By Philip Duff
I just survived a hurricane. Well, I say survived. Hurricanes ain’t what they used to be. Last year here in New York I bravely battled Hurricane Irene, which turned out to be mostly an opportunity for cute girls on the Upper East Side to walk around in short shorts and knee-high rubber boots ( a sight I found disturbingly arousing – must have lived too long in the UK in my youth). It rained a lot.
Last night, at the height of Hurricane Sandy, we were forced to survive in hideous conditions, for New Yorkers at least: no public transport, so we had to stay local! We lost neither power, TV, electricity, phone service nor Internet; indeed, at the height of the “storm” (a bit of wind and some rain) a cheerful, ‘tho admittedly somewhat windblown, chap delivered us some delicious beef negimaki. No, I ask no recognition for my heroic deeds: just knowing I did my bit is enough.
But, old Sandy did kind of screw with everyone below 40th street and in parts of Brooklyn, so clearly she has it in for hipsters. Bars can’t open: not because they are flooded (very few are) and not because they don’t have enough guests (my local was as rammed as the last helicopter off the roof of the US embassy during Vietnam last night, and just as noisy) but because their staff can’t get there. Hospitality staff generally don’t live very near to where they work, these days. Close, perhaps, in the general sense of things, but that’s assuming the public transport system is running and it isn’t. It set me thinking.
Once upon a time – and not all that long ago – local was everything. To be well known in your locale was to be a happy camper. Outsiders – even from a few blocks away – received a decidedly cooler welcome in such a world. In his excellent autobiography-by-instalments The Annual Manual for Bartenders, gaz regan talks of a bartending colleague who was so well known in the area of a mile or so that he was nicknamed the Mayor of Second Avenue. At the center of such a local world was the church, and the tavern, and ruling the roost was the bartender. A man – sadly often a man – who could not only call the result of an election, but largely influence it in his area: the man who’d loan you money if you needed, come to your house with a shovel if you needed to bury a dead hooker, quell a fight in his bar or start a party in same. And, in part, he could do this because he lived within a flask’s throw of his establishment. The only relevant sports were the local ones. The only relevant politicians were the local ones. The only relevant newspapers were the local ones.
But now, the coolest thing is that which comes from farthest away (which is why I’ve done a grand total of two (2) trainings in my native Ireland. Ever). We thirst for the exotic as a sailor longs for the sea. Everything – news, media, clothing, sports – is generically universal, ubiquitous, one-size-fits-all. You can live in Baltimore and support Manchester City; bartend in Beijing and know more about the Hoxton mixology scene than a Dalston resident;live in Helsinki and dress like a bogan. This, coupled with the higher cost of living in cities, means bartenders live further away from their bars and are less connected as a result. Ironically, the fact that bartending has regained it’s credibility as a trade means that more and more ambitious bartenders are moving cities or even countries to work in credible bars, decreasing the amount of locals behind the stick even further. It’s a good thing to have a cosmopolitan bar team, but perhaps we’re leaning a bit too far that way. I used to love bartending in London pubs as the job always came with accommodation: you lived over the pub, usually in quite decent accommodations, and there was usually a cook to keep you fed. In one of the dodgiest South London bars I ever worked in, we actually had a housekeeper, who not only fed us, but cleaned the rooms and ironed our shirts. Bonus! Between the collegial atmosphere of nearby bars, the kebab shop on the corner and the nurses’ accommodation block for St George’s Hospital just up the road, I barely moved outside a square mile for months at a time. Happy days!
That, of course, was a shitty bar. Our best drink was warm barleywine. But now we have the cocktail thing all squared away, maybe we can work on being local bartenders again?