The Paradoxical Nature of Pull-Tabs


If you have been to a bar recently, you most likely have seen an area of the place designated to pull-tabs. Pull-tabs, for those who aren’t aware of what I’m talking about, are tiny, square-shaped tickets with cheesy decorum on the front side, and three flaps on the back side that people pull, (hence the pulling in pull-tabs) with the hopes that dollar figures will appear. All tickets come from a box that has some ridiculous name, like Santa’s Little Helpers or Spooky Seasons. I don’t know where they come up with these names, but I guarantee people could care less about them, preferring to devote their attention to how much money is left to win in each box.

As a bartender, pull-tabs are at times my best friend, while other times they are my worst enemy. At my bar customers go through me to get tickets. Some places make customers go to machines to purchase them because then it doesn’t detract the bartenders from serving drinks, but my bar is not one of those places. When customers pull winning tickets this benefits me because then they tip me. If they win $200, I’ll make somewhere between $10-$20. If they win more, I’m most likely to get tipped more. As is the case in the service industry, sometimes I don’t get tipped, but more often than not I’m benefitting from winning tickets. It’s the quickest way to make money bartending, and it entails the least amount of work.

On the flip side, if a customer pours hundreds of dollars into pull-tabs and isn’t winning, I can become the scapegoat for their losses, all because I am the one they see going into the boxes and randomly pulling out tickets. Their losing doesn’t happen in one fell swoop either. It is usually the result of two hours of pulling tickets, tossing the losers into a bucket, then reaching for more money from a tattered wallet. The worst encounter I ever had was with a customer who came in on a Monday morning and stayed for four hours. She poured nearly $700 into pull-tabs. I could see her face progressively get more and more angry. She was not happy, and I was the one who was going to pay for it. We had began her stay there having a very pleasant conversation about an array of topics, but by the time she left, she slammed a $1 bill on the counter, her way of saying “thanks, but no thanks.”

Besides the usual chirps of “alright, Q, pull me a good one now,” I have received much stranger and annoying requests. “This time grab them from the bottom right. They’re always at the bottom.” Or, “dig deeper! I have band aids if you get a paper cut!” As the person who grabs the tickets, I have involuntarily become the gatekeeper to their success, or demise. Many times I have walked back to a customer silently hoping that there is a winner in the batch I have just grabbed for them, just so they don’t look at me in disgust.

Throughout all of this, I have never been verbally or physically threatened. Fortunately, people draw a line, even when alcohol is a factor. Pull-tabs will forever remain mystifying. Sure, I like the idea of making money for simply being able to count and hand tickets to someone. Yet, I also bemoan when certain people come in who I know are about to spend a mini fortune on these rectangular slips of paper. They always say you win some and you lose some. If only this adage could be printed on each ticket and potentially save me a verbal lashing or two.


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