The Tavern as Tabernacle: Rosie Schaap on Drinking with Men

Drinking With Men, Rosie Schaap’s very personal celebration of the bars she’s loved, of the joys of being a regular, has the warm, intimate feel of a benediction or a devotional. This is no accident. Schaap has spent time, sometimes simultaneously, as a bartender and as a pastor, both jobs that require a high degree of empathy and charisma. Luckily she possesses these qualities in freakish abundance.

And she can write. Drinking With Men evokes with surprising tenderness the feeling of drinking, talking and laughing on bar stools with pals late into the night. She shows how the fellowship of her favorite haunts has shaped her over more than two decades, from her stint reading tarot cards on the New Haven bar car to South, the bar where she works and most often clinks glasses now.

Schaap is the drinks columnist at the New York Times Magazine, where I also contribute, and over the past couple of years she’s advocated so persuasively for her favorite beverages that drinking in the city will never be the same.

We met years ago at the late, lamented Good World, a bar on the Lower East Side where she was hosting a reading series.  After her 2008 “Great Big Lump of Coal” holiday party there – an event much more festive than its name implies — she sent me an early version of the Santa Cruz Christmas story that appears in the book, and with her permission I posted it on my website, I’ve been eager since then to read Drinking With Men in full, and as soon as I did, we scheduled this interview on topics that range from bar cars, writing, misspent youths and  the similarities between tending bar and pastoring to the death of her husband, Frank.  An edited transcript of our December 16th conversation appears below. — Maud Newton




The Barnes & Noble Review: I know Drinking With Men started as a “This American Life” segment about reading tarot cards on the Metro-North bar car. You read for the grown-ups in exchange for drinks. And then there was your heckler. Did you always know you wanted to tell this story?

Rosie Schaap: I did. It happened when I was 15, in 1986, and it had never really left my mind. I thought about it all the time over the years. I wondered about the guy. And in 2007, there was one of many movements to shut down the bar car on the Metro North New Haven line. Sometimes people want to shut down the bar car because the MTA thinks it might make more money if there were more seats and less bar. But this wasn’t one of those financial movements against it; it was actually a kind of moral, and to my mind aesthetic, movement against it. It seemed that some commuters regarded the bar car as this outdated, outmoded, distasteful part of their daily travel.

BNR: I had some great times smoking and clinking beer bottles on the train from Gainesville to Miami — a very different kind of route and crowd — but even there I had this awareness that we smokers and drinkers were the riffraff.

RS: There have always been very rich, very posh New York suburbs. But my sense was that the people of Connecticut in 1986 were very different from the people of Fairfield County of 2007. Some people seem to regard the bar car as this kind of taint on their really beautiful, carefully curated existence. And I thought, this is a good time for me to write this story, if they’re going to shut the bar car down. And then Ira Glass did this very nice thing. I hadn’t even really started writing a proposal when he announced, after they aired my story, that this was from a book I was writing called Drinking With Men. (I had already come up with a title). I already had a title because of one story. And once Ira said this was from a book I was working on, I had to make it a book.

BNR: What was it like to sell the book before you’d written most of it?

RS: Stressful. When I sold it, there were two chapters including the bar car that were done – that were done enough.

BNR: What was the other?

RS: The other was the Dublin chapter. 

BNR: Another of my favorites, the great punk-rock study-abroad love affair.

RS: In some ways it was one of the easiest to write. I look back at that time and it seems much less burdened than other times I write about in the book, and even though I don’t want to give too much away, it ends with this breakup story, and even that in retrospect isn’t painful at all. It was painful at the time but now it’s funny, and the poet in that chapter and I remain great friends. 

BNR: Like the bar car story, it’s sort of self-contained, even as it has resonances and connections with the rest of your life.

RS: It did feel self-contained when I was writing it, just like a very manageable story to tell, a discrete unit. So there were two completed chapters. Fortunately, against my wishes, I was forced by my agent to write a very detailed proposal, which I hated doing at the time. He wanted me to be sure that I understood what the overall shape of this book would be, what each chapter would be, even though we changed that a little bit down the road. It was tedious and annoying to write but invaluable in the end because I really had a roadmap. 

