When New York City went into lockdown on March 15, bartender Bri Molloy found himself in good company—of the “misery loves” sort.
He and most other Big Apple “non-essential workers” saw their jobs evaporate as the city struggles to stymie the wildfire spread of COVID-19. In good times, he was part of the famous NYC nightlife industry responsible for 299,000 jobs, generating a whopping $13.1 billion in employee compensation along with an even more whopping $35.1 billion in total economic output. But now it is the bad times, possibly on par with the Great Depression, and how Molloy copes is a lesson for all barkeeps now unemployed.
“I used to pull in around $50,000 a year,” he tells Chilled. “Every bar I have worked at is different based on clientele, location, and economy. I know people that pull in significantly more and significantly less. Minimum wage for bartenders in New York is $10 an hour and is always taken up for taxes. It’s money unseen. So I work really hard to make those tips.”
It’s a common story across the New York bar scene. Molloy worked at DBL (AKA, “Dive Bar Lounge”), a cozy gay pub in Manhattan’s trendy Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. While some city watering holes are opening impromptu service at the door so patrons can enjoy a drink on the allotted sidewalk space outside, the vast majority of bars remain closed, DBL included. For Molloy, whose bartending position is practically the dictionary example of the “gig economy,” he applied for unemployment insurance immediately.
“Thankfully I did qualify. I am a taxpayer and everything I make is claimed. A lot of people think bartenders are completely paid under the table and don’t claim the income. That is rarely the case.”
Additionally, Molloy is admittedly frugal, squaring away a portion of his weekly income. Saving for a rainy day is wise for anyone, and provides a cushion when the rain preludes a biblical flood. By judicious budgeting, Molloy estimates he had a three-month safety net even before unemployment kicked in.
But now what? As Governor Andrew Cuomo extends the lockdown for New York (city and state), to at least the end of the month, officials warn that it could easily be pushed back further into summer depending on how the health situation evolves. This leaves tapsters like Molloy, a budding singer as well as bartender, with a lot of time on his hands, and for the foreseeable future to boot. While cleaning, binge-watching, and reconnecting with friends over the Internet fills up some of the day, what about keeping all the drink recipes straight? Being on the job keeps a bartender’s mental repertoire fresh. Being off the job… well, use it or lose it.
It’s a problem Molloy readily admits to having, and being a bartender that doesn’t drink probably ain’t helpin’. But that does not mean Molloy is idylling; this teetotaling bartender is taking his enforced time off to bone up on the growing trend of mocktails. One can only do so much with a Shirley Temple (infamous for being a “kiddie drink”), and while most abstainers don’t regret the choice, they don’t want to be a conspicuous stick in the mud, either.
“Sitting at home and thinking about it makes me consider how I may not be able to make sparkling ginger mint lemonade, but I can put an orange slice, a dash of cherry juice, and a splash of ginger beer in seltzer and have a nonalcoholic drink that isn’t boring.”
That empathetic approach to bartending has some unexpected results. Friendships made over the bar have proven far stronger than Molloy realized.
“One thing this lockdown has taught me as a bartender is that some of your regulars really do become your friends,” he muses. “I always questioned if my regulars were regulars because they like me or because they frequent the bar in which I work. I am really happy to learn that it is a bit of both. The number of regulars that have reached out to me to see how I am doing and those that have checked in on me financially has really touched me. People don’t reach out to someone out of nowhere to offer them money if they don’t care. I am beyond grateful for my regulars.”
Every little bit helps these days.