xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: The Art of Being a Good Mixer

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Art of Being a Good Mixer




After I finished my two year teaching stint in Toronto of Friday, June 26, 1964, I had a real problem. That Friday was my last payday. I had booked and paid for my voyage back to Fremantle aboard the SS Iberia, but the ship wasn’t due to leave Vancouver until September 22.

I faced three months without a pay cheque until the boat sailed, even then, I would not get a job back in Australia until sometime after I arrived home on November 7. Teachers in Canada were very well paid and I had saved quite a bit. I had also arranged for a refund of my compulsory superannuation, so I had a nice bank balance at the time.However being unemployed was a worry. I had been unemployed before, but this time I was really concerned about using up most of my money even before I got on the boat, let alone waiting eight months until I could get a job teaching with the Western Australian Education Department in February of the following year.

After that final pay day I went to the usual party on the Saturday night. There was always a party somewhere. I didn’t enjoy it. While everyone else was drinking, dancing, laughing, singing and doing other things, I sat sipping slowly on my beer and thinking “All of these people are happy, they all have jobs to go to and on Monday they will be earning money. I am unemployed. Any money I spend will not be replaced. What am I going to do?”

By July most of the usual summer jobs had already been taken up by university students. I could only hope to get a low paying casual job like washing dishes in a restaurant, or being a part time cleaner somewhere or other. During the party I asked various people if they knew where I may pick up a job but they all nodded sadly and gave me a look that said, “Why didn’t you get yourself organised in May and arrange to get a job as a Summer Camp Counsellor where the pay is good and all board and food is supplied?” It was a good question.

As it happened one of the people at the party was a journalist friend of mine named Brian Hogan. Brian was one of the many Australian journalists working in Toronto at that time. On the following Monday night, an excited Brian telephoned me to say that he had found me a job. Brian lived on Toronto Island, about 12 minute ferry ride from the downtown docks. He said he was a Member of the Queen City Yacht Club on the island and they needed a bartender as the current bartender had proved unsuitable due to his penchant for imbibing the fluids he was supposed to be serving. This had led to a serious disagreement with the Bar Manager.  He had been dismissed on the Sunday and the club was desperate to find a replacement.

I thanked Brian but told him I couldn’t take the job because I knew nothing about mixing drinks. Brian said there was nothing to it. “Most of the members will drink bottled beer straight from the fridge and the ladies will drink gin and tonic. Occasionally one of the men will want a scotch and soda. Nothing to it really. You could do it in your sleep.”

Well I desperately needed the job and Brian’s enthusiastic confidence in my non ability convinced me to travel to the island the next afternoon for an interview with the Bar Manager who was not very happy to be acting as bartender until a replacement was hired. The Bar Manager was an ordinary club member whose volunteer role was to see that the bar ran efficiently and profitably. He did not oversee the running of the bar on a daily basis but popped in for a drink after work and was generally around the place on weekends.

The interview was interesting because I lied blatantly about my vast experience working behind the bar in my father’s hotel in Kalgoorlie (absolutely not true) and of my intention to remain as a bartender at the yacht club until I was old enough to retire on the age pension, despite having my boat booking for September22 in my pocket. Circumstances can make liars of the most honest of men.

I don’t think I fooled the Bar Manager. He was shrewd enough to know that a 25 year old Australian was going to move on well before he reached 65 years of age. But there were no other applicants and he was desperate, so he said the job was mine. I was to serve all of the customers and to keep him informed whenever stock of any sort was in need of re ordering. This included beer, spirits, mixes, soft drink, cigarettes, peanuts, crisps, pretzels, assorted confectionery, cheese sticks and even assorted cheeses, pickled sausages and pickled onions which provided the members and their guests with some light snacks.
He told me that I would be paid $65 a week, which was not bad money in those days. My teacher’s pay was about $90 per week. In fact the Bar Manager told me my pay was above the normal rate for a bartender because club policy was to pay more than the usual rate as, unlike hotels, club members did not usually give tips as they felt their membership fees were sufficient. I was to work from 4-00pm till 11-00pm each day except Monday and was entitled to one three course meal from the club dining room each working day. 

