Monday, February 11, 2013

Book: Drinking With Men, by Rosie Schaap (2013)

Catch me under the right circumstances – a drink in my hand, say, another already coursing through my system – and I will tell you how finding a bar I could call my own changed my life. I could say that the discovery of this watering hole in fact saved my life, but that would be melodramatic and slightly inaccurate. It would be more honest to describe the experience as the opposite of a phantom limb; I never realized that I was incomplete until I walked into my home away from home and unearthed a wholly unknown part of myself, ready to be put to use.

That firsthand sense of what a “third place,” in the words of sociologist Ray Oldenburg, can mean is why Drinking With Men, the powerful new memoir by Rosie Schaap, hit me with such force. But anyone who appreciates writing as sharp, clean and cutting as a scalpel will find much to take away from her book.

Schaap is an inveterate habitué of bars, divining her true local wherever she lives. As she puts it, “being a regular 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.” Her book is a celebration of what she calls the “controlled, convivial shallowness” of the bar, but one driven by a constant, burning question. Having found comfort and companionship in barrooms, she wants to know why it is that “mostly, I’ve found that fellowship in the company of men.”

Her odyssey covers the full taxonomy of drinking establishments, from cocktail lounges to dives, from the railroad bar car where she did Tarot readings as a troubled youth to a Dublin pub. In each place she becomes one of the familiar faces, someone who understands that “at the bar, you don’t so much unload your shit as set it aside. You keep the conversation light; wit is welcome, humor even more valued, but nothing too deep, nothing too serious.”

Every bar represents a personal milestone, often defined by trauma. Death haunts the book, sometimes in the family from which she is estranged, sometimes in the surrogate one forged before last call. What she orders and what she asks for may change, but Schaap, currently the drink columnist for the New York Times Magazine, is exquisitely attuned to the regular’s “unwritten but powerful code of honor. Be good to the people serving you drinks; be open to your fellow patrons, no matter how different they are from you. Gently mind the people you bring with you, but have authority. Have fun, but not at the expense of anyone else’s fun. A bar is never yours alone.” Throughout, she’s acutely aware of her status as pretty much the only woman who’s just one of the guys. She’s also forthright about how she can often be her own worst enemy, creating or complicating her problems.

But there’s always a place she can go to find a ready ear or whatever else she might need. Faithful attendance at a bar creates connections and interests that might not otherwise exist. Schaap is very funny about how one local triggered a lifelong interest in European soccer. (Schaap, who is also, be still my heart, a fellow New York Mets fan, has this to say about Manchester United: “I hardly saw the point in despising them, much less in supporting them. What fun is a team that wins all the time? Where is the dramatic tension, the possibility of being surprised by joy once in a while amidst all the heartache? It seemed far too much like being a Yankees fan, an altogether weak and unimaginative proposition.”) For all the hassles that come with bar life, Schaap returns to it again and again. Why? “Because if you can talk, and if you can listen, and if it is easy and pleasurable to talk and listen to anyone, because you’re happy to discuss anything, really, and to hear stories about anything, because you know that people are endlessly interesting and you know that they all have stories, and because liquor loosens tongues and you are paying attention and taking people seriously, you might just stand to learn something.” One thing Schaap quite reasonably wants to learn is why more women don’t join her on a journey that can begin down at the corner bar.