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What I Learned Working at Tales of the Cocktail

Fear, loathing, talking pineapples, and alligators on leashes at New Orleans' annual wholly drunken booze conference

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I

’d been living on Molly’s futon for two whole days when I landed my first job in New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail. This is the largest conference and trade show for the spirits and bartending industry in the world, right during July, the sweatiest pig of months. I wasn’t qualified in any way to work with so much booze at one time. I’d stayed away from froufrou cocktails since my sister brought me to a crappy French Quarter restaurant back during a Halloween trip in 2003. I’d ordered a Pink Squirrel and received a martini glass of PeptoBismol. I’d spent the next four years washing that taste away with Mickey’s Big Mouths in North Carolina’s finest dive bars and still considered vodka something to be chugged warm from the bottle at a house party while friends set fire to the bathroom trash can or went to the ER with an arm sliced open by a machete.

Tales of the Cocktail didn’t know that. They didn’t know anything about me. I simply e-mailed my résumé and got hired two hours later. There was no interview, phone call, or meeting to discuss my useless college degrees, my worthless skills, my ability to recite the first stanza of "Der Erlkönig" from memory, or the fact that I was currently homeless, unemployed, and watching my sister’s cat pee on my suitcase again.

There was just an e-mail instructing me to show up at a storage facility at seven the next morning if I wanted a job, so I did. I was there to help repack swag bags, a supervisor informed me. A swag bag is a bag filled with free products for people who don’t need free products. It’s a pack rat’s dream, just lots of stuff nobody asked for piled on more stuff nobody needs, presented as a little welcome gift for existing.

"It’s kind of a night­mare," the super­visor said, but 'kind of a night­mare' pretty much defined my recent work history

"But some things got broken," the supervisor said, unlocking three large storage spaces. Before us sat two hundred bags of what celebrity vodka brand owner Dan Aykroyd might have described as Bags O’Glass. We needed to go through every single bag and repack them.

"It’s kind of a nightmare," the supervisor said, but kind of a nightmare pretty much defined my recent work history. I’d spent a year grading standardized-test essays written by America’s worst fifth and eleventh graders, seated at a brown folding table in a subarctic strip mall. Before that, I’d baked and bagged cookies in a factory where we weren’t allowed to sit down and the bosses let their children and black Lab run around unsupervised until streaks of smeared feces appeared all over the employee bathroom one day

A sea of green Whole Foods bags filled with free booze seemed a tropical island away from all that. I quickly went to work, impressing interns in sorority shirts with my ability to unpack and discard things at lightning speed. Repacking swag is hard work, but I owned this job. All over the hallways, I organized airplane bottles of sake, vodka, and sake vodka. I sorted and stacked. I parceled out muddlers that evoked every type of sex toy and things that just sounded like sex toys: jiggers, shakers, swizzle sticks, can openers, and juicers.

"Feel free to take any extra product home," the supervisor informed me at the end of the day.

As I dumped fifths of whiskey all over my sister’s dining table that night, she danced around in her new Absolut aviator sunglasses and Malibu bandana like some belligerent Axl Rose, squealing, "This is the best job you’ve ever had."


A

t first it did seem that way. I’d always considered the salad dressing-prep position I’d held down for years at a low-country restaurant my best job ever, mainly because I didn’t have to deal with humans, only the subhumans who worked back of house and continually drew penises on the 86 board. Now I’d done such a good job with the swag that I’d been hired on as a room supervisor. The conference was at the Hotel Monteleone, known for its ornate rotating Carousel Bar, gleaming marble halls, and old-fartish carpeting, the type you’d expect Designing Women was rolled up in when they hauled it off of the CBS soundstage. Here there were no subhumans, or regular humans, but mixologists, brand ambassadors, and food writers. Everything was created to accommodate. There was a third-wave coffee stand and a smoothie bar. A team of kiwifruit salespeople wandered around offering halves of kiwifruit with sporks stuck in them. In the staff home base, where trays of sandwiches and cheese sat untouched, I was encouraged by my own supervisors to take breaks and sit down whenever necessary, to try the cocktails and have some fun.

Have some fun was what my former manager at an Irish pub said whenever he wanted me to flirt with guys who ordered pitchers of green beer while plates of shepherd’s pie melted the skin off my palms. I’d never been the type to associate work with pleasure, but more with urgent care and desperation. I was pacing nervously in my gaudy seminar room, unsure what I was doing at all, when a human pineapple poked his head in, holding out a tiki drink.

I’d never been the type to assoc­iate work with plea­sure, but more with ur­gent care and desperation

"Oh my god," he said. "Try this."

I had no idea who this spiky-haired person was. Still, he handed me a concoction and urged me to take a sip. "It’s just a little Scorpion Bowl. They’re handing them out in the lobby. They set it on fire and everything. Go get one."

