Memoir

Barfly’s quest for the perfect haunt

 

Rosie Schaap finds safe haven — and friends — on both sides of the bar.

As the writer of The New York Times’ Drink column, Rosie Schaap has a voice that’s authoritative and smooth; it goes down like your better whiskey (for Schaap, this would be Jameson). Launched in October 2011, the column is a curious one, firmly of the moment — specifically the New York moment — and retro in tone, speaking to that Mad Men era when cocktails and cigarettes were the acceptable norm and the words “bottled” and “water” had not yet become joined at the hip and lip. Reading it, few would doubt Schaap’s level of alcohol expertise, but some might wonder at its source.

Schaap, 42, reveals her credentials in her new memoir; she estimates she has spent a staggering 13,000 hours swilling and socializing as a regular in bars in locations that range from Dublin to Vermont but are (or were) mostly in Manhattan. These bars, and their denizens, served as the focal point of her adult social life.

In college, she had Grogan’s, the Pig and the Man of Kent; as a young working woman in New York she fell in with the artsy crowd at Puffy’s, eventually grew bored and moved on to a place called the Liquor Store; moved onto the Fish Bar after her favorite Liquor Store drinking companion died; and then onto the Good World. When it closed, she found a cozy spot in Brooklyn and picked up her first bartending shift.

Some people visit bars with their friends, others go to bars expecting to make friends. Schaap belongs to the latter group, which she acknowledges tends to be a predominantly male group.

She comes across as a good egg, kind and decent. (Before she was old enough for bars, she ditched school and followed the Grateful Dead. In the book’s most bittersweet segment, she recounts being a hallway “spinner” and parking lot peddler, a woman on a quest for community.)

As such, Drinking With Men, as McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon did, elevates bar life to such an extent that you start to get the itch to be in some swell dive with a bunch of people you kind of sort of know.

“At the bar, you don’t so much as unload your s--- as set it aside,” Schaap writes. “You keep the conversation light; wit is welcome, humor even more valued, but nothing too deep, nothing too serious. …There’s safety in superficiality, in not letting things get too deep or too personal.”

This is an astute assessment of the ways of the regular; Schaap knows the milieu and names it for what it is, “something both real and less than real, a kind of controlled, convivial shallowness.” That flush from liquor and the buzz of companionship practically seeps out of these easy, flowing pages.

But at the same time, as convivial as Drinking With Men is, it is also shallow; whenever the deep and personal intrude, Schaap essentially picks up and relocates the narrative, in much the same way she moves on from her various bars. She treats the reader like another regular, with a regular’s limited interest.

In her 20s, Schaap reads her roommate’s (open) diary and learns that she is perceived to be an alcoholic. True, she was at Puffy’s almost every day then, at the expense of all else (“Grad school was pretty much a bust.”) but “Was that so bad?” she asks herself. “No, I decided, it wasn’t so bad.”

Her biggest dodge is to only inform the reader of the illness and death of her husband, Frank, whom she meets, marries and separates from in the course of the book, in the acknowledgments. “This was a story I could not tell here,” Schaap writes. Only she has, in some peculiar way, if only in the way a sad and ghostly absence of real self-examination hangs over those later chapters.

It’s not that Schaap doesn’t acknowledge wounds, including those left by her all-too-absent sportswriter father, but that instead of examining them, she focuses on how and where she bathed these wounds.

By the time Schaap is in her late 30s and weeping to a kindly cabbie in the dead of night about thinking she may be tired of drinking with men, the narrative expectation is that maybe the next group of regulars we meet with her may be the kind who share bad coffee, stale cookies and 12 steps in a church basement.

There’s never a last call for alcohol, though, and maybe that’s not what Rosie Schaap needs at all. Whatever it is, you hope she finds it, because even with its missing pieces, Drinking With Men makes you wish the best for this tender barfly.

Mary Pols reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.

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