Fulfilling my obligations as raconteur is difficult business. Although I make it look effortless it requires and extraordinary amount of work. Taking tidbits and crumbs of stories then weaving that same special magic a cocaine dealer uses to turn two kilos into three. Rehearsing the lines, practicing the gestures, then, once perfected, holding court at cocktail parties and dinners, captivating my audience with what may have started in the local paper as a tale of a man and a giant pumpkin but in my hands is a story of loss and redemption and the healing power of nature.
But even the most adept performer occasionally finds difficulty in holding an audience. Comedians have hecklers, stage actors have texters, chefs have vegans. There is always someone or something begging for attention. On a recent visit to an average bar my companions’ eyes were all on me as I weaved a tale of five kids with three songs who in the late 60’s had begun a road trip from Memphis as nobodies and returned two weeks later with the number one song in the country. But their eyes kept darting from mine, over my shoulder and slightly to the left. For there sat a seven-foot tall man in a four-button suit excitably discussing basketball. He was loud, argumentative, intrusive. I kindly asked the bartender if he could silence the offender; he made a half-hearted attempt. I was going to take matters into my own hands but they wouldn’t give me the remote.
At what point, when furnishing a bar, did it become customary to install a television? What was once a fixture confined to the privacy of the living room is now, in bars, as pervasive and offensive as the miniature Red Bull cooler. It is almost impossible to have a quiet drink in a quiet bar. We are forced to sip with Sportscenter, quaff with QVC or attempt momentary escape only to have a talking head and news ticker snap us back to cold, hard reality.
A bar is a place for conversation and contemplation, it’s lubricating qualities sliding the cobwebs from our brains, it’s small square napkins the notepads of sudden genius. A place for whispered indiscretions and bold pronouncements, heated debate and cold comfort. A place where a well trained bartender knows when to talk, when to listen and when to make himself scarce.
The amateur psychologist in me thinks it must have something to do with our newfound fear of calm. Most of us spend our days looking at screens of one sort or another and where silence was once golden it is now considered suspect. Even the library is no longer a refuge, the breath of turning pages now a cacophony of keyboard clicks and vibrating phones on “silent” mode. In the early 1940’s my father’s favorite hometown bar was called “The Library”, not just for it’s quiet, book lined interior but for the fact he didn’t have to lie when my grandparents asked where he’d been.
But I argue there is just as much in a quiet bar to appeal to the senses as there is to dull them. The rolling brown cloud of a newly poured Guinness slowly giving way to deep rich black. The tiny oily droplets from a fresh pinched lemon peel floating atop the perfect ratio of gin and vermouth. The lullaby of ice being gently stirred in a mixing glass or violently abused in a shaker. The striking brunette four seats away who will undoubtedly introduce you to her husband, just returning from the restroom, mere seconds after you strike up a conversation. The bartender who presses “no sale” and makes change for your twenty out of his own pocket who won’t be there the next time you visit. The gentle clinking of bottles, the weight of a good glass, the first sip, the last dance, the long goodbye.
In a proper bar with a proper drink we don’t need a television to entertain us, that’s the responsibility of friends, strangers, atmosphere and our own thoughts. The band was the Boxtops, the song was “The Letter”. A story infinitely more interesting than anything said by someone in a four button suit.
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