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Through The Looking Glass 

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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 City’s most popular college bars, I see everything going down. I’ve seen over-served customers fall off their stools right in front of me. I’ve had to jump over the bar and get in the middle of brawls that erupt over something as small as a spilt drink. I’ve even witnessed overt sexual acts. I’ve seen a lot since I started working downtown, but what interests me most is the city’s and state’s reaction to student drinking.

I’m 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 it’s 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, I’m 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 bartender’s job a lot more stressful. Ever since state liquor inspectors and the Burlington Police teamed up to crack down on the city’s night life, bartenders like myself have been feeling the pressure of serving two masters.

In some ways, it’s 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 can’t serve a customer more than one drink at a time. Furthermore, I have to be able to see every customer receiving a drink. That’s quite a task on a Friday night when there’s 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 they’re trying to work with the bars in a collaborative effort to address alcohol-related problems, but it hardly feels that way when they’re 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 everything’s cool.”

Immediately, the atmosphere changes. I’m 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 nobody’s 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. They’re like grammar-school bullies making their presence known on the playground during recess. They seem to want to make sure nobody’s having too much fun, because if you are, there’ll 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 she’s 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 hadn’t seen. “You know you’re 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 didn’t see his other drink. It won’t 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 Burlington’s 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 server’s shoulders. It’s just another example of how in today’s 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 Rasputin’s, they videotaped themselves partying and downing a lot of shots. Rasputin’s 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 Rasputin’s bartender was charged with any violation, so it appears the driver was held accountable in this case. Allegedly, things were smoothed over by the driver’s 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? It’s likely that the videotape would be used to prosecute the bartender at Rasputin’s for over-serving the students.

By coming down on Burlington’s bars and bartenders, the city is sending a message to bar patrons: that drinkers won’t be held responsible for their actions because it’s 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?

There’s no clear or obvious answer to these questions. Students aren’t changing their attitudes toward drinking. They’re 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 doesn’t want to lose his job – yet.

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Buddy Lyte

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