For Whom Last Call Tolls

There’s more to “last call” than the final drink of the evening.

Late on a sticky summer evening, the photographer Ed Anderson and I walked into yet another bar. Or at least we tried to, as the bouncer at Robert’s Western World, the famous Nashville honky-tonk, blocked our way, informing us that there was a “situation” inside.

We stood outside and waited for things to settle down. The competing sounds of live music spilling out from open windows of the nearby bars and clubs had the effect of someone constantly spinning the dial on a car radio, unable to settle on a station. Eventually, an ambulance arrived and an older woman was brought out of Robert’s on a stretcher. The ambulance pulled away, its flashing lights mingling with the glow from the neon signs lining Broadway as we joined the stream of people crowding back inside. While Ed worked the room taking photos, I found a seat at the bar and ordered their signature Recession Special—a fried bologna sandwich, a bag of chips and a PBR for $5. I was stressed and exhausted from all the travel and late nights (12 cities in 12 days on the latest swing), and as Hazel Jones and The Rhinestoners kicked into “Delta Dawn,” I started to tear up like I do when I watch the final montage in the last episode of Band of Brothers. My body and brain were telling me it might be time to take a break, but a looming book deadline hung over my head.

I did this to myself. Late one night I saved an empty email draft entitled “LAST CALL,” and the power of those two words together, loaded with the weight of finality, was enough of a spark to set me on a cross-country journey. I wanted to ask bartenders a seemingly simple question: What is the last thing you’d want to drink before you die? That question became the through-line for my book, Last Call, but it often revealed darker, late-night introspection from bartenders, turning a parlor game query into a melancholic, existential confrontation with mortality—both mine, and theirs.

People go to bars to be happy and, more often, to be sad. Absorbing the energy of the room and the souls who fill it, catering to the needs and moods of so many, night after night, can take its toll on bartenders. We’re undoubtedly in a Golden Age of craft cocktails, stylish drinking dens and celebrity bartenders who travel the world for conferences, speaking engagements and pop-ups. But no matter how elevated the drinking experience gets, there’s often a personal reckoning going on behind the scenes.

It helps explain the recent focus on bartender wellness in the industry, from policies on safety and policing harassment (from both sides of the bar) to team yoga sessions to bartender runs benefiting a cause or charity. But there are still too many casualties on the path to self-preservation. When I met up with Ezra Star at her Boston bar, Drink, she couldn’t help but think of industry friends who had recently passed away. “There was one month where I pretty much went to a funeral every weekend,” she said. “It’s important to take the time to really experience what you’re doing and be present.”

People go to bars to be happy and, more often, to be sad.

The rhythm of a night of service at a bar comes in pulsating waves; for a bartender, last call not only represents the end of the night, but also a period of transition—a post-midnight zone of contemplation when they can ease back into their own head without distraction or obligation. But the rush of adrenaline from being on all night usually requires a period of decompression. For many, that’s a shift drink or two, or trying to chase last call at another bar before it closes. My own ritual was the same no matter where we were: I’d head back to our Airbnb and try to master whatever complicated system the TV was connected to in an attempt to mindlessly zone out. I would drift off to the World Cup highlights or come across the unexpected pleasure of an episode of Sanford and Son or Jerry Reed singing “Ko-Ko Joe” on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour before waking up the next morning to head out to the next city and do it all over again.

Our move was to visit multiple bars in the morning or early afternoon before service, to interview the bartenders and shoot their portraits, then come back at night with just a hand-held camera to hang out and capture the action, guerrilla style. We had our share of late nights closing down bars as part of our research, whether it was participating in “Shotgun Saturday” with the team from Kimball House in Decatur, Georgia; knocking back shots of sherry on “Fino Friday” with the crew from The Jasper in Richmond, Virginia; or winding down with local bartenders in a cemetery in Oxford, Mississippi, huddled around the gravesite of William Faulkner.

Traveling for the book took us to 80 bars in 23 cities across 13 states, and although I’ll never truly experience the level of physical and mental stress of working behind a bar five nights a week, embedding myself among bartenders took its toll.

During our travels I kept at the ready an Avengers: Infinity War movie-tie-in Ziploc bag, emblazoned with a colorful graphic of Dr. Strange casting a spell, filled with an over-the-counter assortment of Advil, eye drops, Excedrin PM, Imodium, Zantac, melatonin and Tums. Rooting around the Dr. Strange bag for whatever ailed us at the moment became as common as tearing into a bag of Skittles at a Saturday matinee. And for every spectacular meal on the road, there were many times when we were too busy to stop and eat, and a bag of Andy Capp’s Hot Fries from a gas station had to suffice as dinner. We were both circling the half-century mark and every morning as we packed up our gear and picked up a rental car, rushed to the airport or boarded a train, Ed would channel Roger Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon with a refrain of, “I’m too old for this shit.”

I dedicated Last Call to my dear friend Carla Gray, a beloved marketing director at a Boston publishing house whose favorite pursuits included championing independent bookstores, horseracing, oysters and dirty Martinis. Like me, she was a creature of habit and she became best friends with nearly every bartender she met, especially at her regular haunts. There was a time, though, when we hadn’t spoken for over a month due to a disagreement and, in what would turn out to be her last text to me she wrote, “Can we still be friends? I miss you a lot.” We made plans to grab a drink the next week but she suddenly, devastatingly, passed away, sending her family, friends and colleagues into a state of shock and disbelief that we still can’t comprehend. Even in her absence, she remained the book’s spiritual guide, and I know she’d appreciate that, along the way, I’d often tip my glass to the sky in salute to her memory. Each time, I’d think of something New York bartender Brian Bartels told me during our interview, a reminder that last calls—whether ordinary, celebratory or clouded in despair—are limited, and no one knows for certain what their last drink might be. “We’re too lucky to be here, alive, and actually know each other,” he said, “even if it’s for only a little bit of time, at the end of the day, over one drink.”

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Brad Thomas Parsons is the author of Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, which was the winner of the James Beard and IACP Cookbook Awards as well as Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs and Distillery Cats: Profiles in Courage of the World's Most Spirited Mousers. Parsons received an MFA in writing from Columbia University, and his work has appeared in Bon Appétit and Food & Wine, among others. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.