The Bar That Saved Me
When waiters are polite heroes.
Women in bars don’t always have the best experiences.
Yes, we have fun and drink and dance on tables or sit down and have good times with friends or play skee-ball or win quiz games or hook up or have interesting conversations or do any of the things that humans do in bars.
But lately I’ve been hearing so many stories about harassment and sexual assault, and some of these stories take place in or near bars (and often the abusers use alcohol intake by themselves or their victim as an excuse for their own criminal behavior).
So I thought I’d share a nice story about a bar, not just to celebrate the greatness of a truly great bar, but also to share something that may make you happy or just give you, for one moment, a little bit of hope as we fly with broken little wings toward what will likely be one hell of an Election Day. (This is also a restaurant review, kind of).
I’m not a big drinker, but I am a fan of whiskey (whisky, if you will). I will drink most any kind of whiskey, but I am in particular a fan of really great whiskey. Which is probably what led me on a date one evening several years ago to the Brandy Library in TriBeCa in Manhattan.
I was there with another young woman. We were both newly out of long-term relationships — she with a woman, me with a man — and we’d met on OKCupid, which is how we pronounced “Tinder” in 2009. Anyway, she was lovely and while I’d been out as a bisexual for two or three years, this was my first Actual Fancy Date with an Actual Girl. We’d hung out and gone places but this was a Date Date where you have to dress up.
I grew up where rural New Jersey meets suburban New Jersey, so my idea of a fancy date was driving to Cheesecake Factory at the Bridgewater Commons Mall and then running through some farm field at 2 a.m. back home in Hunterdon County, probably. I lived in a haunted former bank in the Financial District and she lived uptown at the corner of Luke Cage and In The Heights, so she came downtown to meet me at the Brandy Library.
I was acutely conscious of not being sure how to act in such a fancy place with a lady date. I mean yes, we were in Manhattan in 2009 in a mixed gay-straight neighborhood that was liberal as all get-out, and one would think everybody would be cool. But I was careful not to hold her hand or put my arm around her or, God forbid, kiss her in public (actually, once we kissed in Union Square and a bunch of dudes came over to offer us coke and to invite us to Webster Hall. I think they thought we would have sex with them, and when we politely declined, they wished us a wonderful evening. It was the most chaste invite to a coke-fueled gangbang I’ve ever received. Also the only one, thank goodness.)
The Brandy Library is fancy, but with a sense of humor about itself. The staff dressed in suspenders and white button-down shirts at the time, a sort of sexy old-timey librarian thing. And they had library shelves stocked with pricey alcohol. The menu was approximately 85 pages long, if memory serves. Not unlike the Cheesecake Factory, really.
Anyway, we sat down on one of the couches and ordered great small plates of tiny foodstuffs and we talked and it was really nice. The whiskey was excellent. You wouldn’t have known we were anything but friends, or so I thought.
And of course I was wrong. That’s the life of a queer person of any sort, I’ve learned — we get complacent, we get a nasty reminder of how many folks regard us.
Nearby, a dude in his late forties in an expensive outfit took notice of us — two girls with long hair, in dresses, having a nice time. He was tipsy, as was his female consort, who also had long hair and wore a dress.
“You girls having fun?” he asked with a leer, a bit too loud. In Manhattan, acknowledging another patron at a nearby table in a restaurant is a horrific sin; acknowledging somebody nearby at a bar is quite common. The Brandy Library is part bar and part restaurant so the lines were blurred. We nodded and smiled politely, which is what women are taught to do.
He then began to rather loudly rattle off a list of suggestions for things we should drink. We nodded more vigorously, raised our eyebrows in feigned polite interest, looked at each other and tried to resume conversation.
She saw it coming before I did. I realized later that’s why she stiffened up and got really quiet. She knew where this was going.
“So…you friends?” he asked and his date laughed in a high-pitched squeal.
I decided to be bold. For me. For me, being bold was acknowledging what was real. Maybe he’d go away if I just told him the truth, I thought naively.
“We’re on a date,” I said politely. “Enjoy your meal!”
This was apparently not the thing to say. He started laughing and got very interested, obviously. Because suddenly our date was not for us, but for him. That’s how guys like that regard two girls who like each other. It’s all performative for him. It’s not real. It’s entertainment. He’s got the kind of simple, entitled mind that thinks all the girl-girl pornography he’s watched is just a preview of what his future should look like, simply because he exists and he’s a guy and women are always objects, not subjects. Most people can separate erotic fantasy from reality and behave politely even if they are curious, but not guys like this. There are a lot of guys like this.
“You’re on a date, huh?” he said, sweating, leering, being gross in the specific manner of dudes who have a lot of money and think it lends them some inherent dignity or value (it does not).
He started to say something else, and then I saw him stop and look up. I looked up too. And there, in the manner of a frowning avenging angel, was our waiter.
“Sir,” he said, “I’d like to ask you to keep your comments to yourself. These people are trying to have dinner. Why don’t you focus on yours?”
