The Meanest Old Bartender in Austin

by Gaz Regan · Saturday, April 14th, 2012 · Mindful Bartending

I read this piece Meanest ol’ bartender in Austin dead at 95, by John Kelso on Statesman.com in 1995, and I was struck by the following lines:

If you walked into the Dry Creek Cafe, you knew you’d get verbally whiplashed by Sarah, known affectionately as “the meanest bartender in Austin, Texas.” And she didn’t mind the reputation.

Still, Sarah was loved by many of the folks at the receiving end of one of her spoken-word canings.

How do they do it?  How come some bartenders can treat their customers like crap, and yet they are loved, they  make lots of cash, and their many regulars keep coming back for more and more and more.  I know for sure that I, personally, could never get away with it, and I know, too, that many bartenders do exactly that, and they thrive on it.

I’ve known lots of gruff bartenders in my time, and I’ve loved spending time in their bars, too.  Take Leo Dylewsky, for instance.

We got Leo the Chuckle T-Shirt as a joke.

You can see that he was highly amused, right?

Leo Dylewski was not a bartender.  He was a chef.  But he was one of those guys who would threaten you with physical violence in the most graphic terms, insult you, and the horse you rode in on, and yet everyone who ever met him just loved the man.  Leo might not have served drinks for a living, but he was the epitome of a gruff bartender who was, nonetheless, a very popular man in his own right.

These days I can get away with insulting people from time to time, but I’m 57 years old*, for God’s sake, and I learned how to do this successfully only in recent years.  When I was behind the stick in the seventies and eighties I tried to be nice to everyone cos it was the only way I could present myself successfully.  If I threw out an insult, I’d most likely have lost a customer.

When I saw the article about the meanest bartender in Austin, Texas, then, I was reminded of Leo, and I started to hark back to the days when he would play at being the toughest mo-fo in the bar–he was an ex-Navy Seal, too, so he knew how to handle himself if need be.  How did he pull it off? I wondered.  It wasn’t too long before the answer came to me.  Leo was gruff, but his intentions were always good.  He was never really mean-spirited.  The love behind his actions always shone through.

I’ve also known bartenders who were outwardly nice, but there was something about them that made me wary.  Devious sorts, I guess you’d call them.  And the intentions behind their actions shone through, too.  They never seemed to last long at any one job.

What I’m trying to get at, I guess, is that in order to be a true bartender, it’s important that your intentions are honorable, and that you’re true to your self.  I can insult people now because I have finally learned how to do it with love.  Had I tried it when I was younger I could never have pulled it off.  And all of the above is just some food for thought.  Something to chew on for a while.

Leo moved to Florida at some point, though I can’t remember exactly when, and I heard from him in the mid-1990s when he called to tell me he had terminal lung cancer.  “Nobody told me that smoking 40 cigarettes a day for twenty-odd years would do that to me,” he joked.  He’d had chemo, too, and he’d lost all his hair.  “I look like Uncle Fester,” he told me.  God bless you, Leo Dylewski.  I don’t plan on joining you for quite some time, but if you can keep that barstool next to you open, I’ll be happy to stand you a scotch on the rocks when I get there.  As long as you don’t threaten to stick a ball-point pen through my ear-drum, that is . . .

*this piece was written in 2009.

One Response to “The Meanest Old Bartender in Austin”

  1. Leo Dylewski 3rd says:

    I am the son of the person mentioned in the article.

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