There are a few benefits to being the longest-running bartender in the city.
– You get to witness chance encounters and long-held traditions: new friends meeting from around the world, or a 45th annual commemoration of your high school’s provincial basketball victory when a group of 62-year-old dudes join you for a beer;
– You get to go out of the house and socialize four nights a week and return home at any hour you so please while your wife pays no mind;
– “You might get waived to the front of the Burger King lineup,” says Gerry Laing, who, for 45 years, has been clad in overalls at his post behind the Big Bad John’s bar. Just how do those benefits leave the vet of the service industry feeling?
“Feels like you get your cheeseburger sooner than everyone else,” Laing says plainly.
His journey at the Strathcona Hotel actually started several years prior to his debut at BBJ’s – which has been Victoria’s hillbilly bar of choice since its inception in 1962 while the World’s Fair was in Seattle. Laing began serving officially in 1968, as a bus boy in the banquet room for $1.25 an hour. He remembers selling Lucky for 55 cents a bottle on his first shift and he was always quite happy to go about his job with a lit candle on his head. Yes, a fire on his head.
“They weren’t real thick candles, so I’d need about three a night. People will (still) come in and say: ‘Is this the place where the guy wears a candle?’
“Sorta breaks me up like: ‘Yeah, this is it, but I don’t have one anymore – (it was just) a couple of years in the late-70s.”
He watched a bra left as collateral for an $11 tab in ‘89, turn into a beloved exhibitionist trend and a man named Harris from Terrace affix the first dollar bill to the wall, back when dollar bills were actually in circulation. The man’s been witness to the evolution of music delivery through the country music he dials up, from records in ‘72, to eight tracks until ‘77 when someone stole them, to cassettes until 2002, when digital tunes took over.
All the while, Laing’s taken requests – but he doesn’t play them, he says.
“For most people, bartending’s a job between jobs, but I never had a job before this and I’ll probably never have one after this. … Most bartenders are a lot better than me, but my thing is that I have the gift of gab. The trick to bartending isn’t selling one drink, it’s selling two drinks.”
An error Laing has seen his fellow drink slingers commit over the years: they don’t talk to people who aren’t their friends. It’s wise advice, but almost unfair in that Laing has made so many connections through the job over the years. Forming friendships with customers, many of whom are scattered around the world, was inevitable. They remember to pop by Big Bad’s for a drink from Laing on each Victoria visit.
“It’s like I’m sort of out with everybody,” he says, “but I’m not drinking.”
That will all change soon enough. Laing has big plans slated for July – the month when Big Bad John’s turns 53 and he hits 65.
“I’m going to finish my shift and have a drink,” he says. “A Kokanee.”
And as for life after retirement: “Things will be OK. I guess I could still be there on Saturdays.”