BEST OF NYC™
Best Bartender: Mary Jo CamellToe
A bar without a tender is like a spaceship to heaven without a pilot—it just sits there. And naturally, you don’t want just any bartender; it’s best to have one who’s as adept with the looks and personality as he or she is with the bottles. That’s where Mary Jo CamellToe, a tender-bender at Williamsburg’s performance-art club Sugarland (221 North 9th Street, Brooklyn, 718-599-4044, sugarlandnightclub.com) comes in.
The twentysomething “female to female” from Boston dresses up for her duties, contributing to the club’s boho ambiance while exuding a professionalism that guarantees happy customers and lots of tips. In an intoxicating interview, Mary Jo told me she went from food service when she was in college in Ohio to learning about fine wines and high-class dining while working at Danny Brown Wine Bar & Kitchen in Queens. She also served me a double shot of insight on the rocks to prove why she’s the best with the booze.
Hi, Mary Jo. What’s the Sugarland crowd like?
It’s mostly gay boys, and there’s a lot of drag shows and that kind of world. It also ends up having a good straight crowd of people following the performances. It’s very Brooklyn.
Who are the better customers, gays or straights?
Gay men are just my favorite people and customers, and the people I’m most used to dealing with. But lesbians are not the best customers. There are a lot of reasons, and I probably shouldn’t say any of them. You could get me in trouble. Historically, they’re not the best tippers, and they can be demanding.
Are you a lesbian?
I don’t classify myself. I’m queer.
Is it refreshing to work in a place where you won’t get hit on because there are so many gay men?
Who says I’m not gonna get hit on by gay men? To be honest, it’s nice. When I worked at straight bars, it could get a little creepy, but I dress in drag a lot, and I’m androgynous looking, so I do get hit on by men who classify themselves as gay. I’m a biological female, but I dress in traditional male-to-female drag. I call myself an F-to-F. I wear a lot of stage makeup and wigs and glitter. It’s a cross between drag and club kid, though I’m not much of a club kid.
So you look like a man in drag, even though you’re a woman in drag?
Yes. I’m on the queer side myself, and I’m androgynous looking, and I could be a man, so people feel safe. They feel if they want to branch out, I’m the safest way to go. The same with straight girls in their experimenting phase.
How did you learn how to mix specific drinks?
Once I started at Sugarland, I learned how to make all the girly drinks and the more popular shots. And on a Saturday night, people aren’t really asking for crazy shots. They just want something fast.
No one asks for a Pink Squirrel?
No. If they do, I just say: “I don’t know what’s in that. I can give you a shot of Jäger.”
What’s the worst thing about a customer?
The sense of entitlement that some people come into an establishment with. They expect something, and if they don’t get it, they cause a fit. Sugarland is a late-night bar. People come in and get angry drunk. I have no tolerance for that. I’ve worked coat check, so people are insane there, or they get mad that a DJ can’t play a request. There’s 500 people here, and he’s trying to do his job! Partying should be fun—it’s not about you getting to hear your favorite song.
Is there any trepidation on behalf of a bar with gay males hiring a female (even though you’re a drag queen)?
No, it’s the Brooklyn thing. And on Saturday, we do have shirtless male bartenders, too, so they do get to look at that. But if I were to go into Splash Bar [in Manhattan] and say: “Hey, I’m the Glammy-winning bartender. Hire me,” they’d say, “Go fuck yourself.” I don’t know how long it’ll last, though. Williamsburg is changing really fast.
Sugarland was on an abandoned block. That’s how it got its folklore. It was a taste of Old New York, and you could do anything, and nobody said anything. But they put condos next to it, and now we have neighbors who want to complain about things. But we keep doing our thing. We were there first.
Maybe Williamsburg will eventually become the new Times Square.
Oh, my God. I hope not. But Sugarland was completely empty on all sides, and now there’s three buildings that have gone up. You’re watching the development and gentrification of that neighborhood.
Do the neighbors complain about noise?
Some. And we’re working as a community to fix it. We don’t want to anger our neighbors. Eventually, people moving in is good for the neighborhood, but at the same time, we have to be able to bring you music and have people there.
How has your family responded to your work? My family is incredible.
They’re very supportive people. My dad’s hairdresser growing up was a transsexual man, and my dad was heavily in the gay world, and my mom was a ballerina. I have really open parents.
But how open are you? Would you ever venture into the dreaded world of bottle service?
I’ve done it, and it was awful. I know how much money they make. I get it, but I just don’t think I can do it.
You feel like a whore?
I do. And I don’t like to work in straight bars for that reason. Much as I joke that people hit on me at Sugarland, it’s not like a meat market thing. We don’t allow bottle service at Sugarland.
What do you hope to get out of all this?
I’m an artist, and I perform, and bartending has been an amazing platform. I also work at Metropolitan in Williamsburg, which is also a gay bar. My customers have definitely become supporters of my art and vice versa. I’ve met a lot of people I’ve collaborated with—you talk to them and end up doing a silly video or recording a song. That’s what I mostly get out of it—and it pays the rent.
Your advice to a bartender starting out?
They definitely need to drink water. That’s the first thing. And don’t forget it’s a job. It’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint, and your body can only take so much. You’re working nights, and you’ve got to eat right and not forget!
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