Bar Behavior: A Chat with Leanne Shear and Tracey Toomey
by Christine Forte
As co-authors of a novel about a bartender, it’s fitting that Leanne Shear and Tracey Toomey met while bartending at Onieal’s Grand Street. In a recent telephone chat with PopMatters, they describe inception of the idea for a novel, the beginning of their friendship, and their plans for the future.
According to Shear and Toomey, their strong friendship was forged behind the bar at Onieal’s and now, four years later, a literary partnership has been cemented as well with the publication of their first novel, The Perfect Manhattan. Legend has it, this adventure began one night a couple of years ago when they were closing up Onieal’s, and began to joke about how they had enough material to write a book. From there the brainchild took shape, despite the fact that neither had previously aspired to write a novel.
Shear describes Onieal’s Grand Street, located in Manhattan, as a nice middle ground between a trendy hot spot and a small bar/restaurant. It bears resemblance to Finton’s, the main workplace of the protagonist Cassie in The Perfect Manhattan, she said, while Spark, the protagonist’s Hamptons place of employment, is more of an amalgamation of many places that they’ve worked.
For readers who are curious about how closely the novel is connected to reality, Shear and Toomey laughingly divulge that “there was so much exaggeration.” But at the same time, Toomey added, “The Hamptons is kind of a crazy place. At the end of the day, [The Perfect Manhattan] is a pretty accurate description of life [there].”
After a brief stint in Corporate America following her graduation from college, Shear quit her job in order to begin doing some freelance writing. Around the same time, she began bartending at Onieal’s, where she met Toomey, who had studied acting at Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, and had just completed her contract acting on All My Children.
Toomey’s acting experience came in handy when writing the dialogue and balanced out with Shear’s familiarity with writing long political science missives. Shear has also done freelance work for New York magazine, In Touch, and Us Weekly, among others. Since completing their novel, the two frequently pair up for freelance writing assignments. At the end of July, they covered the classic Hamptons event: the opening of Bridgehampton polo, which Cassie also attends in The Perfect Manhattan.
When creating the main character, Cassie, the two initially sought to find a middle ground between them. For example, since Shear is from Buffalo and Toomey is from Long Island, they decided that Albany was a good halfway point of origin. But then Cassie ended up taking on a life of her own. “It was so much fun,” Toomey said, “Sometimes we would talk to her while we were writing, trying to tell her what to do. She was like another friend to us.”
Shear’s political science background shines through in this novel when relating class distinctions and characteristics in the books. Shear commented, “One of the main things we wanted to get across right from the get-go were the [social] class issues evident in New York and especially the Hamptons.”
“There is an aristocracy that is alive and well,” adds Toomey. “Its easy to fall into the acquisitive trap.” The pair spoke half-jokingly about a discussion they’d had with friends about designer clothes the night before, after which they all swore off the brand names for their wastefulness.
I commented on their insightfulness at examining their purchasing behaviors. Toomey explained how it was tempting, after a particularly hard night in which she had received a lot of tips, to go buy something expensive, like a Louis Vuitton bag, because after working so hard she would feel like she deserved it. “But then, later in the month when you can’t pay the rent and you see the bag in the closet, you just want to throw it out the window,” she continued.
“Eventually, you have to look at what you’re doing,” added Shear, “Because the money runs out.
“But its so hard, because you want to fit in,” said Toomey, “The wealth is very seductive.”
When I complimented the two on their stellar ending to the novel, they agreed that one frustration they’ve had with other “chick lit” offerings is that sometimes things wrap up too neatly for most of the characters. They wanted their novel to provide a different type of ending for readers to consider, because they felt that was a better reflection of most people’s realities.
They are already working on a sequel, which will describe Cassie’s continued personal growth, just as they continue to grow in their own lives. “You can tell a really great story through the lens of a bartender,” said Toomey.
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A Good Tip
For anyone interested in getting a behind the scenes look at bar life in New York or the Hamptons, The Perfect Manhattan by Leanne Shear and Tracey Toomey is the book to read. Drawing from their own experiences as Manhattan bartenders, the pair describe the journey of one Cassie Ellis into the depths of the bar world.
