You know him as Parks. Everybody does. After tending bar for almost 20 years, David Parks could be the best-known bartender in Memphis. In a city where the shelf life for bartenders is usually short, Parks is the regular's regular.
But according to him, he had a tough time getting started.
"It's difficult to get into the business here, because Memphis is very cliquish when it comes to bar jobs," he says. "You'd have to sleep with someone's evil stepmother or agree to give somebody 10 percent of your income for the next year to get hired."
When Parks first arrived in Memphis by way of Jackson, Mississippi, he was young, cocky, and already bar-savvy.
"I had probably more experience than a lot of the general managers who interviewed me, which isn't good when you're the new kid on the block," Parks says.
It took him two years and a polygraph test (which he didn't exactly pass) before he finally got hired as the bar manager for Alfred's on Beale Street. Parks worked at Alfred's only a few months, but that's all it took to get him in the loop. Now his résumé reads like a laundry list of local hot spots -- Wellington's, Bistro Hemmings, Maxwell's, Mélange, the Beauty Shop. His next stop will be the bar at The Inn at the Hunt-Phelan Home, scheduled to open this month.
He began his career essentially by accident. He was 16 years old, trying to make some money working at a gas station, a tire store, and a grocery store. A friend asked him to fill in as a bar-back -- "the kid who does all the grunt work, hauls the beer and ice, restocks, and cleans the bar," Parks explains -- at a redneck biker bar in Jackson. His first night there, he made more money than he did during a week of working his three jobs.
He went on to the well-known Jackson restaurant George Street Grocery, where he learned the ropes from a Yugoslavian bartender in his mid-60s. "I just knew him as Cotton. His name had at least eight syllables, and nobody could pronounce it," Parks remembers. "Cotton would quiz me on mixed drinks. Out of the blue he'd ask me to name the ingredients of a Bloody Mary or a Mojito, and if I didn't know them, he made me give him a dollar."
Twenty years in any business is a long time, but it's an eternity in bartending. It's a job in which it's not unusual for your boss to accuse you of stealing, your customers to accuse you of being stingy with the booze, and your wife or husband to accuse you of cheating.
Parks' secret to longevity? He and his wife of 17 years have three children who provide regular reality checks.
He also happens to be very good at his job. He is nice but doesn't overdo it. He knows his customers but doesn't favor the big shots. Plus, he can mix a martini that will make even your evil stepmother look good.
Most importantly, Parks takes the job seriously. "Slinging whiskey and making a mixed drink are two different things. It's like being a great chef. When somebody walks into the bar and says, 'I kind of feel like mango,' a good bartender will mix a good drink."
Shaken or Stirred?
Five elements of the Memphis drinker.
How does Memphis drink? We asked bartender David Parks, who has picked up a thing or two about Memphis drinkers. Here are five:
1. Memphians are becoming more sophisticated drinkers.
Beer, mixed drinks, and straight-up hard liquor are slowly feeling the threat of Sidecars and Manhattans.
2. Wine is more popular than ever.
When it comes to wine, a lot of people are still experimenting, so what they're looking for is good taste for a good price.
3. Memphians don't necessarily get wasted when they're out drinking.
The "waste" factor depends on where the drinking is done.
Lounge: Drinking with a purpose -- to be seen or to break the ice before a dinner meeting. The "waste" factor: low to moderate.
Restaurant: It's all in the pacing and the tolerance. A drink at the bar before dinner, some wine during the meal, maybe another with a cigarette after dinner, can you handle it? The "waste" factor: low to moderate.
Nightclub: The conveyer belt of drinking. Purpose is to get drunk efficiently. The bartender might rarely see the face of his customers, just a subtle hand gesture to indicate that it's time for another -- and make it fast. The "waste" factor: high to extremely high.
4. Memphians don't talk any more than anybody else.
The rule: Anyone who lingers around the bar has something to say -- no matter where they're from. What gets said is another story.
5. Memphis' bar crowd is very disloyal.
Booze tastes essentially the same at every watering hole, so what's the difference, really, between Bar A and Bar B? Memphians tend to leave the old watering hole behind as soon as the new place opens. It's nothing personal. -- SW