BNR: Do you normally tend to plot things out beforehand and then write them? Or are you a more intuitive sort of writer? Or somewhere in-between the two?

RS: Definitely somewhere in-between the two. For me ending is always the hardest thing, so I always try to have an exit strategy. I want to have some idea of where I’m going to wind up and where a reader’s going to wind up at the end of the story.  I try to always have an exit plan. And in a way, that’s something I learned working at the inspirational magazine.

BNR: Yes, the inspirational magazine — a high-circulation, interfaith…

RS: In a broad, 60-something year old idea of interfaith… It was a great place to work. Every time I wrote a story there, I really had to think, when a reader is done with this, what is the last thing she gets from it? Where does she wind up at the end of this? Why might it be of any value to her?

BNR: And you would take other peoples’ inspirational stories and help shape them to create a sort of arc? 

RS: People would send us their true life, amazing, inspirational stories and then as editors we had to try to help them figure out exactly what the story was. It was like a combination of editorial work and pastoral care, sort of talking a person through their story and helping them to shape it into this kind of thing where someone else would read it who may have never fostered a sick dog or who may have never found a great-great-grandmother’s heirloom Bible but they’d still get something from it.

BNR: As I was reading, I kept thinking about the commonalities between being a bartender and being a pastor.

RS: It’s kind of the same thing.

BNR: At one point you literally combined them, becoming the chaplain at [Fish Bar], where they hung a Lucy van Pelt-style the-chaplain-is-in, the-chaplain-is-out sign.

RS: That was very sweet. That was one of my favorite bartenders who had worked both at Puffy’s and at Fish Bar so we’d gone back a while. And I was a chaplain before, following 9/11.

BNR: So those experiences helped lead you to the inspirational magazine?

RS: I think that magazine was the only publishing job in New York where one could submit a sermon as a writing sample. 

BNR: As you know, my mother was a preacher, so I’m personally fascinated by this, by your friends’ reactions to your having preached. These days I’m a devout agnostic — actually committed to doubt — but because of my background I’m preoccupied with religion. It’s interesting, I’m friends with a lot of people who are very open to so many other things, but not at all to that.

RS: It’s always amazing to me that in New York we are free to define ourselves in so many different ways and it’s fine, creatively and sexually and politically, but religion makes people very uncomfortable here. This is the one thing that in my great, wonderful circle of friends is mostly off-limits. It’s just not part of the everyday discourse of people I know here.

BNR: Right.

RS: And to be fair, that was true of my own family.

BNR: I’m actually a little envious of people who grow up without God, to be honest. Or curious, at least. It’s so different from my experience. But religion is important to so many people, and to make out that everyone who believes or has some spiritual hunger or conviction is an idiot or is weak or…

RS: Right. I can be an idiot in some ways and I can be weak in some ways, but for me those aren’t – neither of those qualities were ever what made me drawn to religion. You know, I feel I never can give people a satisfactory answer when they ask me a question like “Why do you bother? Why is religion…?”

BNR: You said you feel it’s innate to you in some way, that you’re programmed for it.

RS: I do, absolutely. I think to some people it sounds like a dodge, I think to others it sounds just a little too easy, but I feel like it’s the truth. Having grown up in a largely secular Jewish family in New York, I was never encouraged or discouraged from religion. My mother had this very relaxed “Fine, sure, go to Mass, that’s fine.” My family, you know, if we went to Yom Kippur services every third year we patted ourselves on the back and felt very pious. Nobody else in my family wanted to go to temple on Fire Island or anywhere else. I did. And I can’t really explain why except that it’s just always been part of me.

BNR: And your bar friends were generally pretty accepting.

RS: The bar turned out to be the most receptive, friendly place about it. Sure, some of the other regulars and staff thought it was a little kooky that I was getting ordained, but in a really gentle, friendly way. Like, oh, Rosie’s doing this thing. She’s always doing something; no big shock here. And then it turned out to kind of be nice to have a minister in the house to deliver a benediction on St. David’s day, for example. But I don’t think any of that would have happened if the timing hadn’t been concurrent with 9/11. I think all of us were looking for something comforting, for something we could share. And even if they found my religiosity a little alien, I don’t think they perceived anything malignant or scary in my kind of religiosity, and I think that’s what made it okay.

