It’s happened to most of us at some point, I hope, in the midst of a late-night conversation, most likely within one of those pauses between stories: we get the sense that to sit down and enjoy such company is a spiritual act. Our mind takes one step back from the table, and sees the place as a whole. We somehow see it surroundingly, as if we know the event like the walls know it. And in these moments, we come to realize that rooms themselves are not frames of wood, nails, and drywall. They are not dead shells. They are built for action, like clothes. They as much dress the company of friends as a man’s body dresses his soul; and like the soul and body, each is peacefully made for the other to dance with and within. They are the places where we do our living. They organize the “here”s for eating and “there”s for sleeping.
We don’t do just anything in any room. Your mother reminds you not to bring your outside voice in, and you wouldn’t take your inside bathing-self out. Rooms are one way of places telling us what they’re made for. Their shapes and materials and locations describe their nature. The walls and floors and ceilings and doors define because they make actions realizable. They allow things to be done. They make occasion for friends, family, and folk to meet, by plan or accident.
Here and then rooms can be endangered by our forgetting what they’re made for. Things forgotten are abandoned, or reused, like old electronics at a junkyard. There’s one room that has come to my mind, which is either close to being forgotten, or is forgotten already. The family’s home, the church’s parish, the town’s hall, these places receive somewhat perennial concern, and they’ve been helped by it. The room I have in mind, however, is the bar. It’s more or less known for Eastwood’s fighting, Casablanca’s romance, and Dostoevsky’s pity. I began to wonder if we should add this room to that list of rooms we often think about. We may need to give it some patient help for its sake, and ours. To begin, I must take us across the ocean, to a land flowing with Worcester milk, and honey-ale. We go to England; Oxfordshire; the city of Oxford.
While studying in that city, I frequented several pubs: The King’s Arms, Turf Tavern, The White Horse, The Rose and Crown, the White Hart, The Eagle and Child, Three Goat’s Heads, The Duke of Cambridge, The Queen’s, Four Candles – you get the idea. Every street has one; every college has one. Being lost is as quick a way to finding one as looking it up on Google Maps. And near the beginning of the term, I did get lost looking for Turf Tavern, when Google Maps failed me. Streets in Oxford have more forceful and fanciful wills than those in New York City, the city of my usual study and living. New York streets do not make suggestions. They point directly. In Oxford, the streets curve, making horizons of the left and the right.
It got late, as I walked around close to where the Turf should be. The evening lamps were lit. In the shadows, the stone walls seemed taller. I ended up trusting a current of men that around dusk had begun to flow. The hungry creatures flapped their tweed wings, billowed their pipes, and laughed. They walked next to a wall on Broad Street, until, turning, they passed into the wall, as if they or the wall were made of ghost-stuff. I followed the wall and found St. Helen’s passage, and through it, an alleyway perhaps three feet wide. Further in was the Turf and its glasses of golden, frothy, glowing pale ale. To get a glass, you had to duck in and lean over the bar. The ceilings were low, and had the confidence of an old, wise man; you were afraid he’d need support, would at any second laughingly tip over for a nap. But while he stood, you were proud to stand with him.
I went to the Turf with friends, and we spoke about our classes, argued generalities, and laughed about particulars. I went with my tutor, and we spoke about his life, his book on Bob Dylan, and got another round of cider. We would go in groups, in twos, when it was crowded, raining, late, whether thirsty or not. The pub was our place of commerce; we exchanged our most serious fears, and laughed to embarrass ourselves, though we never drank so much as to do so entirely.
The director of our Oxford program had a saying: “Go to Ireland, with its everlastingly low cloud-cover, the damp weather, and soggy emotion; and no wonder they made whiskey!” This is true of England, also. The weather is crotchety. Seasonal Affective Disorder is real. Night began around four in the afternoon. You’re encouraged to get light bulbs that emit similar frequencies as the sun, so as not to forgot how it feels. The pub is something of an umbrella for the city. You go there to get out from under the dreariness. And you would notice, perhaps only when you left, that every pub, however much longer or lower or noisier or remote to the others it was, that it was lit up so as to be golden. Every light source was a candle or made to be candle-like. It was as if you and the sun were both tired of the grey, and had decided to close doors to it. There is this habit of men to go into places to find shelter from some sort of uninhabitable climate. The bar is a sort of habitat. And in England, it was the place to find warmth, comfort, encouragement.
