In November we published Part 1 of Joanna Leban’s own origin story. The lovely and wise Tales from the Bar keeper, a legend at Doc Holliday’s (East 9th Street and Avenue A), started by explaining how in 1994 she chanced upon her destined profession after a Theatre District waitressing stint. She left off with an introduction to the power behind the drinks at Doc Holliday’s, and that’s where our latest installment picks up…
By Joanna Leban of Doc Holliday’s
Vanessa gave new meaning to the term “star bartender.” She had been a huge draw at another East Village honky-tonk that had since been closed, due to tax evasion or some other illegal crap. The plan was that her regulars would follow her to Doc’s, and she would train the newbies to do things her way.
She was very bossy, and pretty intimidating. Vanessa had a line for most everything. No music: “Come on, you cheap bastards, put a dollar in the jukebox.” No tip: “Hey asshole, why don’t you take this quarter, and go call your mother and tell her how cheap you are?” Slow ballad on the jukebox: Song cut – “What do you guys think this is, a funeral? Please excuse me while I go slit my wrists.”
Vanessa also told customers that they were doing shots, and buying her one too. Saying no was not an option.
“What shot are you doing?” as she slammed down the glasses, and “You’re buying me a shot.” I would guess she drank about three-quarters of a bottle of Absolut every shift. Sometimes she wouldn’t even bother to pour it in a glass, but rather hold the bottle over her mouth and consume. There were penalty shots for customers who did something to piss her off, which often meant the cheapest whiskey poured into their mouth while leaning their heads backwards in between Vanessa’s knees from on top of the bar.
Neatness and stocking were not a priority; the evidence of debauchery was everywhere. Newspapers were strewn on the floor, liquor and beer spilled on the bar, empty bottles everywhere. Vanessa herself was even more of a mess. More often than not, she was the drunkest person in the bar, covered in alcohol, hair wet from spraying herself down with the soda gun, wife beater tank top torn in several places. Her antics were a sight to be seen; patrons came to watch her, and she could pack the place.
Training with her was like bootcamp. You were treated like a new recruit, subject to her command. I was to do whatever she told me to do, and nothing was ever good enough. She told me I was using the wrong glass, pouring too much or too little, not drinking enough, wearing the wrong clothes, being too nice, and on and on… She took my training sessions as license to get drunk, to entertain and not have to serve, and to use me as she saw fit. I also was not to be paid for training, and all those tips people were giving to me ended up going right into her pocket.
After midnight, she was so hammered that she “forgot” to get money from anyone she served. People would get drinks from her, she would walk away, and they would be standing there, money in hand. All night long, people would offer to pay me for drinks Vanessa neglected to charge them for. Apparently, she also had a habit of taking people’s money and either giving them the wrong change or not bringing any at all. She was a master at explaining how to be a star bartender, but she was pissing people off and seemingly giving away the house. If she didn’t have a partner there to collect money or fix her mistakes, the place would easily be out of business in no time. By midnight, she couldn’t serve drinks. All she could do was put on her “show,” yell at the customers, and continue to hit the bottle herself.
Needless to say, because the place was packed every night Vanessa worked but the till was not, the owner eventually learned that if he kept her on, he would soon be deep in debt. The liquor costs were soaring, and the fact that she brought a huge crowd in every night meant nothing, because she was all talk, and all alcoholic.
Vanessa was a prime example of someone who could verbally teach someone how to make money, but she couldn’t follow her own advice. I think in her case, she was a lush of extraordinary proportions… and that was the ultimate cause of her demise.
Lesson: Don’t get so drunk, that you “forget” to take the cash.
Visit Doc’s, “a little bit of Country in the city,”
141 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009
Joanna Leban has been a bartender at Doc Holliday’s for 23 years. She has acquired hundreds of stories from behind the bar and will share her favorites with Honeysuckle readers in this recurring column. Stay tuned for more Tales from the Bar with Joanna!