Most married couples when out to dinner run out of things to say. After many years of marriage there isn’t much new, the topics of discussion are few and there can be long periods of awkward silence. Since losing my wife, I have discovered the pleasure of eating and socializing at the bar.
The bar life is less formal and more inclusive. There’s activity behind and in front of the bar. Bartenders tend to be friendly and fellow “bar-istas” are often ready to share a smile and a story. There are strangers to your right and left only too willing to engage in conversation. There is an atmosphere of shared comraderie that you won’t find in the dining room. Drinks are being made and poured, the T.V is on, banter flows effortlessly as people come and go.
While the married couple at the corner table struggle to maintain a conversation, the bar is alive with fresh connections. When you’re sitting with strangers, everything is new; who are you, where are you from, do you know so-and-so, where do you work, how about those Patriots. Such phrases bounce around the bar like a ping pong ball. Even couples engage with folks they don’t know to broaden and liven a conversation.
In a sense, the “bar-istas” are the family you’ve yet to meet. By sitting at the bar they signal a willingness to communicate. You wouldn’t walk around from table to table talking to strangers but at the bar you are sharing an experience. Usually it’s nothing serious; conversations tend to be light and casual. Regulars are there to ease the newcomer into the club.
Bartenders are the conductors that orchestrate this informal symphony, providing just the right tempo to make customers relax, enjoy and, if so inclined, participate. They quickly spot and offer shelter to those that wish to be left alone. An ancient custom, drinking at the bar has its roots in history’s swirling mists. Just who invented the bar, first came for a drink and what was served are questions that have vexed drinkers for centuries.
All we know is the bar, as a social institution, has eased the transition from gloom to gaiety for millions of lost souls seeking refuge, companionship, conversation and relief from some real or imagined loss. Regrettably, it has also been the occasional source of pain and humiliation. The Irish have made the pub an almost spiritual experience; a place to go to lighten the soul, surrender guilt, broaden perspective, solve problems, sing and laugh.
A gregarious friend, who like me lost her spouse, introduced me to bar life. I felt awkward going to a restaurant by myself and would either eat alone or not at all. She explained the protocol of bar behavior and with her as my guide I took to the stool with renewed vigor; greeting patrons on either side. I marveled at how she became fully engaged in conversation with strangers; charmed by her infectious good nature.
I was hooked. I found that I preferred eating at the bar than at a table. The service was better and bartenders offered helpful recommendations along with occasional comments to liven the several conversations underway before them. Unlike most dining room patrons “baristas” are more relaxed; open to an unexpected encounter. Sports bars stimulate the sharing of a common interest; sparking lively commentary on the sporting events on display.
Bars have replaced the public square where people once met to discuss matters of mutual interest. They are a great leveler where rich or poor can come together in a neutral forum to communicate. The very design of a bar is democratic. All seats are the same; no one more elevated than another. All provide a great vantage point for people watching.
For those who practice law, a profession that places a premium on talking, the bar is a metaphor. Lawyers pass the bar, are members of the bar, approach the bar, join bar associations and often go to a bar. All this bar talk makes me thirsty. Time to go for a drink. Slainte!
(James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.)