I’m drawn to the culture of bars for much the same reason I’m attracted to restaurants: to collect the stories of why and how we gather. Perhaps it’s because misery has an audience, but bar stories do seem to be more interesting. Or if Homer Simpson is to be believed, alcohol is both the cause of and solution to most of life’s problems.
As a veteran of the industry, I’ve witnessed a surfeit of revelry and confession throughout hundreds of shifts in local bars. The disinhibiting effect of alcohol can be one of its worst qualities. I still clearly recall the inebriated young woman who pressed her bare bum against the front window of Arthur’s bar in Hyde Park on a winter night with temperatures well below freezing. Yes, mooning did seem like a fair retaliation for the Neanderthal pitching her bad pickup lines, except for one thing—skin and ice merged. We worked quickly, dousing the window with hot water, but not before the entire bar was privy to every detail of the booty-gram.
Fortunately, most of us rarely reach that tipping point, instead opting for moderate social drinking where we are momentarily released from our own self-imposed limits rather than handicapped. Take Old Bill. He was in his early 70s with ill-fitting dentures that clacked against the cocktail glass. He wasn’t much of a talker, but told you everything he wanted you to know about him by his commitment to routine. Central to his routine was a fixation with the number three. He came in the bar I worked the same three nights a week, sat on the third barstool from the end, drank three fingers of Canadian whiskey with three shots of bitters, and ate three handfuls of popcorn. Afterwards he dozed off on the stool—his head and shoulders heavy with the weight of memory.
If you glided by on your way to the restroom you might have assumed he was just a sad old drunk. You’d be partly correct; he had the worn patina of tragedy from a life well-lived. But somewhere in this thrice-weekly process he became untethered from the fear and neurosis that trapped him long enough to sing. At random intervals he lifted his head and crowed at the top of his lungs to whatever song was playing on the jukebox (he seemed particularly fond of accompanying Roy Orbison). This was not singing as you or I would define it, but I know for certain that neighborhood dogs identified with it. Sometimes his dentures came loose, but for an obsessive-compulsive he seemed curiously unaffected, calmly placing them in the remains of his whiskey glass. As a new patron, you would roll your eyes or laugh, but only the first time. Then you would join the rest of the patrons and crow with him. He’d slip back into a nod, to be revived by the likes of Patsy Cline. Whether this was repeated twice or 10 times more, it never mattered. It was his ritual, his moment of celebration, his therapy. He’d found his way to make it through another day.