BNR: There’s a lot of narrative storytelling in Drinking With Men, and it’s about your life, but it’s also a complicated series of ideas that are interwoven really naturally.

RS: Well, thanks, I hope so. The through line didn’t become fully clear to me until I was done, until I really read the first draft of it. I understood that it was a way of telling the story of being a woman, coming of age in bar life, bar by bar. That part, how it all sort of made sense that way, that was clear to me from the outline, from the beginning.

BNR: I love the section about taking your then-future (and now late) husband, Frank, to the bar for approval…

RS: Oh, God, it was painful. I mean they were looking out for me. They were very sweet. But some of them were kind of assholes to him. Did you ever meet Frank?

BNR: I never did.

RS: You never did? You would’ve liked each other so much.

BNR: I don’t doubt it. He was your husband, and he was a Twain fan.

RS: He was a huge Twain fan, and he was also one of the great readers I’ve known, and one of these people who read constantly and read well. And in addition to being this really smart guy who read a lot, he was very low key. He was a very gentlemanly, shy, nice man.

BNR: You met him at school, and in the book you mention a comment he made, before you started dating, to a guy who said something belittling to a woman. Frank told him, “I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t say that to me or to any other man.”

RS: Frank was righteous and stood up for himself and for the important things, but was often very, very shy, and most of my bar friends were not.

BNR: I remember you asked the Liquor Store guys for advice, and one of them said “separate bars.”

RS: Yeah, that was before my wedding. The Liquor Store was mostly male, ex-pat regulars, mostly older and married, and I think “separate bars” is good advice, but then again I’m the kind of person when I read a book or see a movie set in the 19th century when a couple had separate bedrooms, I think that’s a great idea too. I love that. You know, I have nothing against married, I don’t regret my marriage at all, but I feel like maybe that kind of thing would just generally make marriage better having separate rooms, separate houses, separate bars and then sort of being together whenever you want to be.

BNR: Sure. Margaret Drabble and her husband don’t live together.

RS: Yeah, except sometimes they must.

BNR: Right, when they feel like it.

RS: When they feel like it.

BNR: In that vein, it was clear it was in the book that you and Frank each had your own things going on – before… 

RS: Yeah, it’s not something I really go into in the book, Frank getting sick.

BNR: I could see how including Frank’s death — doing justice to the enormity and awfulness of that —  would make it a very different kind of book.

RS: A book of its own.

BNR: Absolutely.

RS: I mean, he got diagnosed with cancer, I think it was… I should go back and check this because it’s a little blurry, but I think it was within a month of getting the book deal. I mean these things happened at exactly the same time.

BNR: Really? Oh my God, that’s terrible.

RS: It was terrible.

BNR: The highest and then, truly, the lowest.

RS: Yeah, the best professional thing, and the worst thing in my life. We understood that the normal trajectory of the very rare and awful cancer that he had probably gave him at the outside three years after diagnosis. And that was better than most prognoses. And it did make me feel like I had to give up my day job. If I had a spouse with a really horrible cancer and I had a book to write, the thing to cut out was the day job. And I felt like I really had to write a first draft as quickly as I could because I am a pessimist; it is my nature.

So, being a pessimist, and having read what I read about the kind of cancer he had, it was pretty clear to me that things might get better for a little while if he responded well to chemo or to radiation but they were going to get bad again and they were going to get worse and I felt like, well, I have to really try to write as much of this as I can now because I don’t know how much time we’re going to have. But it was still very, very hard. And my editor…

BNR: The wonderful Megan Lynch.

RS: When my agent was trying to sell this book, it was clear to me that of the editors who had read it and responded favorably to it, she really got it. She understood that this wasn’t a breezy girls’ guide to bar life kind of thing, which I think some other people kind of wanted it to be. She’s incredibly smart and very painstaking and patient editorially but also extremely humane. We started working on this together exactly when Frank got sick and even though in many ways we all would’ve liked this to have happened faster than it did, they understood.

