Nobody has a better view of the showdown between the City of Burlington and its bars than I do. As a bartender in one of the Queen Citys most popular college bars, I see everything going down. Ive seen over-served customers fall off their stools right in front of me. Ive had to jump over the bar and get in the middle of brawls that erupt over something as small as a spilt drink. Ive even witnessed overt sexual acts. Ive seen a lot since I started working downtown, but what interests me most is the citys and states reaction to student drinking.
Im well versed in all the laws, old and new, concerning the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. The Alcohol Servers Awareness Program made sure of that. But its only working behind the bar that you learn first-hand about liquor limits, and how hard it is to impose them. I have to determine whether a customer is intoxicated, and cut him off if necessary, knowing some people can hold their liquor well, and others start slurring after their first drink. I can keep track of a running tab, but how am I supposed to know if the customers have been drinking somewhere else? Whether I serve them or not, Im held responsible for their actions, in and out of the bar.
None of this is new, but the recent vigorous enforcement of specific regulations has made the bartenders job a lot more stressful. Ever since state liquor inspectors and the Burlington Police teamed up to crack down on the citys night life, bartenders like myself have been feeling the pressure of serving two masters.
In some ways, its like having a fox guard the hen house. My job is to please the boss, put money in the register and take care of the bar patrons. The easiest way to make my customers happy and earn my tips is to give them what they want. Most of them are college students who like to order rounds of shots and multiple drinks for their friends. Yet under state law, I cant serve a customer more than one drink at a time. Furthermore, I have to be able to see every customer receiving a drink. Thats quite a task on a Friday night when theres a wall of customers waiting to be served.
Any night of the week, and especially Thursday through Saturday, law enforcement officials seem to bombard the bars, itching to serve liquor violation citations. These days the inspectors and the cops, even the fire chief, frequent the bar almost as often as college students. They claim theyre trying to work with the bars in a collaborative effort to address alcohol-related problems, but it hardly feels that way when theyre busting our balls.
Uniformed police come into the bar every night. While some stop to talk to the bouncers, others waltz right past them without even acknowledging their presence. As soon as they set foot in the bar, the bouncers signal the bartenders, as if to say, Hey, the cops are here, so make sure everythings cool.
Immediately, the atmosphere changes. Im making a lot of drinks as fast as I can, yet I have to take the time to turn down the music and turn up the lights, so they can check IDs. At this point, I could give two shits what the customers want, because I have to worry about over-serving and giving out multiple drinks. I also have to make sure nobodys dancing with a drink in their hand or smoking a joint in the bathroom.
Customers quickly step out of the way when the police walk through crowded room. The officers check the dance floor and go down into the basement. Theyre like grammar-school bullies making their presence known on the playground during recess. They seem to want to make sure nobodys having too much fun, because if you are, therell be hell to pay. And of course all the employees are kissing their asses. The city has given police more muscle, and they seem to like flexing it.
The same is true of Paula Niquette and the undercover liquor inspectors. Bars call ahead to warn each other when one of them is on the prowl. As soon as shes out the door, everyone exhales. Bar employees are getting increasingly fearful of and resentful toward liquor inspectors.
The first time I encountered Niquette, she scolded me after she saw me serve a guy two shots when he still had another drink at the table which I hadnt seen. You know youre not supposed to serve more than one drink to a customer at any given time, right? she asked.
Did I just do that? Sorry, I didnt see his other drink. It wont happen again, was my reply. Apparently satisfied that she had made an example of me in front of the other bartender, Niquette left.
Last June, in an attempt to put more pressure on Burlingtons bartenders, the Department of Liquor Control increased the penalties for over-serving and serving to minors. The city and state are making it perfectly clear that all the responsibility for alcohol-related problems rests on the servers shoulders. Its just another example of how in todays society, people avoid personal responsibility by dumping it onto someone else.
That reminds me of an incident that occurred last fall. Three University of Vermont students, all of them 21 or older, purchased a bottle of liquor from Pearl St. Beverage early in the evening of a Thursday night. After consuming some of the bottle, they hit the bars downtown. Ending up at Rasputins, they videotaped themselves partying and downing a lot of shots. Rasputins employees determined they were too intoxicated to remain in the bar and escorted them out. All three got into a vehicle, and continued to pass around the bottle, still videotaping. One of the students decided to drive home, but en route lost control of the vehicle and slammed into a parked car. One of them suffered minor injuries, and the driver was given a DUI. So, who was responsible for the accident?
No Pearl St. Beverage employee or Rasputins bartender was charged with any violation, so it appears the driver was held accountable in this case. Allegedly, things were smoothed over by the drivers influential father. The only reason I know about the incident is because I know the three persons involved from school. But what if one of the students was seriously hurt or even killed in the accident? Its likely that the videotape would be used to prosecute the bartender at Rasputins for over-serving the students.
By coming down on Burlingtons bars and bartenders, the city is sending a message to bar patrons: that drinkers wont be held responsible for their actions because its the bartenders fault for getting them drunk. Is this the right message to be putting out? Is it helping to solve alcohol abuse and related problems?
Theres no clear or obvious answer to these questions. Students arent changing their attitudes toward drinking. Theyre as reckless and wild as ever. Case in point: One of the students in that accident with two black eyes and a cut-up face was sitting right in front of me, ordering drinks, the following night.
Buddy Lyte is a pseudonym for a local bartender who doesnt want to lose his job yet.