Early into my twelve-step alcohol recovery process, I picked up Rosie Schaap’s Drinking with Men, thinking it’d be a memoir about alcoholism, one of a series I’d read since drying up 34 days earlier. However, this debut book is a celebration of bars. Schaap, who writes the “Drink” column in the New York Times Magazine, hopes readers will understand why bars are the consummate third place, or—“a second living room.” Schaap indicates in the introduction that she plans to encourage other women to claim their place at the bar. She wants them to populate this community that privileges camaraderie over alcohol.
Drinking with Men (Riverhead Books, 2013) covers Schaap’s teens, when she starts drinking and discovers her boundaries, through her 30s, when bars are a nightly watering hole. More importantly, they’re a place where she makes new friends, reconnects with long-lost ones, and occasionally officiates a wedding. The book reflects on how bars have played a role in some of her rites of passage. She leaves behind bars called Grogan’s and Man of Kent upon college graduation. She outgrows other bars as her professional and personal lives develop. Along the way, she discovers the affliction of many regulars who—despite the same cocktails, the same conversations, and the same jokes—love these bars so much they become anxious if they skip a night (God forbid you miss something). “One of the comforts of regularhood is that it holds few surprises; its rhythms are steady and consistent and predictable, so that when any disruptions occur, they are all the more jarring, and sometimes terrible…”
Schaap’s book isn’t just a series of raucous bar nights or hangover woes; it’s about proper bar behavior, that is, favoring conversation and camaraderie over drinking. The loss of a friend to cancer and the events of 9/11 are just some experiences she shares with fellow regulars that bond them for life. Throughout the narrative, which unfolds a bit uneasily until she gains her stride around the mid-way point, Schaap poignantly captures this sense of community. “At the bar, my friends and I greet each other with hugs and pats on the back, catch up on one another’s lives…and other news of the day, and we start to feel so much better, so quickly, even if we hadn’t really been feeling so bad to begin with.”
As one who has spent a great deal of time in bars over the past 20 years, I love Schaap’s bar culture. Still, there comes a time when reading a memoir about bars that a reader will wonder about alcoholism. From teetotlers to Hunter S. Thompson, people are going to associate the amount of time with writing an entire book on bars to consuming the alcohol that bars swill. Schaap gives the subject four pages. “Ever since I’d blacked out as a teenager in California, I did not want to drink expressly to get drunk—though inevitably I sometimes did get drunk,” she writes in the chapter “Late to the Party” about her then-favorite NYC bar, Puffy’s Tavern. She contemplates her roommate’s journal entry about Schaap’s alcoholic intake. She confesses to having once stayed after the after-hours and gone straight to her morning class, where she taught…drunk. She rationalizes her choices, contrasting herself to an alcoholic who hid a flask in her purse, who drank alone at home, and whose breath always smelled of alcohol. Vague facts thrown in to define alcoholism according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism ring as a hollow contemplation of her own consumption though, given that she admits to never having considered the possibility of alcoholism before reading her roommate’s journal entry. And while I admit that being in recovery means I’m sensitive to Schaap’s rationalizing about how she isn’t an alcoholic, mine is not to attempt to label her an alcoholic, nor do I want to paint every normal drinker as a drunkard. Bringing the conversation to a close, there was poignancy in the moment a fellow regular confronts her: “You’re too young for this shit, Rosie. It’s fucking boring.”
Drinking also failed to fulfill a promise made in the intro: to encourage women to stake their claim to a bar stool. Even Fish Bar, which Schaap promotes as a “place where a lone woman might stop by, sit herself down at the bar, and quietly read, reasonably confident that no drunks would menace her,” has a dearth of female patrons. The next chapter, “Drinking with Men,” finds the author on a mission to bring women to Good World, her new, predominantly male, hangout. However, “Regularhood…held out to them no metaphysical allure, no sense of necessity. And this, I realized, set me apart as a woman who loves bars.” A page. That’s how much time she spent looking for women to stake their claim at the bar.
The stigma of bar-going alone didn’t much bother me back in my drinking days. Then again, the bars where I enjoyed regularhood contained a high number of women. One such bar was La Casa, where I spent many hours, drank too much wine, and spent too much money I didn’t have while living in Shenzhen, China. La Casa was my consummate third place. It showed me how deeply connected a bar community can be. In that expat hub hugs were plentiful, work was easy to find, and artists and architects were always available for conversation, especially to commiserate cultural adjustments we expats had to make—a commiseration at the core of Schaap’s book. “When I was broke or hungry or lonely, or a little bit of each, I knew I would always be taken care of at the bar by its people, and I would be there for them, too.”
Yet, just as Shaap discovers, life brings changes to the roles we play with bar communities. A suitable replacement for La Casa never appeared after leaving China. A few years later, my priorities shifted. Cafes are now my third place. Caffeine has replaced alcohol. So to Schaap’s otherwise appreciable book about the strong community formed when one drinks like a lady, I raise a cup of joe.
Nichole L. Reber is recovering from two hospitalizations abroad, deportation, and a veritable Red Sea of wine consumption. She now lives in the land of cowboys and Indians in Southwest America.