s not working there, and her last three boyfriends have been customers. She said she wants to become a pre-school teacher or librarian.
“I can do this two nights a week, keep this great salary while doing something I love every day,” she said. “That’s the best part about bartending-you can accomplish what you want if you don’t lose your head. It’s so easy to lose your head.”
She said she doesn’t worry about her drinking.
“I don’t wake and drink,” she said. “But I do drink alone most of the time. I go out every night by myself to bars-something a lot of women don’t do. I’ll sit at a bar all night by myself and drink.”
Down the bar, a guy looked at her and said, “I think she’s going to have a very long career at this bar. Heaven help the bar when she leaves.”
Ali, meet Beatrice Menz. She’s 25 and has tended bar for seven years. She grew up in Manhattan, lives in her mother’s rent-stabilized pad in the West 50′s and has been taking photography classes. Over lunch, I asked Ms. Menz what she wanted to do with her life.
“That’s a good question,” she said behind black shades. “I don’t even know that for sure yet. I kind of think I’m still entitled to be clueless about what I want to do. But it’s getting to that age where everyone’s like, ‘All right, B., get your shit together.’ And I’m like, ‘All right, I’ll get there.’”
She works at Bourbon Street, a college-crowd bar. Ms. Menz has seen a lot as a bartender: a woman’s head catching fire after a candle ignited her hair spray; a “65-year-old grandma” getting up on the bar and flashing; couples having sex; a man offering her and a male bartender $5,000 to let him watch them have sex. (She declined.) On her best night behind the bar, she made $1,000.
“It’s stupid money,” she said. “It’s like you’re doing nothing. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to be a barmaid. It’s, ‘Hi, can I have a vodka cranberry?’ ‘All right, what’s in that?’”
Ms. Menz said she started drinking at age 11, while living with her grandmother in Germany. She said she has fallen asleep on the subway and ended up in the Bronx many times. At work she drinks an average of 10 shots a night.
“I try to start out with a beer,” she said. “Then it progresses into Captain Morgans and Coke and shots.”
When she’s at work, Ms. Menz said, she wishes she were miles away. Nights off, she stays home and reads. On one recent Saturday night, she hit some bars in the East Village. “I hated every minute of it,” she said. “Stuck in there like a freakin’ sardine. It’s like, Why do people like this?”
This summer, she had planned to buy a car and drive to Alaska, but that’s looking unlikely. It was a promise she’d made to her husky, Blue.
Nearby at the Gin Mill, Anne Schmidt pours several nights a week. A recent graduate of Marymount Manhattan College, she said she’s giving bartending one more year, maybe two. She’s been doing it for three.
A former Miss Teen Florida, she has excellent skin, blond hair and a flower tattoo above her bottom. She said she’s training for the Miss New York pageant and taking acting and dance classes.
“I hope to be famous in a year,” Ms. Schmidt said. “That’s my goal. I don’t want to be a bartender forever. It’s great to do it while you’re young, and it’s great money, but I want other things in life.”
Any chance that Ms. Schmidt will still be tending bar in five years?
“No!” she said. “If I’m not a famous dancer, be in a company, teaching master classes … movies would be great. Brad Pitt would be my handsome husband onscreen.”
Ms. Schmidt said that she’s handed three or four numbers a night-the shyer guys will leave their numbers on the bar. About the clientele, she said: “They’re New York guys. Harsher features. Harsher accents. Cheesier . I would have to say cheesy.” She has a boyfriend.
Later that night, Jared, a bearded modern dancer from San Francisco, asked her if she’d had any work done on her “perfect face.”
“Thank you, I think my nose is a little large,” she said.
“No, no, your nose is what other people get when they go and have a nose job,” Jared said. “You’re too perfect. Women really don’t look like that naturally, do they?” She blushed. “You have a very, very symmetrical face.”
She went to serve a drink, and Jared said, “She’s the girl you dream about living next door. She’s that girl. But she’s here. In the bar. You have access to her. I mean it’s a million-to-one chance, but there’s a slim chance. There’s potential.”
Two cute young women from Florida were nearby. “Barmaids are strictly for show, in my opinion,” said Carli, a 21-year-old student doing special events for the city this summer. “They’re being exploited.”
“You have to make a deal with yourself, that you’re giving your body and your sexuality away for money,” said her friend Tracy, a 26-year-old mental-health counselor. “I think you’re cashing in an important part of you.”