Days before, I’d come to New Orleans thinking I wouldn’t drink excessively or smoke cigarettes or party too much. I’d get an okay job and an apartment, keep trudging along in my sister’s shadow, as I’d always felt comfortable doing. But here it was, my fourth day in town, and somebody was already setting my drink on fire at eight-thirty in the morning. At work. Tales of the Cocktail likely knew this would happen, which is why I’d been strapped into a walkie-talkie headset that barked orders on channel E, telling me my first seminar started in thirty minutes: Sending over volunteers now.

A seasoned vet of all the previous Tales, Deb, arrived in her pink neon scrunchie and Stein Mart sandals with glazed doughnuts for everyone. I shoved three in my face, hoping to sober up.

"This is your first year, I can tell," she said. "I volunteer for everything. Jazz Fest. French Quarter Fest. The thing about Tales is you really have to pace yourself. It’s a marathon, honey, not a sprint."

This, I’d come to learn, is something New Orleanians love to tell newcomers about any event where at least one person in the crowd is bound to die from alcohol poisoning while dressed in their wife’s lingerie. My second volunteer, Betty, on the other hand, was fresh off the boat like me. She told us that she was just passing through New Orleans this summer and was volunteering because she had nothing better to do. With her stained capris, worn tennis shoes, and cigarette-stained skin, she reminded me of the women I’d worked with back at the cookie factory — ladies who lived in trailers and played cards on the weekends, their bottle-blond hair long hardened by the stinging White Rain of life. Every single one of them had been sweet as day-old pastry. Make us proud, they told me the day I quit and headed across town to grade illegible standardized essays. Little did they know I’d be eating cheese cubes out of a wadded napkin at a booze conference someday.

She reminded me of the women I’d worked with back at the cookie factory, their bottle-blond hair long hard­ened by the stinging White Rain of life

"Where ya from, dawlin’?" Deb asked me.

"North Carolina, by way of Florida."

"What brings you to New Orleans?"

Desperation. Fear. Having nowhere else to go, unless I wanted to move back in with my mother like some thousands of other unemployed twenty-somethings with horrendous student loan debt. "My sister lives here," I told her, "and I wanted to move somewhere cool after graduate school."

"Well, you’ll fit right in," she said. "I can tell."

We lugged in a day’s worth of alcohol from a hall closet as big as a liquor store. The single task made me sweat through my shirt, which was good. I was sobering up a bit when the enabling pineapple poked his head back in, carrying a tray of tiny clear shots.

"We have to do a good-luck toast," he said, handing us drinks. He poked his head in after the first seminar and the second, doling out the shots.

"I’m Miguel, by the way," he said, finally introducing himself by the end of the day. "And I’m so getting laid this week. Here’s to getting laid."

"Here’s to getting laid," we said. Though all I could think about was getting to lie down on my sister’s futon and sleeping for a solid thirteen hours, or however long it took for the spins to go away.

It was impossible to sleep that long at Molly’s house, however. Each morning she rose at six to drink coffee and read the paper while cigarette smoke poured from the kitchen, before heading off to work at a library in a medical science center. Then she’d return home at 6:00 p.m. to her personal smog. She was in the kitchen, putting together a salad for us Peg Bundy style, when I wandered in, slimy stains on my shirt and jeans.

"Ew. What happened to you?"

"Some bartender tried to teach me how to shake a drink, and it exploded all over me."

"How’s it going other than that?"

"Oh, fine," I said.

But it wasn’t fine, not really. Everyone at Tales of the Cocktail had expensive outfits and smartphones and spoke about cocktails as if they belonged to a religious cult. "They all have cards and brands and stuff. I just feel like a loser, you know?"

"Well, you can get cards made at Kinko’s. Oh, by the way, I revised your résumé and printed out fifty copies for you. You’re welcome."

Everyone at Tales of the Cock­tail had expen­sive outfits and smart­phones and spoke about cock­tails as if they belonged to a reli­gious cult

My sister had been saving my butt for years. She’d paid for various trips to Coachella, Suwannee Springfest, New Orleans, and the beach. When she was in college, she used to come down and rescue me from Mom’s house. The year after Molly left, Mom had fallen asleep at the wheel and flipped John’s Blazer, the only nice car he ever had, on the way home from an architecture ball. Naturally, she’d stayed bedridden for months longer than she needed to, letting me serve her, building a cage of magazines and knickknacks around the bed until she looked trapped in the middle of the room, like Hannibal before he gouges a pen into a guard’s throat. Molly snuck me Manic Panic to dye my hair pink and introduced me to the Descendents. She took me to punk shows at the State Theatre in St. Pete. She took me to my first college party, where stoners watched midget porn. We weren’t like Mom and Susie, who at seven years apart seemed relative strangers. Molly, for me, was an extension of myself, albeit a nerdier and more successful one. I’d never done much for her, had no resources to. She’d stayed at my house for a few days after Katrina hit but ended up going to house-sit in Philadelphia after some guy in a bar made fun of her tattoo, a single word, mouse, from Shelley Jackson’s Skin project.

"If I ever make it big," I promised her now, "I’ll buy you all kinds of furs."

"It’s fine," she said. "I think Mr. Go might have peed on the futon while we were gone."


