By ARMAND EMAMDJOMEH
A jukebox in the corner of the darkened room pipes classic country tunes into the urban wasteland. The room reeks of old beer, damp wood and a hard day’s work that nowadays has gotten even harder.
“This weekend was slammed, the bar made a lot of money, but the bartenders didn’t,” says Bree Rodriguez as she hustles back and forth in the darkness mixing drinks like a mad scientist.
“No lime in one, right?” She asks before turning to a customer.
As the economy sours, the effects have trickled down the tap from Wall Street into the neighborhood bars on Mission Street. “People are drinking more, but not tipping as well,” Rodriguez says. The 500 Club at 17th and Guerrero Streets, where she’s worked for the past three years, has lowered prices to attract more customers.
While he thinks it’s too early to know the full effect of the economic crisis, Jamin Barton, a co-worker at the 500 Club, offers a bartender’s take.
“I think people might actually be drinking more,” he says, while noting that customers are also downgrading to cheaper drinks and tipping less. “People order five Pabsts and give you a dollar.”
Sipping from a couple drinks he keeps behind the bar for his own consumption, Barton is obviously in for the long haul -– his shift ends at 2 a.m. He sees a more dramatic downturn in the restaurant industry, and for the 500 Club that means fewer waiters and waitresses coming in, pockets bulging with good tips.
“They tend to be real heavy drinkers, and real big tippers,” he says of his colleagues who serve meals.
With a clienteles from across the social strata, not all bartenders are as concerned. Across the Mission at The Phone Booth, Bill Gentile indulges in a few during his off hours. Gentile works at The Napper Tandy in the Mission, and also at Sam’s Grill and Le Central in the Financial District.
“One thing about rich people: when they hurt, it’s not like we hurt,” he says in a Vince Vaughn clip.
“I think the more sad people get, the more they drink…right now a guy who’d have a few beers would have a few beers and a shot, but in six months or a year when the crunch hits, people are gonna hit it a lot more.”
Liz Carlos, who has been bartending for 12 years and is just back from a four-month trip to Germany, dances at the cash register to a Johnny Cash song. Freshly hung Halloween decorations keep an eye on the customers.
“You have the regular drinkers, you’ll always have your regulars, she says, adding that business seems the same now as it was before she left for Europe.
The Inner Mission bar on 20th and Shotwell, a relative newcomer to the District, seemed to be doing well as a crowd piled in to watch the vice-presidential debate. Tom Madonna, co-owner of the bar, said business was fine for now but he’s wary about next year.
“There’s Christmas, people will make New Year’s resolutions to spend less and then layoffs will start,” he predicted. “ I think we’ll have a really slow first quarter.”
Madonna, however, said San Francisco may well be sheltered from the worst of the crisis.
“I think we’re going to weather better than most, we’re more diverse, more educated.”
Scott Warhaven, a San Francisco State liberal studies major and six-year veteran bartender, is worried. He has just moved to a two-bedroom apartment in Noe Valley, and has a baby due in December. But he tries to stay upbeat. “In good times and bad times, people are still going to drink…different purposes, but you know,” he says with a shrug.
On a Friday night, crowds pour out of the BART stations. The stock market has just had its largest plunge in history, another bank has been seized and the state of California has declared it will go bankrupt if it cannot access credit.
A Porsche rolls down Valencia Street. Across an empty lot some Latino youths play soccer.