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Encore: Author Brad Parsons on his book which explores closing time rituals at bars


The night before Thanksgiving is traditionally one of the busiest bar nights of the year. Imagine people three deep trying to catch the bartender's attention for a beer or something stronger. The people behind the bar are shaking, stirring, pouring. And finally, it's time - last call. The lights come up. The music goes down, and people head out the door. It's a time of ritual for bar staff, one that patrons rarely get to see. That ritual intrigued author Brad Thomas Parsons. So for his latest book, he traveled around the country to more than 80 bars, asking bartenders for their take on last call.

BRAD THOMAS PARSONS: And the answers were - surprisingly, they got a little existential and dark at points. And talking to people late at night about their customs and rituals at that kind of interesting post-shift closing time was quite an adventure for sure.

SHAPIRO: One thing he asked all of them - what their final drink would be.

PARSONS: I left it really open. Like, is it their death row drink? Is it their shift drink? Is that their best drink they ever made?

SHAPIRO: Shift drink meaning what they drink when they're done for the night, yeah?

PARSONS: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: He packages their answers along with drink recipes and photographs in his book, "Last Call: Bartenders On Their Final Drink And The Wisdom And Rituals Of Closing Time." We met Parsons at one of the Washington, D.C. bars that he features in the book.

Hey, I'm Ari.

CHAD SPANGLER: Hey, Ari - Chad. Nice to meet you.

SHAPIRO: Nice to meet you, Chad.

Chad Spangler is one of the owners of Service Bar, and he makes drinks here, too.

SPANGLER: This is my baby. I'm here every day.

SHAPIRO: This place has the laid-back feel of a neighborhood spot with the kind of cocktails that you might find in a much fancier place. It's just one room. On the side wall, an anime inspired mural of an octopus. The back wall is peppered with pages from a vintage book on entertaining.

We are here by daylight, but I want you to paint a picture for us of last call. What does it sound like?

SPANGLER: So we have DJs Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And so it can be pretty loud here typically all the way until the last call. We get exceptionally busy about an hour before we close. Once we get to last call, as sometimes a break from whatever loud, energetic music is playing, we play "Bedroom" by Litany a lot. It kind of slows it down.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's bring some of that in here.


LITANY: (Singing) I need to know now, are you going to come around?

SHAPIRO: The concept of last call is a little bit philosophical, and I think people can kind of wax poetic when they think about it. For you as a bartender who is here witnessing last call night after night after night, how do you relate to that idea?

SPANGLER: You go through this wild shift. Hopefully, it was really busy, and you've been stimulated for hours upon hours. And then once everyone's out the door, turn the music off, and it's just silent and relaxed. And I think it gives you kind of this sense of balance, of everything - that, like, whether it's, you know, behind the bar or just in life, like, yeah, you can have fun, but there's time where it needs to come to an end. And you need to get home, and then you can come back the next day and do it all over.

SHAPIRO: Well said.

I asked Chad to mix us his final drink. He chose a boozy iced tea made with whiskey that he infused with late summer peaches smoked over a mesquite wood grill.


SHAPIRO: I could smell that the minute you started pouring it into the glass. It's this sweet, smoky, slightly tangy - can I give this a try? It's really good.

SPANGLER: I'm glad you enjoy it.

SHAPIRO: I could just snuggle in with that for a long time, like six feet under.


SHAPIRO: Brad, how about we take these two beautiful drinks that Chad has made us and sit down and chat?

PARSONS: Sign me up.

SHAPIRO: So as somebody who has spent his life writing about and thinking about places where people drink, did writing this book illuminate the idea of last call for you in a different way?

PARSONS: It definitely did. You know, I found the sort of unintentional somberness that came out by just hanging out at bars at night and seeing that shift from busy, active floor to the bright lights on, and it's over. When you're at a bar and it suddenly closes, it's like being on a stage where the house lights come up. That bare bulb is on the stage. The music changes from crowd friendly to the bartenders' picks of what they're playing. You start seeing things a different way.

SHAPIRO: You visited more than 80 bars for this project, ranging from dives to fancy cocktail bars to hotel bars. And you heard about last call at all of them. If you were to average them all into one story of what happens at the end of the night, tell us that story.

PARSONS: So if I had to put them all into one, like, there would be a song played. It would likely be "Purple Rain"...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

PARSONS: ...Or "Bohemian Rhapsody." Those seem to be the two top picks.


PRINCE: (Singing) I never meant to cause you any sorrow.

PARSONS: At the end of the night, the staff gets to have their drink, and there would be a shot of some sort.


PRINCE: (Singing) I never meant to cause you any pain.

PARSONS: And then, you know, like, bartenders there for several hours afterwards...


PARSONS: ...Cleaning up, counting the money, getting ready for the next shift. But they're also about hospitality, and sometimes it's about letting that person hang out the bar a little later.


PRINCE: (Singing) Purple rain, purple rain, purple rain...

SHAPIRO: One thing that seems true of anybody who is at the bar for last call, at least on the customer side of the bar, is that they're not having their first drink of the night. It seems like a moment when things are hazy. There's a kind of - mystery might not be the word. Romance might not be the word, but something along those lines in that moment.

PARSONS: No, it's - and the spark of this book was me having my first, like, unintentional last call, not realizing. It was a night out with friends at one of my favorite Brooklyn restaurant bars, and they were all coupled up and went home in their respective Ubers. And I was still at the bar, kind of feeling a little sorry for myself, having a whiskey and then having an amaro. And I said, you know, I should let you guys close up. And they were like, Brad, we closed two hours ago. And it's a kind of realizing, like...

SHAPIRO: Wow. Were they sticking around for you?

PARSONS: They were - yeah. They were staying for me. But I didn't realize, hey, the door had been locked. The lights are up. You know, The Rolling Stones had changed to Tom Waits suddenly and all of it so suddenly, that flash of, wow.

SHAPIRO: Was it a sense of, yes, I did it or was it was a sense of, I should reevaluate my life choices or somewhere in the middle?

PARSONS: The latter.

SHAPIRO: OK (laughter).

PARSONS: It was the latter. I mean, I did get a book deal out of it, but I think it was...

SHAPIRO: Oh, it was not too bad.

PARSONS: No, I mean - but it's literally staring yourself in a mirror late at night and seeing that reflection of yourself. And you're like - not, what have I done with my life? But sort of, you know, maybe it's time to go home.

SHAPIRO: So, Brad Parsons, I've read all of these bartenders from all over the country describing what their last drink would be. What would yours be?

PARSONS: You know, I tend to not quite plead the fifth, but I...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

PARSONS: ...Hem and haw on this one a little bit, and I hope you'll...

SHAPIRO: It's like someone asking me which presidential candidate I support (laughter).

PARSONS: Maybe. I think, you know, like many bartenders at the end of their shift, you just want something cold, crisp, clean. And that's usually for me, a cold beer. And I kind of get a little sentimental when I think about my father, and I think it would have to be, like, his favorite beer, a bottle of Miller Lite. And if it was indeed, like, my last call - as in, it's over - I would hope he would be the other side clinking my bottle with me.

SHAPIRO: Brad Parsons, cheers.

PARSONS: Cheers.


SEMISONIC: (Singing) Closing time, open all the doors and let you out into the world.

SHAPIRO: He wrote the book, "Last Call." To Chad Spangler and the Service Bar team, good luck tonight. And to everyone on the other side of the bar, get home safe.


SEMISONIC: (Singing) I know who I want to take me home. I know who I want to take me home. I know who I want to take me home... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.