Not that I’m a lush, but I like bars. Not just the establishments that are known as bars, pubs, or watering holes, but the actual bar itself. I find much comfort in sitting on a comfortable stool – with back if you please – and sipping a cold beer or two, on tap or cold in a bottle while taking in the goings-on. Perhaps engaging in idle chitchat on one side and a more serious conversation on the other. The smooth top, either shiny wood or metallic, is cool and pleasing to the touch. The glasses and bottles sparkle in the lights.
I recall as a university student having friends who lived out in the suburbs and for whom ‘house parties’ were the socializing mainstay. I was never a big fan. Upon arrival I would seek out a comfortable spot near or even in the kitchen because that’s where the fridge was, the one cooling the beer I brought that very mysteriously seemed to disappear faster than I was consuming them. Before too long I’d find myself traipsing through a total stranger’s house in stockinged feet in search of a bathroom, hoping against hope that there would not be a lineup. Certainly not my idea of fun. Worrying about finding my boots and coat when it – thankfully – came time to leave was yet another annoyance to be borne. (I used to threaten to take the best coat I could find; this usually brought much assistance in securing my coat from the giant pile on the bed.)
For me, as an urbanite right down to the bone, bars were the way to go. Coat safely checked (assuming, of course, you didn’t lose the chit and have to wait until all the coats and jackets were claimed, hoping yours would remain), and a place at the bar and I was set. Back in the day people plunked themselves down at the bar and, much like a tiger peeing in the jungle, set up their turf, they marked their perimeter, by placing their cigarette package, lighter and ashtray within easy reach. With smoking now verboten in public places. the main tool for staking your spot at the bar is the placing of a mobile phone.
I’m not alone in my preference for bars. Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan were fond of the occasional foray into a cozy barroom to recharge and energize their creativity. Ernest Hemingway spent so much time in La Floridita in Havana that there is a life-sized statue of him standing at the bar.
Now that I’m sixty I rarely find myself in a bar at night, preferring the comfort of home and a bit of telly, maybe even an early night. Yet I’ve not abandoned my ways entirely, I have discovered the pleasure of the afternoon bar session. Devoid of the social jockeying that renders the night bar experience unpleasant after the age of about forty, the atmosphere in the afternoon is a much friendlier one, conducive to conversation.
When it comes to proprietary rights at a bar, while patrons may have their usual spot, the real ‘owner’ of that bar is the bartender. Regardless of whether that man or woman is, in fact, the legal owner of the establishment or not, when they are behind the bar it’s theirs! I have had the pleasure of knowing several bartenders over the years (lest you think I’m displaying symptoms of dipsomania, rest assured many of them were friends of mine before they became mixologists). In my younger days a good friend of mine explained that while he very much liked having regulars spend the evening sitting at his bar, it was the three of four rows of standees behind them who were his bread and butter. Passing drinks and payment and change over the heads of those seated at the bar was where the money was.
The afternoon bartender not only mixes drinks and pulls pints, but he or she also assumes the role of cruise director or animator. Making introductions where suitable, while directing regulars away from seated customers who are less than a match, smoothly including others in conversations, and leaving to themselves those in search of thoughtful peace, keeping places at the bar for regulars running late, all while remembering regulars’ usual tipple, these are just some of the skills required to be a successful daytime barkeep.
But now this is just a memory. COVID-19 has caused the closure of restaurants and bars. There is a plan to re-open the economy; first, some construction sites will resume building, then certain retail outlets will be allowed to open under strict guidelines to ensure the highest degree of public safety. Finally, elementary schools are scheduled to reopen (although there is significant push-back from many sides on this one).
Releasing teachers and young students from lockdown before allowing bars and pubs to reopen seems a wee bit arse-end foremost to me. But then that’s not based on any science.