On Sitting Alone in Bars

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The life of the Strong Independent Woman is not all sequins and salsa dancing. Like everyone else’s life, it’s often just too busy, too pressed, and, at the same time, too routine. Sometimes it’s a little too lonely.

It’s often the case that I come home after 12 hours out of the house (this is why I can’t have a dog). After doing whatever things are vital and essential at the office, I don’t dare come home, because I’m afraid that if I do, I won’t want to go back out to the gym—so I go from the office to the library or a cafe to work some more, then on to a workout. Many of my dance classes go late, so I might not get home to some dinner until 9. There’s no way I’m cooking anything fancy at that hour, when I need to eat, wind down, and get to bed by 11—so I too-often resort to Single Girl Chow: frozen things, sandwiches, and (culinary heaven, forgive me), my special “healthy” nachos: flax seed chips, low-fat store-brand grated cheese, salsa, with a side of red wine. I know. In the winter, I’ll get into my flannel pyjamas, pull a blanket around me (because between my frugality, and my landlord’s incompetence, my uninsulated apartment stays penuriously, penitentially cold from December to March), and watch tv until it’s time to go to bed and start the whole routine over again.

Like I said, it can’t be all glam, all the time.

So—one night, I’m huddled on the couch watching Bones (this was a couple of years ago, before Temperance got pregnant and partnered and promptly ceased to be someone I could relate to). I’d had a hard day, but Booth’s day had been worse. It was one of those days when he’d just seen too much—too much violence, too much depravity, too much selfish cruelty. With his values, maybe his faith itself, shaken to the core, Booth stops in at the bar, hoping to drown the clamor of his thoughts, to anesthetize his feelings. “Shot of bourbon,” he says. When the bartender comes to pour, Booth adds, “And leave the bottle.”

I think: I’ve had days like that! (Well, kind of, figuratively, if murdered prose and butchered syntax and tortured, tortuous bureaucratic petty tyranny count). I imagine myself swaggering into a bar, sweeping up bottle and glass with one hand in one dextrous, practiced move, and sloping over to my table in the back, where I settle in, and get down to the hard work of forgetting, one shot at a time.

Hah! I scoffed at the improbability of that fantasy. For one thing, I’m well-adjusted enough that the idea of self-medicating with alcohol just never occurs to me. And: how could anyone actually drink a whole bottle of bourbon?? But most absurd of all was the idea that I, P2, would ever drink by myself in a bar. Why, people just don’t do such things!

Certainly, ladies don’t. But then I looked around: which ladies? I don’t see any around here. I’ve always found the appellation of “lady” bizarre, retrograde, and definitely ill-fitting; but I’m of an age now when I could aspire to be a dame, a broad, like Hepburn, Davis, Rosalind Russell, Lauren Bacall in their fast-talking, tougher roles, accepting a light from a man they favor, accepting no nonsense from anyone else. A woman in this mould can go to a bar, or anywhere, if she damned well pleases, and she’s got no-one to please but herself.

Thus fired up, I thought: this is a challenge I should set myself. I will cultivate my inner dame. I will go to a bar, sit by myself, and drink some bourbon.

Wait—do I like bourbon?? A brief pause while I looked up bourbon, whisky, and rye on wikipedia.

All right: I will go to a bar, sit by myself, and learn to like whisky and whisky-like drinks. Glamour and adventure will follow. I will meet the 2014, hipster-neighborhood-equivalent of Jimmy Stuart (in his darker, Hitchcockian roles) or, perhaps a young Harrison Ford (because my image of drinking alone in bars obviously has as much to do with 70s and 80s sci-fi and adventure as it does with 30s and 40s noir).

I told my friends about this new project. Their encouragement was muted.

“My mother would die if she knew I went to a bar alone.”

“I only sit at the bar if I’m stuck at the airport.”

“I hate sitting at bars on my own. If I’m traveling for work and stop at the hotel bar, I can’t sit there for 5 minutes without someone trying to pick me up. They think I’m a call girl.”

In other words, while it’s kind of cool for a seasoned man of the world to sip a martini in a hotel bar while he’s traveling for business—drinking responsibly, up to no greater shenanigans than mentally rehearsing tomorrow’s presentation—if a seasoned woman of the world attempts to do exactly the same thing, instead of being a formidable dame, she becomes some kind of desperate, tatty, courtesan-for-hire, her virtue and reputation cast irretrievably to the wind.

Fiddle-faddle. Shouldn’t we be long past the point of segregating our social and professional spaces on the basis of gender?

Let’s say a woman gets bored sitting around her house in flannel. All her friends are out of town on business (but NOT sitting alone in bars! No, they’ll be in their travel flannel, tucked up in their hotel beds with the fancy hotel pillows, watching some documentary about sheep because that’s all that’s on, drinking chardonnay out of the room’s coffee mugs, maintaining their ladylike decency). Unencumbered by pending social invitations. our heroine feels like taking a walk somewhere, being where the people are. She figures she’ll wander over to the neighborhood watering hole, where she’s been several times before—though never alone. What’s the big deal? she thinks. Men do this all the time. Should be nice. I’ll talk to the bar-tender, or maybe even to my friendly neighbors. Who knows, I might even meet the man of my dreams! I certainly won’t meet him sitting alone on the couch wearing my skiing-polar-bear pj’s.

