–by Mark MacDonald–
It’s something many people would never consider doing, others do it all the time, but for me, on a random weekday night, with a faint mist reflecting the light of street lamps off the pavement, it will be the first time I’ve gone to a bar alone. As I walk, I can’t help but wonder what the night will hold, how awkward I will feel, if I’ll talk to anyone at all, or how long it will take before I call it quits and head home.
The first establishment on my adventure is a veritable watering hole, the kind of establishment many would call an “old man bar.” There are no LCD televisions screens to be found, only a pool table in the back alongside a jukebox that plays Pink Floyd as I enter. A stool at the bar is empty in the midst of three men likely in their 60s or 70s—one of whom could have played Gandalf, given his appearance. I politely ask the wizardly gentleman if the seat is taken, to which he coyly replies, “It is now.”
I smile and pull the stool away from the bar, setting my jacket upon it as he continues; “It was destiny.” As I sit, I ask him, “Are we talking about determinism?”
Soon I am engaged in an engrossing conversation exploring the nature of time and space, the universe at large and our place in it that somehow evolves into a discussion of politics, religion, medical marijuana and cars in the 1970s. Dave introduces me to his friends John and Memphis, who assure me that scenes of youths cruising down the strip in their boat-like rides I had seen in the film American Graffiti did, in reality, take place back in their day. A younger man pulls up a stool next to us, and soon the two of us are talking about his time in Canada, as I try to decipher what he is saying through his thick Irish accent. It all seems too easy at this point and, emboldened by my first experience at the bar alone (as well as my pint of Guinness), I decide to take my leave and venture across the street to another establishment.
The resto-bar is dimly lit, with soft house music playing and groups of friends or couples sitting at tables spread out along the wall or near the front window. I make my way to the counter and pull up a stool next to a half-dozen patrons in their late 20s or early 30s. Within a few short moments, the bartender pours me a pint and I am left to my own devices. It quickly becomes apparent that the people seated at the bar know each other; two of them are a couple, and my chances of entering into another conversation, I soon realize, are next to none. As I sip my beer the temptation to reach for my phone grows, but I have committed not to use that crutch tonight, so I refrain and instead focus on the modern art hanging on the walls while, in my periphery, a host meticulously rolls cutlery into napkins. My ears search for clarity amidst the din of the room, trying in vain to home in on a conversation, as only a few words can be distinguished amidst the clatter. A few minutes later, one half of the couple leaves to the bathroom and, within seconds, having no one to talk to, the other has pulled out a phone. I can’t help but smile.
Perhaps, with all of our mobile devices, our text messages and Instagram posts, we have forgotten how to simply drink a beer and sit in solitary silence—or else how to converse with strangers. The thought also crosses my mind that, if I were a woman, the situation would be far different, likely in a negative sense. Surely, by now I would have been bothered by someone looking for more than a pleasant conversation.
I finish my beer at a casual pace and sit in a solitary moment, as waves of conversations fill my ears for a moment, then fade into an inaudible amalgamation of noises. The world carries on around me, and time slowly passes by—at least, Dave would say, my perception of it does. I decide to move on.
I venture further and find myself at a local favorite that is, on the weekends, packed. This time, there are LCD screens mounted above the bar, and, as I pull up a stool and order a pint, I find it difficult to ignore them. My eyes gravitate, instead, to a reindeer’s head mounted on the wall and I contemplate for some time whether or not it is real. Once again, the bar is inhabited by people in their late 20s or early 30s. Everyone sitting at the bar is familiar with one another (apart from me, of course) and engaged in a jovial discussion about ice-skating. I can’t help but eavesdrop, and I listen as several of them comment on their absent friend’s innate abilities on the rink, as well as a number of places they should go to as a group for some fun. After a few moments, a gentleman pulls up a stool next to me, but, as soon as he is finished ordering a double bourbon on the rocks, he is on his phone.
Perhaps out of a sense of obligation, the bartender inquires as to how my night has been and I can’t help but reveal my intentions for the evening. As I tell Jenna about my article, and the first bar I frequented, she immediately zeroes in on the old man bar, explaining that she has been there many times and had “some wild nights there.” Soon, we discuss the differing results of my social experiment, something she attributes to time and place more than societal changes. “There are definitely certain times here that regulars will show up and strike up a conversation with anybody,” she explains, “it really just depends on the night.” Our conversation continues for a few more minutes as we discuss generational attitudes towards going to a bar alone, and the differences between the experiences as relates to gender. Jenna agrees; it is far more likely that she will have a negative encounter going out alone than I—something that is both unfortunate and upsetting.
A few moments later, Jenna attends to her other customers and I return to staring blankly at the reindeer head mounted on the wall, drifting through a myriad of thoughts. I contemplate the evening: the discussion about time and space, the constant temptation to use my phone, the bartender’s insight, the long moments of silence spent sitting at the bar listening to the world. A feeling of minor accomplishment enters my body, having gone out alone and, frankly, enjoyed it. I also feel a greater appreciation for my friends, for casual conversation and comfortable silence. As I finish my last drink and call it a night, I commit to myself that I will reach out to them soon, and, with a smile on my face, I make my way out of the bar. Before I leave, I ask Jenna about the reindeer.
Turns out, it was real.