By Ken Bradbury
“Oh, come on, lady! It’s just a stupid piece of celery!”
Okay, I didn’t actually say those words aloud, but that’s what was on my mind. When I took the job of piano player on the Spirit of Peoria paddle wheeler I found that one of my jobs was to tend bar now and then. Once it was time for my morning show and suddenly eight people lined up at the bar, all wanting Bloody Mary’s. Let’s get this straight … I know nothing about mixing drinks. I found long ago that I have enough trouble walking a straight line in life without adding alcohol to the mix, and besides, it’s my life and I want to know what’s happening. So my acting as a bartender is akin to the Buchanan and Cody Funeral Home selling life insurance. It just doesn’t seem right.
But eight baby boomers at 9 in the morning wanted their bloody Bloody Mary’s and my fellow entertainers were otherwise engaged with the banjo player selling CD’s and the boat’s historian somewhere on the top deck explaining something about the hygiene practices of the Marquette and Joliet expedition. So, it was just me, a bottle of vodka, a jar of tomato juice, some lime, some ice, and the thirsty boomers. If someone orders a drink when I’m tending bar I usually start the conversation with something knowledgeable like, “Okay, tell me how to make it,” but I’d seen enough BM’s (an unfortunate abbreviation for any baby boomer drink) mixed that I had a vague idea of how to do it.
So I’ll repeat the scenario: Five minutes until I was to go onstage, eight thirsty boomers, and the world’s worst bartender. I managed to slosh the first Bloody Mary together for a motherly type from Indiana when she said, “I’d like a stick of celery.” Huh? “A stick of celery. For the Bloody Mary.” I guess she’d skipped breakfast. I looked through the bar’s fridge for a bag of celery and found none.
“Sorry, we’re out of celery.”
“They had some on the boat yesterday.”
“I guess they used it all up. Sorry.”
“The cooks said that there’s more celery down in the hold.”
The hold is the very bottom of the ship, two floors below where I was trying to get to my piano, and a journey of about thirty steps.
“I’m really busy now. Maybe this afternoon … the head cook said the bartender could go get it anytime he wanted to.”
Choking back an urge to choke the head cook I said, “Maybe after I get these other people behind you waited on?” Having heard our discussion, everyone behind Mrs. Veggie wanted celery in their Bloody Mary’s. There are various theories on how the Bloody Mary got its name, but I’m convinced that it began with an irritating little lady wanting celery.
Let’s talk frankly here. What the heck does a stalk of celery add to a Bloody Mary? What does a stalk of celery add to anything? Can anyone actually taste celery and if someone actually does have taste buds with a PhD, can they possible detect the taste of celery in a pool of vodka, tomato juice, salt, pepper, and tobasco sauce? Come on, people! Let’s get real! Then the lady went really nuts. “Well, then do you have a dill pickle spear?”
I stood there trying to think of the last time I climbed onto the boat with a dill pickle in my pocket when she said, “Or maybe some okra?”
Do I look like a Cajun? “Just anything,” she said. “An olive or radish or hard boiled egg.” This lady wasn’t ordering a drink, she was opening a grocery store.
The line of people behind her was getting impatient and the audience in the front of the boat was looking around for their scheduled 9 a.m. entertainment. The little lady was looking for her celery and I was looking for a way to escape the boat without getting wet.
That was when one of the roving deckhands stepped in beside me and said, “Anything you need?” We have a great crew and the hands are always walking around ready to haul trash, get ice, or move tables. I said, “Sure. I need you to tend bar.” He looked at me. Bartending wasn’t on his resume, but it wasn’t on mine either so I gently nudged him over by the beer taps and said, “Go to it, Billy,” and I hustled my buns up to the piano. I don’t know how he got along, but just as I was beginning my first number I heard Billy’s voice in the back of the room. “Sorry ma’am, but we don’t have any celery.”