Rosie Schaap is a part-time bartender, and the author the “Drink” column for The New York Times Magazine. But she doesn’t hang out in bars just to make a living — or even just to make a drink.
In a new memoir called Drinking With Men, Schaap writes about how the time she has spent in bars has shaped her life, starting when she was just 15 years old, riding a commuter train out of New York City. Schaap tells NPR’s David Greene that she was always drawn to the train’s bar cars. “Of course, I couldn’t get served at that age,” she says. “There was no way, on the Metro-North, that they wouldn’t see right through a 15-year-old trying to get a beer.”
At the time, Schaap was trying to teach herself to read tarot cards. And one night in the bar car, she pulled out her deck for a practice layout. “Suddenly, all these grownups who hadn’t given me a second glance before kind of swooped in on me and wanted me to tell their fortune,” she says.
“Bar car commuters, as I’m sure you know, are different from other commuters,” Schaap adds. They’re louder, drunker and smokier, “and that’s what really drew me to the bar car,” she says. “They just seemed to be having such a good time, and they really seemed like a community.”
That community Schaap fell in love with was composed mostly of men. While there are women she loves to drink with, Schaap says that in any good corner dive, most of the regulars will be men. “So when I started to think more seriously about writing about being a woman in bars, I realized that gender is no small part of this. That as a woman who really loves bars, what happens is you find yourself assimilating. There’s this thing that happens where you become one of the guys.”
And that’s okay, absolutely okay, Schaap says. “For me, it’s been very good. I don’t want to sound naive about it, but the vast majority of my experience in bars has been so good.” Schaap says she’s learned about books, art, sports and the lives of the people she’s bonded with over a drink.
One of those people was a man named Ed, who Schaap says informed and changed her experience of bars. “I think sometimes when we think about the kind of exchange of conversation in a bar, it can be almost a cacophony, all of these different voices. Ed was just this very rare listener, and I needed that at that time.” Schaap says she hadn’t expected a drinking buddy to become so close, almost family — but it’s happened many times since she met Ed.
“Bar culture can offer something to everyone,” she says. “When I invite friends of mine who don’t spend as much time in bars as I do, they always have a great time, and they get it, and they see how supportive we are of one another, and how we really do, as fellow regulars, just help each other let off that steam.” Though if you’re not a true regular, she says, you might not see why people choose to come back night after night.
But doesn’t going to bars night after night mean you might have a drinking problem? “I think if I never asked myself that question, I’d probably be in trouble,” Schaap says. “My answer is no, I’m not an alcoholic. I think it’s good that I’ve had to sit and think about that, but it’s never been hard for me not to drink alcohol. It’s been hard for me not to go to bars. And there is a difference.”
Schaap lost her husband in 2010, and she says that has made a difference in her relationship to bars. “You really need to be on your toes when someone you love is dying,” she says. “There’s a lot to deal with, so I kind of needed to have that end-of-night drink, to sort of let a little bit of that go at the end of the day, but I couldn’t drink very much at that time. I had too much to do.” Since then, she says, she stops by bars less often, and doesn’t stay so long, “but it’s still so important to me that they’re there.” She’s also taken on a bartending shift at her local, as a way of getting out of the house and talking to people, “and it’s been a real blessing in that way. I’ve seen a lot of really really big hearts in bars.”