Culture

Dispatches from the Graveyard Shift: What It's Like to Work at a 24-Hour New Orleans Bar

Female bartender at a New Orleans dive bar
Jennifer Kay has worked at Boondock Saint, one of New Orleans' 24-hour bars, for nearly eight years. We'd say she's seen some crazy stuff, but that'd be a big understatement.

Jennifer Kay, 45, has been holding down the bar at New Orleans' Boondock Saint on St. Peter Street (a stone's throw from Bourbon) for seven and a half years. Throughout her tenure, Kay has worn just about every hat possible, from bartender to bar back to manager to bouncer — which isn't uncommon for a longtime bar employee. What makes Kay's job different, though, are the hours: Boondock Saint is one of New Orleans' beloved 24-hour bars. Kay began working graveyard shifts because she liked the hours, and stayed because she fell in love with the service industry crowd. Here's Jen's dispatch from Boondock Saint's graveyard shift:

Tell us about what kind of drinks you’re going to serve us at the bar.

I’m a shot and a beer girl, which works out better for me personally and financially. Coming from corporate America, I can look at the time, labor and products to see how things can be done the most efficiently. For me, a beer and a shot program costs the same amount of money and takes an eighth of the time and ingredients. And I just want to turn and burn [the drinks]. I want to spend time chatting with my customers and establishing that relationship. Let’s make the drink quick and have an actual conversation.

What are your shift hours like?

Originally, my shift was 11 p.m. until 5 or 6 in the morning. Our shifts now start at 10 p.m., which seems like such a minute change, but that hour makes a huge difference. Sometimes you’re not seeing daylight. By the time you get home, you can do one of a few things: either be up for a few hours, and then sleep before your shift and think of it as a 9 to 5 job. I find that really hard to do. Or, you’re doing it the opposite way: coming home and hoping you can fall asleep pretty much right away. Then you’re sleeping usually for 5-6 hours, then up for a few, and then an hour or two nap before you go to work.

Are you wound up after your shift?

Absolutely. Everyone thinks you should be exhausted and want to go to sleep right after your shift. I always ask people, do you sleep right after your work day? No. Everyone wants to unwind. Plus, you don’t want to be exhausted at the end of your shift. You need that extra energy to finish it out.

How do you unwind?

It’s usually a drink or two. Sometimes a book. It used to be girlfriends of mine would have a couple of drinks at a bar and we’d meander somewhere and get some breakfast. You get a little drunk, your belly’s a little full, you sleep.

Thank goodness in the French Quarter there seems to be so many 24-hour options, so no matter what time you get off of work you have some choices. What are some of your favorite after-work hangs?

Clover Grill is around the corner, but they have a weird hour when they clean the grills. Not many people know that. It’s like 5 to 6 in the morning and sometimes you just want food right then. I love Croissant D’or on Ursuline Street. They open around 6 a.m., and I was doing that consistently. That was a mainstay. We’d sit and be too crass in the courtyard.

How did you land a graveyard shift?

Well, at first they thought I couldn’t bartend. Which I couldn’t. I lied. "Can you bartend? Of course I can!"

My money had just run out. It was desperation. If the drink had the name of the ingredients, I was great — Jack and Coke. If the drink had a name like Sex on the Beach, there was just lots of smiling and thinking, “Ok, I bet that’s kind of pink and orangish-colored.”

I would fake it. I didn’t want anyone to know, so I didn’t ask or look any drinks up. I did have a cheat sheet behind the bar that had probably a dozen drinks on it.

Also hilarious, I was a wine and Miller Light drinker so I didn’t understand the concept of shots. My first shift behind the bar, my co-worker asked, “What kind of shots do you do?” I want to say it was like 10 in the morning. First, I don’t drink shots, and secondly I certainly don’t drink them this early in the morning. A glass of champagne, fine. A beer with an early football game. I can get on to all of these things. But not shots.

When you’re being trained by somebody, though, and they figure out that you don’t know how to bartend, you rethink all of that. "Oh, you want to do shots? Ok. I’ll have whatever you’re having."

In the beginning there was more time with me crying behind the bar than anything. My first shift, I was so nervous. I thought I’d give myself some liquid courage, but I forgot to open my mouth and spilled Jäger all down the front of my white shirt. And it was my birthday. I proceeded to start crying right before I went into work.

I thought this was never going to work, but seven and a half years later, here I am.

Seven and a half years later, what is your favorite shot?

Jameson. A shot of whiskey. It makes you aware you're doing it. I don’t want an easy shot. If you’re going to do it, be all in and fully aware it’s going to kick you a little bit in the ass. It’s kind of like life.

What’s the difference between your day drinkers and your graveyard shift patrons?

Day drinkers tend to have cocktails and beers. Once you get a little bit later in the day, you start working a couple of shots in. Then you get the after-dinner crowd, more cocktails and shots. Then, at the end of the night, that’s when it comes down to service industry. That’s where it’s shot heavy forward and a drink back. So instead of drink forward and shot back it’s reversed. Which is fantastic to me. Because they already know what to order, all your service industry does. They are creatures of habit. Everyone has their thing. After work you really do just want to check out. They are mentally exhausted and over everybody.

This is my favorite part of the day. I don’t care when I’m working, that last hour of the shift is my favorite. At times, is it also my most frustrating hour? 100%, because that’s when the shenanigans start.

