With that, the battle lines were drawn. It had taken no more than five minutes since I sat down at the bar - a nondescript, not-quite-dive in the Times Square area. I don't know what had possessed me to come in, but here I was. The decor was plastic; it looked exactly like what comes to mind if someone tells you the following: Bar, American, Non-franchise, Lunch Crowd, Midtown.
Not enough character to be interesting; not enough seediness to rescue it. I swirled my Scotch in the glass and meditated momentarily over the tinkling fluid dynamics.
The first drink was, as habitual, Johnnie Walker Black Label. I'd asked just for the liquor, to see what the bartender would do with that information. It's amazing what you can learn from and through drinking. The perfunctory nod and lack of spoken response indicated that the barkeep was bored, not really interested in what he was doing, and didn't find that I warranted much of his attention.
Which is how I usually like it; but something tweaked me off that afternoon when he set the glass down in front of me. It was perhaps three-quarters of an inch full of brown liquid. This was not a lot. It was made less forgivable by the three ice cubes that occupied a fair bit of the volume inside the glass. I picked it up from the off-center drink napkin, slapped there first, and swirled it. That's a habit, too; one I couldn't (I suspect) break if I tried. The brownish-gold liquid spun frictionlessly at the bottom of the glass, the three cubes of ice (these were approximately squared in all dimensions) spinning as a unit. The Scotch had melted the outside layer of the ice cubes when it was poured over them. Once the Scotch had cooled enough, the inner layers of ice stopped melting. As the Scotch settled at the bottom, the insulation of air that returned caused the still-frozen ice to refreeze the thin slick of water that joined them. My precessing the glass wasn't enough to break that, causing the three to spin as a unit as the water and booze rushed around them.
That's not a lot of Scotch, three-quarters of an inch. I swigged, feeling the familiar cold fire trickle down past my tonsils, and swirled again. The ice remained unitary.
Not a lot at all. I looked over at the bartender, who was studiously ignoring me through resorting to the oldest bartending trick in the book - The Polishing of the Glass. The ritual is familiar to any barfly; pick a glass (almost invariably a clean one) from its nook, and use the bar rag to squeakily polish it to a high shine while paying careful attention to the task at hand. This trick, perhaps once intended to boost confidence in the cleanliness of the drinking establishment's glassware, was also effective at allowing the polisher to avoid sightlines, and, hence, work.
I watched him polish for a few moments while I drank, realizing that something he'd done had thrown down the gauntlet. This wasn't just a mere gaffe; nor was it a personal insult. Rather, some old and rusty Class Action indignation was stirring in my breast. No, not in the gut; that was the Scotch. Some desire to punish, to prevent other bar goers from suffering under this yoke that had been callously draped over my shoulders.
I put the (now empty save for some ice) glass down on the bar and waited for him to turn to me. That would happen, I calculated, somewhere between four minutes and sixty-eight years from now, but I was patient. Eventually, I knew, he'd want paying, which would bring me to his attention more surely than any smiling handraise.
It took seven minutes. Not bad in terms of my window, but absolutely unforgivable in terms of Bar Rules. Good God, how had this man been hired? How had he graduated Mixology 101 and been given a license to practice? The one license that both allowed and encouraged therapy and drugs while not requiring a prescription pad - and here he was, abusing and wasting the potential it offered.
Finally, though, he looked my way. Before he could avert his eyes and pretend he hadn't seen me, I smiled and raised my hand. He unwillingly put down the glass (buffed now to a high shine, catching the track-mounted floodlights atop the bar area and tossing them at me in a welter of glare) and moved down the bar, coming to a halt in front of me. His eyes took in my empty glass. "Another?" he asked, voice disinterested.
The bartender turned to get the bottle, and turned to me. I covered my glass as he reached forward with the bottle extended, interrupting; he stopped short, visibly catching his balance, and looked at me. I smiled back. "No ice."
A pause. Then he nodded, reached under the bar for a fresh glass, and placed it next to the first. As he began to reach out for the original, I lifted it and drank down the icemelt remaining in it, then placed it on the bar in front of me with both hands clasped around it.
He finally got it. It took him that long to glare at me, and reluctantly pour Scotch into the empty glass. He began to tip the bottle back at just around the three-quarter inch mark, and I said "Make it a double."
His hand shivered. The man wanted to throttle me, I could tell. We'd crossed blades, finally - the dedicated drinker and the derelict bartender. I could see him hesitate as he looked for a counter, a way out - but I had the original glass firmly clutched, and he'd already begun to pour. There was a moment's silence, the bottle still tilted but just short of dispense.
He tilted it up and poured, the Scotch rising up the sides of the glass to a full two and a half inches, before turning away sharply and replacing the bottle behind the bar.
I raised his surrender to the mirror without checking if he was watching. Magnanimous in victory, I only transferred one ice cube to the new glass before lifting it to my lips.