When To Pay Your Tab
When To Pay Your Tab
A man slaps his cell phone on the bar, puts it on speaker, plays a voice mail for the guy sitting beside him. From the tiny screen comes a big-throated woman. Let’s just say, for the sake of clean writing, she ain’t happy. “Now how am I supposed to deal with some crazy like that,” he asks after she’s done. A handful of men wearing business suits crowds around a single, small table, discussing—of all things, dead of winter—their swimming club. A couple sits in the back corner, eating burgers in that spot closest to the jukebox. Neon-bright machine. A new model. Every few minutes one of them leans back in his or her chair, plays a track. Tony Toni Tone’s “It’s Our Anniversary.” Keith Sweat. James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” Otis Redding.
My first time at Zorba’s, I did it all wrong. The occasion: lunch with some fellow teachers. Maybe end of exam week. Maybe we just needed a few hours to complain in solidarity. Either way, I ordered a diet Coke and house salad, no bacon. Not a whiskey. No beer. Not the steak sandwich they’re known for.
So when Shay the bartender asks what I’m drinking, and even though they carry it, I know I can’t order a glass of wine, which is what I’d be getting any other place or day. I’m getting older, a creature of habit. I like what I like, no longer the dive bar girl I want to be and once was. I rarely drink hard liquor. I actually use the phrase “hard liquor,” and when I do I can hear an edge of my grandmother’s voice inside my own.
Enter editor Ashley Warlick, who appears, orders a Maker’s. Two Maker’s, one for each of us, decision made. She goes on to request a side of fries, ranch dressing for dipping. She’s the kind of decadelong friend who always knows what the moment at hand needs. I once read this Ralph Angel poem where, when a man walks, he “storms down the street as if to throw open every door.” She’s like that, but a girl. At one point Ashley steps away from the bar and, upon returning not a minute later, says, “Well, I’ve made friends.”
Shay says no troubles instead of you’re welcome. Shay brings you lemons for your water even though you don’t ask for them. Shay sneaks dollars into the jukebox between checking on customers, makes respectable song choices. Sam Cooke. Bell Biv DeVoe. Shay’s broken 27 bones in his lifetime; he’s a skateboarder. Shay’s one of the best bartenders around.
“I’ve worked here four and a half years,” he says, “minus one in the middle when I broke my hip.”
Ashley and Shay discuss the healing powers of yoga. I take note to make fun of her about this later.
Shay says, “I like bartending over managing. When you’re a manager, you have to babysit people, and I don’t like babysitting.”
He’s right. I sigh. I’m a restaurant manager.
“Did you take that lady with a salad her salad dressing? No? Then how’s she supposed to eat it?”
“Did you add a beer to that guy’s tab? Add a beer to that guy’s tab.”
“She’s got her credit card out. We can assume that probably means she wants to pay.”
Nu-Way owner Becky Myers mans the fry station and yells down-line to the new guy, a nice young man wearing a smart sweater. She’s run the place over ten years, and The Nu-Way itself is near 80 years old. New Guy’s brought me a beer, but I’m still waiting on my friend Erica and an order of fried green beans. I’m glad for the entertainment. A ball-buster for sure, but then Becky moves closer to the young man, says, “How are you feeling? You’re getting a little better every day. Bartending’s kind of like a video game. At some point, everything just clicks.”
She’s a sharp-shooter, no doubt, and adored by her customers. When a family gets up to leave, two little boys ask their mom: “May we say bye to Ms. Becky before we go?”
I’ve known Becky my whole life, and The Nu-Way about as long. Once, in middle school, my best friend’s uncle babysat the two of us. Midnight, he drove us there. The best friend and I wore pajamas, drank Sprite, played foosball in the back room while her uncle flirted with the bartender who would later become his girlfriend.
Erica arrives. We order burgers. We gossip in low voices because Spartanburg: population seven. Some team scores a touchdown on the television. A wave of patrons likes this; another wave does not.
It’s winter, the time of year when the kids you grew up with who now have kids of their own return to town for the holidays, pack into the bar weekend nights to catch up, to hear Shane Pruitt or Gregory Hodges play, to be reminded that while most things have changed, some things haven’t. The time of year when a guy or girl who broke your heart in high school could come walking through the back door at any moment, and even though you’re twice as old now, you might still feel an echo of what you felt back then. In the Nu-Way bathroom there’s a chalkboard wall. On it a woman has written in pink late-night scrawl: “The one night I get a babysitter…I mean GEEZ.”
I miss real jukeboxes. I miss the forehead- to-glass mindless flipping of albums while your best friend across the room clears darts from a board. The Cure, Gloria Gaynor, Nirvana. Flip flip flip. Jukeboxes, from the Gullah “juke” or “joog.” Meaning disorderly. Wicked. Rowdy. I miss recklessness. I miss the time our church choir director—there for a to-go order of signature redneck burgers—spotted me at Nu-Way having snuck in underage and escorted me out herself. Jukeboxes. Rowdy. Wicked. Disorderly. And yet also the control, the decision making. The haven of music, yours to create. I put five bucks in this baby; it’s mine for an hour. Patsy Cline, Otis Redding, Dylan, Bob Seger every time. Ruth Brown when I miss New Orleans. I miss smoky bars. I miss complaining about smoky bars, washing my hair late at night after returning home, falling asleep with it still wet. A sign on the wall of Zorba’s says, “No overnight tabs. No exceptions.” I miss overnight tabs.
Etta James’s “Sunday Kind of Love” plays on the new-age jukebox which, fine, isn’t so bad. Ashley and I talk to people, gather in our bellies bourbon and anecdotes, most of which are not the business of magazines. But this one: Shay shows us a video on his phone. In it a man flies, wearing on him a suit of wings. It’s a thing, apparently; people do this all over the world. It’s a dream of Shay’s to fly.
“So it’s like Icarus, only you don’t die,” I say.
“Oh some people die,” he says and shrugs, like it’s nothing.
1414 East Washington Street, Greenville
Nu-Way Restaurant & Lounge
373 East Kennedy Street, Spartanburg