But I miss the bars: An Ode During COVID
"There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn." Samuel Johnson
Like Samuel Johnson and Alicia Bridges (see title), I like a good bar.
Heck, I like many bars. I love a good bar.
COVID, of course, has crippled the bar scene, which has hit me pretty hard.
You see, I’m a religious guy. I like to worship.
I’m pantheistic in my approach. God, for me, isn’t found only in the brick-and-mortar church sanctuary. God is everywhere.
Oh yeah, to be sure, he’s found in some places better than others. I believe He is present in every church. I also think He’s present in other people and acutely present in the poor.
I also believe he’s present in quiet places. It’s a belief that goes back almost 3,000 years, to the time of Elijah:
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord — but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake — but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire — but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound,” a “still and small” breeze, and then the Lord spoke, “Elijah, why are you here?”
I’m a silence monger. I seek it wherever I can find it. On the worst winter days, you’ll often find me outside, taking in the silence born from forcing the world indoors.
On a weekday afternoon, you might find me in a bar, taking advantage of the dead period — that time from, say, 1:30 to 4:00 — when the bar has virtually no customers. The lunch crowd is gone; happy hour hasn’t started yet.
The bartender and waitresses almost seem happy to see me, which, I fear, isn’t a frequent feeling of mine.
I often have the place to myself.
I order a drink and pray. If there’s a window, even better: I have a drink, look out the window, and contemplate. The drink relaxes me, putting me in a meditative mood free of everyday stress, and I’m well poised for a holy hour of sorts.
So that’s the number one thing I miss about bars:
I miss the unique opportunity to pray.
But I miss other things, too.
I miss the opportunity to read
You know what else the bar’s dead time is good for? Reading. I discovered this while studying at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. There was a quiet bar that the grad students liked to frequent called “Ashley’s.” I discovered I could duck in there on a weekday afternoon, order a soda, and do serious studying, with virtually no risk of another undergrad sitting down across from me to chat.
Since then, I do the same thing when I’m on the road. I can’t do it in my small town because people know me and interrupt with small talk, but if I’m traveling, I keep my Kindle with me, ready to stop in a small bar for 30 minutes of quiet reading. I find it far quieter than my public library or local coffee shop.
And if the clock is nearing 5:00, I order a gin and tonic and unwind with more quiet reading, fueled by a sense of detachment . . .
I miss the detachment
This one requires a bit of set-up.
Detachment has been called the first rule of the religious life. It’s a “holy indifference” to things of the world. Perhaps the most mystical expression of detachment comes from these paradoxes of St. John of the Cross:
To reach satisfaction in all
Desire its possession in nothing
To come to possess all
Desire the possession of nothing
Here’s the thing: The detached person isn’t indifferent to things. The detached person is indifferent to herself. The detached person isn’t callous toward others. He’s callous to himself.
Detachment is not, in today’s parlance, a “fuck you.” It’s a “fuck me.”
Once a person is indifferent to worldly things in a mellow way, she is really just indifferent to herself. When she’s not focused on herself, she can better appreciate the good things in the world around her because she isn’t filtering them through the refracting ego.
A quiet bar puts me into detachment mode. In fact, I’m not sure there’s anything better at putting me into detachment mode.
When I duck into the quiet bar and that door closes behind me, I’m shut off from the world. I then order a drink and get shut off from myself. A moderate amount of alcohol weakens the ego and lets me relax. The combination — the quiet bar and the effects of a few drinks — puts me in a position to sit back and look: just look, without scheming or thinking about how X, Y, or Z affects me.
I miss the love
You may have thought this entire piece was about me, myself, and I reclusing in bars off the beaten path.
I’m married. I have kids, some of whom are old enough to join me at the bar. I have friends.
I like to sit with them, drinks in hand, talking about whatever. It’s a form of detachment, but here, instead of entering a Zen-like “just looking” state of mind, I attach to the person across the table. I attach to an object. It is, in other words, an act of love.
And we can all use a little more of that.
Things I don’t miss
Of course, all bars are not created equal or identical.
The loud, raucous bar? That’s hardly for me. I didn’t particularly care for them in my early twenties. I don’t care for them now in middle age.
That quiet bar in the middle of the afternoon that is perfect for an hour of prayer or reading, but the bartender is watching a loud TV? Nuke it.
The dancing bar? Yeah, well, I haven’t liked those since I met my wife in one. It served its purpose as far as I’m concerned when I married her. I haven’t gone back.
Even a good bar has potential drawbacks. An outing with my wife, love fueled by a few drinks, seeing in her face again the girl I fell in love with 30 years ago, almost like a trance?
Smashed by a well-meaning acquaintance crashing the table for meaningless small talk.
A beer-fueled serious discussion with a friend about, say, the meaning of life?
Interrupted repeatedly by an over-zealous waitress safeguarding her tip.
Life in the quirk
Okay, I admit: My bar views are quirky.
I like bars because they give me alone time or one-on-one intimate time.
Bars are social places. Samuel Johnson, in the quote that headlines this article, was referring to the social nature of taverns. The early bars in the United States, according to historian Daniel Dorchester, were places where the “motley assembly . . . came together to hear the news, gossip, and talk politics.”
I appreciate my quirky affection for bars is unusual and probably misplaced.
But perhaps my affection for quiet bars offers a ray of light in these COVID times.
I mean, let’s face it: my bar life is one of social distancing. If more people could see this benefit of quiet bars, perhaps the bars could be saved.
Maybe the bars themselves could position themselves to take advantage of this quirk of mine, which I know, from discussions, others share. Instead of acting as mini-spreading venues, bars could embrace the quiet and appeal to the still side of human nature.
I, for one, would welcome the ability to boogie down and pray in them.