The perennial comic strip “Andy Capp” has recently been banished from the Washington Post as an evil influence, and small wonder.
In Andy’s world there are only three scene changes—his pub, his living room, and the street in between. Sometimes he tries to entice a lass at the bar. Sometimes he brings his wife, to swap acid comments with the bartender. Sometimes she awaits him at home, in curlers, with a rolling pin. The story line has a mythic simplicity, the endlessly repeated escapes to conviviality and returns to domesticity, Huck’s world and Aunt Polly’s forever at cross-purposes.
Andy’s English, so he gets away with it. If he were American, he’d be guilty of abusing beer and punished with professional counseling. Five or ten years ago, the authorities in charge of our health were saying that a couple of drinks a day were actually good for us, and fortified the heart in the medical as well as the emotional sense. Now they’ve changed their minds, as they often do. Having finished establishing tobacco as the Grim Reaper and assuring the populace that those who resist it will live, if not forever, at least for a thousand years, they found themselves with no rousing battle to fight, reduced to nattering about fruits and vegetables. They dropped from the headlines and the top of the news hour. Desperate, they pounced on what they call “alcohol.” (“A round of alcohol for the bar, Pete, and have one yourself.”) Alcohol is our new killer. Even small amounts of alcohol. Even the civilizing glass of wine and the cold beer of a summer’s afternoon are as poisonous as warm gin from the bottle.
Millions believe them. But then, millions have been believing them for decades, faithfully trotting after their twists and turns. Millions even ate oat bran, a harmless abrasive substance derived from boot scrapers, when told to do so.
Americans, when not at work or out jogging, are supposed to stay home embracing family values, each encased in his separate walls, and drink bottled water. The neighborhood tavern languishes. After it closes down, it reopens as a coffee shop, virtuous tavern-substitute of the century’s end.
Coffee shops are not the same. As a devoted fan of canned Maxwell House, I don’t frequent them willingly, but I’ve been dragged in by up-to-date friends who claim they can distinguish among a dozen Colombian blends and sniff out Ethiopian Yirgacheffe at twenty paces. In a coffee shop there are tables where people sit drinking coffee and avoiding eye contact with neighboring tables. Sometimes there’s a counter where people hunch over their caffeine facing, not a friendly barkeep and rows of gleaming bottles, but a blank wall or a window onto traffic. For unknown reasons, it would be as invasive to open conversation with one’s neighbor here as it would be at a lunch counter. A counter is not a bar.
The company of one’s fellow creatures was always the point of the public house. Samuel Johnson said the pub was the throne of human felicity; E. B. White praised the “golden companionship of the tavern.” The American decline in public quaffing raises the disturbing question of why we no longer seek out golden companionship except in the sanitized, faceless privacy of the Internet.
Historically the tavern’s enemies always ignored its social joys and claimed it was merely a place to get drunk, an evil snare wherein the once-decent family man destroyed his health and drank up his loved ones’ grocery money. But humans are nothing if not ingenious and when they wanted to get pie-eyed they never really needed a tavern. Fermenting and distilling are simple processes by which bulky crops like apples, corn, and potatoes could be much reduced in bulk, though not in value, and sold locally in barrels or jugs instead of hauled to market in a cart. Before freezers, before Mason jars, an oversupply of perishables could thus be preserved indefinitely; a lady diarist traveling through my own area of Virginia in 1755 was refreshed en route with “peach whiskey.”
The making of drinkable wine, ale, and beer was more laborious, a job for professionals. For these, the citizen traditionally repaired to bistro, trattoria, biergarten, taverna, or corner pub to drink in company, perhaps to sing, play darts or backgammon, and hear the news. Not Dan Rather’s news but the important news—whose crops had been flattened by hail, who got married, who got mugged, who got fired, and how the man on the next barstool finally had his old cat put down and can’t stop grieving.
Don’t we care anymore?
In the countryside, where the “ordinary house” was often the second or third building constructed in a newly forming town, it was blessed as a place to see people instead of cows and chickens, and functioned as a clearinghouse of information on swine fever, horse races, and grain prices. In the bygone days of slow travel, taverns along the roads provided sleeping quarters for man and horse, and here the local folks went to hear news from the passerby, from beyond the mountain, across the river; to see a gloriously unfamiliar face and pick up new tales to tell. And always, in cities, the corner tappie made a familiar safety zone in the chaos and introduced neighbors who would never otherwise meet.
Behind the swinging doors in the wild old West, land of bachelors, the saloon in Sagebrush City provided the only available social life. Here, according to the movies, deals were made, scores were settled, no-good women danced on the bars, folks with aces concealed in their clothing were shot dead, and from time to time splendid brawls broke out, rich with crashing bottles, splintering mirrors, and brandished barstools. In short, everything to brighten the mind with memories during the lonely months on the range or the homestead or, perhaps, in jail.
