This is a story about a guest I served and had a life-changing conversation with. It’s a story about gratitude, loss, and no regrets.
As soon as I laid eyes on the old man, I remembered him from last year’s Christmas party. Wild Turkey neat—that’s what he drank. As a bartender, I pride myself on remembering what each person drinks, but I was shocked and impressed that I still remembered this man’s preference. Waiting in the coat line, he stood out with his classic, custom-fit look. He wore a camel-colored cashmere overcoat and a light-brown fedora cocked to the side and angled just right. The fedora punctuated his confidence—what the kids today call swagger. After he checked his coat and hat he circumnavigated the room with his gaze. He was alone. Within moments people were washing up to him like the waves at Waikiki and wishing him Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. As he approached the bar, I immediately began to make his drink. Wild Turkey neat in the rocks glass. As soon as this gentleman arrived at my station, I presented him his drink.
“Here you go, sir,” I said. “Wild Turkey neat.”
His expression was priceless: ghostly shock. I told him I remembered his signature drink from last year’s Christmas party. He immediately shook my hand with a firm grip and introduced himself. “My name is Joe, and thank you for remembering my drink.”
I told him my name and said, “No problem, Joe.” He reached into his front pocket, pulled out his money clip, and began peeling off some bills. I couldn’t help but notice his well-tailored sports coat and pants. He was also wearing gold-plated cuff links. I noticed them while he was holding a twenty.
“Joe, this is an open bar; the drinks are free tonight.”
He then put the twenty in my tip cup and said, “That’s for you.”
Wow, I thought, and I shook his hand again. “Thanks Joe! That’s very generous of you.”
He just smiled and began talking to the other guests.
Joe appeared to be in his late eighties. His whole ensemble was impeccable. Even his silk pocket square, a rustic orange, made him look dapper.
When I saw Joe moving toward the bar again, I began making another glass of his signature drink. After he arrived at the bar, I handed it to him. His smile was bright and warm as he stood and watched me serve the other guests; I was on point that night. This was a holiday party, and everyone was in a great mood. Joe took out his money clip again, removed two twenties, and dropped both into my tip cup. I remember watching the bling reflect off his gold cuff link as the bills were slipped into the cup. I couldn’t believe how generous this guy was. Most people were tipping a dollar with each drink, although now then someone would give me a five. But Gentleman Joe had just given me forty, not counting the twenty he’d given me for his first drink.
“Thanks, Joe,” I said.
“No problem, my friend.” Then he asked how long I had been bartending.
“On and off for about eight years.”
“You’re a good bartender. I was in the business for forty years myself. You make great drinks. You have a good personality, and you know how to work a crowd. I’m a retired wine and liquor sales rep. I sold wine and liquor to bars and restaurants all over New York and New Jersey. I was the best in the business. Over the years I’ve met plenty of bartenders, but not many as good as you, my friend. It really impressed me that you remembered my drink.”
That was the best compliment I had ever received as a bartender. I was so proud and taken aback by Joe’s impression of me.
“Thanks, Joe, for saying that! It means a lot to me, especially coming from you with all that experience.”
Joe smiled, lifted his drink, took a sip, and said, “Salute.” I bowed my head and repeated the word. And then he said, “I shall return.”
There was something special about this guy Joe. I couldn’t put it into words, but he had a gravitational pull to him. When I was talking to him, I could tell I had his undivided attention. He was listening in an effort to understand and not forming his own reply. He had an intense, friendly, and relaxed focus to his eyes. It was apparent that he had seen a lot in his life. Joe had a sage-like presence, and I felt it.
At this point of the party the main course was being served, and everybody scattered to their assigned tables, which meant it was downtime for me. I was able to stretch and get some ice for my sink and restock my bar. After I was done filling my backup sink with ice I saw Joe in the distance heading toward the bar. I put the ice bucket under the beer cooler, grabbed the Wild Turkey, and started to pour it into a rocks glass. Before Joe reached the bar, I had his drink on deck. He glanced at me with his warm smile and said, “Outstanding.”
