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She never should have mentioned the blow job, I'm thinking as I feign interest in the bartender's love life. Her nervous banter continues. This cop she's met--"the kind of man you want to give a blow job"--should be here any minute. It's after midnight; his workday just ended. The bartender can't stop moving. As she leans over the bar to talk to me, her fingers peck around in a basket of popcorn, her jaw snaps up and down vigorously while she chews kernels, her eyes periodically shift to the front door. She exudes a familiar anxiety, and for a brief moment I feel something for her. I too have experienced that queasy excitement of anticipating a new lover's arrival. I raise my eyebrows, smile gently, and make eye contact with this stranger in an attempt to show empathy. It's the only honest part of our exchange.

I'm here at this near-west-side bar with the intent to deceive her. If I don't, I can't do my job. But as she unleashes whatever's on her mind without restraint or solicitation, I realize that my deception is working and that it's easy to pretend my agenda is something it is not, something that on other days in other bars it often is. She thinks I'm out to have a few drinks and a good time. She has no way of knowing the truth.

The guy who hired me must have been right when he said that I don't look like a spotter. This makes me a prime candidate to be a spotter, which is actually a euphemism for spy. Spotters, he believes, look like retired cops. Whatever stereotypical image he may hold about cops--some of whom may very well be five-two, 105 pounds--it's indisputable that I'm 40 years younger than a retiree and don't possess a law-and-order disposition. Nonetheless, now that we're out on a training session, I feel like both a spy and a cop--not one bit like the nonfiction writer who he promised in his help-wanted ad would earn $8 an hour.

My duties sound simple. I spend a few hours in an assigned nightclub or bar, use company money to purchase drinks, observe the employees and, the next day, write a report about my evening. My boss turns the report over to the club's manager or owner--whoever has hired him. The report shows how employees conduct themselves in the absence of supervisors.

As a spotter, I'm supposed to monitor the employees' business and personal transactions. The litany of things I'm supposed to report on ranges from the general to the specific, the obvious to the nitpicky. I am guided by a 99-item checklist that includes the employees' accessibility and personality and whether or not they overpour liquor, charge customers correctly, garnish drinks properly, set out coasters or napkins, thank customers, count back change, or steal from the register.

So my job is to watch the bartender do her job, and after an hour and a half it's clear that she's doing a lousy job. Each time she digs her grave deeper, I turn to my boss, who's pretending to be my friend, and give him a smile or look that enthusiastically communicates, "I caught that! I'm doing a good job."

So far she's tossed a full bottle of liquor into the air before pouring a mixed drink, thrown empty bottles into the trash from a distance almost the length of the bar, and left the cash drawer open between transactions. Within customer earshot she's said "shit" three times loudly, mentioned that she drank eight beers earlier in the evening, and talked about a "booger hanging out of her nose." And now she's discussing her libido.

I'm glad we've started talking. It makes me less worried about blowing my cover when I crane my neck to watch her serve, or sit up a little taller on my barstool to see the cash register.

I sip my third beer of the night--which, whoops, she's given me free of charge--and ask, "How did you meet this guy?"

"In a beauty parlor," she says. "He walked in." And then she confides, "I could have screwed him right there." She's unaware that her answer fills me with conflicted excitement. Part of me is eager to see how far she'll go, how much more she'll incriminate herself. I pride myself on catching each faux pas. It means I'm observant; it means I'm cunning; it means I can act; it means I am doing a good job. But part of me is sickened that I've gained her trust under false pretenses. As a customer I would be happy with her attentive service and appreciative of the free drink. I would consider her a capable bartender, maybe even a good one. But I'm not a customer tonight, I'm a spotter, a spy, a cop, a liar by omission. If I don't catch her slipups, I'm slipping up.

I push these thoughts out of my mind and concentrate instead on getting off the bar stool without tipping it over. I excuse myself and make my way into a rest room stall, where I furtively scribble notes on a pad of paper.

The notes will trigger my memory tomorrow when I awake late in the morning, hung over, wracking my brain to recall the bartender's blunders. My notepad begins with specific observations: "Arrived 10:24 p.m./plastic promotional banners on building--message lost in wrinkles/Employee #1: Hi, $6 cover/paid with $10 bill/added to wad in hand/received $4 change/thanked/ Within seconds empl. #2 offered drinks and compliments/water/10:40 p.m.ordered beer/Empl.#3 announced charge/beer on coaster/recorded $3.50/paid with four ones/thanked/returned .50."

As the night wears on my notes become less detailed. There are fewer places where I've marked the time, fewer words to jog my memory. I'll be stuck relying on two-word cues: "dancing together" and "holy shit" and "spilled beer" and "gave up." Some notes are indecipherable; they look more like a seismographic chart than English words. What the hell is "pgm" or is it "pmy" or "pejmi"? And what is "grermmmmminy"?

Back at the bar I ask the bartender if the man she's lusting after has shown up. He hasn't. "Between my nerves and all the popcorn," she says, "I think I'm gonna barf."

My boss and I finish our drinks. The bartender has not yet barfed. The man has not yet shown up. We agree to leave. I forget to check the time. I forget to check if the bar area is clean. I forget to take a mental photo of what the bartender is doing as we exit. I'm drunk and I just want to go to sleep. Outside, I joke with my boss about adding to the checklist, "Does bartender talk about blow jobs?" He asks if I noticed when she gave away pitchers of beer and rounds of drinks to other customers. I didn't. He asks if I noticed when she repeatedly overcharged rounds by 50 cents. I didn't. For the second time tonight I feel something for her. We both blew it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Barreras.

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