Behind the Bar

A look at the mothers, writers and musicians who pour Tucson's tastiest drinks

The Surly One

Photographer Yoohyun Jung and I are waiting outside of the Surly Wench Pub at 9:54 p.m., Friday, June 20. I'm wearing a purple-striped tie from Target that only an ex-girlfriend would love. I regretted strapping on this fashionable noose around my neck while standing in the smog coming from a group of tattooed smokers outside in the 90-degree heat.

We finally enter the barely illuminated pub. There's a doorman menacingly smiling from ear to ear waiting to take my money. He doesn't bother asking for my driver's license because I'm at that point in my life. The doorman lets me pass, but not without marking me with an upside red cross stamped on the inside of my right wrist. The walls are dark as ink. It's like a Hall of Fame for saucy ladies like Joan Jett and Elvira. There's a giant velvet painting of a unicorn fighting a shark hanging on the wall by former Wench employee, Jason Decker.

I wander off to the bar to meet the Surly crew, but my attention was quickly stolen from the stage at the far end of the bar. Wench co-owner Stephka Von Snatch takes the stage and addresses the hundred-or-so fanatic females eagerly waiting for some hunky, manlesque debauchery. Snatch demanded that the audience behave themselves and refrain from throwing loose change. All of a sudden, Oliva Newton-John's 1981 hit "Physical" plays and the first "Manly Manlesque" performer, Patch, rushes the stage dressed as if Richard Simmons were a metal head. He dances across the stage stripping one item of clothing at a time until he's down to his skivvies.

After watching five dancers flashing their back-hair and man-taints, including the crowd going wild for a roller-skating appearance by "Balls Bunyan," I needed another whiskey and ginger ale. But approaching the bar, it's busier than a three-legged cat in a litter box.

This is a typical Friday night for bar manager, Megan O'Brien.

She has short, bleached blond hair and a devious smile that Dennis the Menace gives Mr. Wilson when he did something only he and the reader knew about.

I can see both of her tanned arms are covered with tattoos exposed by the black tank-top she's wearing. I asked "Which one is your favorite?" O'Brien stops to think, but replies without saying a word. She lifts up her arm and revealing a long brown bookworm wearing a graduation cap and red bow tie. There's a black untitled book covering the top part of its blue underbelly.

O'Brien was born in Georgetown, Colorado, growing up in the tiny ski town buried in the mountains a couple hours west of Denver. In 1999, O'Brien joined a group of friends and drove down to the Old Pueblo and never left. "I was looking for a change of weather," she said quietly. The 38-year-old has been employed with the Wench since day one, celebrating a 15-year anniversary with the pub recently.

"I'm really thankful the Wench has a solid group of local, older customers," O'Brien said. "We don't get a ton of college kids. Thankfully, we don't slow down too bad in the summer.

"It's not really a party bar. We have video games, air hockey, a pool table and darts. We try to be an everybody bar. We really just try to make a place that's comfortable for people," she said.

The Surly Wench has had its moments. "We have had multiple people propose (at the bar)," O'Brien said. "One time we had a crazy woman with a gun run in here once. She was mad because her boyfriend was there with another woman, so, she decided to come down and handle it ... Luckily, we had a friend that was undercover cop that happened to be there, and saw it all transpire."

While O'Brien also used to make ends meet as a barista, she became the bar's manager five years ago. "It allowed me to stop working two jobs. I was pulling late nights and early mornings at the Safehouse. I still don't really sleep much," O'Brien said.

When O'Brien isn't slinging whiskey and cokes, she reads and writes during her free time with a love for Neil Gaiman and comic books. "I read a lot of Archie comics growing up," O'Brien said. She writes poems and short stories and is working on a memoir and a couple of collections of poetry.

O'Brien doesn't plan on bartending forever, but she won't be done anytime soon. Watch out for the story of her life, coming to bookstores near you. "I'm working on it," she said.

The Veteran

I walked from my house in the historic Iron Horse Neighborhood to Ahead of Style, a salon located at 426 E. Ninth St. I'm three minutes early for my meeting with one its hair stylists, Barb Trujillo. Normally, she would be greeting me in the club bar at Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St. She was standing near the doorway waiting for my arrival. Her smile is outlined with fire-hydrant red lipstick that goes with her red The Underestimated City baseball cap. Trujillo is Tucson born and bred.

"Come in. I'll show you around," she said.