With Prohibition the American tavern went underground, became a speakeasy, and partook of some of the western tradition, the spice of police raids and gangster shootouts flavoring the bootleg hooch. After Prohibitions repeal, the tavern lost its drama but regained its dignity as a haven—anchor of neighborhoods and center of civic and political life.
Perhaps, in hindsight, the end began back in the early 1950s when television sets appeared behind the bar. They seemed like a good idea at the time. They were rare in homes—many sensible people didn’t even want them in their homes—but from time to time events appeared on them and extra customers flocked into the bar to watch a heavyweight bout or an election. This rejoiced the hearts of the management while secretly undermining its future.
Television is noisy. It makes casual conversation an effort and confiding in bartenders too loud to be confidential. Even with the sound turned off, television is distracting. Images squirm around on the screen. A row of people at a bar, confronted by television, tend to ignore each other and stare at the set. The whole purpose of the tavern fades: why be here at all?
One by one the customers bought their own televisions and realized that, without fellowship, there wasn’t much point in the pub, and they might as well save the money, buy a six-pack, and sit home with their shoes off. There they still sit.
In the ‘70s, the Age of Sex, watering holes enjoyed a renaissance, and people called “singles” went to places called “singles bars” in search of love. This was not the tavern-as-haven that we knew for millennia but more like the tavern as shopping center; “golden companionship” took on a different meaning. Then sex as a hobby crashed almost overnight and the ‘70s were replaced by the ‘80s, by health and fitness and the solitary joys of jogging and carrot juice that still haunt us today. The bar was condemned anew as a den of iniquity, black with the sins of alcohol and secondhand smoke.
At the dawn of the current decade I lived in the middle of a city and rejoiced in a neighborhood tavern around the corner, fallen on shabby days but still in business. The television was consigned to the far end, beyond the bar, and anyone determined to turn it on had to retreat back there to the rickety table underneath it. Except in times of national emergency nobody did.
To this tavern repaired a goodly handful of local residents on our evening routes between work and apartment. We had little in common except this destination, but we accepted each other without question. The bar is the essence of democracy, the great leveler, literally as well as figuratively.
At a bar, everyone is the same size. Elsewhere some men are taller than others and the discrepancy is of great concern to them, odd as this seems to women. Standing at a cocktail party, men must struggle with the responsibilities of tallness or the humiliations of shortness; you can watch it from a distance in their postures and the pitch of their voices. Because height is largely a matter of legs, on barstools they finally see eye to eye, equals.
Over a period of several years we at the tavern grew to know each other as well as we knew our immediate families. We knew the names of each other’s bosses, landlords, dogs, siblings. Hand in hand we passed through stormy love affairs, a painful coming-out, career changes, surgery. When Steve’s divorce was final he bought drinks for the bar. When I had a new book out, so did I.
Except for the chance street encounter we never saw each other elsewhere, and this gave our friendships a luminous, self-contained quality, limiting responsibility, enhancing pleasure. Unless you count James, who wintered outside on the steam vent and joined us only when driven by thirst, we weren’t sad, mad loners; we all had jobs, families, social lives. But we had this separate place too, this undemanding refuge that was neither here nor there.
The barkeeps, though moody, were always interesting people, hand picked by the owner for compatibility rather than “mixology”; indeed, they flatly refused any assignment more taxing than a martini, which drove away suburbanites and the trendy.
The perfect neighborhood tavern.
On a Saturday afternoon my sister called me at home to say that our mother had died, quite unexpectedly. I sat for a long time staring at the telephone, wondering what to do next. A dozen phone calls had to be made. Sympathy must be extended and received. Responsibilities shouldered. My office alerted, a suitcase packed, a train caught. Deep in shock, I wasn’t ready for any of this.
I put on my coat and walked around the corner.
It was early and the bar was empty except for the bartender, and he was a substitute. A stranger. I’d never seen him before. Still he was a bartender, one of the last of the dwindling breed of comforters, trusted instinctively. I sat down at the end.
“What can I do for you?” he asked.
I couldn’t remember what I usually drank. “I don’t know,” I said stupidly. “My mother just died.”
He turned on his heel and walked up the length of the bar to the trap door, came out and down the row of bar-stools to mine. Silently he gave me an enormous, hard, smothering hug, then went back behind the bar and poured me a double whiskey on the house, set it in front of me, and left me alone with it. Up at the far end he stood dunking glasses, silent but available.
I nursed my drink. Confusion smothered my mind and all I knew, the one fact I could grasp, was that I was in the right place. The only right place. Not yet surrounded by family and friends, not still alone in my apartment staring at the telephone, but here on this barstool.
The last time I visited the city, the tavern was closed and the building was for sale.
Where will the regulars go when their mothers die?