I just finished Rosie Schaap’s, Drinking With Men, her insightful, delightful memoir of a life spent in bars. And I do mean “life”. For each local pub she claimed as her own at various stages of her life going back to her teens, soon became more of a home than her own, its patrons more of a family than who she grew up with. And where some might say she drank too much or flirted too often with what you might call a “drinking problem”… while glorifying what to many is a horrifying pastime, especially for a woman… when you read her heartfelt take on that world along with her endless quest to belong somewhere, anywhere, you see why the warmth of an amber-lit bar… a mini cathedral of oak and mirrors sprinkled with interesting characters… became such a magnet. And great education.
With poets, painters, architects and teachers (the clientele she sought) sitting around her with her all alone at first, not to mention bartenders who took on the role of big brother (many of whom were artists as well as most of her bars were downtown), saloons to her were less party rooms than classrooms. Or as she put it, social centers where people happen to drink. But each new bar into which she gained entry had its step-by-step process… listen and learn, speak and be listened to slowly over time, matriculating though the system as though it were a college… til she reached what to her was that coveted status called “regular”. An unofficial member of a grown-up fraternity, she its only sister, where someone once told her (and which she cherished), “I love you because you’re one of the guys. But you’re not!”
Now do I recommend that life for a woman? No. Do I condemn it? Bigger no. It’s just a path this woman has taken in a quest to find herself, where each new bar marked a new beginning (the next in an evolution), and where each one she walked away from left her the wiser. Wise enough to not just survive but, just like the ring that’s etched in a bar left from a cocktail glass, she’s left behind this wonderful memoir as proof. She also writes the “Drink” column for the New York Times Magazine, and one night a week tends bar somewhere in Brooklyn. So “Cheers!” to you, Ms. Schaap, you’ve not only done yourself proud but the world I know well.
I often thought when reading this book how different it is for a woman to do what she did. To become a “regular”. To walk in a bar all by yourself, decide you like the place fine, then go about making that place your brand new haunt. Because a woman alone to the opposite sex can often send out the wrong message, innocently of course and even in this day and age, and some guys never fail to take it that way. If she’s reading a book or going over papers (which Ms. Schaap did in her teaching days), she’s pretty much sent out the vibe “I vant to be alone!“ But if she’s just there having a glass of wine or God forbid something stronger, the alley cats sooner or later will move in to scratch. And the bartender, if he’s alert, then has to de-claw them. All it takes is a glance from the woman without a word being said, and the bartender knows she’s not there to find Mr. Right. Or worse, Mr. Wrong. She just wants a drink like any other patron to simply pass the time, and to let the tension of the day wash away with each sip. But it’s not always easy.
And for her to move to the next level, to frequent a bar as a solo woman and then become one of it’s regulars… “one of the guys”… it’s never easy. But I’ve seen it happen over the years and it takes a special kind of woman, a woman who’s not afraid of the bullshit and bluster. And just like our memoirist did many times, the key is to ease yourself in and not barge in. Because once “getting laid” is out of the equation men can be very protective of their sacred turf. Their trust must be earned. And earned it is by the woman with smarts who backs it up with conviction, but also practices the intricate art of give and take. It’s almost like being in a relationship, sans the commitment. Which reminds me of probably the bravest of all when it comes to bar conversation, or at least the wittiest woman who “drank with men”… the great Dorothy Parker.
Ensconced in a booth in The Algonquin Hotel back in the 1920′s, surrounded by mostly male luminaries… Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun and George S. Kaufman, to name just an awesome few… Ms. Parker spat out her pearls of wisdom as easily as if they were pits spat out from martini olives.
To wit, (all you yungins’ who never heard of her):
“If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look who he gave it to.”
“The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
“I don’t know much about being a millionaire, but I’ll bet I’d be darling at it.”
“Tell him I was too fucking busy…. or vice versa!”
“The woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say, ‘No,’ in any of them.”
“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force!”
“Wit has truth in it. Wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.”
“Take care of luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves.”
“I don’t care what’s written about me as long as it isn’t true.”
“It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard!“
“A hangover is ‘The Wrath Of Grapes”.
And her most famous of all… “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her drink.”
(Ms. Parker wasn’t “one of the guys”, she was The Man!)
So to all you women who frequent a bar in which you’re thought of as a “regular”, may the company be good, the conversation rich, the bartender kind and attentive, and the drink made just to your liking because you’re a regular. You’ve earned it!
See you next time, dear reader, have a good week…