It used to be that the classical bartender was the professor of the people, the expert on all things debated and discussed across the mahogany. This democratic doctor, bow-tied and mustachioed, was expected to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of sports, history, politics, and science. If an impasse was met in opposing sides, the attention of both claimants naturally turned toward the bartender. If the bartender said so, you were wrong. At the very least, the bartender would become the intercessor, holding the money or passing the title to the victor.
One of my heroes of the stick, and a man who exemplified this trait, was Rickey-inventor George Williamson. He tended bar at the legendary Shoomaker's in Washington, D.C.—a stone's throw from the White House—and was known for both his drink-making and bar-side manner. His 1915 obituary from the Washington Evening Star states, "Many a great question of national politics has been thrashed out, if not settled, in [Williamson's] presence and himself participating in the discussion."
That was then. Last week I bought the new iPhone 4—so you know that I'm not a Luddite—but I have to admit, while staring down at this little devil of a device, that it has all but obliterated the role of arbiter for the bartender. If you want to know how many yards John Riggins rushed for the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVII, you just whip out your smart phone and "Google it." (The answer: 166 yards.) If you want to know who was the 26th President of the United States, a quick visit to Wikipedia will do the trick. (For the record, it's Teddy Roosevelt.)
All of this is fine for knowledge's sake, but it does little for our public life. I find my attention increasingly toward the drink itself and away from open conversations, the glue of community. It's important to find a balance. A great bartender is not made drink by drink, but relationship by relationship. And those relationships are not just formed between bartender and customer, but among the customers themselves.
MORE ON BARTENDING:
Derek Brown: Quick Cocktail Infusions
Derek Brown: Bartenders Are Liars
Derek Brown: Slow Drink Manifesto
Does this mean we should all discard our smartphones and spout spurious information across the bar? (Exemplified by the Cliff Clavin character from Cheers, pontificating on tribes of celibate men in the Middle East or the true cause of the Bubonic plague.) Likely, no—although there is a seductive quality to the three-drink explanation, by which after three drinks you are prompted to answer things well beyond the scope of your knowledge. I suppose what it really means is that a little switch of the phone, from on to off, might be desirable from time to time.
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