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HERB BENHAM: Bartender still has that magic touch

    I wouldn't mess with Ken Brenneman even now, when he is 67 and carrying about 30 extra pounds. Bald head, sloping shoulders, piercing glance -- he looks like he could lean over a bar and tell you a story, and if you didn't like it, sail you out the saloon doors with one hand.
     "He was a stud," said his longtime friend Al (Big Al) Gonzales, who is not averse to sticking the needle in his buddy. "Now he's a hypochondriac and he thinks he has every disease known to man."
     Brenneman doesn't work in a saloon, nor is he the least bit aggressive, but he has a past friends have not forgotten. Brenneman (who doesn't drink or smoke) has been a bartender at Bill Lee's Bamboo Chopsticks for decades, making him an honorary member of the Lee family, starting with the late founder, Bill Lee, himself.
     Who works at a place for 50 years, much less 52? We flit in and out of jobs like rays of sunshine through fast-moving clouds.
     "I got this job through my brother, Tom, who was a delivery boy," Brenneman said. "I was in high school
     and he worked here. He told me to come down and not embarrass him."
     That he did -- both show up and embarrass himself, while he was busing tables.
     "I had a cart stacked with a tray filled with plates and glasses," he said. "I tried to make a sharp left turn between two tables and the tray started to slide off."
     A couple of plates hit the ground. It wouldn't have been so bad if Bill Lee hadn't been sitting with an unlit cigar three tables away.
     "I thought I was going to get fired," he said. "He never said a thing."
     Brenneman, who was born in Glendale and moved to Bakersfield via Oakland and Fresno, progressed from busboy to bartender in 1966. He is so deeply imbedded in the Lee family (he went to high school with Sherman, the present owner, and has worked with four generations of Lees) that it is hard to imagine the place without him. He works six days a week even though Sherman has told him to work less if he wants.
     Brenneman rented a 17th Street apartment from Bill Lee for 16 years and then bought a house from him secured by a personal note.
     Brenneman, who probably could have carried the casket himself, was a pallbearer at the funeral of Sing Lee, Bill Lee's father. He and Gonzales were the only non-Chinese pallbearers. He has dinner every Friday night with Sherman and still refers to Bill Lee as Mr. Lee.
     Most bartenders have their fans and one of Brenneman's is Big Al Gonzales. They are 45-year friends. Big Al works at nearby Western Emporium Store as a hat fitter and buyer, and visits Brenneman every day. On Fridays, he and his buddies camp out at the bar.
     "Ken is really a lousy bartender," Big Al jokes. "What he does well is talk nonstop, and he is a decent magician."
     Is there anything better than a bartender who is a magician? He put me away with the "how did the knit ball get in the cup" trick and, if I wasn't already dazzled, made some aces disappear from the deck and then reappear in his front shirt pocket.
     "Ken has couples, young hotties and older people who come in to see his card tricks," Big Al said.
     Although Brenneman now leaves the heavy lifting (i.e. bouncing) to the younger guys, he has been a force in an otherwise quiet bar.
     "One time a guy wanted to pay for his meal with a $100 check and then get some money back," Brenneman said. "Sherman told him he didn't do that and the customer stormed out without paying. I chased him across 18th Street and he jammed his lit cigar into my neck. I pinned him in the crosswalk.
     "In the tussle, I saw a watch on the ground. I thought it was his and so I stomped on it and said, 'That's what you get for trying to run out on your check.'
     "The guy turned and said, 'You stupid son of a b..., that's your watch.' I had stomped on the watch that Sherman had given me for being a 20-year employee."
     Brenneman has never been married, (although he has a lady friend with whom he has had a plus 30-year relationship). He collects guns, is a woodworker having helped Sherman build the ceiling of the bar in his garage, and has been to three Olympics (Atlanta, L.A. and Barcelona) with his friend Big Al.
     Mostly, it's work. Brenneman takes pride in his job. He arrives at the restaurant at 9 a.m. even though his shift doesn't start until 11 (he eats after his shift -- Chinese scrambled eggs with peas and pork is one of his favorites).
     He cuts the pineapple for the mai tais (the restaurant has a reputation for its mai tais), stocks the olives, makes lime wedges and lemon twists, and fills the wells with ice. When the doors open, he wants to be ready.
     Ready to work, ready to greet his friends, ready to do magic tricks, ready for another day of almost the only work he has ever known. He has improved since the early days, when he was mixing a drink in a metal shaker and the top came off and he sprayed three customers with a vodka gimlet.
     For his 50th anniversary at the restaurant, Sherman gave him a golf cart, which comes in handy for his house in Kern City. Brenneman may not be family, but he is close, loyal and grateful.
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