'Last Call' Goes Behind The Scenes At Bars, Giving A Glimpse Of Post-Shift Rituals | Connecticut Public Radio
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'Last Call' Goes Behind The Scenes At Bars, Giving A Glimpse Of Post-Shift Rituals

Nov 27, 2019
Originally published on November 27, 2019 9:28 pm

Imagine people three drinks deep, trying to catch the bartender's attention for a beer or something stronger. The people behind the bar are shaking, stirring, pouring and finally, it's time.

Last call. The lights come up, the music goes down and people head out the door. It's a time of ritual for bar staff that patrons rarely get to see.

It's that ritual that intrigued author Brad Thomas Parsons and took him on a journey for his latest book. Parsons traveled around the United States to more than 80 bars, asking bartenders for their take on last call.

"The answers were surprisingly — they got a little existential," he says. "Talking to people late at night about their customs and rituals at that kind of interesting post-shift closing time, was quite an adventure for sure."

Parsons asked all the bartenders what their final drink would be. He left the question open for interpretation on whether it's their death row drink, the drink they have at the end of their shift or the best drink they've ever made.

He packaged the bartenders' answers, along with the drink recipes and photographs in a new book Last Call: Bartenders on their Final Drink, and the Wisdom and Rituals of Closing Time.

Chad Spangler is the one of the owners of Service Bar in Washington, D.C., one of the bars featured in Parsons' book.

"This is my baby. I'm here every day," Spangler says.

Service Bar has a laid-back feel of a neighborhood spot, with cocktails that you might find in a much fancier place. It's just one room with an eye-catching octopus mural on one wall and the back wall is papered with pages from a vintage book on entertaining.

On the weekends Service Bar has DJs performing, so it's usually pretty loud just before last call happens, Spangler says.

"We get exceptionally busy about an hour before we close," he says. "Once we get to last call, as sometimes a break from whatever loud, energetic music is playing, we play 'Bedroom' by Litany a lot."

Spangler says the song usually slows down the energy in the bar.

The concept of last call is a little bit philosophical and people can wax poetic when they think about it.

As a bartender, Spangler watches last call happen night after night.

"You go through this wild shift [and] hopefully it was really busy and you've been stimulated for hours and hours. Once everyone is out the door [you] turn the music off and it's just silent and relaxed and I think it gives you this kind of sense of balance of everything," Spangler says. "Whether it's behind the bar or just in life, yeah, you can have fun, but there's a time where it needs to come to an end and you need to get home and then you can come back the next day and do it all over."

Spangler's final drink of choice is a grilled apricot iced tea, on the menu at Service Bar — although there are some seasonal variations. This time, it's a boozy iced tea made with whiskey that he infused with late summer peaches smoked over a mesquite wood grill.

Parsons has spent his life writing and thinking about drinks. He says digging into the concept of last call did help him understand some things in a different way.

"I found the the sort of unintentional somberness that came out by just hanging out at bars at night and seeing that shift from busy active floor to the bright lights on and it's over," he said. "When you're at a bar and it suddenly closes where it's like being on a stage where the house lights come up, that bare bulb is onstage. The music changes from crowd friendly to the bartenders picks of what they're playing. You start seeing things a different way."

Parsons visited all kinds of bars for the book, ranging from dive bars to fancy cocktail bars to hotel bars.

He says if he were to average all of the experiences he had to a single story of what happens at the end of the night there would be a song played: either "Purple Rain" or "Bohemian Rhapsody."

"At the end of the night the staff gets to have their drink and there would be a shot of some sort," he says. "And then bartenders are there for several hours after, cleaning up, counting the money and getting ready for the next shift, but they're also about hospitality and sometimes it's about letting that person hang out at the bar a little later."

Parsons says his own first unintentional last call experience was the spark for this project.

"It was a night out with friends and one of my favorite Brooklyn restaurant bars, and they were all coupled up and went home in their respective Ubers," he says. "And I was still at the bar, kind of feeling a little sorry for myself having a whiskey and then having it tomorrow. And I said, you know, I should let you guys close up. And they were like, Brad, we closed two hours ago."