And so it was, that one hot day in early July, I caught the ferry to the Queen City Yacht Club to commence my career as a bartender. I had moved out of the apartment I had when I was teaching and had arranged to live with a mate and his girlfriend in some fairly basic accommodation in their basement. The main attraction was that they were charging me a very low rent and their apartment was about three kilometres from the ferry docks.

On the ferry, I nervously scanned through a booklet I had purchased earlier that day. It was entitled “How to be a Good Mixer” and gave details of a bartender’s duties and how to mix all manner of drinks, including a huge number of cocktails. Foolishly, I tried to memorise them all; Martinis, Tom  Collins, Manhattans, Gibsons, Singapore Slings, Black Russians and so on and so on. As I alighted from the ferry my mind was awhirl with the names of exotic drinks and the various ingredients they required. But I was reassuring myself that Brian Hogan had said the men will drink bottled beer and the ladies gin and tonics. Nothing too fancy. The Canadians drank beer from small bottles that Australians some years later would call stubbies. In Canada they just called it a beer.

I arrived at the Yacht Club at about 3-30pm and took some time to familiarise myself once again with the area which the Bar Manager had given me a quick look over on the night of my interview. In fact he had spent most of that time in the wash area behind the bar. He insisted that I remove lipstick traces from every glass, that I washed them in very hot, sterilised water, rinsed them thoroughly and then wiped them dry to a sparkling finish. Whenever the Bar Manager came to the bar he would very carefully examine the glasses, which were stacked on racks on the bar for easy access by members. After checking the glasses he would give me a look, not to indicate that he was pleased, but to let me know that I had to keep them spotless.

The Club's bar trading hours were from 4-00pm till 11-00pm and by five minutes to four I had everything ready for my very first customers who would begin arriving from their mainland jobs when the 4-00pm ferry docked. I had plenty of ice in three big buckets, lots of sliced lemons and several plates filled with diced cheeses, peanuts and pretzels. I took a deep breath and right on four o’clock I lifted the shutters on the bar. I was ready.

The ferry arrived and my first customer was a very attractive lady in her mid to late thirties, with a Doris Day haircut and smile to match. She was very well dressed in a tailored suit and obviously held an important job in downtown Toronto.

She looked at me with some surprise, presumably because I was not the normal bartender or his Bar Manager substitute, then she gave me a beautiful smile and said, “I’ll have a martini, thank you.”
I looked at her and through my mind ran Martinis, Manhattans, Gibsons, Vermouth, pearl onions, bitters, olives, Tom Collins, Brandy Crusters and a whole host of words and phrases that I had so recently read in my little bartender booklet.

What I said was, “I am sorry, but we do not have any oranges.” My beautiful lady looked at me in puzzlement, then turned and quickly disappeared around the corner from where she had first appeared. I immediately dived into my little bartender’s book and hastily read that a martini was three part gin and one parts vermouth, stirred or shaken with ice, poured into a martini glass and served with an olive. Some people like a little less vermouth.

By this time my beautiful lady had returned. She was smiling. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “You’re new to this, aren’t you?”

“My very first day,” I replied, “but please don’t tell the Bar Manager.”

“And you’re Australian, aren’t you?” I confessed. As I was making her martini, despite the lack of oranges, I quickly told of how I had come to be the club’s bartender. By this time other member were fronting the bar. Thankfully they mainly wanted beers, which I obtained from the three large glass fronted refrigerators behind me, and then they wandered off to sit in the club’s very extensive function area. Large glass walls gave them all a very clear view across the water to the city skyline. They relaxed, drank their drinks and felt sorry for all those mainlanders who could not enjoy island life in the comfortable and spacious surrounds of The Queen City Yacht Club.

Meanwhile, the beautiful lady stayed at the bar and within an hour she had heard most of my story. She worked in a Toronto law firm and lived with her family on the island. Over the next three months she became a good friend and often popped into the bar at around 4-15pm to enquire, “Do you have enough oranges to make a martini today?” or "I'd like a martini, please, but hold off on the oranges," or some other orange/martini related comment.

I enjoyed my time as a bartender, but initially experienced problems getting back to the mainland. The ferries ran on a regular schedule throughout the day.  I closed he bar at 11-00pm and caught the last ferry back to the mainland. This was scheduled for 11-20pm, but sometimes it ran late and I would miss the last bus, which generally left the city docks at about 11-45pm. This meant I had to walk the three kilometres home to my basement bed.