B

y the next day, Kiwi? Kiwi? Kiwi? Kiwi? poured in from the halls as if the big white spork population of New Zealand resided just beyond the doors to my conference room. Attendees no longer made it to the seminars at nine in the morning. A few staggered drunkenly in the halls, having never gone to bed. When approached with kiwifruit, they ran toward the nearest bathroom or doorway as if avoiding psycho ex-girlfriends.

"Just take one, and enjoy it," a kiwi team member said, cornering a drunk guy in a Sailor Jerry hat, aiming a spork at his face.

The attendees who did make the seminars left slimy uneaten fruit and cocktails all over the tables. They spit into buckets and kicked their chairs over while stampeding out of the room.

Betty had not heeded the advice of the natives and downed every drink the human pine­apple handed out

I’d learned my lesson and paced myself when it came to the complimentary drinks, but Betty had not heeded the advice of the natives and downed every drink the human pineapple handed out. While bitters experts, social media people, and apple brandy scholars tried to discuss the ins and outs of the industry for audiences of gassy cattle in beads, Deb and I rolled her under the refreshments table for a nap and made small talk.

By the time our 4:00 p.m. Bloggers Party was about to start, Deb practically knew my life story, telling the guy in charge, "Gwendolyn here is a writer."

"Oh, really?" he said.

"Trying to be," I said. "I’ve had a couple stories published."

"Perfect. Do you have a card?"

"I don’t."

"Oh, well. Who have you written for?"

"Have you ever heard of Quarterly West or Crazyhorse?"

"I haven’t," he said.

"They’re literary magazines," I said.

He slowly backed away, avoiding me for the duration of the welcome party, while the bloggers crowded around celebrity guest Ted Allen from Queer Eye in their belted, avuncular jeans. Women from Southern media outlets wore hats so large they looked like cat beds with feather toys poking out the top and downed the complimentary rum punch and questionable onion dip. One of them attempted to pull a chair out and sit, landing fat-bottomed on the floor, a small Chihuahua flying from her enormous zebra-print purse.

Deb helped the disheveled woman up, but she shooed her away. "I’m fine, darling, fine," she huffed, loading the Chihuahua back into her bag and heading off to another soiree, draped over a friend whose wig had completely tilted on its axis.


T

he stated mission of Tales of the Cocktail happens to be "saving the cocktail," which, though it sounds unimportant to some of us, has more advocates than, say, saving an African wild dog or some poison-dart toad. While that’s all nice, the conference is mainly just a means for booze brands to throw a barrage of insane nightly parties. There are parties with cows you can milk to make your own Ramos Gin Fizz, parties with burlesque dancers and unicorn ice-cube sculptures, mime midgets on stilts, and other things you’d expect if somebody handed an event planner $200,000 and said, Make it look like Gatsby does hallucinogens and wakes up in a spaceship with King Tut, a case of vodka, and some monkeys that have just discovered they have nipples.

There are parties with cows you can milk to make your own Ramos Gin Fizz, parties with burlesque dancers and unicorn ice-cube sculptures, and mime midgets on stilts

"You should try to get us tickets to something," Molly had told me encouragingly earlier in the week. Not shocking, even though my sister and I had a history of failing to have fun in public ever since a frat boy showed us his pecker at a Millencolin show back in 1997. Something bad usually happened when two certified weirdo magnets hit the town. But it just so happened that on the last night, my supervisors handed me two wristbands to a closing event.

"This is so rad," my sister said, meeting me at the front gate of Mardi Gras World. There were chefs set up between massive carnival floats and bartenders making cocktails in fake saloons and speakeasies as people milled about in between showgirls walking live alligators on leashes.

"It’s so nice to pretend I deserve to be here," I said.

"I know, right?" Molly said. "If another Gatsby gives me a dirty look, I’m going to start stabbing people with my high heels."

We downed plates of crawfish Monica and watched more drunk Gatsbys have a dance-off to "SexyBack." Nothing bad happened, but we still stood around deflating by the minute. Booze always had the same effect on both of us, making our ankles give out along with our self-worth. Despite having a perfect GPA in high school and college, an amazing job, model features, no financial worries, and an attractive big-time engineer boyfriend, my sister suffered from relatively lower self-esteem than me — a broke, homeless, jobless human tethered to an island of student debt.

"That’s it," Molly said, pointing to a pod of women in orcaslick party dresses. "Those girls just gave me a dirty look."

"No, they didn’t," I said.

One of the girls stepped up. "Excuse me," she said. "Are you an instructor at LSU’s medical school? Because we were just talking about how your research class was, like, the best one we’ve ever taken. It was so funny."

"Why, yes, that is me," my sister said, really hamming it up.

"You’re an asshole," I told her after the students were gone. An asshole with a wreck of a sister, but we both had a French 75 in hand, and when a newspaper photographer approached us, we fluffed up our hair and posed like we were at senior prom.


Excerpted from After a While You Just Get Used to It by Gwendolyn Knapp, published by Gotham Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Gwendolyn Knapp
Header photo: Shutterstock

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