Sober Psycho-Spiritual Surf Rock Bartending
By Idgy Dean
Making songs and making drinks follow the same mechanics — it’s dealing with spirits, gathering people in nocturnal seance, hands on the table, hands in automatic action, playing perfect ratios and percussive sounds; din of voices, dens of darkness, most memorable loss of memory, that place we go to fall in love with strangers, to fall out of time; strumming, beating, pouring everything inside of you into the mouths of others, feeding a communal prayer to feel more or less alive.
As much as my aspiring rock star ego longs for the “making it” victory of never having to work behind a bar ever again, the truth is, I have a deep affinity and reverence for this hustle. To my great surprise, I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy the job even more since becoming sober. I relinquished the vice of drinking 18 months ago today, my decision coinciding with the total solar eclipse. This epic earth episode served as a fitting symbol to personally confront that which was obscuring my own celestial light — an insidious instinct beyond my control that likes to play hide and seek with my own oblivion.
It’s an instinct we all have in varying degrees. Mine is heirloom, passed down from generations of alcoholics on every limb of my family tree. It’s a proclivity that has rendered my bloodline an endangered lineage. My brother and I are the last Sanwalds standing, and the verdict’s still out on whether or not either of us will be ushering in a future generation. Our father died a day before his 63rd birthday, after a decade of living on and off the streets of Fort Lauderdale. It was a scary fate none of us could ever have imagined for the larger-than-life dreamer dad we knew from our childhood. He himself never touched a drop of booze (traumatized by his own parents’ abuse), yet he fell right in line with the Laundry List profile of Adult Children of Alcoholics, becoming a para-alcoholic addicted to the excitement and turmoil that ultimately did him in. His twin brother, Craig — my favorite uncle, the upbeat jokester and life-long bartender — passed away from cirrhosis of the liver at age 54. Their mom and dad, my “fun grandparents,” legendary humans (and drinkers), also died in their early 60s.
My grandfather’s father, Oscar, was a career bartender like Craig, and Oscar’s wife’s grandmother — my Great-Great-Great Grandmother Teresa Honig — is listed in the 1870 census as, “Age 31 / Occupation: Keeps Beer Saloon.” So that makes me a fifth generation legacy bartender. My mom’s side is a whole other story… Legend has it that our matriarchal heroine, Great Grandma Barbara Kalescky, bribed a guard in Kiev with a bottle of vodka to sneak her on a boat to America. She then lived and worked in the Lower East Side, where she allegedly brewed illegal moonshine in her bathtub for parties during Prohibition. Those are the more fun stories of lore, but the reality show I got to live firsthand while coming of age was watching Alcoholism play a major role in my parent’s divorce. It then had a surprise encore performance later in my life when it helped put the nail in the coffin of my own marriage.
In my darker moods, I’ve wondered if maybe the Sanwalds aren’t supposed to survive, that perhaps this is evolution’s way of retiring my kind. There’s that penchant for existential oblivion, again! But a brighter, stronger feeling I have and want to continue to nourish, is that I come from noble folk — War Veterans, Freemasons, talented athletes and artists, hardworking immigrants, courageous and pious pioneers. I belong here, and I know I have a job to do.
This past winter I took an obsessive dip into researching more about my ancestry, and discovered that I am a direct descendant of one of the founding families of early New York City, the Van Wagenens. My Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandparents, Gerrit Gerritsen and Annetje Hermansse, arrived to New Amsterdam in 1660 from Wageningen, an ancient Dutch town, on a ship called Faith (I love that detail).
Today, eleven generations and 358 years later, I just happen to bartend two blocks away from the very church that sourced these records. On slow nights, I quietly polish glassware while one million songs surge through my psyche, begging to be exorcised, sung, made and played. I’m sailing on the faith that I’ve been collecting clues to my own karmic call to duty — a mission equal parts musical and spiritual, to help correct my family’s course and eradicate an ancestral disease of despair and destruction. Part of this healing and recovery seems to want me right at the frontline, miraculously safer in the eye of the storm, watching guard wide awake while I stir a Manhattan and secretly draft songs in my head.
I entertain vague recall memories of being a soldier in a past life, and there’s something about working behind a bar that feels eerily familiar to being in a trench. Every night is an onslaught of chaos, as you stare your own demise dead in the eye, enduring exhausting attacks from all sides. But the energizing camaraderie, the busy showmanship and stage presence, relentless moving, command and control of lethal substance as the crowd cheers you on can sometimes feel straight up like hero’s glory. By night’s end, you’re battered and bruised, but you’ve won the audience, and you’re going home alive.
I try to stay covert about my sobriety when working. My first lesson in tending bar was that it was my job to throw the party, and the last thing I’d want is for anyone I’m serving to feel sheepish or judged in the bacchanal I can offer them. But when the word gets out, and I inevitably get a raised eyebrow of distrust and defensive suspicion about my ability to make a drink, I confidently quip that I enjoy feeling like a Beethoven barkeep — that I don’t even need to hear the notes in order to compose the masterpiece; I’d even argue that the better and nobler faculty for creative composition, it seems, has less to do about what you can taste, and so much more to do about what you’re able to intuitively feel and know.
This is the art of bartending and songwriting… How to feel every ounce of spirit, between you and them; how to play an anonymous host and serve what’s highly concentrated, measuring in one part sour, one part sweet, and a few dashes of bitters to make the mix danceable; how to be a promiscuous insta-friend and loyal therapist through your song and service.
The uninitiated might foolishly say, “C’mon… one sip won’t kill you!” Yes, it will. My job is to know now, unencumbered, that I deserve to be here with you. Even if I am endangered of becoming extinct, I cannot forget that I am the most precious creature here on earth, a humble instrument of divine music, felt and known.
¡Arriba, abajo, al centro, pa’ dentro!
Idgy Dean (aka Lindsay Sanwald) has been composing DIY music for 20 years, playing various instruments in multiple bands, performing solo as a looping artist across the country, and producing critically-acclaimed records and music videos from her home base in Brooklyn, New York. Her most recent work is a collaboration with fellow sober artist, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, the hip hop pioneer and co-founder of Run-DMC. Earlier this year, they released a song titled “Remember This — 3 into 4,” a personal hymn to clean and creative living. She also teaches Yoga, and bartends twice a week at Scarpetta on Madison Avenue.
Learn more at www.idgydean.com