We walk into her office/hair cutting station. The wall on the west side of the room has her certification framed, a picture of a cocktail, and action shots of Trujillo in her roller derby gear and in a Mrs. Santa outfit. But all these images surround a large portrait of a handsome young man: her son, Parker.

Trujillo is a hair stylist by day and has been for the last 20 years. Originally, she went to college at Phoenix College on an athletic scholarship for her softball skills. "I played for many years. When I was 15, I played ball with women in their 30s," Trujillo said.

"I didn't know exactly what direction I was going while attending college, but I knew I didn't have a future in softball. I left after a year and went to school for hair."

Trujillo's first bar job was as a shot girl at the Atomic Café in Phoenix. Upon her 1996 return to Tucson, she was able to get a job with Zia Records before beginning her long-time career at Club Congress, somewhat by coercion.

"I went to Congress and spoke to the bar manager at the time, Alex Skelton. Alex asked me 'Why should I hire you?' I responded with 'Because I'll make you money and I'll make me money.' He answered 'You start on Thursday.'"

Trujillo has been slinging drinks at Hotel Congress ever since.

"The bar is like the stage, the customer is the rock star and I am their roadie," Trujillo said. "Some people don't get out that much, so I try to facilitate a good time. I like to see people have fun," she said.

Congress also serves a destination for celebrities, even beyond the bands that come through several nights a week. "Vince Vaughn comes in a lot. Justin Long is really nice, and I think I gave him one of my roller derby pens. Courtney Love was here recently. I don't really notice them until it's too late," Trujilo said. "I think they come because ... people are pretty laid back."

Trujillo is one of the few female members of the local branch of the United States Bartending Guild. "They help us stay excited with what's in the bar scene, and helps keep us up to date on what's coming. The veteran mixologist's favorite drink is the "Green Tea," made up of Jameson, peach schnapps, fresh lime juice and simple syrup.

Besides cutting thousands of heads of hair and serving countless Congress customers, Trujillo is also a mainstay of Tucson roller derby history, participating in the city's first team following the sport's revival. She was very reluctant to play, but Tucson Roller Derby founder Kim Kysar's argument was, "Look you already have your name: Barbicide ... It was Kim Kysar's fault. Damn you, Kim," she laughs. Trujillo first joined the Furious Truckstop Waitresses and then Vice Squad, before recently retiring after 10 years of action. "It was like someone died," she confessed.

"I retired because I did it for so many years. I knew (Parker) would make an elite baseball team in Phoenix," she said. "I couldn't be the (derby) co-captain and go to Phoenix for my son every week," Trujillo said. Now the retired derby star can spend more time with her son and mother, Mary. "I live with my mom and son. Now, I'm here when Parker gets home from school. He told me recently, 'It's nice to have you home, Mom.' I knew then that I made the right decision," she said.

The Up-and-Comers

Downtown, at least the area within a block or so of Congress, has emerged as a destination, not just for dining, but also for cocktail aficionados creating a breeding ground for mixologists. Largely kicking off that trend was the side-by-side establishments 47 Scott and Scott and Co., where manager Marlee Palmer and bartender Mandi Lynn currently create cocktails.

They are both 24 years old and studied under the 47 Scott bartending program whose graduates wear aprons behind many downtown bars.

Lynn and Palmer composed the latest brunch cocktail menu. "We talked about what we liked, what we have had before, what we wanted to use and started making things. Marlee is the messy mad scientist, and I have to follow recipes," Lynn said. "She's not afraid to try things, and I'm afraid of failing."

Palmer is from Telluride, Colorado, population: 2,303. "My high school graduating class was all but 40 kids," Palmer said. After a brief stay at the University of Puget Sound, Palmer took a big geographic leap moving to Nepal for six months. "I was working with families and helping them live sustainably. I was mostly grant writing, working with schools and doing home visits with poor children. They were living in mud huts that had no electricity."

Back in the states, after a stint managing Time Market, Palmer started working for 47 Scott, starting out as a hostess, but found herself promoted to manager after a week. "After six months, I told the management I was interested in bartending and studying cocktails."

Lynn is an Army brat born in Prescott, then moving all around the United States with her sisters. A former pizzamaker at Brooklyn Pizza, Lynn would rather be referred as a bartender than necessarily associate herself with the mixologist scene. "I kind of hate the word; I think there's a lot of pretension behind (it)," Lynn said. "A lot of friends work as bartenders in different restaurants and I think they would all say the same thing."

Lynn works five nights a week. I asked her if she notices the regulars. "Everyone is in control of themselves. Who am I to tell people what they can and can't do? We're here to make people happy.