How does a barmaid get the job? In May, during Fleet Week, Christine Chan found herself dancing on the bar at Bourbon Street and pouring drinks into sailors’ mouths. She was hired on the spot.
Ms. Chan is 25, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business and registered Republican. She said she grew up a “nerdy religious smart girl” in Northern California. She had her first drink at 20 and said that now she drinks as many as 15 shots of Jägermeister, tequila or Jack Daniels in one evening at work.
Over lunch Ms. Chan told me she that in 2002 she quit her information-technology consulting job to go to cooking school. She wants to be a pastry chef or open a cyber café or a chain of bakeries.
For the past year Ms. Chan has been tending bar around town. There have been many eventful evenings. She was in the middle of a bloody, bottle-hurling brawl. She was grabbed by the hair and yanked forward by a “really sweaty and disgusting” guy seeking career advice. She was offered a trip to Argentina by an aggressive man obsessed with her.
“I can only imagine what strippers go through,” Ms. Chan said. “Because I’ve seen and heard enough, you know? I feel like there’s nothing anyone could say anymore to shock me. The shock value of it all is gone, completely gone.”
One night some fellas wanted to slurp shots out of her navel (a “body shot”) and asked how much that would cost. Then they offered her $50 to crawl across the bar. The answer was still no.
“I was like, ‘What do I look like?’” Ms. Chan said. “Do I look like I’d do that? I said absolutely not. I said, ‘No, this isn’t Scores.’”
At the same time it’s important to be “available” she said. “The ones that make the most are the ones that are able to seem available all the time, even when they’re not. It’s almost like a game. It’s almost like I don’t want to disappoint customers. If I see someone who’s leaving a dollar a drink, I’ll almost be like, ‘You know, maybe if I smile he’ll leave me two dollars.’ And nine times out of 10 they will.”
One line Ms. Chan hears a lot is “I just have to tell you: I really like Asian women.” Early on she said she wasn’t sure how to handle it-she was “shy at first, a wallflower”-but now she just deals. She’s learned that if she flirts with the male bartender, that helps.
“If he passes me, he’ll like smack me on the ass,” she said. “And I pretend to be appalled and offended, but in reality, like you don’t really care.”
Ms. Chan said her male customers are “very immature” for the most part.
“You just see the craziest, most obnoxious behavior,” she said. “It really does make you jaded. You really get some stalker-type people.”
One recent evening around midnight at Bourbon Street, it was karaoke night and about a dozen male customers were there for a pre-bachelor party. They were slurring their way through heavy-metal songs. And giving long looks to Ms. Chan.
“She has a twinkle in her eye, she blew kisses to me which is always nice,” said Norman, a 33-year-old lawyer. “She’s a feel-good barmaid. I felt like I had a chance with her, and yet have no chance with her, at the same time. Which is exactly what I’m looking for. Barmaids make you feel like you have a chance with a woman. So when you do meet a woman who is in the bar, perhaps you have a chance with her .”
A white-bearded regular who goes by “Mountain Man” was at the bar. Before he got up to sing some Cole Porter at the karaoke machine, he fixed his gaze on Ms. Chan.
“I’d say on a scale of one to 10 she’s a 14,” he said. “She’s been the subject of my fantasies for a while.”
On another recent night, at least 300 more people were crammed into the space. Bourbon Street’s owner, Jason Gelfand, a 33-year-old Army vet and ex-cop from Brooklyn, was looking pleased.
“Sex sells,” the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder told me. “That’s the bottom line. If you have a bartender that knows how to bartend and is sexy, that’s icing on the cake.”
Beatrice Menz was making drinks fast; men were swarming around her.
Mr. Gelfand said they were Ms. Menz’s loyal following.
“These guys show up at midnight like clockwork to see her,” he said. “She’s good-looking, she’s positive, and you don’t wait too long for a drink with her no matter how busy it is.”
The D.J. put on Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” a cue for the barmaids and female patrons to get on the bar.
The guys began to go nuts. One stuffed dollar bills in his mouth; Ms. Menz yanked them out and slapped his face. Then she wiggled around with another barmaid, Natasha.
“There’s a porn star in all of them dying to come out,” Mr. Gelfand said. “When they first start working, they’re shy and they don’t want to dance on the bar. After a little while, a month or so, you can’t get them off.”