“I don’t take pleasure in things I’m not good at. I’m good at sitting in a bar”

In her memoir "Drinking With Men," the New York Times drinks columnist recounts the virtues of being a regular

Topics: Books, literature, Rosie Schaap, drinks, liquor, bars, Gender, Gender Roles, grateful dead, grief, Memoir, Author Interviews, Memoirs,

"I don’t take pleasure in things I’m not good at. I’m good at sitting in a bar"

At 42, Rosie Schaap has already led a number of lives, all over this country and across the Atlantic, as an erudite high-school dropout and touring Deadhead,  a fortuneteller, an aspiring Irishwoman (she’s Jewish), an esoteric librarian, a grad student, a community activist, a teacher, a bartender, a writer. But no matter where she was living, or how unmoored she might have been feeling, Schaap always managed to anchor herself — on a bar stool, among the men at the local pub. You might say she has a rather Irish or English approach to the bar, viewing it as a kind of community center where neighbors can convene and bring their families — Americans still see it as a den of debauchery, especially when a single woman enters its doors. Schaap is something of an expert, though, having clocked an estimated 13,000 hours in pubs, bars and taverns, she admits outright in her funny, smart-as-hell, moving memoir “Drinking With Men,” not one of them wasted. Because it has been inside of these establishments that she has found camaraderie, witty banter and intellectual discourse, great jokes and moving stories, and even occasional romance — forging not just fleeting pub friendships but bonds with patrons and proprietors that endure to this day. Schaap, whom I’ve known for several years, through mutual close friends as well as through the ethereal Facebook universe (and ongoing Lexulous matches — she is a Scrabble master, be warned), came over to my apartment in Brooklyn to invent a new cocktail for Salon, the Gerry Mandarin, to inaugurate both her memoir and our president’s second term, and to talk about the allure of the corner pub, the feminist act of walking into a very male space,  and how she fell in and out — and ultimately made peace — with Jack Daniel’s.

There’s something defiantly feminist about a woman going into a bar by herself, a space that is, to this day, still very male-centric.

Yeah, it was very consciously feminist. There’s no question about that. My parents went to bars, but not a lot. They weren’t big bar people. My dad was a journalist, so of course he had to go to bars sometimes, especially in the time that he was writing. But he was never a big drinker. My mother — it took, like, two girl drinks to get her totally hammered. Give the lady a mai tai and she’s kind of done [laughter]. So they never had any objections to bars, they understood that bars could be really fun. I did catch on pretty quickly that being a woman regular – you know, there were times when I was the woman regular. Often there were a few of us, but we were always outnumbered my men. Most regulars are men. I think one reason I wrote the book is try to figure out why this was the case, and unfortunately I think a lot of it has to do with these really unfair, awful ideas about women in bars. That “Oh, obviously a woman hanging out in a bar alone is on the make. Obviously.” Or, “She’s just going because she wants someone else to pay for her drinks,” or, “Oh, she’s just really sad and lonely, and has nothing better to do.” This sort of pathos attaches itself to women who hang out in bars that I obviously find pretty offensive.

People in general are suspect when they go out by themselves. You don’t go out to dinner by yourself, you don’t go out to a bar by yourself. In New York, you can go to a movie by yourself.

There’s a lot of things I love to do alone. I don’t like the post-movie chit-chat — I like to go to a movie and not talk about it. There are times that I love going to bars with my friends. But I always felt totally fine about going to bars by myself — that’s how I met a lot of people. I don’t know if it’s me, but I think there’s a certain kind of bar where it’s really easy to become a regular, where the established regulars are really friendly and open and it’s not a closed-off, isolated group. Some bars do have that, and I think if you have a good sense of how to read a bar, that’s easy to figure out. “Oh, these people are having a great time and it feels really light here and it feels really easy to be here and so-and-so is saying hello and they’re not instantly offering to buy you a drink. It isn’t about that. They’re a bunch of people having a good time in a place they obviously really enjoy and feel at home in, and they want you to feel that way too.

In a city, especially one like New York, a bar is like an extension of your living room.

Absolutely. So I kind of think it’s a funny thing that people think of going to a bar by themselves as this sort of abject, sad condition. But once you become a regular, you’re never by yourself in a bar. I’m not actually, physically going to a bar with someone, but I know that once I get there, you know, Jimmy’s gonna be there, and Corey’s gonna be there, and these are my people and I know them and of course I’m not alone when I’m with them and of course we’re gonna be together.

