From her first beers on a bar train as a young woman, Rosie Schaap , "Drink" columnist for The New York Times Magazine and author of "Drinking With Men" (Riverhead, $26.95), was intoxicated by the camaraderie she found among fellow drinkers. In this elegiac memoir, the chapters chart her love affair with various bars; it's an addictive cocktail of wisdom and jest. Whether reciting poetry with professors over a pint in rural Vermont or learning to love soccer in a downtown Manhattan dive, Schaap makes the reader a regular in her world. She discussed the book in a recent phone interview.
You estimate that you've spent 13,000 hours in a bar. How'd you come up with that number?
I confess, that's a pretty conservative estimate. I scratched it out with my editor on a bar napkin. As my brother says, my math SAT scores wouldn't get me into the NHL. But I'm 42, so that's 20 years of being a serious bar regular. And I think I rounded to 13,000 because I really like the number 13 -- I have the opposite of triskaidekaphobia. Triskaidekaphilia!
At one point you call the local watering hole "a community center for people who drink." Is this experience specific to New York?
Not at all. I certainly found it in bars when I was in college in Vermont. In a small town it may even be more pronounced. In Vermont the bar felt not just like a community center, but also the center of the community. It functioned as a gathering place where you could catch up on news. When I was sick, the sisters who owned the bar checked in on me and brought me soup. Being a regular at a bar may be even more crucial in a smaller town.
What do you love most about being a regular?
I can't imagine anything more interesting to me than people. A lot of us who like to drink do so because it loosens us up and helps us to relax. The cliches are true -- In vino veritas and all that. When we're relaxed and comfortable and letting go of the stresses of a hard work day, we're in a better position to be open to people and to listen. Regularhood is about mutual affection and being part of a group.
Halfway through the book, your roommate writes in her journal that you are an alcoholic. What effect did this have on you?
That really stung me. I hadn't really stopped to think about it. I was young and naive and drinking more than I ever had, and it made me consider what it means to be an alcoholic, whether it was hard for me not to drink. There's something about that first sip of whiskey at the end of a long day -- almost like taking a warm bath. It's not about getting hammered and having five more. I'm disappointed that people assume that because people love bars they are alcoholics. I never had a physical addiction to alcohol, but I did have some kind of addiction to the bar.
There is a beautiful chapter here about your love affair with soccer born out of drinking with sports fans. How did your father, the famous sportswriter Dick Schaap, inform your writing?
My dad belonged to a journalistic era of big drinkers, but he was not a drinker. Writing was his thing. I remember him sitting at the dining room table, writing. I learned from him what it meant to be a writer -- he modeled the idea that it was a job, that you sit at a typewriter and write. It is work, not something that was mystified or more valuable than any other job.
But writing and drinking are connected for you -- by the end of the book you are writing the "Drink" column for The New York Times Magazine and take a shift at your local bar.
I've worked as a community organizer, a librarian at a paranormal society, a minister and more. I didn't quite understand how to make a life as a writer until this book. Freelancing is the greatest thing that ever happened to me, but writing is lonely and sedentary. I love my pokey Tuesday day shift. Eight hours a week doing something so different from my writing has been a lifesaver for me. Bartending has things in common with what I love about writing: paying close attention and telling stories.