So off she goes (swapping the polar bears for a chic, but studiedly-casual, ensemble) and it all unfolds exactly as she imagined it would. She does it a few more times. She gets to know the bartenders, the owner, and the servers. They all stop to chat if things are slow. Sometimes a lively conversation about politics, or who you’d expect to meet in the afterlife, crops up amongst the neighbors. Sometimes she just writes, and everyone thinks that’s cool. She has her modest whisky cocktail, maybe a couple, if there’s some good music or conversation, or she’s got a lot of writing to catch up on. Then she toddles off home, pleased that she found something vaguely sociable and village-y to do, rather than sulking at home. That is, she spends the occasional evening the way a single man on his own, at loose ends, might do. No big deal.

This isn’t hypothetical—this has often been my experience. It’s nice. And while I don’t know if anyone thinks, “now there’s a real dame!”—because the word, and the role, have become total anachronisms—no-one seems to have questioned my virtue. Quite the contrary: far from having my honor questioned or assailed, I might as well be dressed in a nun’s habit for all the lascivious attention I get. It’s actually been kind of disappointing. I couldn’t, apparently, get hit on to save my life. That’s mostly because I’m quite sure I’m the only single straight woman in my neighborhood—the quarter is lousy with couples, who come in and sit facing one another, backs to whoever’s on either side of them, uninterested in socializing, because it’s date night, and they must canoodle over their happy-hour buffalo wings and craft cocktails. Which is exactly what I’d be doing too, if my Harrison Ford doppelganger would appear, sillouhetted dramatically for a moment in the doorway before ambling over to take the bar stool next to mine, and nonchalantly striking up a conversation about archeology. Which will almost certainly never happen, because, as I think I’ve observed before, for their different reasons, many men avoid going anywhere by themselves. Indiana Jones is as likely to sit around the house in his flannel pyjamas, watching tv and eating ice cream from the carton, as any woman. He’ll wait until one of his buddies texts to suggest they meet at the bar for a drink, then it’ll be the two of them on a man-date together, drinking and looking at videos of people bicycling off cliffs, as unavailable as if they were just another canoodling couple.

And whatever else accounts for my bar-specific unassailability can’t possibly be flattering to me, and consequently isn’t worth further inquiry. I’m left to drink my whisky cocktail in peace.

Thus, for a variety of reasons, I’ve lived to tell the tale: it is possible for a woman/lady/dame/broad/person to sit in a bar by herself, enjoy it, and still maintain a reputation that will stand up to press scrutiny when she runs for office down the road. I’m proud of myself for overcoming silly gender roles, and my own shyness, and adding this particular kind of outing to my intrepid Strong Independent Woman roster.

But—it’s important not to let success make you cocky and overly-ambitious. As I’ve learned, there’s a huge difference between going to one’s own neighborhood pub when it’s at its slowest (which is when I prefer to go) and going pretty much anywhere else—a bar at a hotel when a conference is on, or anyplace after 7 pm on a Friday night, even my own local. I’ve tried it—and I don’t last very long. If I can get a spot at the bar, I can take refuge in my book, or my journal—but sitting with people packed in on all sides, yelling to converse with one another, every single one of them there with at least one other person—makes me feel quite introverted, backward, and lonely. And if there’s no bar seat at all, and all I can manage is to stand awkwardly with my drink in one hand and my phone in the other, so I can keep my eyes on the screen to suggest that while I might be there alone, I’m deep in electronic communion with some absent, but super-cool, friend—I couldn’t feel more miserably, self-consciously isolated. I’ve tried to bully myself into just getting over it. People do this, I tell myself. It doesn’t mean anything to be standing alone in a bar other than that you happened to feel like doing it. You’ll be cool and intrepid. This is how you meet people.

No, it’s not. You can put 100 affable, generous, sociable people in a room together, and if they all know at least one other person there, that’s where they will focus their unwavering attention—so that they don’t have to make feeble attempts at small talk with perfect strangers, so that they don’t have to be the one standing lamely in a corner pretending to answer the most interesting text in the world, fooling no-one with just how obviously and completely socially adrift she is. It’s really quite awful and after my last attempt, I swore never to put myself through it again.

So if a woman feels like strolling into a bar, asking for a shot of bourbon (or more realistically, “our bartender’s whimsical take on the old-fashioned, made with our house-blended bitters, organic cane sugar, and smoked, pickled, candied orange peel…”), and alternately reading her book or shooting the breeze with the charming but happily-married bartender—she absolutely can. It’s a pleasant way to be on your own and yet with other people. No-one who matters will think you’re a call girl. You can congratulate yourself on single-handedly chipping away at gender stereotypes. It’s completely fine.

As long as it doesn’t get too lonely.

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