I asked the club if I could set up a camp stretcher in the change rooms. The answer was no. After I had been bartending for about a week a fellow came in whom I had spoken with on many occasions. He said he had heard I was having some transport problems.

“I am going to the Bahamas for eight weeks. I have a four berth cabin cruiser in the canal. If you want to, you can stay on board while I am away.”

“How much will it cost me?” I asked.

“Won’t cost you a cent. I’ll be happy for somebody to be on my boat while I’m away.”

I very quickly took up residence on this very well appointed craft. It had four sleeping berths below decks plus a galley, a refrigerator and rather roomy table. The stove ran on bottled gas and the boat was plugged into a power socket on the side of the canal landing for power and light. Of course the  rear deck was an ideal place for entertaining, which I often did on my Monday off or after work, mainly on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays when some of the fun loving islanders liked to kick on.

Toronto Island is actually a long narrow peninsula that reaches out into Lake Ontario offshore from the downtown. It consists of several islands through which run canals whose banks are covered with lush foliage. It reminded me of the everglades in Florida. Queen City Yacht Club was on Ward Island, at the eastern end. There were pathways alongside the canals or lagoon, plus many residential dwellings. Brian Hogan and his wife,Margaret and their two small daughters, Caitlin and Erin, lived in one such house. The entire island was government parkland and the residents rented their houses.

The Ward Island community used the Yacht Club as their local hotel and the islanders, like islanders everywhere, had that strong sense of being a special community remote from the hustle and bustle of the mainland. The entire Toronto Island actually had three yacht clubs. One day I was happily wiping and polishing glasses when I had a phone call from a fellow who said he was the bartender at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club and that the Labatts’ man was on his way to my yacht club.

“Oh, yes,” I said, “So what does that mean?”

“It means you make sure you have one of your fridges packed with Labatts’ beer and that whenever anyone asks for a beer you automatically go for the Labatts. These salesmen will sit at the bar and buy drinks for customers. They put large bills on the bar and you get to keep the change.”
I hung up and quickly started replacing my Molsons’ fridge with Labatts’ beer. 

A little while later this young chap came in, introduced himself as the Labatts’ sales representative and asked how Labbatts’ beer sales were going. “Oh, Labbatts’ is very popular,’ I said. We fell into an easy conversation until a few members came in and the sales  rep offered to buy them each a Labbatt’s beer. He put twenty dollars on the bar. I served the drinks and put the change on the bar.
“You keep it,” said the sales rep. Well, stubbies cost less than a dollar, so I pocketed about $15 or $16.

This scenario was repeated several times over the next hour until the Labatts’ sales representative left, but not before he had asked me to undertake to push Labbatt’s beer as much as possible. I said I certainly would. It had been a very profitable day for me.

In those days Canadians mainly drank Labbatts, Molsons or Carling beer. Every so often I would get a call from the neighbouring yacht club that the Carling’s man was coming, or the Molson’s man. I was always ready for them and the rewards were always substantial.

In fact I was raking money in. Despite the Bar Manager’s warning that club members do not generally tip, I was making more money in tips than I was from my weekly pay. Maybe the members felt sorry for this young Aussie boy so far from home, for they regularly tipped me. Sometimes when I served someone they would say, “And have one for yourself.” I would reply that I did not drink while I was working. They would say, “No, but you can take the cost of a drink out of my change.”

Almost every weekend during the summer, The Queen City Yacht Club would hold a big sailing day on the Saturday. Often they would hold regattas over the entire weekend involving yachts from all over the US/Canadian coastline of Lake Ontario. One particular regatta was huge, in fact several of the committee pointed out to me that it was the largest freshwater sailing regatta in the world. They may have been right. The club used to employ a real bartender to come over to the island for the Saturday night festivities in the clubrooms or for the whole weekend when a big regatta was on.  He was a young Greek. His real name was Mike Tnoumenopolous, or something like that. He was known as Mike Jones. I  called him Mike.

Mike was a cocktail maker par excellence. On the big regatta days Mike would serve all the exotic mixed drinks and  I would just serve beers, soft drinks, straight forward rum and cokes, vodka and tonic, etc.

