Remember that episode of Cheers—the one where Norm, Cliff and Frasier all sit at tables six feet apart?
They order from tablets that have been carefully sanitized after each guest. A single empty seat is also at each table, which could be occupied by a member of the same household, but the men are all solo as usual. Sam pours the beers, a list of service tickets in front of him, as he tries to make eyes at two blondes over his face covering. They don’t notice him from behind his plastic-glass barrier, as far away as they are. Carla places the sealed beer vessels on a table in the middle of the bar, and calls each guest in a muffled Boston accent through her N95 to retrieve them, one at a time. The boys drink from recyclable cups through paper straws going under their masks—finishing the beer under the allotted time limit, of course. Except for Norm … he lingers a little longer. Carla signals at him from six feet away and gestures at her wrist, where a watch would be, and points at him. Classic Carla!
Oh, wait, how about the episode from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where “The Gang” recklessly throws a party during a pandemic? Paddy’s becomes the epicenter for an even stronger strain of the contagion. Frank Reynolds goes on a ventilator.
These are both worst-case scenarios on what things will be like once bars are finally allowed to reopen; the truth will likely be something in the middle. How far in the middle will depend on which city in which you reside. But the lingering presence of the virus leads to some uncomfortable questions: Do we even need bars? Do we need bartenders?
I could definitely see a near-ish future without bartending as we know it: Picture a wall of options to choose from on slick LED display as you wait in line, six feet apart. Your options are all pre-batched cocktails, certainly no garnishes, and probably no reusable glassware. The architecture and branding will determine the experience, and that experience will be exactly the same every time. Maybe there will be music in some places—a band behind a stage wall less cozy than the one at the Roadhouse—but probably not. There will certainly be no talking to strangers.
I could position myself for this future; I could put together a drink program for it, and teach the “bartenders” the basic set of skills required for pouring the bottle in the vessel.
Just think of it: There are no fights and no bad drinks—or at least no inconsistent ones. Nobody is breathing all over you, with no jerk bartenders thinking they’re Jove almighty. You’re just drinking at a table with the friends you arrived with, and no creeps bothering you, unless you count some unwelcome stares. Oh, wait, there are opaque barriers between tables—so there are no unwelcome stares. You don’t need to talk to a stranger in real life ever again, and if you do feel the need, there are apps for that. You can have anything you ever wanted sent to you, including intimacy. You can meet over Zoom; they don’t even have to know where you live.
Bars are obsolete. Millennials and younger people are drinking less than previous generations, anyway, and are less likely to go to a bar regularly. I can’t fight the future, but it will be a sad day when the last traditional bar has its last regular turned away, be it from a loss of business to the new model, or the powers that be forcing the doors shut.
Why will that day be sad? Why is everything I’ve mentioned here sad? Because bars are important.
Bars are places where you muster up the false courage to act like a fool, to make small mistakes (and sometimes big ones), to—in the words of a song I have heard far too many times—“forget about life for a while.” They’re the places the sad drunks die slowly, among friends, instead of home alone. A bar is a place where an introvert like me can have a stage, with the safety of a plank of some sort between us.
Bars are where revolutions begin. I know that for a fact; I have read the patina-hued plaques all over Boston. They’re one of the few places we get out of the sad like-minded echo-chamber reality we now live in: You might have to hear someone with different views from yours, and she’s sitting right next to you. You can’t make her leave, but you can always change seats. But you don’t. Why don’t you? In this era where you can tell your little cybernetic organ which news suits you or doesn’t (Thumbs up or down? More stories like this?), and people don’t read newspapers anymore, why suffer a fool? Why go to a place that plays not the talking heads you don’t like on the TVs, but the Talking Heads you do like on the jukebox? Because that is life. It’s breathy and loud, and full of mysterious odors, crushed under despair and lifted by mutual experience.
I realize most people don’t spend as much time in bars as I do. When I am not behind a bar, I am often sitting at one. If you sup at a restaurant table, you are always rolling the dice on food and service—it’s the unspoken thrill of dining out. If you sit at the bar, you also roll the dice on your company. I am certain a fair number of people in this world have had sub-par meals and lackluster service ameliorated by making a new “single-serving friend” (to use Tyler Durden’s expression). If the occasional great meal is tarnished by being next to a boor with a napkin shoved down his shirt, at least it’s something to talk about with each other later. Sure beats talking about the steak being unseasoned or some such thing.
So, yes, bars are important—not more important than lives, of course. But they’re important. While I appreciate the seriousness of our current situation, I really hope things don’t change too much, too fast, out of fear. Life will never be totally safe, and it shouldn’t be. I would hate to make your next martini from under glass—or out of a bottle.
Kevin Carlow can be reached at CrypticCocktails@gmail.com.