I mean, this dude was on it. Fast.
The fact that he used the word “people” and not “girls” or “ladies” in that moment will stick with me forever. It wasn’t exactly “Women’s rights are human rights!” but it worked for me. Also, I just wanted to finish my tiny food.
“I’m not bothering them!” the man loudly protested. “Am I bothering you?” He stared at us both. We were so embarrassed, and we wanted to stay. I also didn’t want to make a scene, so I spoke in the high-pitched sweet voice that I instinctively take on when I’m trying to get a stranger to give me something or to stay away from me.
“Thank you,” I said to the waiter. “I appreciate it, but we’re okay. It’s fine. No harm done. We’ll just enjoy our dinners now.”
The waiter nodded and came over to me.
“If he makes you uncomfortable,” he said. “Just tell us. You don’t have to put up with that.”
I was so struck by his kindness and professionalism, and I really thought the incident would end there. I was fortunate to grow up around mostly great men, and a few who creeped me out with unwanted touching and approaches. I learned early on how to skillfully evade their embraces in a public setting where I was expected to hug them or be nice to them at a community event. Most women learn this. It’s usually behind closed doors that we have trouble escaping. But we’re very familiar with the dance of evading unwanted kisses, for example.
The sweaty, gross, fancy, rich dude took a few minutes off and then started again. He started asking us how long we’d been dating, and we mumbled, “Not long” while staring at our food. And then he started asking us in detail about “what you do” in private, and it was at this point that I witnessed the magic of what happens when a deceptively, subdued, refined fancy-pants New York City fine dining establishment gets all the fucking way done with a creeper. It’s the moment when the Zagat review ought to be updated to include “fresh out of fucks.”
The thing I forgot about New York City fine dining establishments is that they are staffed by elegant people who speak in hushed tones and who come from small towns or other cities where they were the weirdos and the freaks and the outcasts and the artists. Most of them don’t seek to be lifetime servers and hosts but some do, and they’re typically excellent at their jobs. But don’t let the pleasantries fool you: your average waiter at a high-class New York City fine dining establishment is a fighter — maybe not physically, but he or she had to fight to get to where they are. Have you ever seen Hiring Day at one of these joints? Word gets out they’re looking for somebody to serve the titans of industry, and it turns into the Waiter Olympics. I mean, you have to jump through a lot of hoops to get a gig at one of these places, and you have to work your ass off to keep that job.
Part of the gig is smiling politely and enduring the little indignities of serving the wealthy: the snobbery; the ignorance; the refusal of some kept housewives to make eye contact; the refusal of some country club douches from Connecticut to treat you as a human being. I’ve heard repeatedly that the wealthiest and most powerful individuals are actually often the kindest, whereas the pretenders to the throne (like, I assume, this guy) are the worst.
First of all, not one, not two, but THREE employees rolled up on this dude. One was a woman. It was like a very refined food service gang. Then, everybody behind the bar watched like, “Just make one move, fool, I swear to fucking God…” I guess the staff had been watching for some time and I realize now they were trying to measure our level of discomfort at an intervention versus their obligation to their customers to maintain a chill, relaxed atmosphere. Also, I’m going to guess that some of these staff members were LGBTQ folks and that all of them were the strongest allies I’ve ever met in my life.
The manager said clearly, “Sir, you need to leave. You’ve made our patrons uncomfortable and we do not tolerate this kind of behavior in THE BRANDY LIBRARY.” That’s a hilarious statement but also a very beautiful one when you’re a scared twenty-something on your first big date with someone of the same gender and you just want to have a nice night.
The dude protested, of course. He looked to us in vain for support. But now we had a gang of fine dining waiters plus some fancy “mixologist” type bartenders so we weren’t about to back his ass up. (A mixologist is just a bartender with fresh ginger on hand who will wait five minutes longer to punch you the fuck out.)
They all managed to speak above a whisper and below a shout and the nearby patrons resisted clapping but they grinned as the dude got escorted out with his unfortunate woman companion.
Then the manager sat down with us and looked us in the eye and said, “I am so sorry. Everyone who treats people with respect is welcome here. Are you okay?”
It was the kindest customer service experience I ever had, because I could tell it really meant something to these people. And then different staff members kept stopping by and apologizing and bringing us free shit. Like we ATE. And we didn’t drink a lot but I’m fairly certain what we did drink constituted at least two student loan payments, for free.
Obviously, getting comped takes the sting out of a bad experience. But they really did more than was necessary. And what mattered the most was that they sat down with us and got to know us a little and we got to know them a little. By the end of the night, I was a fan for life.
I’m not sure who works there now, but to this day that’s the first place I recommend to folks looking for a great date night in New York. And this is just one small story, but I figured that since we hear a lot of sad and difficult and frightening stories these days about folks being treated poorly, especially women and LGBTQ folks, it might make somebody feel better to read this.
So always remember to tip your good waiters well and tip your great waiters REALLY well. And if you’re ever in NYC, go to the Brandy Library.