You said some of the best conversations that you have you’ve had in bars.

That has definitely been my experience. But I do think this thing is interesting about men in bars and maybe out of bars being more willing to share certain things about their lives with women. I mean, some of these guys I’ve known in bars over the years form these incredibly close, deep, meaningful friendships with other men in the bars, really brotherly. But it’s still different. I feel there are things that they’d sooner talk about with a woman. Certainly big, serious life issues, illness, family stuff, that they weren’t quite as ready to talk to other guys with.

It’s also the way we’re socialized. Maybe it’s partly that these guys need to loosen their inhibitions a bit, and yes, also having this regular place to go every day. I’m struck by how your bar life starts in the bar car of the Metro North train en route to the shrink, while the 15-year-old Rosie is reading the tarot cards of all the weary adults in the car. Here you are, going to self-examine, and you’re helping other people explore their psyches.

That was a time in my life when I did feel more comfortable with grown-ups than I did with my peers. You know, I had friends who I liked, and we were all sort of nice weirdos at our high school. And I was just this lone teenager in a bar car filled with grown-ups – mostly male grown-ups – and I really wanted to be able to order a beer, but of course I couldn’t. I was so into tarot cards. I was such a big cuckoo wannabe mystic. So I was practicing all the time – you know, the hand gestures and laying out the cards right now – giving myself readings, giving my friends from high school readings, and it was almost addictive, the same way you see people playing Words With Friends or something on their iPhone now. I always had my cards out. I hadn’t intended giving all these grown-ups at the bar tarot card readings, but I couldn’t stop giving myself readings, so I just took out the cards and they like swooped in on me. They had no interest in me before. So that felt pretty good.

A little icebreaker, like, “Hey can you tell me what’s going to happen for the rest of my life?” “Yeah, you’re doomed to a life of hell.”

Yeah, it’s not looking good, my friend. Being able to talk to the grown-ups and entertain them and them being able to entertain you. But I wasn’t one of them, and I had to learn that. That was an important thing to understand. So I didn’t think of myself as particularly bold or courageous or original in any way. I was just completely preoccupied with becoming the best damn 15-year-old tarot card reader I could be.

It’s just so much more interesting than what we would do, which was get someone’s older sister to drive us to the liquor store and buy for us. Or use a fake ID.

I had so many fake IDs.

We weren’t even old enough to have discerning palates. I believe Bartles and Jaymes was our drink of choice. Blecch.

I think that when you tasted Bartles and Jaymes at 15, you come to appreciate a great cocktail 20 years later so much more. Growing up in New York, it’s like every kid you knew had a list of bars that you wouldn’t get carded in. There was this kind of list of information that circulated. I think it’s gotten a lot harder. I feel like the most awful, raging hypocrite, because I card like nobody’s business at the bar where I work. It’s not my bar! And things have changed, and things have gotten a lot stricter, and you can get in trouble, and you can get your bar in trouble. And it’s just not worth it to me. I know that if these young people want to get a drink that bad, they’re gonna find one. But I’m not gonna serve it to them!

So, let’s talk about your Deadhead years. I don’t know why this fact surprised me, your having been one.

Yeah. Did that gross you out? Does that gross you out? [Laughter.]

No. But I will say it was a lifestyle that always eluded me: I hate acid and jam sessions.

I gotta say now, I’m not a big fan of a jam myself. The Grateful Dead, they had a few different modes. They had the early psychedelic songs, and they were good songs, but they didn’t go on forever, and I like those. I like psychedelia, generally. I don’t think I mentioned this in the book, and now I kind of regret not mentioning it, but on tour, in addition to doing tarot card readings and making beaded jewelry and certain vegetarian foods, my sort of service on tour was I was really good at being with kids who were having bad trips.

You were the baby sitter?

Babysitter/pastor/caregiver. I was really good at identifying a kid who was having a really hard time and finding the quietest part of Giants Stadium or some stadium in North Carolina, and taking that kid there and just sitting with that person. That was kind of my tour ministry.

I see the connecting thread, this search for community, a chosen family, and you certainly get that when you’re young, feeling lured by a community, whether it’s touring with the Dead or seeking out that regular bar. You’re seeking people that anchor you. But one question I have is, well, every kid reacts and rebels against their parents, but why did you go to such lengths to find some other family?