One day after I had given someone their change Mike took me to one side and said, “You just put that man’s change in his hand. Why would you do that?”

“Well it was his change,” I said innocently.

“Never, ever do that.” said, Mike. “If you put the money in his hand he will walk away with it. Put the money on the bar. Let him decide if he will walk away with it or leave some of it, or all of it, for you." After that my tip takings rose quite substantially.Of course, as an Australian, I was not really used to tipping.

One problem that Mike and I had was the inability of our American customers to read a large sign in the bar that said “IN THIS BAR ONE US DOLLAR IS EQUAL TO ONE CANADIAN DOLLAR”
In actual fact, at that time, a Canadian dollars was about 90cents to the US dollar. In our bar, however they were always equal. We often had US yachtsmen coming in from Rochester, Buffalo and other places on the United States’ shores of Lake Ontario. Not only did some Americans have trouble with the club's exchange rate they had trouble with the coloured Canadian money which they referred to as monopoly money. Quite ├│ften they had particular drinking requirements. Often they would ask for a really dry Martini.One day I asked Mike about these really dry martinis. 

"Well, Noel, Americans are crazy and they follow fads. Somebody ordered a dry martini in a movie once and now that’s what they all want.”

“Yes, but what exactly is it?”

“Well you just ease up on the vermouth. What they really want to drink is gin. I’ll show you.”
He pulled out a martini glass, filled it with gin, put an olive in and then raised the drink to his mouth and softly breathed, “Vermouth.” He then held the glass aloft, laughed and said, “Now that really is a dry martini.”
I found out that The Churchill was an English martini. You fill the glass with gin and then pour in  some vermouth from an unopened bottle.

One Saturday night I noticed Mike was becoming very agitated with one particular American customer who was insisting that his change was wrong because one US dollar was worth 10 cents more than one Canadian dollar. He said that his American ten dollar bill was equal to eleven Canadian dollars, so he should have received an extra dollar in his change. Mike pointed to the sign but the Yank kept insisting on his rights and was holding up the bar trade. Eventually, Mike gave the man his additional change. The American accepted his amended change and then pushed 50 cents across the bar as a tip to Mike.

Well Mike just about exploded. “You have just wasted five minutes arguing with me over a measly dollar and now you want to give me a 50 cents tip. Are you crazy? Keep your money. Go away!” He angrily pushed the coin back across the bar. 

For the rest of the night the usually happy and friendly Mike was cursing under his breath about the stupid Americans. Of course most of the Americans were not stupid. They were charming, very well mannered… and very big tippers!

Once I had settled comfortably into my cabin cruiser lodgings, living on the island was a bit like living on Rottnest Island, Perth's holiday island. I had the entire day to myself. Sometimes I would go to the mainland. Sometimes I did a bit of babysitting for the Hogan's so that Margaret could travel to the mainland. Later on I did some babysitting for some of the other islanders. In return they would often give me breakfast.

Basically, I would call around for breakfast and then later on take the children to the beach for a few hours while their mother was shopping or lunching on the mainland. The southern shore of Toronto Island was a wide sandy beach. The only problem was the water was quite cold. I spent most of the day sunbathing with my island friends and then dashing into the water for a quick, very quick, dip to cool off. Unfortunately, there was no surf.

I was living rent free on the cabin cruiser and enjoying one free meal every night at the club with breakfasts often provided by my islander friends. Sometimes I had breakfast on "my" boat. I was salting my money away and building a substantial bank balance. Of course, I spent money to put  food and drink in the  cabin cruiser and I also occasionally bought cereal or bacon and eggs for the Hogans and my other breakfast providing island friends. Although I was the hired help bartender at their club, a lot of the members invited me into their homes. Being summer, there were also quite a few university students staying with their parents, so I did not lack for the company of young people. Socially and financially, life was wonderful.

With Mike’s expert tuition I picked up the hang of bartending and actually enjoyed it. I met interesting people, many of whom seemed keen to tell me very personal details about themselves or other people living on the island. I also learned to deal with the few islanders who tended to drink more than they should.

