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  • Writer's pictureThe Blue and White Magazine

Behind Bar

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

Talking to 1020’s female bartenders.

By Hallie Nell Swanson

Things are heating up unusually early at 1020 Amsterdam Ave. It’s 10 p.m. on a weekend and there is an eclectic mix in the packed bar, though the undergrads are nowhere to be found. What seems to be a reunion is going on in the front, where a rowdy group of guys are playing darts, and some old dudes play pool in the back. A woman is telling a bartender to put the drink on the ‘Wonder tab.’ “People are always like, did you make your name up, and I’m like, it’s on my fucking credit card.”

Behind the bar are two Columbia students in identical tight black tank tops, more or less the 1020 bartender uniform, flitting from customer to bar to customer to tab. Girls from Columbia have been bartending at 1020 for four or five years now. The ex-bartender recalls she came in at the time when “the professionals” were starting to leave, and “he just got pretty amateurs.” The Columbia bartenders change up the otherwise exclusively male, slightly on the older side of things, staff. As usual, there’s a male barback and a male bouncer, “to make us feel safe,” says one bartender. They will break up fights and eject people who need to be ejected, if only because male patrons won’t listen to the girls.

While the guys are on payroll, the girls are working for tips. The division of labor neatly encompasses 1020’s schizophrenic identity: old man dive bar Sunday through Tuesday; undergrad scene Thursday through Saturday. (Wednesday remains disputed territory.)

On a typical night, one tells me, the bar will start off quiet, with “a wave of drunk undergrads” coming through between 11 and 1. “By 1:30 a.m., only an undergraduate would want to actually be there,” says another. From there on, it’s “a shitshow” until closing time at 4. The bartenders deal with hazards ranging from having a knife pulled on them, “misogynistic Russians;” “this wasted wrestler adamant that my boobs should go on a date with him;” or a Delta Sig guy throwing up on the pool table, falling asleep on it half naked and then leaving an $80 tab open. (“Usually if you haven’t paid after $50, we try to close you out because then people don’t pay,” says an ex-bartender.)

After closing time, each bartender takes home the tips for half the bar: new girls typically work the front of the bar (“You’re a fresh face” to patrons, reasons the ex-bartender) where you learn to converse with people, and get better tips. At the back, the bartender gets to control the music, but has to constantly churn out drinks to a rowdier crowd of line-cutters. “It’s really infuriating,” she recalls.

The job pays well. A slow night will yield $250- 350; a good night, as much as $450-500. On big nights, like Homecoming, “when it sucks, you walk away with a lot of money,” says one bartender. “It’s worth it in some respects.” Another adds, “I work one day a week and I’m financially independent.” The ex-bartender says the management prefers girls who need the money, so will take the job more seriously— “which is really fair,” she says, noting that girls have been fired for being on their phone too much or taking too many cigarette breaks.

Management is, by all accounts, invasive. The owner lives two flights above the bar. Variously described as “omnipresent” and “a little weird,” he is rarely seen except by staff. Still, cameras above the bar mean he can see what’s going on, and he’ll call down if he doesn’t like it, say the girls. This can include what’s on the TV (sports are not allowed) or the music, which is meant to keep up the atmosphere. It also extends to dress.

The ex-bartender remembers witnessing a previous employee answering the bar’s phone to have the owner “verbally abuse” her for wearing sweats, and recalls him phoning her to demand she take off the flannel shirt she was wearing over her tank top. He also pairs certain girls together in the belief that they’ll make more money if they look good together, or perhaps because they’re more fun to watch on camera. (The ex-bartender notes a progression in the past few years from a “tall, dark haired, ethnically ambiguous” type to more “honey” blondes.)

“Dress code was a huge thing,” she recalls, “a bigger thing than I expected.” Working at the bar was, she said, “the only time I wore a push up bra in the past five years.” The reasoning is simple: as a current bartender puts it, “The sluttier you dress, the more tips you get. I know that sounds fucked up.” “If I just wear a t-shirt, I’ll still make money,” she adds, but it doesn’t hold the same prospect of “a 50 dollar tip one night from that one guy who’s just creepy as fuck.”

“Our managers tell us to kind of play up the sexuality, and our owner told us be fun, be friendly,” says one bartender. “Which makes sense, you want customers.” One girl was fired for not obeying the maxim of “when you’re working, you don’t have a boyfriend.”

Unavailability doesn’t get great tips. “The whole point is to make the male customers, who most of the time are the ones paying, to feel interesting and happy. They’ll drink more, buy more, spend more in the bar and then everyone makes more money,” she says.

The girls are keenly aware of the tricky balance they traverse as the precarious elements in the bar’s employment structure. They may make more than the guys, but the requirements are different. “You had to constantly play on the fact that you are unavailable and yet available,” says the ex-bartender. “The social politics, manipulating that image, it was a very integral part [of working at 1020]” One bartender wrote a paper—Deconstructing 1020: Sexism and Power in Columbia Bar Culture—for a class. “Bars, as institutions are designed to sell sex,” she writes, and goes on to detail the harassment and manipulation she has witnessed and been subjected to.

Why not leave? Clearly, it’s a good gig: bartenders get their friends the same jobs, and most of the girls there now were hired through friends who worked at the bar, either as female weekend bartenders or male staff.

But the girls don’t hang out at the bar so much anymore. “When you spend 8 hours here a weekend, you don’t need to come the next day for another 4 hours,” reasons one. The ex-bartender says she ended up resenting it. “I ended up being so worn out by the idea of going to work,” she said. “Initially you feel included in the behind-the-scenes section. After a while you want to go home.”

There’s some fondness, though, as she recollects, “I’ve kept most of the phone numbers slash poems slash drawings slash things” that bar patrons left for her. “The number of phone numbers was absurd. It was like a joke.” (She went on “multiple dates” as a result, she says.) Another says she would “love to write a book” about bartending there. But she adds, “‘I wouldn’t do it if it didn’t pay off. It’s fun and stuff, but it’s a job.” They’re currently hiring.


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