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November|December 2002
Dude, Where's my Lada? By Jon Fasman
Traffic Court By Kim Lemon
Inside Job By David Taylor
Beverage Control By Marisa Matarazzo
Lost Savings By Daniel Kurtz-Phelan

Beverage Control

By Marisa Matarazzo

A human Barbie doll propped her rack on my bar. "Make me a special shot," she said, thick lashes weighing her lids low over her eyes. "Something juicy, something light—I'm already shitty." She didn't look especially drunk. "Listen, if you're already shitty, I can't make you another," I replied. Her eyes popped wide. "Don't tell me that!" she belted. "I live across the fucking street. I'm walking." I turned to a more seasoned bartender. "This chick just told me she's wasted. Do I serve her?" He laughed, "Dude, people say they're wasted all the time. That's just what they say. Look at her. She's fine." He handed me a shaker. I mixed, shook, poured, and slid a Melon Ball across the bar as Barbie dropped a thought. "If you're not supposed to drive drunk," she said, "why the hell are there always parking lots attached to bars?"

I tend bar for several reasons. I'm an actor and a writer, and need my days free to audition and write. I like loud music and thirsty crowds. And bartending is lucrative. I like lucrative. But there's a downside. Behind the bar, I have two jobs: push alcohol, which promotes irresponsibility, and monitor the flow to preserve responsibility. I can take customers to the point of obvious intoxication, but can't serve them beyond it. To do so is a misdemeanor. Day one, working at a bar off Hollywood Boulevard, my manager warned me, "Careful about overserving. If you get snagged by vice cops, you gotta pay big money—and we'll fire you."

As part of my training, I went to a STAR seminar, Standardized Training for Alcohol Retailers, given by the vice division of the Los Angeles Police Department. The seminar outlined the laws governing alcohol servers. The bartenders were mostly hot twentysomethings, aspiring actors I recognized from waiting rooms at auditions. A sergeant detailed the penalties facing bartenders who keep pouring. If convicted, we could face up to $1,000 in fines and six months in county jail, and the bar's liquor license could be suspended for up to 35 days. Then he showed us a film clip about a family that lost loved ones to a drunk driver. The family traced the devastation back to the bartender who had overserved the driver. The fines seemed puny next to the guilt someone might suffer after contributing to that kind of tragedy. When I clocked into work four hours later, I was still sweating.

I bartend in a divey, good-time bar in the heart of Hollywood, serving guys who drink Kentucky bourbon and have tattoos on their necks. I've also worked as a cocktail waitress and a shot girl on the Sunset Strip. Regardless of venue, the deal is the same in any bar. Bartenders are hired to sell booze. The more I sell, the more money I make. Unfortunately, it's the drunk customers who contribute heavily to sales and lure vice cops onto the bar stools.

The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the California state agency that regulates alcohol retailers, has a unit in the LAPD. They run sting operations designed to nab bartenders as they're serving drunk customers, performing random checks and trying to visit every bar at least once a year. (If they trace an inordinate number of DUI's back to a particular bar, however, they pay special attention.) Undercover officers dress to fit into the bar they're staking out. Head-to-toe black, wallet chains, and some rock-and-roll scruff work for the bars on and around Hollywood Boulevard. Heading into West Hollywood, officers might pretty up a bit, trying to look like actors on the WB network—with strategically mussed hair and ensembles by Abercrombie & Fitch. On the Strip—lined mostly with high-volume theme restaurants and bars, and a mecca for LA's equivalent of NY's bridge-and-tunnel crowd—to blend in is to look like a contestant on elimiDATE.

While it's hard to pick out the camouflaged vice cops, it's equally difficult to sniff out inebriated customers. According to state law, summarized in a pamphlet published by Beverage Control, "a person is obviously intoxicated when the average person can plainly see that the person is intoxicated. In other words, the person looks or acts drunk." Right. "Some of the signs of intoxication are: being overly friendly, using foul language, argumentative, belligerent, slurred speech, slow, deliberate movements, swaying, drowsy, stumbling, red, watery eyes, or alcoholic breath." If a majority of these indicators are noticeable in a drinker at my bar, it's easy to cut him off. He's obviously intoxicated. Unfortunately, it gets tough when the signs appear only one or two at a time.

