The Unsung Heroes Of The Bar

12/23/2010 05:57 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This past spring as the controversy over the Arizona law that allowed police to stop anyone and ask for proof of citizenship raged, my thoughts often went to the immigrants that I had come to know and work beside during my years of restaurant service. I thought of all of them, from the Eastern Europeans, the Africans, the Chinese, and Bangladeshis, but I almost invariably landed on the memories of the many Latinos that I'd worked with at the various bars I'd toiled behind. They were mostly Mexicans, with some Ecuadorean and Salvadorians in the mix. Their names: Eugenio; Tomas; to name a few, are etched forever in my memory banks and I shall never forget their service and the friendships that we forged while working through some very busy evenings. They worked as barbacks (barbacks are the assistants to the bartenders whose main duty is to keep the bar stocked before, during, and after service), which in most establishments is very difficult, requiring brute strength, and the ability to multi-task and to take direction. It requires an innate sense of intuition and the ability to understand the flow of the bar and to prioritize the tasks at hand. Those abilities can make any bartender look like a genius. The best barbacks are those whose intuition allows them to anticipate the most pressing of the bar at any given moment, and they fulfill those needs with amazing and oftentimes dizzying speed. The men I recall most fondly were of the highest caliber, and their abilities met the highest of standards.

Tomas was a very tall and strong young man who came from Mazatlan on the west coast of Mexico He was a very serious and hard working barback who always went the extra step to make sure that you as the bartender were stocked and assisted on all levels. I came to know and admire Tomas as did the other bartenders. We knew that without Tomas' consummate skill and speed that we as bartenders would not be able to keep up with all that was required of us. One day I realized that Tomas was very visible to us, but rather invisible to the patrons of the bar. I decided then and there to make sure that everyone knew who Tomas was by introducing him to the regulars over an extended period of time. At first, this was awkward because Tomas had a reticent quality to him that many immigrants have because of their lack of confidence in their ability to understand and answer back in the rapid fire English that comes at them. Over time, Tomas began to change. Customers began to ask for him, and in fact began to introduce him to newcomers to hopefully embellish their reputation as one "in the know." As you may imagine, this gave Tomas a strong sense of pride and dignity, especially when a regular would introduce him to someone with them... and that was the point.

Eugenio like Tomas came from Mexico, but he came from the interior city of Cuernavaca, which is just south of Mexico City. He was in his first day of training when I met him, and like Tomas was very shy, but even more so. He was a heavyset and sullen guy who always had a frown, which changed over time. You see, Tomas knew English but simply lacked a certain confidence. Eugenio, on the other hand, knew not one word of English, which made communication in a fast-paced environment hellish at best. Lots of hand signals and gesticulations were used with various degrees of success. As time went on, Eugenio began to "pick-up" the language at least enough to cover the words he needed to do the job. As with Tomas, I introduced Eugenio to everyone, slowly and over some time, and after awhile everyone who stepped up to the bar on any kind of regular basis knew Eugenio and he knew them. We subsequently met his wife and became acquainted with his children and to the rhythms of his life. We knew of his children's schooling and knew Eugenio's pride as his children became New Yorkers just like all the millions of other immigrants who had come before them. The natural cadence of life and the love and pursuit of a better life were being played out for us in our world "behind the stick" and we all went about our jobs feeling united about our team and our love and respect for each other.

My paternal grandfather and grandmother were immigrants who came from what was then Austria-Hungary and after breaking away from Yugoslavia became what is now known as Slovenia. My grandfather worked in Cleveland at Fisher Body as a floor sweeper. He never had much of an education, but he was a great man who came to this country as an illegal citizen and eventually became legal. His legacy of hard work and perseverance became legendary in our home growing up, and I'll never forget the heartbreaking sound of sobbing from my late father when he heard that his dad, my grandfather had passed.

Immigrants are many things to many people, but they are the lifeblood of any growing economy, and often do things that we as native born Americans would never do. Sure there are the drug dealers and the criminal types in any group, but most immigrants come here to work and to better their lives. By the sweat of their brows, we eat, dine, and live more economically than we otherwise would. The migrant workers, and the maids and nannies who help keep America running are sometimes not legal, but let's not demonize a whole group of people, and especially those who are only trying to find the American dream. It may seem that to some America is on the decline, but I don't think many immigrants feel that way. They have seen worse, and have often put their lives at risk to cross over and to forge their way into the fabric of America.

The next time you enter a bar and you see someone behind it who is restocking glassware or taking out the trash, say hello to him or her. The barbacks today are largely immigrants, and you should pull up a stool and watch America at work. When you do so, you might just see the ghosts of some of your ancestors.

Feliz Navidad, and I'll see you when I see you.