"It's exciting to show people things they didn't know existed before," Lynn said.

Palmer encourages drinkers that aren't familiar with the mixology movement to come in and pick the brains of those behind the bar. "Come and sit at the bar and talk to the bartenders. If you tell them what you usually drink, flavors you don't like and explain what you're allergic to, they will make you something, tell you the story behind the drink and give you the history of mixology in seven minutes."

The Plush-Catchers

It's Sunday, lunch time and hotter than two rats making love in a wool sock. I take my scooter down to the corner of Sixth Street and Fourth Avenue to visit the one story burgundy building with the giant windows on the corner. There's a banner of red and black birds sipping out of a martini glass crudely draped over the four circles that used to read PLUSH.

I walk in and no one is in the bar except for Shannon Hebert, who asks, "What are you having, bub?" She runs back and forth through the bar, and we talk about her wedding that took place in May, and how her son Dylan is doing. She misses him dearly and plans traveling to Portland to see him sooner or later.

Hebert places a Bloody Mary—topped off with a slice of bacon and a pickle slice peeking out of the top—in front of me, and I never wanted a drink so bad.

In a previous life, Hebert was an administrative assistant at the UA. "I have more credits than I'd need for a Master's degree, but I couldn't figure out what I wanted to do," she said.

Asked why she would leave a seemingly stable and safe career, she answered "That's exactly why I quit. I started working at Safehouse after leaving the university. I got these birds tattooed on my hand very specifically because I didn't want to take jobs —what I considered for me—based on fear," she said. "I always wanted to make myself available to make art."

"It would have been hard to get a day job with these tattoos on my hands. The birds are born, they hang out in the nest by the ocean with their mom. Without a whole lot of warning, their mom would push them out of the nest, so they would have to fly or crash in the ocean," she said. "I know it sounds like a whole lot of BS, but that's what I was thinking when I got (the tattoos)."

Hebert worked for Safehouse for 10 years before she started at (Flycatcher predecessor) Plush. "It was a real easy jump from barista to the bartender," Hebert said. Generally, there's more money serving liquor than coffee. I started working at Café Passe, and I was serving coffee and beer there. I can't seem to shake that part of my trip," she said.

Hebert plans on fleeing the country, running away to be free. She won't even tell me where she's thinking of going. "I want to have a whole slew of different, new experiences that have nothing to do with the ones I have already had," she said.

Sara Louise Mohr, 40, is the middle child of three girls. Mohr was born in Jamestown, North Dakota, grew up in Colorado Springs, but calls herself a Tucson native. "I'm a desert rat," she confesses, graduating first from Sabino High School, then the UA.

"Music is very important to me," Mohr said. For the last 10 years, she has been teaching private music lessons. "When I was eight, I really liked ragtime—honky tonk saloon music—I was teaching myself Scott Joplin," she said. "My absolute favorite composer is Rachmaninoff."

"By the time I got to my high school, they cut all the music programs. So, I was pretty much on my own," Mohr said.

Mohr performs with the UA Community Chorus, but also embraces a more rock-oriented side of her personality as the lead singer/keyboardist for the band, Sorry About The Garden. The other band members include Ian Williams on bass, and her boyfriend, Kevin William Lee, on drums. "We enjoy playing and writing music together. I know we all look forward to the practices," she said.

Mohr started her bartending career 20 years ago at East Speedway's The Cage, currently known as Club XS. "I was in school and I needed some money, she said. "I started out as a bar-back, and they noticed I had a strong work ethic. I have to thank my mother and father for that. I watched them work really hard growing up. You get what you work for."

Mohr was hired immediately prior to Plush's opening 13 years ago. "I applied for a job after Café Sweetwater closed. I finally got a call, was hired on the spot. I helped paint the walls, build the furniture and opened three days later," Mohr said.

Certainly, Mohr will serve you the beer of your choice, but you'd be remiss to not order her Tucson Weekly Best of Tucson® winning cocktail, the Sexy Blue Jesus, flavored with coconut rum and tinted by Blue Curaçao. "There was a collection of coffee mugs the staff used to use. There was a white mug, and it looked like someone had been drawing on it. The image was a reclining blue, nude woman. But it looked like Jesus. Someone wrote on the mug Sexy Jesus. A friend asked me to make him a tropical cocktail. He asked me what it was called so I named it the Sexy Blue Jesus."

"I never planned on it being in it for this long in the beginning, but because it's so much fun," Mohr said. "Bartending gets in your blood, and that's why no one ever quits."

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