The DJ played some light Christmas music while everybody ate. Joe stayed at the bar and sipped his Wild Turkey. He turned his head to scan the other guests and then he turned back to stare at his drink. He appeared to be in deep thought. He glanced back at me, smiled, and went back to gazing at his drink. I wasn’t sure what was going on.
Still staring at his drink he said, “I lost my wife three years ago, and I really miss her, especially during the holidays.”
“I’m sorry for your loss, Joe,” I said with a heavy heart. I could the see the pain in his eyes.
“You know she waited for me; she kept her word.”
Joe seemed to read the confusion on my face.
“When I returned from the war, she waited for me.” He broke eye contact and once again set his vacant eyes on his signature drink. It was as if Joe were time-traveling to his past. The other guests were still eating, so it was only Joe and me at the bar. He finally lifted his eyes back to me and began to narrate his life.
“I grew up in the Depression. I fought in the war and later married the love of my life, my soul mate. I raised a family with her, and we had two amazing kids. I’ve watched them grow up and have families of their own. I have three loving grandchildren. All my kids and grandkids are in a good place . . .”
Joe paused to take another sip of his drink. Then he stared hard into my eyes and said the most realistic but stunning thing I ever heard while tending bar: “My friend, I had a good life: wife, kids, grandkids . . . The only thing left for me is to die.”
I was floored. Bartending school hadn’t prepared me for this. Who was I to give this military veteran, husband, father, and grandfather advice? Silent night was playing in the background made the moment even more poignant.
“As I’ve gotten older, Christmas music makes me sad,” he said. “I used to love it. Now it only depresses me. I’ve become a Scrooge.” And he smiled faintly.
“Well, you sure don’t tip like Scrooge!”
That made him laugh. He needed to laugh. I followed my instinct and changed the topic. “Joe, what’s changed about the bar business, in your opinion?”
“Ha!” he blurted. “Where do I begin?” He started in on the martini. “It’s made with gin, not vodka! And the men today don’t know how to drink; they order these weak drinks.”
While Joe ranted, a young man came up and ordered an apple martini. The timing was impeccable. After I served the apple martini, Joe and I waited for the young man to abandon the bar. Then I looked at Joe and said, “Drinks like that?” Both of us laughed hard.
By then other guests were rediscovering the bar, and I was busy serving them. Meanwhile, Joe talked to some guests. Finally, the night was winding down, and I made last call. I saw Joe approach the bar, so I reached for the Wild Turkey, but Joe put his hand up and said with a smile, “Not this time; just water.”
“No problem, Joe.” I gave him a large glass of ice water, and he thanked me again. Then he handed me another twenty, but I didn’t want any more of his money; he had already been so generous. But Joe insisted.
“Thanks, Joe. You carried this party with the way you tipped me. And Merry Christmas. It was an honor talking to you. Thanks for sharing with me.”
Joe smiled, shook my hand, and said, “It meant a lot to me that you remembered my drink, and you’re terrific at bartending. Merry Christmas to you and your family.”
I thanked Joe again and said goodbye. I watched him slip away from the bar and toward the coat check. He put on his overcoat and then strategically cocked his fedora to the right. The sharp angle gave him a larger-than-life aura.
I stood behind the bar watching Joe say goodbye to everyone and wish them a Merry Christmas. The warm smile he shared with everyone masked the sadness he felt at the loss of his beautiful wife. As he approached the door to leave, it felt as if he were riding into the sunset, secretly counting the days until he would be reunited with his wife. And I knew I would never see that man again. But I was lucky to have crossed paths with Gentleman Joe. Those were my golden moments in bartending. Nothing will ever compare. It was a simple conversation that changed my life.
That experience with Joe was well over ten years ago, but it changed everything I do every December as I approach Christmas and the New Year. I go to a bar and order a Wild Turkey neat. I sit by myself, slowly sip my drink, and think about the past year of my life—the ups and downs, the goals I’ve accomplished, and the goals yet to be achieved. I anticipate with excitement the approaching New Year. I also reflect in gratitude on my family and my friends. And it’s all because I drink like a gentleman to honor a gentleman. Salute, Joe.
© 2017, Anthony Vano