The bar nearest my home is a convenient place to meet up with friends, listen to live music and hear some funny stories. While it's lovely to be in a warm, friendly place on a chilly night, I've rarely given the bar itself, or its regulars, much thought. Recently, I read "Drinking With Men: A Memoir," by Rosie Schaap, and it gave me a different perspective on bars.
Schaap's charming memoir celebrates neighborhood bars and the warmhearted groups with whom she became a part, groups made up largely of men. Schaap's story is that of a somewhat lonely person who finds joy and belonging in the bars she frequents.
"Being a regular" she writes, "isn't synonymous with being a drunk; regularhood is much more about the camaraderie than the alcohol. Sharing the joys of drink and conversation with friends old and new, in a comfortable and familiar setting, is one of life's most unheralded pleasures."
When I first saw the book title, I assumed it was a memoir of addiction, but Schaap, a part-time bartender and the drinks columnist for The New York Times, takes readers on a different journey. She starts with her troubled youth, when she told fortunes in the bar car of a commuter train at age 15, then recounts her wild years following the Grateful Dead, living in a van with other near-homeless teens, getting high and trying to sell homemade jewelry. But she doesn't dwell on the excesses of her youth, just uses them to show why she became "wide open to people, more capable of accepting them, and of enjoying them, and of loving them, for all their goodness, and badness… I would talk to anyone, anytime. It almost always paid off; if not in friendship, at least in stories."
Schapp is a fine writer. Her stories are sometimes colorful, sometimes poignant, with insights on bar culture that really shine. In 10 chapters, she brings to life bars that became second homes to her, from a dive in Los Angeles to a Dublin pub full of poets to a New York tavern rich with characters. In all, she enjoys "a kind of controlled, convivial shallowness" that can be both civilized and civilizing.
"At the bar, you don't so much as unload your s—- as set it aside," Schaap writes. "You keep the conversation light; wit is welcome, humor even more valued, but nothing too deep, nothing too serious."
She drinks and shares stories with painters, cab drivers, lawyers, chefs, musicians, ironworkers and even a tugboat captain. It is in these bars that she learns about art, meets a lover, becomes a soccer fan and finds comfort after devastating loss. There's a lot of drinking, but, for Schaap, alcohol is the least important aspect of these places.
Since most bar regulars are men, Schaap also discusses what it feels like to often be the only woman in the bar. She finds that while her initial presence is a curiosity, it doesn't take long to join in the conversation and become "one of the boys." The real judgments about her were made by people who didn't go to bars. She urges women to take a chance at their local pub, get to know the regulars and change the concept of bars from male-only havens to neighborhood anchors.
I'm not sure I buy Schaap's idea of bars as community centers. Almost any coffee shop, art gallery or library can be just as convivial as a bar, but Schaap's unapologetic praise of bar culture is novel and refreshing.
"Drinking With Men" is a short, fun read, and pairs nicely with a crisp beer or a bold cabernet. Like a true bar regular, Schaap's memoir touches on the personal, wows the reader with her wit, but doesn't go too deep.
Angela Decker is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.