I returned to New York City, and eventually passed by a bar, and another, and several more. The bars (or pubs or taverns; I use the terms equivocally here) in New York, I noticed, had higher ceilings, but were about as dark, about as golden, as the ones in England. Yet they were their own in two ways. They let out the noises of… party; and they had televisions.
Only two bars that I passed by in Oxford had TVs. One was officially a sports bar; the men sat down and watched soccer and cricket, rather quietly. It was as if they thought of themselves as spectators. They were resigned, as if they knew no amount of shouting and cursing would get through the TV reception. They’d turn now and then, and comment with each other. The other bar had one TV in the corner. Men stood around it and watched the game. But the rest of us stood away, and could not even see the TV. Significantly, nowhere in Oxford did I see a TV, much less a flock of them, displayed over and behind the bar itself.
Something moves people to the bars in New York, for somewhat different reasons than the English are so moved. The weather is different here. The city’s architecture is higher, and metallic. The people are younger. New York is the city. But I did begin to see a similar reaction, even if the irritations were varied. As the Irish acted against their grey fog, and the English acted against their grey skies, in New York, there had become a reason for the bar and its liquid alchemies, which might work as a saying: consider the bustle, the traffic of strangers, the alley-way wind, the sense that at every moment one is missing out, and the reality that at every other moment one is spending money; and no wonder the people go to sports bars!
In the country, one goes to a bar for reasons other than those of the English or the New Yorkers. The critique that a pastor in the Carolinas will make against the bar is that it serves alcohol. This is the reputation that the bar has in the South: that you go there to forget something. A few years ago, I went to a bonfire in South Carolina with some friends of mine. They were all from North and South Carolina, and had family roots in the area. They and many of their fathers are or were in the military. They are funny, and formidable. I found in a store the type of beer that my friends and I in New York had decided was very pleasant. At the bonfire, one of my friends opened up a bottle. I commented on how smooth it was, and asked him what he thought. He looked at me, and chuckled: “It’s just a beer, dude.” The joke about such a night, is how much of it gets forgotten beneath the pile of bottle-tops and slurs.
There’s no doubt: it becomes a problem when drink (or food) becomes a utility. This is by no means unique to the country or to the city, that something is consumed purely for its chemical effect. Bars or restaurants become merely fueling stations. Alcohol, or any other, less-violent element, is abused the moment it becomes a medicine or a supplement, when we want it, regardless of how it tastes, for what it does to what we’ve done.
Instead of the bar, the country has made much of the restaurant culture. As a modern innovation – somewhere in the 1950s, would we say? – restaurants began to duplicate themselves. There once was one, then several were built, and now hundreds of Cracker Barrels feed hundreds of thousands at almost every interstate exit. Cracker Barrel is the American dinner table, if the number of families that have eaten there is the measure. I’d wager almost all families who have taken a trip have tasted their cornbread and biscuits. The restaurant, not the bar, is where the family goes to rest, is where family and friends go on Sundays for a special lunch. The restaurant, dominated by the chain-restaurant, with a few local names, is the place of food and community. And these restaurants are not bars. Hickory Tavern, a south-eastern chain, in a crucial way, isn’t a bar. Having “Tavern” in its title does not make it a bar or tavern. Chili’s, O’Charley’s, Applebee’s, TGI Friday’s, and others – these have bars inside, but they are not bars. They are restaurants. These are places where families grab a moment before another two hundred miles of travel, or to go from the house and try something new, or as some favorite excursion (my family’s favorite is, next to Cracker Barrel, a Mexican restaurant called On The Border).
There is one more place I would mention.