That’s a good question. A lot of it was my mother. I mean, I don’t want to make my mother out to be a villain. She wasn’t. She was a complicated person and also a very loving person.

You certainly don’t vilify her in these pages, which is why I ask.

And I also don’t want to in any way paint a kind of fake Dickensian picture of my childhood. It was fucked up in some ways, but it was also incredibly lucky in many other ways, there’s no question about that.

At the end of the day, you’re rather pragmatic in your rebellion: You get your GED, you go to college, you always have a job.

Yeah. I mean, my least practical point was certainly when I was a teenager and I dropped out of high school. I think there were so many different sources of anxiety for me then. My mom and I did fight a lot and I wouldn’t call her an abusive parent, but she was a screamer, and I really hate screaming. That was something I wanted to get away from. It really just rattled me. And I was also extremely migraine-prone as a kid, so the combination of migraines and a mom who was screaming all the time was pretty miserable. I also had such a mixed experience in school. I was really lazy in some ways, and one thing about me that I think is pretty awful is that I really have rarely taken pleasure from anything that I’m not good at. I’m really not good at math, and I really just wasn’t willing to think of this as kind of an interesting challenge and figure it out and take the time and do the work. I was scared of being bad at shit, and there were things I was really bad at back then that I didn’t want to deal with. I was also really restless. I read a lot about the ’60s back then. You know, you and I both grew up in the Reagan era, and for kids with a political conscience –

We were obsessed with the ’60s.

It was a horrible time. It was so demoralizing. I mean, the first great cause that ever really lit a fire under me was apartheid. I had an amazing middle school teacher who had been a missionary in South Africa. He went there as sort of this young, innocent, church missionary from North Carolina and got totally politicized once he got there. He couldn’t believe what he saw, and I couldn’t believe what I read and what I heard, and it seemed like every – God knows plenty of horrible stuff happens now, maybe equally awful stuff. I remember reading about apartheid and just having such indignation, not being able to understand how this could still happen in the world. Then Greenpeace emerged as this thing, and the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior happened around then. Not so long before that, the hunger strikers in Northern Ireland, the horrible, miserable miner strike in Great Britain. All of these things: I was so outraged. And just this overwhelming feeling during the Reagan era of people not caring much, of people just wanting to accumulate stuff and be happy and cheerful and dress the same. I was kind of easily demoralized by all of it. And I think we’re obviously so much better at looking at the ’60s from the distance that we have from it now than we were back then. It wasn’t that long ago, it’s crazy when I think about it!

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There is a brutal scene you depict of your drunkest night, when you were on tour with the Dead, and you were 17, and you had the world’s worst hangover. I won’t give anything away except to say, I will never think of Jack Daniel’s the same way again.

Oh, Kera. Oh, my God. Wow. I will say I feel a little bad about kind of making Jack Daniel’s a bad guy here, because Jack Daniel’s is a great liquor. It is a great American whiskey, so I don’t want it to sound like I’m saying Jack Daniel’s is a terrible thing, it’s actually a great, but I did a really stupid thing with Jack Daniel’s.

Have you ever made peace with Mr. Daniel’s?

Well, this is kind of a funny story. We did. So many years later. Two years ago, I was at the Black Horse, my local soccer pub, in Park Slope, and I was there for a Tottenham-Arsenal match and I’m a Tottenham fan and it was a shocking victory. Tottenham hadn’t beaten Arsenal much in recent times, and it was an afternoon game, and I was in there on my own, and there was a very nice pair of Arsenal supporters sitting next to me at the bar. I mean, they had on their jerseys, I had on mine, and we knew where we stood — or sat. This Arsenal supporter next to me pivots on his bar stool, extends his hand to shake mine, then turns to the bartender and says, “Two shots.” I hadn’t noticed that Jack was his drink. I didn’t want to be this horrible, bad sport. Here was this Arsenal fan, doing this nice thing, being very gracious and sportspersonlike. I see the bartender pouring and I’m kind of like frozen. I can’t believe what’s happening. And I took a deep breath, downed the shot. I mean, that whole taste-memory thing happened instantly. I was like, “Ugh,” because it does have such a distinctive taste. But I lived. I had my one shot of Jack Daniel’s and I was OK and I think I did the right, courteous thing. What was I gonna do, be like, “Nooo!” and toss it?