As for his own last drink, Parsons says he would keep it simple.

"Like many bartenders at the end of their shift, you just want something cold, crisp, clean. And that's usually for me, a cold beer," he says. "I kind of get a little sentimental when I think about my father. And I think it would have to be like his favorite beer, a bottle of Miller Lite. And if it was indeed my last call, as in it's over, I would hope he would be the other side. Clinking my bottle with me."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The night before Thanksgiving is traditionally one of the busiest bar nights of the year.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAR AMBIENCE)

SHAPIRO: Imagine people three deep, trying to catch the bartender's attention for a beer or something stronger. The people behind the bar are shaking, stirring, pouring. And finally, it's time - last call. The lights come up. The music goes down, and people head out the door.

It's a time of ritual for bar staff, one that patrons rarely get to see. That ritual intrigued author Brad Thomas Parsons. So for his latest book, he traveled around the country to more than 80 bars, asking bartenders for their take on last call.

BRAD THOMAS PARSONS: And the answers were surprisingly - they got a little existential and dark at points. And talking to people late at night about their customs and rituals at that kind of interesting post-shift closing time was quite adventure for sure.

SHAPIRO: One thing he asked all of them - what their final drink would be.

PARSONS: I left it really open. Like, is it their death row drink? Is it their shift drink? Is it their best drink they ever made?

SHAPIRO: Shift drink meaning what they drink when they're done for the night.

PARSONS: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: He packages their answers, along with drink recipes and photographs, in a new book, "Last Call: Bartenders On Their Final Drink And The Wisdom And Rituals Of Closing Time." We met Parsons at one of the Washington, D.C., bars that he features in the book.

Hey, I'm Ari.

CHAD SPANGLER: Hey, Ari - Chad. Nice to meet you.

SHAPIRO: Nice to meet you, Chad.

Chad Spangler is one of the owners of Service Bar, and he makes drinks here, too.

SPANGLER: This is my baby. I'm here every day.

SHAPIRO: This place has the laid-back feel of a neighborhood spot with the kind of cocktails that you might find in a much fancier place. It's just one room. On the side wall, an anime-inspired mural of an octopus. The back wall is papered with pages from a vintage book on entertaining.

We are here by daylight, but I want you to paint a picture for us of last call. What does it sound like?

SPANGLER: So we have DJs Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And so it can be pretty loud here, typically all the way until last call.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAR AMBIENCE)

SPANGLER: We get exceptionally busy about an hour before we close.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAR AMBIENCE)

SPANGLER: Once we get to last call, as sometimes a break from whatever loud, energetic music is playing, we play "Bedroom" by Litany a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITANY SONG, "BEDROOM")

SPANGLER: It kind of slows it down.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's bring some of that in here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEDROOM")

LITANY: (Singing) I need to know now. Are you going to come round?

SHAPIRO: The concept of last call is a little bit philosophical, and I think people can kind of wax poetic when they think about it. For you as a bartender who is here witnessing last call night after night after night, how do you relate to that idea?

SPANGLER: You go through this wild shift. Hopefully, it was really busy, and you've been stimulated for hours upon hours. And then once everyone's out the door, turn the music off. And it's just silent and relaxed. And I think it gives you kind of this sense of balance of everything that, like, whether it's, you know, behind the bar or just in life, like, yeah, you can have fun, but there's time where it needs to come to an end and you need to get home. And then you can come back the next day and do it all over.

SHAPIRO: Well said.

I asked Chad to mix us his final drink.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRINK SHAKING)

SHAPIRO: He chose a boozy iced tea made with whiskey that he infused with late summer peaches smoked over a mesquite wood grill.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRINK POURING)

SHAPIRO: I could smell that the minute you started pouring it into the glass. It's this sweet, smoky, slightly tangy - can I give this a try? It's really good.

SPANGLER: I'm glad you enjoy it.

SHAPIRO: I could just snuggle in with this for a long time - like, 6 feet under.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Brad, how about we take these two beautiful drinks that Chad has made us and sit down and chat?

PARSONS: Sign me up.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) So as somebody who has spent his life writing about and thinking about places where people drink, did writing this book illuminate the idea of last call for you in a different way?