If two friends are looking for a place at which to catch up, go over an idea, meet before the movie – if there’s one place that has become the center for modern society, it is the coffee-house.
The coffee-house is the place for socializing and for work. It is permissible to sit down, plug in, and get things done, or to hang out with pals. Coffee-houses are somewhat ideal: conversation, society, engagement. People meet face to face. They combine the availability of food, with the permission to talk loudly, with the option to create one’s own library-like silence and solitude. People share the substance of idea and the vigor of coffee. It is social lounge and office combined. The design inhibits, actually makes impractical, for it to become only an office or only social. There are too many round tables, not enough fluorescent lights, no partitions. The place is a habitat, not official. The tables have chairs across from each other, but also a plug-ins for the computer. There are windows to look out of, and free internet.
I don’t intend to disparage these places, or advocate their removal. From the local coffee-house to On the Border, I have fond memories, formative ones. Only that, of all these places, there is something they do not seem made to satisfy. In these places and circumstances, I haven’t had quite the sense of the strangers becoming less strange, of the room hosting a common conversation, of the people being there for a common reason. There were individuals, friends, and families. But where would I go as a New Yorker, as an Oxonian, as a Waxhawan; where do I go as member of the town’s-folk, as a local?
I suppose this is a good place as any to suggest that the bar is the town’s place. The matter of size, the question of what makes a place into a town is for another time. For now, understand towns as human-sized worlds in which people live, work, and grow. And part of living well in one – an essential part, a part without which the place becomes too hard or too ignorant – is having a place where the townsfolk can go celebrate as a town. The home, the park, the coffee-house, the restaurant, the farm, the church, these are good places. They need to be kept, and kept up. None of them, however, seem prepared with what is needed for a town to know itself better. None of them are furnished with enough stools and candles. They haven’t the old wood, friendly hosts, and intriguing guests, and not enough glasses of courage.
If it helps, consider this difference between the bar and restaurants and coffee-houses. Most every food, and most every place to eat food, has been advertised, marketed, packaged; made cheap, generalizable, widely distributable. The bar, remarkably, has lived through this revolution and everything else without a businessman or company doing anything like this to it. The bar is still a place that happens once. Most of us know the brand of beer, Coors Lite (I used the first one that came to mind; do not think I have anything but spit for Coors Lite). But how many of us know of Session House on Fifty-Third Street? And for the chain of Starbucks coffee-houses at every corner of New York, there is only one Old Town Bar on Eighteenth Street. McNamara’s Pub in Lebanon, TN, is its own. The Rose and Crown in Oxford is its own. Maxwell’s Tavern in Waxhaw, North Carolina is its own. There’s not another one. Bars share the same nature as their towns. They arise like children, not clones. They extend, they do not repeat.
Our daily habits give us the image of opening doors outward and inward. The father wakes up, closes the shower door, opens the refrigerator, closes the travel coffee mug’s lid, opens the front door, closes the car door, opens his computer, closes his phone, opens his lunch, closes the file, closes the car door again, opens the front door again. He opens his arms for his children, and closes the door to the bedroom. In each place we do things, meet people, say hellos and farewells. Each has familiarity and strangeness to it. Some have family, others strangers. Some rooms are larger relative to others. These are attributes of a room’s identity, of being there for a reason, and people moving from reason to reason, room to room.
His office in the own hall might identify a town’s governor. There he keeps the jurisdiction safe. There he oversees whether to build a road, or zone an area for commerce or residence. The bar, though, identifies the town’s morale (to clarify, not the town’s morals). Even at a sports bar, one discovers friends. The team on the TV is a physical representation of the town’s own victories and defeats. The game gives an excuse to slap a stranger’s back and shout as excitedly with them as if we were all friends, were all brothers. There is something akin to brotherhood, indeed, to the sort of behavior enabled by the bar. Much of the crudeness and much of the confession that happens is nothing but the return for a night into the foolishness of childhood, when we could laugh because it was funny, cry because it was sad, when we could enjoy another’s company because he was related.