Some Days the Bar Eats You (Part 1)

The sign outside is somewhat misleading. It reads Key Club. But this is not a "key club." At least not a key club like, say, the old Playboy Club. Here the word "key" refers to an island, like Key W

The sign outside is somewhat misleading. It reads Key Club. But this is not a "key club." At least not a key club like, say, the old Playboy Club. Here the word "key" refers to an island, like Key West or Key Biscayne or whatever. And "club" doesn't mean you have to be a dues-paying, card-carrying member to get in — it just means this is a place where you can listen to local live music acts seven nights a week, be over-served cocktails and sniff around for sex. Here at the Key Club, I like to tell customers, the only restriction to entry is your good judgment.

Inside, the décor is tropical. Island-y. Palm frond thatching here, bright floral print fabric there. A fishing net is draped in irregular droops from the ceiling near the bar; "snagged" in it are cheesy plastic conchs and sand dollars, sad papier-mâché sea horses and starfish.

Wide, wood pier planking gives the floor a dock-like look and, to complete the illusion, fat 3-foot high pilings jut from the floorboards, all linked with thick mooring rope. This Caribbean atmosphere is undermined by the stinging, astringent smell of PineSol — the cleaning crew's disinfectant of choice — which is itself barely holding its own against the indelible odors of stale beer and cigarette smoke. "Dis paradise, mon, it stinks up to da hebbens," I inform the stuffed marlin hanging behind the bar.

It's a little before 7 p.m. and I'm opening the place. Unlike my environment, I do not look tropical. I look like a bartender in a college bar of declining popularity. All denim and flannel. The way I figure it, with the way business and tips are, the owner should be grateful for every night I come in not wearing leiderhosen. Or chewing whale blubber.

Until we open at 7:30, there's plenty to do. First, I have to make as much noise as possible, so that the roaches know something bigger than them has entered their space. This is not so much a warning as a courtesy. Next, I'll stock the bar, cut garnishes and blender together the sweet, fruity, sticky mixes that'll go in the tropical drinks — Headhunters, Mai Tais, Zombies, Flaming Volcanos, etc. — we specialize in. These drinks take a lot of work up front, but in a few hours when some hot shit, toss-'em-back frat boy has emptied his wallet on them and is passed out on the bar with his face in a full ashtray, it'll all seem worthwhile.

The waitress, Iris, shows. She's right on theme, sporting a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops. She's also crying. "I like your shirt," I tell her. (A rule every bartender should live by: Never ask a crying waitress, "What's wrong?") I basically like Iris — she works hard and doesn't do a lot of complaining. In the bar business, that combination in a waitress comes along about as often as a serious beer guzzler who never has to take a piss.

My first customer of the evening is my first customer every evening. Jack. Jack owns a small restaurant across the street, and every Monday through Saturday, after the dinner rush, he drifts by the Key Club for a few cocktails. Excuse me, he drifts by the Key Club to get totally, purposefully and remorselessly shit-faced. Over the past year, I've come to know Jack as a 40-ish, responsible, decent, well-read, good tipping, flaky scalped, rather tedious, long-winded, hopeless alcoholic. He would deny that he's an alcoholic if I were to tell him. And I would tell him if he were a lousier tipper. As it is, he sips his double Manhattans (Jack is not tropical either), smokes his Salems and pays me to watch him die. Did I mention I went into bartending for the non-stop party atmosphere?

The band starts lugging in its equipment at around 8:30; first set's at 9. This is their Friday debut here, but I think it's safe to predict I'll soon be listening to four or five aspiring somebodies performing some guitar-bass-drums Rock-related sub-genre at a decibel level capable of disrupting the electrical cohesion binding the individual molecules that make up my skull. Because that, my friend, is what a Friday night band in a college bar is. And if you don't know that, you didn't go to college. ©

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