A solitary drinker sits at the end of the bar, and with a nod and a grunt, signals for his third beer. All around him, people are talking, playing pool, singing to the jukebox, making out. There’s nothing on TV, and he’s not really watching it anyway. What’s this guy doing here?
Humans are fundamentally social creatures. Even the most hardened introvert occasionally feels the inherent need for human companionship, whether as an active participant or a casual observer. It’s easy to pretend that people go to bars for booze, but it makes more sense, logistically and economically, to drink at home. No, a bar exists as a local gathering space – a place to extinguish not a feeling of loneliness, but one of isolation. To encourage a cozy, confortable feeling, the lights are kept low and intimate. The music is deliberate. There are a hundred details constantly cultivated to maintain ambiance. Alcohol is simply a logical and lucrative piece of the equation: aside from essentially selling itself, it lowers inhibitions, making it easier for people to come together, feeding the ambiance so important to selling it.
As in any controlled environment, there are rules; some are for safety and some for sociality. They can be generalized as: don’t fall down, keep your vomit in the bathroom, pay your tab, and try not to piss anybody off. Owing to the nature of alcohol, and society’s penchant for excess, often these rules are broken, and not exclusively by assholes. But a bar is not a church. Swearing and (some) nudity are allowed, and no matter what the old adage about politics, there really aren’t any inappropriate topics of conversation. There are no judgments, and the same cocktail that starts an argument will become the very reason one is forgiven for it.
Very dramatic, powerful, emotional connections happen when people share a drink. Some of them are sexual. Some of them are angry. All of them are influenced by alcohol, which raises the question: was it just the booze talking? To what degree are people responsible for their emotions, and would those emotions exist at all when removing liquor from the scenario? (It is very important to note the difference between emotions and actions; a person is always wholly responsible for his or her actions, but that’s another subject.) If a tree falls in the forest… if it happened in a bar, did it really happen at all?
Alcohol doesn’t change character, but it does a hell of a job erasing awkwardness. There’s a beautiful freedom in eliminating small anxieties through social lubricants like vodka. There’s a lightheartedness that’s synonymous with getting a little tipsy, and there’s something vaguely endearing about the sloppy tears that come after one too many. In a world at once so online and connected, yet so impersonal and cold, the earnestness in drinking strikes a nerve – an electrifying jolt of realness, of togetherness.
But is the realness less genuine when you drink? Can you have a meaningful conversation with the same bartender you confide in, when said bartender is standing in the grocery store squeezing melons? A drunk man tells no lies, but maybe he’s full of shit anyway.
It’s the worst feeling in the world to wake up and all at once feel waves of regret for the night before. Coming face-to-face with a cell phone screen, wine-stained lips and teeth; cringing at oversharing, reliving every painful moment of rum retardation. Bruce Bartholow, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri College of Arts and Science (he’s worth a google) did a huge study, and came to the same conclusion we are all forced to come to: it’s all real. What you said and did, and how you felt, was real. You just didn’t care about consequences, or about following rules. Immediately dismissing one’s (sometimes embarrassing) conduct based on drunkenness might take away a valuable opportunity for introspection and personal growth. Don’t let your feelings mean less because you felt them in a bar. And please, try not to vomit.