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."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Rosie Schaap is a part-time bartender, and she writes the "Drinks" column for The New York Times magazine. But she doesn't hang out in bars just to make a living, or even just to have 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, hanging around the bar car of a New York City commuter train.
ROSIE SCHAAP: I was really into tarot cards and all kinds of mysticism - or at least a 15-year-old's ideas about mysticism. And one night, because I was so preoccupied with really learning tarot cards, I just pulled them out in that bar car to practice. And 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 fortunes.
GREENE: That's interesting. These are all commuters from New York, like, coming back from work and...
SCHAAP: These were all commuters. These were all - you know, but bar car commuters, as I'm sure you know, are different from other commuters. They're louder...
SCHAAP: ...drunker, smokier, all of these things. And that's what really drew me to the bar car.
GREENE: What did you like about it?
SCHAAP: They just seemed to be having such a good time, and they really seemed like a community.
GREENE: OK. And so you really get addicted to the sense of community as a teenager in a bar car.
SCHAAP: I did.
GREENE: You title your book "Drinking with Men." And over the years, you've mostly been with men. I mean, that's who you're usually drinking with.
SCHAAP: That's true. There are many women with whom I have loved drinking over the years. But the truth is, in any bar - any good corner, neighborhood bar - most of the regulars will be men.
GREENE: And in some ways, it seemed like one thing you were doing in this book was saying: I'm a woman. I love bars. I love even dive bars. And that's OK.
SCHAAP: It's absolutely OK. For me, it's been very good. And I don't want to sound naive about it, but the vast majority of my experiences in bars has been so good. I've learned about books. I've learned about art. I've learned about sports. Most interesting of all, I've learned about the lives of other people who've really let me into their own experiences, because we happen to drink together in the same place.
GREENE: One person who became very important to you is a man you met at a bar. His name was Ed. And I wonder if you could tell me a little about him.
SCHAAP: Every now and then, you meet someone who really just completely informs and changes your experience of a bar. And Ed was that kind of guy. 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.
I was in my mid-to-late 20s, and my life felt kind of untethered in many ways. And it never felt like I was burdening him.
GREENE: Rosie, do you have the book with you?
SCHAAP: I do.
GREENE: There's a passage on page 165. And we should say Ed passed away, and it was a really painful moment for you. And you were telling a friend about why this friend of yours from the bar was so important to you, and she wasn't totally getting him. Maybe you can read some from the book.
SCHAAP: Sure. (Reading) She was not unsympathetic, but she looked a little puzzled, like it was strange that I should be so invested in someone I knew from a bar, someone I drank with. I hadn't grown up with Ed. He was not a relative, though he was family in a way that was suddenly too hard to explain. We had not gone to school together. We had never worked together. We knew each other because night after night, for just a couple of years, we drank in each other's company.
GREENE: Are you a little puzzled yourself about how someone you met in a bar could become so special?
SCHAAP: I think I was at the time. I think hadn't expected that. But it's happened many times since then.
GREENE: Do you think if everyone gave the bar culture a chance, they would see this community and experience these types of friendships? Or does it take a unique person? I mean, are you unique in some way, where the bar culture is right for you?
SCHAAP: I think that bar culture can offer something to everyone. You know, 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. If you're not a true regular, you might not see the need to come back the next night, and the next and the next. I think that's really the difference.
GREENE: There were a few times, Rosie Schaap, where you asked yourself: Does my frequent attendance at bars mean that I might be an alcoholic?
SCHAAP: Sure. I think if I never asked myself that question, I'd probably be in trouble.
GREENE: And what is your answer?
SCHAAP: 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.
GREENE: I wonder - this is a memoire, and in your acknowledgements - and it's the only place that this comes up. You mentioned you lost your husband in 2010.
SCHAAP: I did.
GREENE: I guess I just wonder: Has that loss changed your relationship with bars and what you need from bars at all?
SCHAAP: You know, I haven't thought about that really, David. That's a good question. And I think it has. I was writing the book and living with a spouse with a terrible kind of cancer. You really need to be on your toes when someone you love is dying. There's a lot to deal with.
SCHAAP: 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. And since then, you know, I don't know if it's just because of losing Frank, but I think also just getting older.
You know, now I stop by my favorite local bars less than I once did. I don't stay as long. But it's still so important to me that they're there. And since you mentioned Frank and his death, I hadn't really thought about bartending in many, many years, until after he died. And it was a time when it was really hard for me to just get myself up in the morning and do normal things, like shower and get dressed and go out and see people.
And I think the people who owned the bar where I work kind of offered me a shift as a kind of mitzvah, as a way to get me out, as a way to talk to people again and have a reason for getting out there more. And it's been a real blessing in that way. I've seen a lot of really, really big hearts in bars.
GREENE: Rosie Schaap, thank you so much for talking to us about your life and about your book. It's been a pleasure.
SCHAAP: David, I couldn't have enjoyed it more. I hope we can do it again some day over drinks.
GREENE: I like that idea.
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GREENE: Rosie Schaap, her new memoir is called "Drinking with Men."
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GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News, where everybody knows your name. Mine is David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
I knew that. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.