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As We See It

[Weekly Q&A]

McCarran bartender Gary Cymerman talks life before 9/11 and Vegas hospitality

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What’ll you have? McCarran’s Gary Cymerman dispenses wisdom and Bud Light.
Photo: Steve Marcus

If anyone in Vegas has seen it all, it’s probably Gary Cymerman. For the past 14 years, the gregarious 60-year-old has worked as a bartender at McCarran International Airport, serving up drinks and conversation to countless travelers passing through its gates. Over a coffee and club sandwich before his swing shift, Cymerman recounted some of the airport’s glory days—when the bars were located before security—and the unique challenges of being the last face between the high rollers, the has-beens and the flight home.

What’s kept you at McCarran for so long? I love the people there, because every day it’s different. I’m gonna go in tonight and I’m gonna put out half a dozen little fires by just serving cocktails and having fun with people. It’s a cast of characters that’s coming into these bars. It’s fun to be with these people, because you get to interact with them. Being in my position you have to make snap judgments. You have to know what to say to certain people. Some you can play with, others look like they’re having a bad day, like the lady who looks like she’s going to cry because she missed five flights. I like helping those people. You’re supposed to give to yourself and to the community, and you feel better about yourself. That’s the real gift—giving. And that’s why I like bartending, I get to do that all day long.

What was McCarran like when you first started working there? It was crazier. Don’t forget, you’re talking the ’90s, before 9/11. I saw a person get on a flight so drunk, he literally couldn’t walk on. The gate agent wouldn’t let them carry him on, so what they did is they picked him up by his belt buckle, the guys got him under their arms, his arms and legs were dangling, and they walked him on. I looked at the gate agent, and he goes “Eh, he walked on to me,” and he closed the door. That’s how it was. It was fun, happy-go-lucky. There weren’t too many rules. Being drunk was the least of their problems. They were looking for the guy that was nasty, being surly. Sometimes you get bad drunks.

It was also busier, of course. It seemed like we were always expanding, I was working seven days a week. McCarran had 24-hour bars at that time (they now close at midnight), and they were located before security.

Why were they closed? Too much trouble. The people would come in from off the street and hang out there and get sick, homeless people and partiers. Being a federal building, there was a real fine line there, otherwise the ACLU’s gonna be involved. They had to treat them with kid gloves. You didn’t know if they were on heroin or just sick from drinking. Then they shut them all down, so now they don’t bother coming into the airport.

What other changes have you seen? It’s more reserved now. After 9/11, people come here, and they’ll have a couple drinks, but you don’t get the wild kind anymore—that rogue element that used to be. They don’t want to get told off by the gate agent for having too much to drink. They just want to go home. That never happened in the old days. The airport is where people would get the party started, when they arrived and when they were leaving. They would not stop.

What are the specific challenges of being a bartender at an airport versus at a regular bar? At an airport, you have to be careful at how you do your job. Like I said, I’ve had people that have missed five flights who you can’t kid with, you just have to give them good, quick, polite service. And then you have other people who want to fool around that might initiate something and you can banter back and forth with them. At a regular bar, you’re not going to find that emotionally distressed person, someone who’s ready to break down and cry because she’s trying to get home because her father passed away and the flight’s delayed.

How do you handle situations like that? You try to make them feel as comfortable as you can. Ask if they need a glass of water, something extra for their meal. “Can I help you in any way? Do you know where you’re headed? Do you know where your gate is?” At a regular bar, you’d probably know most of the people there because it’s a local thing.

Travelers are always different. Oh, and trying to speak a foreign language, that’s fun. They’re trying to speak English and you’re trying to speak Spanish or German or French—most of it’s sign language. You point to the bill, they throw you their card. A lot of them complain about our money, how all of it is green.

How do you deal with customers who maybe didn’t get lucky in Vegas, who leave the city down and with empty pockets? It’s a lot of fun to try to put a good shine on the city after they’ve given you the three credit cards and they’re all declined. Someone will shake your hand and say, “You’re the nicest person I’ve seen today. Why weren’t you working in the casino?” I tell them we want to make sure they come back. They’ll get on the flight and they’ll feel better. I tell them, it’s only money, you can make more of it! Come back and see a show, buy something, have a nice dinner, so your experience is more than gambling. I give them tips on good local places to go. The way I see it is, you’re leaving Vegas—let’s put a smile on your face.

Can you tell a Las Vegan from a tourist? Oh yeah. They get a little sticker shock. When I give them the bill, they go, “How much?!” because they’re not used to paying for any drinks out here, or they get them cheap at a locals place. It’s also the way they handle themselves. They come in, they know what they’re doing—what they want to drink and how to order it. I don’t think I’ve ever given a local a menu.

So where do you go for a drink? What do you like to drink? As close to home as a I can. There’s a place called the Lodge, it’s on Grand Teton and El Capitan. They have great food there, and I can walk. My favorite drink’s a scotch and water. But I’m too old to get drunk like I used to. I have to be responsible. Now if I’m at home, that’s different—I can tie one on. (laughs)

What’s your favorite gate to work at? I love where I am now, by the B gates. I’ve been there for about six years. We call it a “bid shift,” I bid on it, it’s mine now, I earned it through seniority. That’s where I’m gonna be for a long time. I like people I’m dealing with, the Spirit people and the Southwest people. They’re colorful—always different. And they’re my kind of people. They’re trying to fly cheap and they know what they like and what they’re doing. I have one guy, he comes in once every two months from New York to Vegas. He’s always flying at the last minute, and he does the same thing every time: First he goes to the Burger King, then he runs to my bar right before boarding and gets two doubles of Crown and Coke, then he packs them all in at the gate as he’s going on. I have a lot of regulars like that, and they’re all characters.

You can find Gary at Home Team Sports Bar in Terminal 1 from 4:30 to midnight Thursday through Monday.

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