For the record, Jameson is your drink. Jameson and Guinness.

Jameson is my usual. Guinness was the first good beer I think I ever drank. There’s just nothing like it. There are a lot of smaller craft stouts now, and some of them are great. But a Guinness is a Guinness, and nothing else tastes like a Guinness.

There’s an art to the pour.

There certainly is, and whenever I pour a Guinness at the bar I try to channel my favorite barman in Dublin. I’m like, “How would Tom do this?” I pour a Guinness, I hope, almost as well as Tom. I would never say as well because he’s a true master. He’s been doing it for 40, 50 years probably, now. But what we can’t do in the States – obviously it has to be that two-part pour. If you just see them pouring a pint of Guinness, straight-on – what we can’t get away with here is letting people wait as long as they should. It really should take some time to settle before the second part of the pour. We can get away with like a minute and a half here. My favorite pub in Dublin, you’re gonna wait five minutes, and that’s fine. It teaches you to order your next Guinness when you’re about halfway through your current Guinness.

There’s a moment in the book when you glimpse inside the journal of your roommate, who writes that she thinks you’re an alcoholic.

That was a stunning moment for me. It had never occurred to me. I was drinking a lot at that time. And it may be that my least healthy relationship with a bar kind of happened then. I was so dependent on it then. I was turning down so many opportunities just to be in that same bar night after night after night, with people I loved and will defend till the day I die as totally fun, wonderful, interesting people. But my roommate probably had good reason to think I was an alcoholic. I was seldom home. I was always at a bar. I was late with paying bills. I was a shitty roommate, and my life was kind of untethered at the time. So when I saw that in her writing – and maybe I was just really young and stupid and naive, but it never occurred to me that I was maybe an alcoholic. This is a really delicate thing to talk about with people who have had alcoholism in their families and terrible things have happened as a result of alcoholism to so many people. I didn’t have that in my family. I think genetically I was fortunate that I didn’t have a genetic predisposition to becoming an alcoholic. Even at the periods when I drank most, it was easy for me. I wouldn’t get through the day dying to get to the bar because I wanted a drink. I wanted to see these people. It never would have occurred to me to go home and drink. I just wanted to be in that bar all the time. At that point, it was kind of compulsive. So she had perfectly good reasons to think I was. In some ways now I can look back when I was writing about it and see how messed up that could’ve looked to people who weren’t part of my bar life. Like, “What the fuck is she doing every single night? How is this happening?”

You could have been out bowling. 

Yeah! [Laughs.] Yeah. But I don’t take pleasure in things I’m not good at. I’m not good at that. I’m good at sitting in a bar.

And you’re a killer Scrabble player.

It’s true, I’m good at Scrabble. I’m good at sitting in bars, talking to people. Bowling I’m not good at. But that was a period, even for me, of unusually intense bar behavior. I mean, it was like a full year at that bar, like every day. I should’ve been making a documentary. It would’ve been one of those time-lapse kind of things where you see a whole year in a bar. So it was shocking and upsetting to me when I read my roommate’s diary, which she left open on our kitchen table.

That’s a personal invitation to pry if ever there was one.

[Laughs.] Yeah. I thought, “You know, she has reasons for thinking this. I’ve never thought of it before, but I can see what she’s saying.” So I really had to think about it and I’m not an alcoholic. I’m a person who really loves to drink. My drinking habits have changed a lot. It’s always been really easy for me not to have a drink. Like right now. I love a delicious cocktail and that was a really good cocktail, but I know that I have to wake up at 6 tomorrow morning and start writing stuff and I have to teach class tomorrow and I know I can’t do that if I have a couple of drinks. I’m sure I could go for a very long time without having alcohol. Not so for cigarettes, unfortunately, although I have quit for three years. That was my longest.

Your husband, Frank, got cancer and died while you were writing “Drinking With Men,” and you made a conscious decision not to talk about it in the book, which you explain in the acknowledgements.

Right. His illness was happening while I was writing. I couldn’t write about his illness while he was really busy being ill. It just wasn’t possible at all.

I can understand that, the need to let time pass to process it.