PARSONS: It definitely did. You know, I found sort of unintentional somberness that came out by just hanging out at bars at night and seeing that shift from busy, active floor to the bright lights on. And it's over. When you're at a bar and it suddenly closes, it's like being on a stage where the house lights come up. That bare bulb is on the stage. The music changes from crowd-friendly to the bartenders' picks of what they're playing. You start seeing things a different way.

SHAPIRO: You visited more than 80 bars for this project, ranging from dives to fancy cocktail bars to hotel bars. And you heard about last call at all of them. If you were to average them all into one story of what happens at the end of the night, tell us that story.

PARSONS: So if I had to put them all into one, like, there would be a song played. It would likely be "Purple Rain" or...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

PARSONS: ..."Bohemian Rhapsody." Those seem to be the two top picks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE RAIN")

PRINCE: (Singing) I never meant to cause you any sorrow.

PARSONS: At the end of the night, the staff gets to have their drink, and there would be a shot of some sort.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE RAIN")

PRINCE: (Singing) I never meant to cause you any pain.

PARSONS: And then, you know, like, bartenders are there for several hours afterwards...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

PARSONS: ...Cleaning up, counting the money, getting ready for the next shift. But they're also about hospitality, and sometimes it's about letting that person hang out at the bar a little later.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE RAIN")

PRINCE: (Singing) Purple rain, purple rain. Purple rain...

SHAPIRO: One thing that seems true of anybody who is at the bar for last call, at least on the customer side of the bar, is that they're not having their first drink of the night. It seems like a moment when things are hazy. There's a kind of - mystery might not be the word; romance might not be the word - but something along those lines in that moment.

PARSONS: No, it's - and the spark of this book was me having my first, like, unintentional last call, not realizing it. It was a night out with friends at one of my favorite Brooklyn restaurant bars. And they were all coupled up and went home in their respective Ubers. And I was still at the bar, kind of feeling a little sorry for myself, having a whiskey and then having an amaro. And I said, you know, I should let you guys close up. And they were like, Brad, we closed two hours ago. And it's a kind of...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

PARSONS: ...Realizing, like...

SHAPIRO: Were they sticking around for you?

PARSONS: They were - yeah, they were staying for me. But I didn't realize, hey, the door had been locked. The lights were up. You know, the Rolling Stones had changed to Tom Waits suddenly. And all this - so suddenly, that flash of wow...

SHAPIRO: Was it a sense of, yes, I did it, or was it a sense of, I should reevaluate my life choices, or somewhere in the middle?

PARSONS: The latter - it was the latter. I mean, I did get a book deal out of it, but I think it was...

SHAPIRO: That's not too bad.

PARSONS: No, I mean - but it's literally staring at yourself in a mirror late at night and seeing that reflection of yourself. And you're, like, not, what have I done with my life, but sort of, you know, maybe it's time to go home.

SHAPIRO: So Brad Parsons, I've read all of these bartenders from all over the country describing what their last drink would be. What would yours be?

PARSONS: You know, I tend to not quite plead the fifth, but I hem and haw on this one a little bit. And I hope you'll...

SHAPIRO: It's like someone asking me which presidential candidate I support (laughter).

PARSONS: Maybe. I think, you know, like many bartenders at the end of their shift, you just want something cold, crisp, clean. And that's usually, for me, a cold beer. And I kind of get a little sentimental when I think about my father. And I think it would have to be, like, his favorite beer, a bottle of Miller Lite. And if it was indeed, like, my last call - as in, it's over - I would hope he would be on the other side, clinking my bottle with me.

SHAPIRO: Brad Parsons, cheers.

PARSONS: Cheers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOSING TIME")

SEMISONIC: (Singing) Closing time, open all the doors and let you out into the world.

SHAPIRO: His new book is "Last Call." Thanks to Chad Spangler for letting us stop by. To you and everyone on the Service Bar team, good luck tonight. And to everyone on the other side of the bar, get home safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOSING TIME")

SEMISONIC: (Singing) Closing time, one last call for alcohol, so finish your whiskey or beer. Closing time, you don't have... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.