Sometimes I have to make rules, like: Everyone in the bar has to keep their pants on. Literally. That’s a rule. I have to make it a rule in that moment. Once in a while, I’m like, “We’re not quoting movies all night to the bartender. That’s not happening. We’re going to use real words. We’re going to have a real conversation.”

It’s my regular customers, they are so funny when they are punch-drunk after coming off of maybe a 13-hour shift at Pat O’Brien’s. And I see them feeding off of each other.

Tell us about an especially loopy moment.

One time — and I could not make this up — I had two of my regulars in who worked at Pat O'Brien’s. They were pretty well off that night, they'd had drinks already. I had them convinced — two men, by the way, very straight men — to reenact the scent from Dirty Dancing where he lifts her in the air. I convinced this guy, ex-Marine, that when he was doing the Jennifer Grey leap, he takes his shirt off because it would be easier to hold him.

Somewhere this is recorded. It’s fantastic.

At some point I just say, if you guys are going to mess around with my bar, I’m going to mess around with you. So there is that fun part of it and at some point you just sit back and ask yourself, “How did we get here?”

Sometimes you look around and see all the guilty faces. They are like children. You start pointing fingers and asking, “What did you do?” And sometimes it’s “I took my clothes off.” And you ask, “Where?” And they say, “In the middle of St. Peter Street.”

It’s seven o’clock in the morning. And that’s what you just did. And at that point, they are your children. You love them, but they make you drink.

Do you have a bouncer that’s with you at night?

I have no one. When you are behind that bar, you figure out quickly how to throw someone out of a bar, how to control a room. I do have a very sweet retired serviceman named Moose who barbacks part of the year. The rest of the time I’m barback, security, management. I’m everything.

There’s no one else there. If I have a scary situation where someone won’t leave the bar, I have to handle it. It’s not my customers’ responsibility.

What is the scariest thing that’s happened on your shift?

The craziest thing that I’ve had happen is that I had a few regular wait staff and bartenders sitting in my bar drinking. And then two guys come in who you could just tell were recent ex-military walk in the bar, all jacked up. One of them goes into the ladies' room.

Immediately I knew this was going to be a problem. Then I hear the guy in the bathroom projectile vomiting all over the walls. The music was stopped in the bar and I could hear all of this.

I’m telling his buddy, "Just get your friend out of here." He comes out and some of the customers are chiming in, “Get the hell out.” They all stand up elbow to elbow to make a line for these guys to exit. And they are taunting them a bit. But the guys leave.

About two minutes later these two guys run back in and deck everyone in the bar. I’m behind the bar with a bat waving it over my head like a crazy person. Hiding. But if anyone comes behind my bar I’m going to beat the crap out of them.

All my barstools are up-ended. And I’ve got some big regulars in my bar, but these guys were wasted and aggressive. I screamed so loud that one of the bartenders and a staff member at Johnny White's Bar comes running over. They can’t find their bat, so they have a golf club.

One of the two guys had one of my customers on the ground, so he said, “Get up or I’m going to smash your head in!”

So that ended all right, and it was probably one of the scariest moments. I have no idea if anyone has a gun on them. I have no idea how this is going to go. But my bar is owned by two cops and we have a lot of security cameras and the rafters are lined with patches from other police departments. So that helps keep the peace.

What is your favorite season to work? For instance, do you look forward to Mardi Gras, or do you loathe it?

I don’t know a bartender who actually enjoys Mardi Gras for any reason, besides the fact that we are making money. I like it just busy enough. I love summer personally because it’s not as busy. I don’t mind it being a little quiet.

You’ve got some VIPs that come through the Boondocks. Do you have any celebrities who are locals?

I love when the local big-name bartenders come through, like Abigail [Gullo] from Compère Lapin. I used to have a Hornets player that was a regular and sometimes he would just pass through to check on me.

It’s nice because we have Preservation Hall right across the way so we have musicians who stop in all the time. We had David Grohl in all the time. He was awesome.

Channing Tatum, the owner of Saints and Sinners on Bourbon Street, comes in late-night sometimes. His manager always carries the money to pay the tab, but Channing always hides a hundred for me so the manager doesn’t see. Always. And he doesn’t have to do that.

And of course we’ve had the guys from "Boondock Saints" in.

Any celebrity horror stories?

Rob Riggle was in the bar, and as usual, I have no idea who he is. Everyone is thanking him for being there, shaking his hand. I have no idea what happened, but he went to use the restroom and the second he walked into the men’s bathroom the pipe on the urinal exploded. Someone must have messed with the pipe, or maybe he put his hand in just the wrong spot. I don’t know. Anyway, he comes out of the bathroom covered in water. And then the bar starts to flood. And I’m like, this cannot be happening.

The only celebrity I’ve ever had a problem with was the lead singer of the Pogues. He was so drunk in the bar and it was already crowded because of VooDoo Fest so I kicked him out.

My customers were like, “You’re an Irish bar that has this man’s music on the jukebox, and you kicked him out?” and I’m like, “Yes!” He was fall-down drunk and I knew he had a show the next day. I yelled at whoever was there with him like, “You know better than this! Get him out right now.”

I think one of the great things about New Orleans is that we don’t care what anyone does for a living. No one is impressed with anyone because of our occupations. In New Orleans, all walks of life party together. You don’t get that in other cities. In New Orleans, we don’t really care if a celebrity walks in because you know what, you have a job just like me, it’s just that your job is different.

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