This past Fourth of July, I was feeling a little down and instead of walking the couple of blocks from my place in Brooklyn to the Columbia Street waterfront to take in the fireworks, I stayed inside and watched them on TV, with the real-world soundtrack of blasts and booms echoing just outside my window. Post-midnight, I came upon Cocktail on Showtime Women just as it was starting: “(1988) The hottest bartender (Tom Cruise) in Manhattan leaves his partner (Bryan Brown), goes to Jamaica and falls for a nice girl (Elisabeth Shue). Adult Language, Brief Nudity, Adult Content.”
I drifted back to that summer of 1988 when Cocktail was in theaters; “Kokomo” was playing nonstop on the radio and I was pouring my way through my first (and only) stint behind the bar, at a seasonal upstate beach joint called Harpoon Eddie’s, in the tiny resort town of Sylvan Beach—once hailed as the “Coney Island of Central New York.” This was a dark time on the drinks scene and years before the craft cocktail boom, but my tour of duty at this small-town beach bar thousands of miles away from the tropics proved to have more influence on my career than I would ever expect to give it credit for, and it was all sparked by that “lucrative if critically drubbed exemplar of ’80s cinematic cheese” (Nina Metz, The Chicago Tribune), Cocktail.
Bodies in the sand
tropical drink melting in your hand
We’ll be falling in love
to the rhythm of the steel drum band
When I was in high school, not counting the few bucks I made in tips driving my beloved grandmother and her passel of heavily perfumed church ladies to mass every Sunday, I earned my supplemental income by mowing lawns, delivering the weekly Pennysaver and helping my friend Tim caddy golf tournaments at the Kanon Valley Country Club. But my first real job, one with an actual paycheck, was spinning records at WMCR (AM 1600/FM 106.3 on your dial) in Oneida. What might sound like a pretty sweet job for a 16-year-old was anything but. I was alone at the station and in the driver’s seat in the control booth, but wasn’t authorized to talk on air. I was an ersatz DJ just pushing buttons on the control panels: no taking requests from listeners, no cool playlists, no talking over the track until the very last second before the vocal dropped in.
While my own mix-tapes featured a heavy rotation of XTC, Squeeze, New Order, David Bowie and Elvis Costello, the 6 p.m. – 10 p.m. shift at WMCR was dedicated to easy listening; for those four hours, it would be nothing but Mantovani, Mitch Miller, Percy Faith and Ray Conniff for me. I was authorized to play one vocal for every three instrumentals. If I played two Frank Sinatra or Peggy Lee songs in a row (accidentally or intentionally), the phone would light up and the clipped, patrician voice of Vivian Warren of the Warren Broadcasting Company would quickly remind me of this golden rule.
The album sleeves were marked up with years of marginalia from the high-school students before me who had held the job. “Play when you need to go to the bathroom,” with a smiley face next to an especially long instrumental (the worst was when you did visit the bathroom, located on the opposite side of the building, and suddenly heard your live-on-the-air record start skipping, which inevitably meant another call from Mrs. Warren). And while instrumental versions of many Beatles songs were safe for airtime, the surprise of unearthing an orchestral version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” would be met with a stern handwritten warning of “DO NOT PLAY!” Just in case I was feeling like a maverick, the deep scratch intentionally carved into the track made it literally unplayable. My signature closer was Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme, after which I’d pop in the cartridge of Bill Warren wishing listeners a “pleasant evening and a good day tomorrow” against the background of an angelic chorus.
When I went off to college, I continued the hallowed WMCR tradition of passing on my spot to an underclassman, and, after returning home from my freshman year in the summer of 1988, I settled for a part-time job at the Beachcomber, a seasonal clothing store in Sylvan Beach. The town drew boaters, campers and beachgoers and was anchored by an aging amusement park with a roller coaster, a vintage carousel, a spooky funhouse called LAFFLAND and games of chance manned by bored, sunburned teenagers.
On my lunch break I would run down the block to Eddie’s and order a club sandwich from the take-out window, overcompensating for my awkward flirting with the cute waitress by over-tipping. Eddie’s is now a sprawling 250-seat restaurant, but when it first opened in 1934, it was a simple, eight-stool hot dog stand owned by Eddie and Florence (Fifi) Stewart. Over the decades, Eddie’s became known for their hot ham sandwich (grilled, spicy capicola on a seeded roll), “famous” fish dinner, Italian red-sauce specialties and homemade cream pies. In the 1940s and 1950s, Sylvan Beach drew touring entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Louis Prima and Desi Arnaz, but these days a Jim Boeheim appearance in the dining room is considered a star sighting.
I had been visiting Eddie’s with my family for years but had never set foot in their adjacent sister establishment, a bar called Harpoon Eddie’s. From my post at the Beachcomber, I could hear the pop music blasting on the patio speakers and watch the customers come and go throughout my shift. Harpoon’s was set behind a row of hedges and the dining room was encased in smoked glass, so I could never really make out exactly what was going on over there, but it seemed much more adult than Eddie’s, and they were definitely having more fun than I was folding piles of pastel-colored Ocean Pacific board shorts. The only drama at the Beachcomber was busting the occasional shoplifter and dealing with enraged mothers who marched their teenage daughters back into the shop to return an unauthorized bikini purchase.
Midway through the summer, I had had enough of staring across the park, and, just after the Fourth of July, I walked over to Harpoon’s to see if they might be hiring. I left my application with the manager, Scott, a dry, sarcastic guy in aviator shades with a John Cusack vibe, and a couple of weeks later, I got the call: One of their cooks had quit. Would I want to work in the kitchen? I said yes and took the job.