The novel begins with Cassie’s graduation from Columbia and subsequent confusion at what to do when she finds herself unemployable as a writer. She has no health insurance and is waist deep in debt. No doubt many readers, not excluding yours truly, will be able to relate to her post-college confusion. Her plan to pull herself out of this, to her parents’ chagrin, is to become a bartender. One failed training course later, she fumbles her way through the first few days of her new job at Finton’s, an oddly located Irish pub in SoHo.
This job eventually leads to a second job at the newest and hottest Hamptons club, Spark. At her new place of employment Cassie finds herself not only worked to the bone trying to quench the thirst of the Hamptons upper crust, but also entangled with coked-out waitresses, demanding promoters, and a fellow bartender who insists she help him steal money from the bar.
Cassie’s work on a screenplay, Glass Slipper, which she does during the day, serves as a barometer for how she is doing personally. When she is doing well, the writing also goes well. Interestingly, she finishes the screenplay when she is most deeply entrenched in the Hamptons party lifestyle. Her feelings toward the screenplay at the close of the novel parallel the change in priorities that has taken place in her life.
A cursory first glance at The Perfect Manhattan, hints that it could be a book about designer clothes, steamy parties, and cute guys. And for the first half, it essentially is. Roughly the first 200 pages, while certainly entertaining, flit along quite aimlessly. They do, however, set the stage for the point about halfway through when the plot really begins to pick up as Cassie begins to show signs of growing a backbone. Her metamorphosis by the end of the story from victim to heroine would bring a smile of approval to the face of even the most militant of feminists.
It is at this point in the story that Cassie not only learns how to stand her ground but also becomes aware of the class inequalities around her. She says in reference to the “Pearls Girls” (a nickname she gave to one particularly fussy and spoiled cluster of Hamptonites) not doing much but go to charity events and parties: “What went on inside their blond heads? Did they agonize about their place in the world and what it all meant?” Cassie also finds herself troubled by the way migrant workers are treated on the island as the wealthy residents would like to enjoy their cheap labor during the day and then mysteriously have them vanish at night. It is disconcerting, but realistic, that even as Cassie is becoming more aware of the flaws in the façade around her, she is trying harder and harder to fit in with it.
The novel, in spite of its tendency to linger on the shallow side of appearances, makes some very telling points about life in the Hamptons. It seems to be the authors’ hope that readers will consider where exactly they are trying to go when social climbing. I couldn’t help but wonder, with a wry smile, what socialites who have unwittingly toted it along to the Hamptons to read this summer might think of the authors’ take on that lifestyle. No doubt they will toss their silky, platinum hair, flash their over-whitened smiles and say, “we’re not at all like that,” before prancing off the beach to their comfortable summer shares.
Shear and Toomey are careful to give a disclaimer in the front of the book that proclaims it to be “a work of fiction” and that “[n]ames, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the authors’ imagination or are used fictitiously.” This is wise, considering that some of its negative content about the upper class might otherwise be construed as slanderous. The disclaimer also serves as a reminder to the reader that the authors’ just might have taken some literary license with the content.
And in fact it is important to remember, among Shear and Toomey’s hyperbolized stereotypes of the Hamptons’ elite, that not all rich people are snobs and vice versa. Fortunately, the authors throw in a few characters here and there (like Charlie, the rich non-snob who shares a cigarette with Cassie, and Laurel, the non-rich snob, Cassie’s supervisor at Finton’s) to remind the reader of this.
In spite of all its discussion of social class, however, there are virtually no characters in the book that might actually be considered oppressed by the upper class. Cassie, despite often feeling snubbed for being a bartender, still lives in an expensive Manhattan apartment and has a Columbia education, thereby qualifying her as far more affluent than roughly 99 percent of the world. Jose, the barback at Finton’s, is probably the only character who might actually be able enlighten the reader on what it is to be poor and oppressed. But of course, he doesn’t get any airtime.
Nonetheless, The Perfect Manhattan does provoke the reader to consider the sense of entitlement that enshrouds the millennial generation like a fog. And as a piece of fun beach reading, it certainly does its job. And I haven’t left a bad tip for a bartender since I read it.