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The Buy-Back: Getting comfortable in NYC

“Next round’s on me.”

That’s when you know you’ve got the bartender in your pocket. It’s New York City and you know your bars. You will juice your local dive for whatever amenities you can find: free jukebox, cheap pool table, even free food. You will not pay more than five dollars per pint.

Five bucks a pint seems outrageous outside this city, but in New York it’s basement price for good beer. This is one of the many virtues of living in NYC; you will never feel that anything is overpriced anywhere else. Rents in Manhattan and Brooklyn are high, driving drink prices higher. But obviously no one is going to stop drinking. NYC is a drunk city, permanently. (If it weren’t for a Bloody Mary over brunch, New York would collectively die every weekend.) Competition between drinking houses is intense; bar owners must, as a matter of survival, provide additional enticements to woo customers away from the bar next door.

Bars in other cities offer the standard accoutrements outlined above. In New York we have a concept that is maybe not unique to the city, but no other city has made it an institution: the buy-back.

The buy-back is when your bartender buys you a drink. Your bartender does this because he likes you, and he may like you for several reasons. Examples follow.

You have tipped your bartender well. I always tip everyone well because I do not hate humanity, but bartenders deserve special treatment. For one, they are devoted to making me happy in a very direct and chemically-verifiable fashion. As if that weren’t enough, a bartender is a catch-all social servant: making conversation, calling cabs, settling disputes, easing the atmosphere.

I typically tip a dollar a drink, plus an extra dollar or two to show I’m serious. This is the most reliable route to the buy-back. Tipping well usually results in a free round every fourth, at least. Anything less and it’s time to find a bar with a better buy-back policy (or a better bartender).

Doing good deeds. Typical deeds, in ascending order of bartender heart-warmth, and all done by me: returning empty glasses, fetching objects out of reach, alerting the bartender to something malfunctioning or broken, helping to resolve a dispute with an angry customer, fixing the sound system, running to the corner deli for mixers when the soda gun breaks.

At one of my favorite Brooklyn bars, I once returned a purse I’d found in the bathroom. My next round was free. I made it back to my table with the four pints I’d ordered, and watched as the bartender removed a wallet from the purse. The money was still there. My friends and I drank free for the next several hours.

Bartender friendship. Not one of your friends that tends bar. If your friends aren’t giving you free drinks you’re the world’s biggest chump. I speak instead of the bartender friendship that develops at the bar, by your regular patronage and generous tipping. Having the bartender on your side makes you basically invincible at your local, which is its own reward, but also comes equipped with a free round at the bartender’s whim. Case in point: there is a bar in Manhattan where my first round is always free – my bartender friend bellows “I owe you one from last time” to ease any tension from envious customers. (This brings to mind a novel side effect of the buy-back as institution; it can act as cover for more liberal gift-giving.)

Reuniting the bar’s owner with her drunk, violent Greek boyfriend. Admittedly, this is a rarity, but I accomplished it recently, and the rewards have yet to be exhausted. This was at my local in Queens, where I had already achieved Bartender Friendship with the owner and her passel of bartenders.

Earlier in the day, the owner’s boyfriend had proposed to her. In a breathtaking act of romantic cluelessness, he squeezed the proposal in between running to the bank and taking out the garbage. While the wife-to-be wanted to celebrate, the boyfriend was lugging trash.

The owner accepted the proposal, but expressed some dissatisfaction at the method in which it was carried out. The boyfriend responded sensibly: he got drunk and threw the $10,000 engagement ring in the East River.

Enter my sorry ass, with my girlfriend’s sorry ass in tow. We’d both had hell-ride days at work and were looking to unwind over pool and whisky. Fate was unimpressed with the plan. Instead, we, the only customers, and were thrust immediately into the fray.

We were happy to listen to the jilted bride’s complaints, commiserate, offer consolation and advice. Once the boyfriend swaggered into the bar, cursing and beating tables, though, the owner sent me after him.

I grabbed a couple bottles of Bud and my smokes and followed the raving Greek to the bathroom. I asked him to talk with me, and understandably, he refused. (I’d spoken to him only once before and he was in the middle of taking a piss.) Once he emerged, I tried again, and to my amazement he followed me to the bar’s rear garden.

He started to tear up the place, and I think he wanted to tear me up too. At the very least, he wanted to hit me with the plastic patio chairs he was throwing. I deftly dodged the furniture and got up in his face.

If you’ve never approached a raving madman with a message of love, I recommend it unconditionally. Aggressive kindness is not in the macho drunk’s repetoire. They have no idea how to respond and generally collapse into the mewling milk-fed babies they are.

And the boyfriend did. I told him the owner loved him, would do anything for him, has never felt this way in her life. I told him right into his Greek nose while he clenched his fists and snorted. I told him in the certain language of commodity romance so there would be no misunderstanding. Finally, he settled into one of the few chairs left standing and detailed his every romantic relationship, up to and including his recent aborted proposal. We went back inside, and he immediately embraced his girl. They were back together; they would be man and wife.

Now, the economy of the evening. Bought: two bottles of Budweiser. Received gratis: six more Bud bottles, eight shots of Jameson Irish whisky, one shot of Ouzo, one quadruple shot of Ouzo, permission to smoke indoors, and untold righteous karma, at a total buy-back market value of incomparable.

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