Volume 75, Number 40 | February 22 -28 2006

Hey, bartender! The soul of West Side watering holes

By Ellen Keohane

Bartender Mary Kate Pappas watched with amusement as one of her co-workers sang along to a country-western song and berated customers with a megaphone on a recent Friday night at Hogs & Heifers, a bar in the Meatpacking District.

A little after 9 p.m., the song “I’ve Been Drinking All Night Long” came on the jukebox and it was time to dance. “Get your s—t off the bar and back the f—k up,” shouted one bartender into the megaphone. Customers leaning against the bar grabbed their drinks and took a step back as three bartenders, clad in low-ride jeans and bikini tops, climbed onto the bar. As 28 men and six women watched in rapt attention, the three women performed a country clog dance. “Shake it with me,” shouted a brunette bartender in a flesh-colored bikini top as she convinced one female patron to join her on top of the bar.

The bartenders’ clog dance is just one of many things that makes Hogs & Heifers at 859 Washington St. unique, along with the hundreds of bras that hang from the back of the bar and the taxidermy, bike parts, road signs, stickers, photos and construction hats that line its walls and ceiling. According to Pappas, one of the bras belonged to actress Julia Roberts — but good luck finding it in the pile. In addition to random celebrities, the bar attracts the odd assortment of meatpacking workers, bikers, Wall Streeters and tourists.

But it isn’t the drinks or decor that keep New Yorkers coming back to West Side bars like Hogs & Heifers. It’s the people behind the bar. Whatever your taste, the following people make going out in the West Village and Meatpacking District a bit more fun.

Villager photos by Elisabeth Robert

Mary Kate Pappas and the “wall of fame” at Hogs & Heifers

Mary Kate Pappas at Hogs & Heifers

“If you just want to be a bartender, you can just be a bartender in a lot of places. Anyone can be taught how to bartend, but not everybody can be taught how to have fun in any situation,” Pappas said. In jeans and a zip-up hoodie, Pappas, 24, sat and talked at the dark bar on a quiet weekday afternoon. “My job is to throw a party,” she said. “I get to joke around. I get to sing and dance and, at the end of the day, my wallet’s a little fatter.”

After graduating from Salisbury University in Maryland, Pappas moved to New York where she started working as an assistant buyer in the fashion industry. “I hated it,” she said. “I didn’t want to grow up yet.” So she quit her job and started working at Hogs & Heifers a little over a year ago. Currently recovering from a knee injury, Pappas is taking a break from working behind — and on top of — the bar. For now she’s helping out in the office and training new hires.

“This isn’t a job for just anyone,” Pappas said with a big smile. “It takes a certain personality.” A few minutes later Confederate Railroad’s “Queen of Memphis” came on the jukebox. Pappas stopped midsentence and started belting out the lyrics. “Before starting here, I couldn’t have sung a Johnny Cash song front to back,” she said. “Now I have three times as many country songs on my iTunes than anything else.”

Tiffany Alia at Gaslight

From Hogs & Heifers, walk north one block to 14th St., then east until you hit Ninth Ave. There, you’ll find Gaslight at 400 W. 14th St.

On a recent Tuesday night, two women, immersed in conversation, lounged on a couch near the front door. Long red drapes hung from the floor-to-ceiling French doors behind them. Small white candles lit the otherwise dark space. Bartender Tiffany Alia, 27, relaxed at the bar in a long black-and-white wool coat, enjoying her night off. She had just gotten out of class at the New York School of Interior Design where she’s working on her bachelor’s degree.

The crowd at Gaslight is extremely eclectic. “Everyone comes in here,” Alia said. Even celebrities frequent the bar. Before he stopped drinking, Ben Affleck came in a lot. A few weeks ago Bruce Willis stopped by and Rob Schneider is a regular, she said.

Although Gaslight can be quiet during the week, it can get really packed on the weekends. The most important skill a bartender should have in a place like Gaslight is speed, Alia said. “You have to know where everything is without looking and do the math in your head,” she said. “There’s not much time to think.” Strategy is also important. For example, if the crowd in front of the bar is four people deep, you serve the guy in the back first, because you’ll get a bigger tip, she said.

Alia has bartended at Gaslight for the past six years and during that time the Meatpacking District has changed dramatically. There used to be an S&M club across the street from the bar and transvestite hookers used to roam the streets. When the cops showed up, the hookers would hurdle cars to get away, Alia said. “Now it’s nothing but models and pretty people strutting their stuff. It’s nothing but a catwalk down here,” she said.