I certainly needed it. I mean, people die in this book, including my dad, and my favorite bar friend of all time, Ed. People die. But there was a lot of time between Ed’s death and my dad’s death and my starting to write this book. I couldn’t write about either of those within a couple of years of them happening, or certainly while they were happening. Frank’s illness and death I’ve only written about a tiny bit since then. He died in 2010. It was just a really horrible time. And there are books about grief and mourning and death and dying – like I haven’t read either of Joan Didion’s most recent books. I just can’t do it yet. Or Megan O’Rourke’s memoir, which I’d love to read, about her mother’s death. It’s been sitting there by my bed for a year, and at some point I’ll read it, and I might write more about mourning. I don’t know if I can. This might not make sense, but I think a lot about how the deceased would want to be remembered and spoken of and written about, and I think I understand that better from a distance than I do immediately. Frank was a very private person in many ways. He was a very low-key guy. We had been in the midst of a separation when he got sick and when he was diagnosed we got back together. Our marriage was different after that, but we were together through his sickness and it was a horrible time. More horrible for Frank, of course, than it was for me, but when you’re married to someone or love someone and they’re going through this terrible thing, it kind of takes over. I’d written almost a complete draft of the book about a month before he died. I knew he was dying. He had done really well with his cancer for a year and a half. He had a very rare cancer. Most people don’t survive it more than two years after diagnosis. At a point because he was responding well to treatment and doing well with his life, doing the things he liked and needed to do, teaching and writing papers and traveling to conferences and getting treated in New York, we thought we were very lucky. And because he was relatively young and healthy in most respects, his conditions – we thought maybe he would outlive that two-year prognosis. He didn’t. I knew something about how I deal with grief from when my father died, which maybe isn’t the best way of dealing with grief — I shut down. I got sick and sad and shut myself away for a while, and I kind of anticipated the same after Frank died. So I finished this really rough draft and he went into hospice and after that I didn’t touch my manuscript for the better part of a year. Some people say, “Sometimes work can really help you.” Well, not me. Not me. I felt creatively paralyzed. I didn’t feel I could really do anything at the time.

You’ve had so many lives, what inspired you to write a memoir about this one, your life in bars? Did the title lead the way?

Kind of. It was this thing that happened one night: I’d been waiting for a cab in the rain for what seemed like forever, and finally one pulls up — the greatest cab driver on the planet, the nicest man in the world. He could tell I was a little teary-eyed, and he wanted to know what was wrong. I’m like, “I’m fine, I’m fine, nothing is wrong.” He’s like, “OK, OK, what have you been doing?” And I was like, “I’ve been drinking with men.” It just sort of came out. And I was like, “This is kind of the story of my life. This is it right here.” And I had this funny moment – even though I was very upset at the time and very worked up and very drunk – those three words stuck with me. It was like, “This is exactly what I feel I have to write about: what this means and why it can be so wonderful but also so upsetting at times like this.” But it required being sweetly interrogated by this cab driver to get to that [laughs]. But when I started thinking about writing “Drinking With Men,” I didn’t think of it as a memoir. I thought of it as a bunch of true stories about bars I’ve known and loved and what they meant at different times of my life. And it became clear to me that whether I wanted it to be a memoir or not, that’s what it was turning into, and that certainly made the people that were nice enough to publish it happier [laughter]. I had this running joke with this agent , who was like, “You know, essays are very hard to sell.” “You know, this is a memoir, this isn’t essays.” So I teased him about the sort of dream anachronistic lunch that I imagine him taking with Montaigne and Hazwood and Orwell, like, “You guys are great, I love your work, but just stop calling them essays.” [Laughter.] “Essay” has become such a loaded word, and I love a great essay. This is by no means a comprehensive, blow-by-blow account of my life, which I think would be incredibly tedious, and would also have to include stories I have absolutely no interest in ever telling. This is a memoir of my life in bars. And some people have been really complimentary about the book, but said things, like, “Oh, I wish she had told us more about her life outside the bar.” And that’s nice, but that’s not what this book was for. I think it’s a relief to my family and most people I know that my whole life hasn’t taken place in bars, but these big chunks of it have, and that’s what the book is obviously focusing on. The bars I’ve loved and really what they’ve given me that have informed my life in ways I never really expected. I know it sounds a little crazy to people that I learned so much in bars. But I did.

Drinking With Men” will be published by Riverhead on Jan. 24, 2013.

Kera Bolonik, a writer, critic, and editor, is the executive editor of DAME Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Elle, Glamour, New York magazine, Salon, Slate, and the New York Times Book Review, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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