Last week, I spent two nights in a row sitting in bars -- one night at a new wine bar in my town and the next night at the intimate bar of a local restaurant -- and I was reminded why I love them. These were upscale, suburban bars, but I love all bars: city bars, local bars, dive bars, hotel bars, beer shacks, sports bars, college town bars. There's the wine, of course, the buzz and the glow, but there's so much more.
Sometimes I ask myself: "If I had to give up drinking, would I give up bars, too?" (This is typical of the daughter of an alcoholic, always relating everything back to the pathological. But that's where my mind goes).
I know common wisdom says that people in recovery from alcoholism probably shouldn't spend time in bars, especially because of the Pavlovian associations: bar = alcoholic drink. My mother, a recovered alcoholic who has been sober for nearly forty years, definitely does not hang out in bars.
But are bars just about the drinking? I'd (like to) think not.
Here, then, are eight things, besides drinking, that I love about bars:
1. There's no pressure to talk. Sometimes you just want to be around people, but not interact with them. At a bar, it's okay to be part of the collective conversation, nodding your head. There's something appealing about sitting in a line, next to people, instead of sitting across from them, face to face. You can watch the bartender rushing around and mixing drinks or stare at the stunning array of bottles and glowing liquids lined up against the wall. If you're at a sports bar and you're not in the mood to talk, you can always pretend to be engrossed in the game.
2. A bar is the perfect place to eavesdrop. In fact, you can't help but overhear everyone's conversations, unless they're whispering. Even then, it's fun trying to figure out what people are saying from their body language.
3. Both introverts and extroverts can feel at ease. If you're an extrovert, you'll be the one telling the stories. If you're an introvert, you'll probably be the one listening. You only really have to make eye contact with the bartender, and usually the bartender's too busy doling out drinks, anyway. Bartenders are generally expert conversationalists, and know how to bring people out of their shells.
4. You're supposed to bitch and moan. Bars are made for leaning and/or slumping. In other words, relaxing. Where else are we given carte blanche to vent? Suburban America, in particular, can be very Pollyanna. When people ask us how we are, we're expected to smile and say, "Great." Mostly because people are busy and don't have time to listen to our woes. When you're at a bar, people don't want to hear "great." They want to hear a story.
5. Time stops at a bar. Bars are for small talk, but they're also for deep talk. Sitting at a bar signals that you're taking time out from your busy life to just, well, sit. Sometimes I get sick of people rushing around, passing me by. I get that part of the motivation for sitting is the drinking. But there could also be bars for people who didn't drink alcohol. I'm not talking coffee bars, which are generally daytime hangouts, where people actually get work done. I'm talking about dimly-lit nighttime hangouts for adults.
6. Bars encourage community. Say you go to a restaurant with your friends, and you're escorted to your table. It's unlikely that you'll engage in cross conversation with another table. At a bar, I almost can't think of a time when I didn't talk to the bartender or a few of the other patrons. Lonely musings become public debates. Also, there's nothing like a shared sense of guilt to bond people. In the puritanical U.S., sitting around doing nothing is a guilty pleasure -- you rarely see adults just hanging out.
7. Bars are like confessionals. Bartenders are like shrinks, only much cheaper. For the price of a glass of wine ($15-20) or a few cranberry and seltzers, you've got yourself a great listener. Like shrinks, bartenders are being paid to stand there and listen, only it's less awkward because there's background music and you're not sitting in a circa 1970s office, staring at a brown, handwoven blanket hanging on the wall.
8. Pinball, pool, video games and darts. Who needs a drink when there's pinball? (Yes, you can go to an arcade, but arcades attract sullen teens, which you may be currently parenting. Who needs the stress?) These fantastically satisfying pleasures are mostly at dive bars, but need I say more?
Leah Odze Epstein is a writer and co-founder of the Drinking Diaries. She is currently working on a young adult novel about a character who is the daughter of an alcoholic. She has reviewed books for BookPage and Publisher's Weekly, among other publications. She also writes poetry, and her poems can be found on the website Literary Mama.