One old fellow used to binge on rum and coke. His wife told me that after four drinks I should give him coke with a big dash of ginger ale. By that stage he didn't seem to notice. At the end of the night I would refund her the difference in price between rum and coke and coke and ginger ale. It was our little secret.

There was a very sophisticated European lady who used to load up on vodka and tonic. She may have been German or Polish or Russian and was probably in her late forties. The problem was that after several drinks she would sometimes get very amorous, not necessarily with her husband. One Sunday evening there was a commotion in the downstairs beer garden. I looked out of the window and the Russian lady’s husband was chasing another man around the tables in the gardens with a star picket. Fortunately, somebody stopped him before any harm was done. The next day I was told that the lady and her husband had been banned for a week. When she returned she smiled and said, “My usual thanks, Dollink.” She sounded like Marlene Dietrich.

One very big regatta weekend the Hogan's had house guests. His name was Ian. He was English and he was a very  high flyer with the British car company,Winterbottom Motors. He had with him a very attractive girlfriend named Sandra. Ian had official duties to perform on the Sunday. Winterbottoms had some sort of sponsorship deal regarding the regatta.

Ian was also an alcoholic. I could see that Sandra was not entirely happy with Ian's behaviour on the Saturday night as his drinking intake rose. That night after the club closed we all went back to the Hogan's where a party was organised  for Ian and Sandra to meet the locals. I slept at the Hogan's that night. 

At breakfast the next morning we were all a bit seedy, except for Ian, who was bright eyed and raring to go. He stunned us all  by having a straight shot of vodka before downing his orange juice and eating his cereal.

During the breakfast I said that I was going to go to the mainland later in the morning to see a friend who was leaving town, but I would be back in time to start work at 4-00pm, unless I had problems with the Sunday bus timetable. Ian then looked over at me  and said, "Why don't you take my car. It is parked at the dock. It will save you a lot of time."

I am not a real car man and I may have the models wrong, but Ian explained that it was the latest sports model  and that it had been driven by Stirling Moss, the great British Racing Driver. It may have been an M.G., a Triumph or an Austin Healy. As I said, I am not a car man. Apparently Ian was running Winterbottoms'  promotion for the  new model car and the first fifty people  who purchased this sports model had a test drive with Stirling Moss. In each car was a brass plate affixed to the dashboard verifying that Stirling Moss had driven the car. By this time Ian was  pouring some Jack Daniels Black Label into his morning coffee. I told Ian  that I really appreciated his great offer  but I had never driven a high powered sports car before and would not want to risk damage to such a valuable vehicle. Ian insisted that I would have no problems.

I think Sandra could see what sort of a day was unfolding, so she chipped in with, "Ian, you are going to be busy this afternoon with your official duties and presentations. Why don't I go with Noel, just in case he has any problems with the car."  And that is how I came to spend a beautiful, sunny Sunday in August, zooming around Toronto with a glamorous blonde, driving a sleek,white sports car that had been driven by Stirling Moss himself. It was quite a day. I also got the feeling that Ian and Sandra were not long for each other.

When I was working on the island, the Toronto City Council was talking about closing down all of the residences on Ward Island and making it  a National Park. As I left the island in mid September I felt sorry for the islanders because I knew a National Park would be the end of their idyllic lifestyle.

In August 1996, I returned to Toronto Island with my wife, Lesley. I was pleased and very surprised to see that the Queen City Yacht Club was still standing and still serving members from the upstairs bar.  It was about midday and the club was deserted except for a man who was cleaning up the tables and glasses from the night before. I told him that I had worked in the bar 32 years ago and I was surprised that the club was still going because when I was there they were talking about removing all the houses off the island.

“Yes, well the houses are still here and they are still talking about it,” he said.

I didn’t ask him if they had enough oranges to make martinis.



This is Toronto Island.  What is known as Ward Island is at the extreme north eastern end. If you want a really good look, I suggest that you go to Google Maps and type in Queen City Yacht Club, Ward Island, Toronto and zoom in. 
The yacht club is situated on the western side of the inlet  in the north east, opposite to where the ferry landing is.
 In the winter time Lake Ontario froze over but the ferries still used to run. They  forced a way through a channel in the ice. Riding over to the island on a stormy day was like being on an ice breaker in McMurdo sound in the Antarctic. Very thrilling.



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