But lately I've been hearing so many stories about harassment and sexual assault, and some of these stories take place in or near bars. (And often the abusers use alcohol intake by themselves or their victim as an excuse for their own criminal behavior.) So I thought I'd share a nice story about a bar, not just to celebrate the greatness of a truly great bar, but also to share something that may make you happy or just give you, for one moment, a little bit of hope as we fly with broken little wings toward what will likely be one hell of an Election Day. (This is also a restaurant review, kind of).
I'm not a big drinker, but I am a fan of whiskey (or whisky, if you will). I will drink most any kind of whiskey, but I am in particular a fan of really great whiskey. Which is probably what led me, one evening several years ago, on a date to the Brandy Library, in downtown Manhattan, with another young woman. We were both newly out of long-term relationships — she with a woman, I with a man — and we'd met on OKCupid, which is how we pronounced "Tinder" in 2009. She was lovely, and while I'd been out as a bisexual for two or three years, and had hung out with this woman and gone places with her, this was my first Actual Fancy Date with an Actual Girl — a date-date, a fancy one, a date where you have to dress up.
I grew up where rural New Jersey meets suburban New Jersey, so my idea of a fancy night out was probably driving to Cheesecake Factory at the Bridgewater Commons Mall, and then running through some farm field at 2 a.m. back home in Hunterdon County. But by the time of this date, I lived in New York, in a haunted former bank in the Financial District. She lived uptown, at the corner of Luke Cage and In The Heights, so it meant something for her to come down all the way to meet me at the Brandy Library.
I remember being acutely conscious of not being sure how to act in such a fancy place with a lady date. Yes, we were in Manhattan in 2009, in a mixed gay-straight neighborhood that was liberal as all get-out, and you would think everybody would be cool. But I was careful not to hold her hand or put my arm around her or, God forbid, kiss her in public. (Though actually, we kissed once in Union Square and a bunch of dudes came over to offer us coke and to invite us to Webster Hall. I think they thought we would have sex with them, and when we politely declined, they wished us a wonderful evening. It was the most chaste invite to a coke-fueled gangbang I've ever received. Also, thank goodness, the only one.)
The Brandy Library is a fancy bar, but one with a sense of humor about itself. At the time, the staff dressed in suspenders and white button-down shirts, sort of a sexy, old-timey librarian thing, and the room was full of library shelves stocked with pricey alcohol. The menu was approximately 85 pages long, if memory serves — not unlike the Cheesecake Factory, really. My date and I sat down on one of the couches, and ordered great small plates of tiny foodstuffs, and we talked, and it was really nice. The whiskey was excellent. You wouldn't have known we were anything but friends.
Of course, I was wrong. That's the life of a queer person of any sort, I've learned — we get complacent, and then we get a nasty reminder of the way so many folks regard us. A dude sitting nearby — in his late forties, in an expensive outfit — took notice of us : two girls, having a nice time. He was tipsy, as was his female companion who, like my date and I, had long hair and wore a dress.
My date and I nodded and smiled politely, which is what women are taught to do.
"You girls having fun?" he asked with a leer, a little bit too loud. In Manhattan restaurants, acknowledging a fellow patron at another table is a horrific sin; but acknowledging somebody nearby at a bar is quite common. The Brandy Library is part bar and part restaurant, so the lines were blurred. My date and I nodded and smiled politely, which is what women are taught to do. The man then began to rather loudly rattle off a list of suggestions for things we should drink. We nodded more vigorously, raised our eyebrows in feigned polite interest, and turned at each other and tried to resume conversation.
My date saw it coming before I did. She stiffened up and got really quiet. She knew where this was going.
"So," the man asked. "You friends?" His date laughed, a high-pitched squeal. I decided to be bold. For me, being bold was acknowledging what was real. I thought naively that maybe he'd leave us alone if I just told him the truth.
"We're on a date," I said politely. "Enjoy your meal!"
Apparently, this was not the thing to say. The man started laughing, and got even more interested in us. Suddenly, our date was not for us; it was for him. This is how guys like this regard two girls who like each other: It's not real. It's entertainment. It's a performance just for him. This man had the kind of simple, entitled mind that truly believed that all the girl-girl pornography he'd watched was just a preview of what his future ought look like. To him, women are always objects, not subjects. Most people can separate erotic fantasy from reality. Most people can behave politely even if they're curious. But not guys like this. There are a lot of guys like this.
"You're on a date, huh?" he said, sweating, leering, being gross in the specific manner of dudes who have a lot of money and think it lends them some inherent dignity or value. (It does not.) He started to say something else, and then I saw him stop and look up. I looked up too. And there, in the manner of a frowning avenging angel, was our waiter.
"Sir," said our waiter, "I'd like to ask you to keep your comments to yourself. These people are trying to have dinner. Why don't you focus on yours?"
This dude was on it. Fast. The fact that in that moment he used the word "people" — not "girls" or "ladies" — will stick with me forever. It wasn't exactly "Women's rights are human rights," but it worked for me. Also, I just wanted to finish my tiny plate of food.