But every time I peered through the porthole on the kitchen door and caught a glimpse of the smiling bartenders at their post, I wanted to yank off my apron and join them behind the bar.
I had just seen Cocktail, which had opened on July 29, 1988. The poster outside the Sangertown Mall multiplex showed Tom Cruise, framed by a purple neon border, leaning in with one palm on the bar in a classic “What can I get you?” pose. The tag line: When he pours, he reigns. This only amplified my dreams of big tips, flair bartending acrobatics and tastefully brief nudity while making out with women as pretty as Elisabeth Shue under waterfalls as the Brian Wilson-less Beach Boys earworm “Kokomo” played on an endless loop.
But instead of mixing and mingling with customers on the two patios while sporting a uniform of khaki shorts, a crisp Harpoon Eddie’s polo shirt and sunglasses, I would instead be fighting for personal space in the cramped, fluorescent-lit kitchen wearing black pants, a white shirt and a ball cap. (In a job where everyone wore shorts, I was the only guy forced to wear pants.)
About 85 percent of the food on the menu at Harpoon’s was fried; I was a constant hot, greasy mess, with a constellation of burns on my forearms and bright orange Frank’s RedHot sauce stains splattered across my shirt. I manned the intimidating fryer/pressure cooker where the signature broasted chicken bubbled away; I breaded, fried and sauced hundreds upon hundreds of jumbo chicken wings; I emptied endless baskets of crinkle-cut fries into wax-paper-lined, plastic serving boats. No amount of Old Spice could combat the lingering burnt aroma that clung to me like a spider monkey.
Eventually, Scott made me a runner (finally, I got to wear shorts), and I spent my days and nights delivering food from the kitchen, bussing tables, restocking the waitress stations, hauling garbage bags to the dumpster and keeping the bar running with ice, juices, garnishes and clean glasses. And by the end of the summer, I was starting to get some training behind the bar before going back to college.
Built like a bulldog and with a severe high-and-tight haircut, Edward “Rick” Stewart III was the grandson of the eponymous Eddie and, at that time, the bar manager at Harpoon’s. I would study the Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide we kept behind the bar next to the phone book and lone bottle of Angostura bitters. It didn’t matter that we mostly served draft beer, Alabama Slammers, Cape Codders, 7 & 7s and frozen tropical drinks built from prepackaged mixes; Rick would grill me with intense pop quizzes, shouting out drinks and demanding I bark back the specs. Harvey Wallbanger! Brandy Alexander! Grasshopper! Rob Roy! He would punch me (very hard) in the arm every time I nervously ran my hand through my hair behind the bar, threatening, “If you do that again I’m going to make you wear a goddamn hairnet!” The closest I came to flair bartending was mastering holding and pouring from four bottles at once—light rum, dark rum, banana liqueur, blackberry liqueur—when making the house specialty Rum Runner (limit 2 per customer).
The next summer—and the following few—I came back as a full-fledged bartender. I favored the high-volume days and nights when I could tear through orders and strategically knock out multiple drinks one after the other until the shift was over and my numb feet throbbed against my Adidas Sambas. On the days when we had a slower drip of customers through the doors, I would sneak my own CDs onto the playlist, replacing that summer’s Top 40 hits with select cuts from Best of Elvis Costello or my go-to, Never Mind the Mainstream: The Best of MTV’s 120 Minutes, Vol. 1. Once in a while, I’d get an appreciative nod from a cool dude sipping his Piña Colada when Bob Mould’s “See a Little Light” came over the speakers.
cocktails and moonlit nights
That dreamy look in your eye
While my taste in cocktails is a bit more refined than it was back then, my summers behind the stick at Harpoon’s—and those memories of Tom Cruise and Cocktails & Dreams—had as much influence on me as a future cocktail enthusiast and drinks writer as the years Quentin Tarantino worked at Video Archives had on his film career. Like most bars during that time, the juices came from cans off the Sysco truck and the sodas from a gun, and there was no such thing as an ice program. It wasn’t PDT. It wasn’t Death & Co. But then again, it never pretended it was anything but a beach bar with live music and killer chicken wings smack in the middle of Central New York.
Being surrounded by dozens of bottles of liquor and learning how to make the most of each one, experiencing the camaraderie of a hard-working crew, practicing the basic rules and exchange of hospitality and customer service and the delicate balance across the bar of conversations and cocktails, with strangers and friends alike: those experiences are hard-wired into who I am now—whether as someone who writes about drinks or simply takes a seat at the bar.
This summer I returned to Harpoon Eddie’s for the first time in nearly a decade. So much had changed—a proper hostess station, an expanded patio with a tiki bar, a new logo along with a life-size hammerhead shark hanging at the entrance, new uniforms, a renovated kitchen—but so much remained the same. While their drinks menu now has an actual spirits list with a decent bourbon and whiskey selection, I smiled when I saw the Rum Runner listed along with sections devoted to “Floaters” and “Shooters.”
I was there with my 13-year-old nephew, Jack, and as we sat outside on the patio eating a double order of chicken wings while the seagulls hovered over our table waiting to dive-bomb for an errant French fry, he mentioned that he might like to work at Harpoon’s one summer. As I puffed up a bit in my role as cool uncle, I found myself channeling Cocktail’s Doug Coughlin, dashing off bitter bon mots of world-weary wisdom. Pro: You get to wear shorts. Con: Working the Fourth of July. I concluded with, “Let me know when you’re ready, and I’ll put in a good word with Rick.” I think I sold him on it, but as Coughlin once said about his own booze-soaked pronouncements: “And as for the rest of Coughlin’s Laws, ignore them. The guy was always full of shit.”
Everybody knows a little place like Kokomo
Now if you wanna go to get away from it all
Go down to Kokomo