Frankie Salpas has been tending bar for four years. A political science student in Harrisburg, Pa. aiming for law school, Salpas was working in a law firm and waiting tables parttime to make ends meet. One night the restaurant where she worked needed someone to fill in behind the bar.
"At the end of the night, she recalls, "the guy I was working with said, 'Not bad for a girl.' That was the supreme compliment." She is now a fulltime, permanent bartender on Capitol Hill in Washington.
John Scholl, who waits tables at the same restaurant with Salpas, has tended bar off and on since 1972. After graduating from American University with a degree in English literature, he clerked in a law firm and carpentered. "I got into the business because I needed a job, but I like the alternative lifestyle," says Scholl.
Salpas and Scholl are a part of the bartender's changing image. They are young, college-educated and both plan to continue in the restaurant business, perhaps some day managing or even owning their own business. Both view bartending as a fulltime, professional occupation.
The lure of the profession is easily identified. Most people choose bartending because of the good pay, much of it unmonitored by the Internal Revenue Service. Also attractive is the flexibility of time. With the most lucrative hours being the night shifts, bartenders often choose to have their days free to pursue other work and interests. As another advantage, bartenders have an easily marketable skill, and if they enjoy travelling they are able to find work almost any place they to go.
Students tend bar during vacations and parttime while in school to help finance their educations. Fulltime office workers often moonlight behind the bar as a source of extra income. Recently a new group has joined the ranks: the professional who is disatisfied with his or her job.
"There is quite a range," says Siegfried Jones of the Bartenders Academy, a group of local schools for bartending. "Some people have tried everything and found a dead end. Others work fulltime, but want to earn extra in a parttime situation. More and more they are professionals like lawyers bored or tired of their jobs."
Also changing is the gender of the bartender. No longer is the field dominated by men; women have now become a large portion of the bartending population. With this change has come, slowly but surely, a change in the public's concept of the female bartender.
"At first I didn't like the attitude," says Jeanne Nastor, a veteran of six years in the occupation. "Men used to think you came with every drink you poured. That isn't so now."
Yet women still have a few obstacles to conquer in the profession. Often bars are built to accomodate people 5'10" and taller. Many women have difficulty adjusting to the height of the bar's working surface. Learning to fend off a belligerent drinker or stop a fight is another dilemna.
"I'm at a real disadvantage if a fight breaks out," says Nastor. "If I'm managing and tending bar at the same time it can be a problem."
But this can be trouble for both men and women bartenders. "Controlling erratic behavior is definitely a bad part of the job," says Scholl.
How to avoid and cope with these situations, in an atmosphere where people frequently drink as an emotional release, is one of the first lessons learned by every bartender. All act at one time or another act as "amateur psychiatrists" listening their customers problems. Each has their own method.
"I just listen alot," says Nastor. "Most people don't want advice, they just want someplace to talk out their problems by themselves. If you offer advice, even to a friend, they will look at you like your crazy."
And if the customer is getting too soused?
"I never cut anyone off," says Nastor. "When people are drunk, they are neurotic and insecure, and you can't talk to someone like that. I lessen the alcohol and make lighter drinks. If someone has had 10 gin and tonics, you can make the next only tonic and they won't be able to notice. I don't charge them for it and it helps them out."
After working at a bar or a restaurant for a while, a bartender develops his or her own regular customers and many bartenders consider their regulars close friends. "Usually it's not a stranger at end of the bar spilling his problems to you," says Salpas. "It's like any other job. You help out your friends who have come in to talk."
Tending bar in a town like Washington has its special characteristics. Dupont Circle is known for it's business clientele; Georgetown for the younger, rowdier crowd; and Capitol Hill for it's lawyers and aspiring politicians. Once familiar with the neighborhood, a bartender becomes witness to and a participant in the interests of the area.
"Of course, if all the people that come in discuss politics," says Salpas, "you're going to read the paper and be more familiar with what everyone's talking about."
"Here, there's always a change every four years," says Scholl. "You get to make friends in one administration, then they are elected out."
The change since the Reaganites came to power?
"Democrats like to spend money," says Salpas. "Around 10 to 11 Republicans start looking at their watches. It's time for them to be in bed. They're an early, uptight crowd. It's been very slow since November when the recession started to hit."
And the bartender's aspirations?
"I will probably be involved in the business for the rest of my life," says Salpas. "It's a great business."