I didn’t start frequenting pubs and bars until I was in my late forties. Since I hadn’t done the whole bar thing in college or afterwards, I always felt strangely self-conscious and more than a little afraid that there was a lot of bar etiquette that I didn’t know and was sure I’d be recognized as an interloper, as someone who didn’t belong. I sort of imagined myself getting tossed out, not for bad behavior, but just because I clearly didn’t know what I was doing.
I started the habit after a very long day of school that ended with “Back to School Night.” Most teachers absolutely dread this forced meeting with parents, sure that someone hostile is going to come in and rake them over the coals in front of all the other parents. I discovered that the solution to this was to keep talking about the class for the entire 10 minutes, never allowing time for questions. I even handed out 3×5 cards to the parents and encouraged them to write down any questions they had for me along with their contact information, which they could leave in the basket provided on their way out the door. I promised that I would get back to them whenever I goddam well felt like it. No, not really. I actually enjoyed most of my interactions with parents. Except the crazy ones.
But that one night the draw of the local Irish-theme pub pulled me in. I met Eddie, an actual Irishman who was expert at putting a newcomer at ease. We talked beer for a bit, he pulled me a pint and since the night was slow, within an hour I felt quite at home and like I’d just made a friend. It wasn’t long before I became a regular and began to discover the perks–familiar faces who always seemed happy to see me, a crowd to gather with for soccer, football and baseball games, free entrance to special events, a place to have a solo dinner out and not feel alone, the occasional drink or two that never got added to my bill because…well, just because.
What I liked most about spending alone time at the bar was the unexpected conversations that would begin on some nights with complete strangers. It didn’t happen all the time, but often there was one or more people there at the bar alone that seemed anxious to have someone, anyone, to talk to. This was especially true of women who, once they figured out that I wasn’t interested in anything but conversation, would sometimes spend the entire evening telling me their story—boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, work, successes, failures—startlingly intimate details that it felt they had been waiting a very long time to tell someone about. I was happy to spend the evening listening and sharing my own story. Most times, I’d leave knowing I’d never see that person again.
I don’t spend as much time anymore at bars alone, just hanging out and passing the time. I miss it a little bit. Not the drinking so much–I still do plenty enough of that at home. I miss the thrill of the chance encounter, the short, but intense connection with another person. It was something that relieved the sense of loneliness that sometimes plagues us all.