From Behind the Bar: On Drinking Alone

From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.

About the Author: You may have seen Michael Neff behind the bar at New York's Ward III and The Rum House. He stops by on Wednesdays to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman.


[Photograph: Jessica Leibowtiz]

What I'm Drinking: Flying Dog IPA Fernet Branca (one cube)

There was a time when I left New York, and left bartending altogether, not certain if I would ever return to either. The months that ensued contain stories for another day, but when I did come back to the city it was pretty clear that the craft and trade of tending bar had once again called my name.

When I arrived I needed a job, and the owner of a bar I had spent some time in got in touch and asked if I could give them a month or two. Against my better judgement I agreed, and found myself back at a joint where I had spent some of the best and some of the most miserable moments of my life.

When I walked back into that bar, that remembered misery seemed mutual. What had been a popular little East Village college-bar/hip-hop club was now a dingy memory of its former glory. A once-vibrant place had fallen to seed, and my memories of dancing crowds and drinking throngs were juxtaposed with empty stools and a persistent aroma of mildew.

This kind of thing happens to bars. The most timeless gain a life of their own, and live on through decades of punters, owners, managers, and fiends. Other places, usually those that were opened in response to some trend or other, eventually fizzle out and die. Maybe the lease expires and the building owner decides he doesn't want his place filled with drunken college kids. Maybe business drops, and the operators can never figure out how to get it back. Maybe times change, and the bar doesn't adapt.

The place I found myself working, however temporarily, was on its way out. It was clear to me the second I walked in the door.

I opened that bar at four in the afternoon, and for the next ten hours, not a single soul walked in. Sometime around two in the morning, I heard the hinges of the door squeal. I looked up from my book—by this point I was long out of cleaning duties—and a man dressed up in a loose black dress, white face paint, black eyeliner, and wild hair wandered in and sat down at the bar.

He was a German tourist who had read on the internet that this joint played eighties music, and he was dressed to look exactly like Robert Smith of The Cure. I asked him what he'd like to drink, and he ordered a beer. A moment passed, both of us sitting in silence while he contemplated an empty bar and I wondered how a man could go through life in the guise of a faded icon. He paid, thanked me, and left. That was that.

I often think of this moment when I see people sitting alone at my bar. I'm not talking about someone waiting for their date to arrive, but a person who is all alone, and walks in to a public house knowing that they might walk out again without speaking to another soul.

There is a stigma attached to people who drink alone in bars, but I don't share it. Some of my happiest memories are from the days when I could buy the Sunday paper and spend hours lingering over every article and a few glasses of wine. Sure, I could have done this in my house, but being out in the public made the utterly unrushed moment more poignant, and more memorable.

I don't often have the luxury of those moments these days, but I always appreciate encountering someone who does. Sometimes it's a tourist who wants to soak in the zeitgeist of a strange city. Sometimes it's a woman who wants to sip a nice bourbon as she finishes the last pages of a good book. Sometimes it's a man who hopes to walk in by himself and walk out with a friend. Sometimes it's a visitor looking to relive an era and a city that no longer exist. I'm not one to judge. Sometimes we just want to be in the same space with other people as the minutes of all of our lives tick by.