Stuffy Shmitt at Tavern on Jane

Just a few blocks southwest of Gaslight is Tavern on Jane at 31 Eighth Ave. There you’ll find bartender and musician Stuffy Shmitt, 42, on Friday and Saturday nights. Shmitt, who speaks in sound bites peppered with four-letter words, has worked at Tavern on Jane on and off for three years.

The best things about being a bartender are the free food and drinks, the girls and the money, Shmitt said, taking a drag from his cigarette outside the tavern before the start of his shift. The worst part, he said, is dealing with drunken adults acting like children — and the lack of cigarette breaks. “I’m a chain smoker, man, and I have to stay inside from 7 p.m until 4 a.m,” he said.

As the front door opened on a recent Saturday night, a gust of cold air blew into the tavern where a dozen people sat at the wooden bar. One woman flipped through a New York magazine while sipping a glass of red wine. Other patrons, scattered at tables around the room, ordered dinner from the tavern’s menu, while a college football game played on the two televisions above the bar. The bar primarily attracts people from the neighborhood, but also New Yorkers from Uptown and Staten Island, Shmitt said. “[Danny] DeVito’s been in here, lots of famous actors, musicians.”

Originally from Milwaukee, Shmitt has worked as a bartender in New York City for the past 20 years. While bartending at the North Star Pub in the South St. Seaport, he received his biggest tip. “A guy who loved my music wanted to help with my record,” Shmitt said. “I served him a Manhattan and he cut me a check for $10,000 — and it cleared! I thought he was f—king with me.”

Lisa Rock at Art Bar

From Tavern on Jane, cross Eighth Ave. and walk half a block north and you’ll find the Art Bar at 52 Eighth Ave. Once there, you can sit at the bar, slide into one of the curved booths in the front room, or sink into a thrift-store couch and relax in front of the fireplace in the back room. In addition to serving drinks and food, the bar occasionally hosts art shows.

At 4 p.m. on a recent Saturday, bartender Lisa Rock, 38, sliced limes and stocked the bar in anticipation of the happy-hour crowd. “It’s good to be prepared,” she said as Michael Penn’s “Romeo in Blue Jeans” played on the jukebox. Dressed in a black tank top and jeans, Rock patiently served drinks and took food orders as the crowd grew from two to more than 30 people over the next two hours. The bar’s daily two-for-one draft and well-drink specials (per person) from 4 p.m.-7 p.m. typically draw a large crowd, Rock said.

Rock has bartended in New York City for the past 20 years, but has only been at the Art Bar for a little over a year. Her first night working at the Art Bar, she met her current boyfriend. Although she usually avoids dating patrons, that night she made an exception. “He didn’t hit on me,” Rock said. “He talked to me like a person.”

Like many bartenders, Rock sees a difference in the weekend and weekday crowds. During the week the Art Bar gets a lot of neighborhood regulars, including employees from the restaurants and bars in the nearby Meat Market. However, on weekend nights, area bars see a rowdier crowd. Sometimes Rock will call on the bouncers to help with a difficult customer, but usually she finds killing unruly drunks with kindness works just as well. When patrons are behaving, Rock said she loves her job. “It’s a way to be out at night and make money instead of spending it,” she said.

Geeta Purohit at the Cubby Hole

Around the corner from the Art Bar is the Cubby Hole at 281 W. 12th St. As its name suggests, the Cubby Hole is a cozy bar. It has an eclectic collection of rainbow-colored fish, butterflies, pigs, airplanes and kites hanging from the ceiling. Every time regulars go away on vacation, they bring a souvenir back to hang up, bartender Geeta Purohit explained.

Purohit, 34, who has long, wavy brown hair, a tattoo on her right arm and a pierced nose, has worked as a bartender at the Cubby Hole for five years. “The crowd is primarily lesbian with gay boys and your random spattering of straight people —including myself,” said Purohit, who married a fireman/artist in November. Before her wedding, her loyal patrons and co-workers threw Purohit a bachelorette party at the bar, but her request for a male stripper was ignored, she said.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, about half a dozen women and a couple of men hung out at the bar. Purohit poured a shot of Jagermiester for one patron and opened a bottle of Amstel Light for another. “What’s up pussycat?” Purohit sang to one regular as she entered the bar. “The people I meet are the best thing about bartending,” Purohit said. “It’s like ‘Cheers’ here — everyone knows your name.”

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