drinking-with-menBiographile, March 19 2013

Joanna Scutts

By Rosie Schaap
Riverhead. 288pp. $26.95

Drinking with Men is the first memoir by New York Times“Drink” columnist, part-time bartender, and full-time bar enthusiast Rosie Schaap. In the spirit of a friendly barstool raconteur, she shares stories of her unconventional education in drinking dens from the Metro-North Railroad bar car to pubs in Dublin, Montreal, rural Vermont, and a vanishing pre-gentrification New York City. The book, released in January, has attracted innumerable glowing reviews from readers and regulars. We spoke with Schaap about writing, drinking, and the unique comforts of a welcoming local.

BIOGRAPHILE: From your title on, the book is focused on what it’s like to be a woman in an environment that’s almost always male dominated. Why do you think so few women (especially young women) become true bar regulars?

ROSIE SCHAAP: I think taking that first step of walking into a bar on one’s own is very hard for women, and cultural stereotypes contribute mightily to that anxiety. We’ve received cultural messages that bars are, at worst, very dangerous for women (think of “The Accused” or “Looking for Mr. Goodbar”). But even milder messages can be a barrier: There’s an assumption that a woman on her own at the bar must be sad, or must have nowhere else to be. Or must be looking to hook up, or to drink for free. None of these perceptions sits well with me or with the women I know. None reflects my own experience in bars, but they’re powerful and hard to shake. I think they’re the greatest obstacle to women embracing bar culture.

BIOG: Do you think the kind of bar culture you describe is unique to certain cultures, or is there something universal about needing a place to go that’s not home or work, but where you’re still welcomed?

RS: I suspect it’s universal that people crave a place that’s neither home nor work, but I think different places have very different bar cultures. In Europe, I’ve rarely seen the after-work decompression happy hour that’s pretty typical here in the United States. But even here in New York City, bar regularhood remains largely the province of men. I’m not sure where other women are finding that “third place.” Maybe cafes and coffeehouses, but I don’t think they facilitate the kind of relaxed atmosphere that good bars do, and coffee’s effect on us is so different from alcohol’s.

There are other differences. In small communities, the local bar has perhaps an even more vital function than bars in big cities have; it’s the center of local news and information, an anchor in its town. And the only country outside the U.S. where I’ve loved bars even more than I love them here is Ireland. There, it seems much more natural and normal for women to be part of the life of a particular pub. And I love the mix of ages — it’s not uncommon to see people in their twenties and people in their sixties or seventies sharing a table. That doesn’t seem to come as naturally here.

 BIOG: As an occasional bartender yourself (at Brooklyn’s South), how does drinking look different from the other side of the bar?

RS: Well, I have greater responsibility on the working side of the bar — and I don’t drink when I’m working until (per the house rules at my bar) the final hour of my shift. By nature, I’m a pretty protective person, so I don’t like seeing people drink more than they can handle from either side of the bar. I’ve observed some bartenders who seem to like getting people really wasted. I’m not that kind of bartender. I want my customers to let off steam and have fun, but not get sick or do anything they’d regret (or fail to remember) the next day. When you’re tending bar, it’s kind of like you’re throwing a party, and, as host, you’re largely responsible for the quality of your guests’, or customers’, experience. As a patron, you don’t bear that sense of duty.

BIOG: In many of your stories, endings and closures are built in to the experience of regularhood: whether you’re aware of it at the time or not, it’s a temporary state. This gives the stories a particular poignancy — and often, the ending is literal, as many of the bars you write about, especially in New York, have been forced to close as a neighborhood gentrifies. Do you think the kind of bar that encourages regulars can survive in an increasingly expensive city?

RS: I’ve seen many beloved bars come and go, but great bars will always be with us. And I think that’s because a great many of us will always need them and love them. My own Brooklyn neighborhood has gentrified a lot since I moved here sixteen years ago. There’s been a bar boom here, and while it feels as though we’ve just about reached saturation point, the variety (and quality) of my local bars offers something for everyone: a great mom-and-pop local, an excellent cocktail bar, a great place to watch soccer, a bigger bar with space for live music and comedy. I hope they all thrive, and the signs are good: Each seems to have cultivated its own community of dedicated regulars. I don’t think good, inviting, comfortable bars will disappear anytime soon. The city is increasingly expensive, but the price of a few pints for a few hours of comfort, company, and good cheer is comparatively low.

BIOG: What are the features of your ideal bar? And what makes someone a great regular?

RS: My ideal bar is one with a great, varied mix of people — men and women, old and young and in-between, good talkers and good listeners, people working all kinds of jobs. A friendly, welcoming, skillful bartender does a lot to set the scene. Aesthetically, nothing too fussy or over-designed, please — just comfortable barstools and booths, plenty of wood, and good lighting will do. A great regular is someone who contributes meaningfully to the culture of his or her bar — someone who’s fun to be around, engaging, interesting, open, kind (to her fellow patrons and to the bar’s staff).

BIOG: Are there other writers (on drinks and bars, or memoir in general) who influenced you in writing your book?

RS: Although Pete Hamill’s memoir A Drinking Life is a recovery story, and my book is not, I’m a huge fan. He’s a wonderful writer who describes people and place in beautiful, efficient detail. Another book that was often on my mind as I wrote is Last Night’s Fun, by the Belfast poet/novelist/nonfiction writer Ciaran Carson. Its central subject is Irish traditional music, but pubs, naturally, figure prominently. He’s just a fantastic writer, whose language is always both surprising and precise. The great food writer, M.F.K. Fisher, was brilliant at describing restaurants (my favorite essay of hers is the unforgettable “I Was Really Very Hungry”). I kept her work in mind as I wrote about bars.

BIOG: Now that the book has been out for a while, how would you describe readers’ responses? Have you been surprised by anything? Is there a question you always get asked?

RS: I’ve been mostly thrilled by the reaction. The book particularly seems to be striking a chord among women in their twenties, which isn’t shocking (as much of the book is set during my own young womanhood) but I hadn’t quite expected it. I think the twenties are tough on women: trying to figure out the shape of the rest of our lives, establishing relationships and careers that might or might not have staying power, fretting, drinking, dreaming, wondering what we’ll be doing in ten years or so. I’m really gratified that young women are connecting with this book, relating to it. I think I’m telling them: It’s okay to mess up. It’s okay to worry. It’s okay to hang out in bars. It all adds up to a life. On the other hand, one question I’m often asked is: “Are you an alcoholic?” No matter how many times I say no, I’m not, some people just can’t believe that anyone can be a bar regular without being an alcoholic. I’m surprised by the intransigence on this. But I don’t feel obligated to change their minds.

BIOG: Do you think you might return to memoir writing in the future?

RS: I don’t anticipate writing another book that’s explicitly a memoir, but I do plan to write more narrative nonfiction. About soccer, maybe. Or Ireland.

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