From the Zola System


New York, New York, USA
January 30
I grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in the Zola System, my father’s philosophy of life. He taught my brothers and me the basic life skills: how to run a street hustle, perpetrate a con or recognize when you were being hustled or conned; information we needed so we could feed our families if another Hitler came to power. My father Aron Zola was a Romanian Jew, a holocaust survivor, a black marketeer, a gun runner, a successful entrepreneur, a true citizen of Detroit. When I was 18, I rebelled against the Zola System and moved to New York City. I was fascinated with cultural heroes – Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson and the aesthetic bohemian artist lifestyle that, in my naivete, I thought they lived. Now I see they were working their own hustles on the public, just like the Old Man. Even the Manhattan dating scene runs on the Zola System. To paraphrase Mark Twain, now that the Old Man is dead, I’m shocked how much he learned. I wrote reviews for SPIN, an unpublished brunch guide for New York City, covered the death penalty, reviewed books for the New York Law Journal and profiled sports stars for the Jewish Forward. I have two crime novels and a bartenders guide to New York City that I am trying to sell. After dabbling in so many genres, I finally realized I’d been running from my subject: my father and the Zola System. The Old Man is gone now and I am his eldest son carrying on as he wanted me to do. This was not supposed to happen.


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MARCH 5, 2010 12:32PM

The Oak Room, Ecclesiastes 1:9 and Shaking a Manhattan

Rate: 1 Flag

2006, the Park Ave Café. Paul, one of my bartenders, was raving about The Departed. “Scorsese has returned to form. It’s an original take on the gangster film, thanks to Whitey Bulger. It’s fucking brilliant, dude!”

Paul was originally from Boston so I suppose I expected this bit of obnoxiousness from him much as he expected my regional Detroit bullshit. I couldn’t let this shorthand go, however. The film was entertaining but far from brilliant. As for originality, the Departed was adapted from Infernal Affairs a 2002 Chinese film. Scorsese had admitted as much in several TV interviews. Maybe Paul hadn’t seen that memo.

“Who cares, everything’s been done anyway,” Paul said dismissively.

There is nothing new under the sun. The Preacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem said that in Ecclesiastes 1:9 although I first heard it from Chuck Berry in Hail, Hail Rock and Roll. Berry was a skilled guitar craftsman who took a T-Bone Walker’s lick and turned it into his signature intro. Scorsese is a skilled filmmaker who chose his source material carefully and crafted a new piece of entertainment for the world populace.

Paul, like myself, was trained as a bar hack; a salesman masquerading as a legal drug dealer working in a profession with few written rules and a rich oral tradition that is rarely handed down from generation to generation. Sure there are books – Mr. Boston’s, the Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, Barfly’s and the Cocktail, The Bartender’s Manual.  Even the (in)famous Dale De Groff has published a book, although it is meant for a coffee table. However, these books are hardly ever read and do not guide a bartender in any Talmudic fashion. So when it comes to making a cocktail, shortcuts for speed are the rule, not the exception.Bartenders are expected to simply shoot the shit, make sure the guests don’t vomit on the floor and occasionally dispense life’s wisdom. We are not supposed to be skilled labor like Chuck Berry, Scorsese or the mechanic who can fix a ’68 Camaro.

Generally, people do not become bartenders because it’s a career goal. I jumped behind the stick because my writing habit demanded another source of income. I soon discovered I had a knack for the business. Thus, I learned how to make a cocktail properly, all about wine, how wine and food worked together etc. I had to go from step A: boozers to step B: Irish bars until I finally arrived at step Z: fine dining which meant getting off of my shift much earlier than 6am. I studied the wisdom of the bartending Talmud, found my teachers and learned my lessons.

Paul, on the other hand, found himself behind the stick at a fine dining joint in Boston because they needed a decently spoken good-looking kid behind the bar. He even won an award for a cocktail list he concocted for the Boston joint he worked before he came to New York. That these cocktails, like his Strawberry Basil Martini that I first had in a Lower East Side bar in 1997, followed Ecclesiastes 1:9 and were found in many restaurants up and down the East Coast mattered little. They appeared to be new therefore they were. This recognition was good for young Paul. It fed the very arrogance he was so proud of and made him somewhat interesting along with his a tremendous jones for Russian River Pinot Noir.

However, he shook his Manhattan’s.

As you know, I consider this a sin on par with vainglory, sloth and avarice. When you walk into a bar known for cocktails and Martini’s the expectation of proper service and cocktail creation is (rightly) at its peak. Semi-skilled labor should be found behind the stick at the Subway or Connelly’s not at the Park Avenue Café.

Apparently, the memo on making a proper Manhattan didn’t get to Orlando Rivera, the long tenured barman at the legendary Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel, either. He not only shakes his Manhattan’s but uses brandy as well. posted a video blog of Rivera making his version of this classic cocktail on February 25. I sent the clip to Tomas Garcia, my old partner behind the stick. He currently holds down the wood at Luke Restaurant in New Orleans and is quickly becoming the top barman in the whole of the Crescent City.

His reply: sigh.

Thus another sign of the decay in the fabric of American society has come to pass. I wonder if this means the Lions will win a Super Bowl before the year 2090.

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