One Friday night in a crowded LA tequila bar, vice performed a test. An undercover officer walked in acting drunk. Making his way to the bar, he bumped into a stool. When he ordered a drink, he was served. He took a sip and walked out. Flashing badges, plainclothes cops swarmed the bar, and the bartender was pulled outside. She was told that if it had been a bust rather than a test, she would have been in violation of Section 25602(a) of the Business and Professions Code—serving an obviously intoxicated customer.

The police claimed their officer had shown all the signs of a drunk—stumbling into a stool, smelling of booze (they had spritzed him with whiskey), slurring his speech, with his eyes rolling around in his head. The bartender had an answer for every charge. She noticed the drinker had kicked the barstool, but said she does the same thing each time she rounds the corner of the bar—the stools have protruding footrests. As for the guy smelling like alcohol, a bartender is flanked by hundreds of bottles of booze and there is a lot of splashing on a busy night. It's unlikely a barkeep will smell eau de Jack Daniels on a customer on the other side of the bar. As far as she could tell, the officer didn't slur his speech or roll his eyes. Looking back on his performance, she decided he was a bad actor—there's no shortage in LA—but she hadn't found reasons to conclude he was drunk.

Unless a customer is falling out of her clothes and dancing on a table, obvious intoxication can be hard to detect, especially in a busy bar. When we're packed, I eyeball a customer long enough to get an order, then my face is in the well, mixing. Money is exchanged, and the customer disappears into the crowd. This typifies a good night: Busy! Money! But it also keeps me from doing my job. By law I'm obligated to give my customers more time—to check them out and assess their level of intoxication.

When business is slow and there's no crowd to drown out a drinker's objections, the act of cutting off a customer can be awkward and uncomfortable, particularly because I tend to fall on the safe side of careful—eighty-sixing them when they're sober enough to protest convincingly. Recently I was intimidated into serving a regular who I thought was drunk. He asked for his umpteenth Budweiser and I recommended he come back for it the following day. His buddy, friendly and sober, howled, "Kiddo, he's not drunk. He's always like that." Paralyzed by a vision of Our Lady of Polite Nonconfrontation, I served the guy. Had a vice cop been present, I might have been busted. At home, my jeans, push-up bra, and tip-top in a heap in my hamper, I glanced at the Beverage Control summary of selected laws for alcohol servers. I was looking to quell the guilt. It didn't work. Serving the intoxicated "includes regular customers who 'always act that way.' "

There is no maximum number of drinks that can be served to an individual. I can't cut off an anorexic woman after four cocktails just because I imagine that, based on weight alone, she must be pasted. Body type, sex, physical fitness, genetics, and time and size of last meal are all variables that make it impossible to set a formula for capping drinks. This gives the very responsible, very paranoid bartender in me—I call her Frau Feartender—serious pangs. I have to base my decision whether to serve on my customers' behavior, not on the amount of beer I imagine bubbling in their blood. If I relied on my suspicions about my customers' tolerance, Frau would cut them off long before any signs of obvious intoxication danced their way across my bar. Sales would plummet, tips would vaporize, the bar might fold.

Cutting customers off according to Beverage Control regulations prevents the drunk from becoming very drunk, but doesn't necessarily keep the streets safe at night. A drinker's blood alcohol content can push the legal limit before he shows any signs of obvious intoxication. Because customers don't blow their orders into breathalizers, to stay on the right side of the law I make judgment calls based on what I can catch in a glance. In that moment, I have to assume the responsibility that my customers choose to wash away with Long Island Iced Teas and Adios Motherfuckers. In California, you have to be 21 to be considered responsible enough to drink, until you get drunk and can no longer behave like a responsible adult. Then you have to be babysat by your bartender.

Marisa Matarazzo is a native of Los Angeles and is currently working on a collection of short stories.

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