"I'm not bothering them!" the man loudly protested. He stared at us. "Am I bothering you?" We were so embarrassed. But we were also on a date, and we wanted to stay. I didn't want to make a scene, so I spoke in the sweet, high-pitched voice that I unconsciously take on when I'm trying to get a stranger to give me something, or to stay away from me.
"Sir," said our waiter, "I'd like to ask you to keep your comments to yourself."
"Thank you," I said to the waiter, so the man could hear. "I appreciate it, but we're okay. It's fine. No harm done. We'll just enjoy our dinners now."
The waiter nodded and came over to me. He leaned in. "If he makes you uncomfortable," he said, "just tell us. You don't have to put up with that."
I was struck by his kindness and professionalism, and I really thought the incident would end there. I've been fortunate to grow up around mostly great men, there were only a few who creeped me out with unwanted touching and approaches. With those, I learned early on how to skillfully evade their embraces in settings where I was expected to hug them, or be nice to them at a community event. Most women learn how to do this in public. We're very familiar with the dance of evading unwanted kisses, It's usually only behind closed doors that we have trouble escaping.
After our waiter's intervention, the sweaty, gross, fancy, rich dude left us alone for a few minutes. And then he started up again. He asked us how long we'd been dating, and we mumbled "Not long," while staring at our food. He then started asking us in detail about "what you do" in private, and it was at this point that I witnessed the magic of what happens when what appears to be a subdued, refined, fancy-pants New York City fine dining-and-drinking establishment gets all the fucking way done with a creeper. It's the moment when the Zagat review ought to be updated to include "fresh out of fucks."
The thing I'd forgotten about New York City fine dining establishments is that they're staffed by elegant people who speak in hushed tones, and who come from small towns or other cities where they were the weirdos and the freaks and the outcasts and the artists. Most of them don't seek to be lifetime servers and hosts but some do, and they're all typically excellent at their jobs.
But don't let the pleasantries of your service encounter fool you: Your average waiter at a high-class New York City fine dining establishment is a fighter — maybe not physically, but they almost certainly had to fight in some way to get to where they are. You have to jump through a lot of hoops to get a job at one of these places, and you have to work your ass off to keep it.
Your average waiter at a high-class New York City fine dining establishment is a fighter.
Part of the gig is smiling politely and enduring the little indignities of serving the wealthy: the snobbery, the ignorance, the refusal of some kept housewives to make eye contact, the refusal by some country club douches from Connecticut to treat you as a human being. I've heard repeatedly that the truly wealthiest and most powerful individuals are actually often the kindest, but the pretenders to the throne — like, I assume, the man sitting near us — are the worst, because they think they have something to prove.
Here's what happened when the man started asking me and my date about our private lives: First of all, not one, not two, but three employees — two men and a woman — rolled up on this dude, like a very refined food-service gang. Then, everybody behind the bar looked up, watching the scene, and you could almost hear them all thinking Just make one move, fool, I swear to fucking God. I realize now that the staff had been watching us for some time, trying to measure our level of discomfort at an intervention versus their obligation to their customers to maintain a chill, relaxed atmosphere. I'm going to guess that some of these staff members were LGBTQ folks, but all of them were the strongest allies I've ever met in my life.
The manager then spoke clearly: "Sir, you need to leave. You've made our patrons uncomfortable, and we do not tolerate this kind of behavior in THE BRANDY LIBRARY." That's a hilarious statement, but it's also a very beautiful one — especially when you're a scared twenty-something on your first big date with a person of the same gender, and you just want to have a nice night.
The dude protested, of course. He looked to us, in vain, for support. Now that we had a gang of fine dining waiters plus some fancy mixologist-type bartenders in our corner, it was clear that we weren't about to back his ass up. (A mixologist is just a bartender with fresh ginger on hand, who will wait five minutes longer to punch you the fuck out.) All the service staff involved in this interaction managed to speak at a level above a whisper and below a shout, and the nearby patrons who saw what was going on resisted clapping, but they grinned as the dude was escorted out, with his unfortunate companion in tow.
The manager of the Brandy Library then sat down with us, looked us both in the eye, and said, "I am so sorry. Everyone who treats people with respect is welcome here. Are you okay?"
This was the kindest customer service experience I ever had, because I could tell it really meant something to these people. For the rest of our date, different staff members kept stopping by and saying hello and apologizing and bringing us free stuff. Like, we ate. And we didn't drink a lot, but they have some expensive whiskeys at the Brandy Library, and I'm fairly certain that what we did drink constituted at least two student loan payments, for free.
Obviously, getting comped takes a lot of the sting out of a bad experience, and in terms of complimentary food and drink they really did more than was necessary. But what mattered the most was that the staff sat down with us, and got to know us a little, and we got to know them a little. By the end of the night, I was a fan for life.
I'm not sure who works at the Brandy Library now, but ever since that day it's the first place I recommend to folks looking for a great date night in New York. And this is just one small story, but it has a happy ending, and we hear so sad and difficult and frightening stories these days about folks being treated poorly, especially women and LGBTQ folks, that don't end happily. It might make somebody feel better to know that there are times and places and people who will stand up for what's right. So always remember to tip your good waiters well, and your great waiters really well. And if you're ever in New York, go to the Brandy Library, and tell them I say hi.