There was a year in there after I’d finished it –- a really rough draft of the thing -– when I just really couldn’t write at all.

BNR: Well, obviously I’m a believer in giving the book the time it needs. And I love Drinking With Men. Maybe it needed that time it needed to become the book that it is?

RS: Yeah, I guess so. I guess so. Boy, did it feel like a long time. And I don’t have to tell you how tired one gets of the “Oh, are you done with that yet?” You know how this is.

BNR: Oh, yes.

So was Frank – you were writing the first draft, and did he read it?

RS: He didn’t. Frank and I were very different in this way. I don’t know what kind of unfortunate pathology is behind this, but I very seldom show people stuff when I’m working on it. Especially when I was already involved with an editor. My feeling was, I’m working on this with this person right now and I have a pretty good idea of what I’m trying to do here and the more voices I get in my head, the more confused. 

BNR: It’s important to shelter your intentions and your work unless you feel like someone has some specific thing to offer.

RS: There were certain things I showed to certain people, mostly for like fact-checking which was fascinating. 

BNR: I’m incredibly curious.

RS: So before this book comes out, the only ways in which people may have heard or seen any of it were through This American Life and also, where there was an early version of part of the California chapter.

BNR: I’m so glad to have it there.

RS: One of my best friends from that time in my life –- my best girlfriend on tour –- read it, and we talked about the story. She’s the one who like held my head over a toilet bowl. And the more we talked about the story… She had left the bar before things got really ugly. 

BNR: 21 shots of Jack Daniels.

RS: Yeah, she had some sense of the kind of craziness happening in the bar. And then when I came back to the room and blacked out, she was the one who dealt with it. So she felt that I had let certain people in that chapter get off a little easy. ,  and that made me rethink things a little bit. You know, we were very, very young and not completely responsible adults. I mean, it’s crazy to me Maud, when I look at like 16-and-17-years-old now, they are like babies.

BNR: I know.

RS: And I know they’re not and I don’t want to sound like an old fogey and I don’t want to be that person but they do look so little and young and I think of hitchhiking and driving across country with someone who was high as a kite and winding up in shitty motel rooms in sketchy places. I think I was kind of out of my mind. You know, this is the thing,  that fearlessness when you’re young. I’m not fearless anymore, that’s for sure.

BNR: This is probably an awkward thing for you to talk about, but it’s so relevant to your life as a bartender and in bars that I have to mention it. You are incredibly charismatic in person.

RS: Thank you.

BNR: You’re a bartender, and you’re a pastor, and so you have this relationship to people where they confide in you, they trust you, they come to rely on you, and the potential for transference is really high.

RS: I had a lot of really great teachers in college and one of the best was a poet named Alvin Feinman, and he taught poetry workshops, but he also taught the Romantics, which as you know was really my thing. He was this formidable, formidable person but a very nice man — a big guy with this very deep voice and by the time I knew him, white hair, and just one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had. I remember after college I’d been sort of floundering. Grad school didn’t work out so well for me and I was trying to figure out what to do and I went up to Vermont and had a visit with him and we were talking about different things and he looked pained. He said -– I wish I could do his voice, it was very deep –- he said, “Well you know, you are a people person.” And I know that that’s true. It seemed so out of character for him to call someone a people person, and someone like Alvin might have taken it as a kind of insult. He was a poetry person. I think he didn’t want to sound like he was issuing some kind of terrible judgment by calling me a people person, but I always knew it to be true. I find people endlessly interesting and difficult and inspiring and often sad, and I am always interested in people. I think part of the reason people have often been interested in me is because of that. I think that’s clear.

BNR: I loved your observations in the book about the particular level of closeness that bar regulars can have — that there’s a level of, for lack of a better word, superficiality that enables you to form these paradoxically very close relationships with people. 

RS: A bar is a funny kind of affinity group. If we fall in love with a bar, we don’t instantly know everybody else who loves it. We come together because of this place, so we’re not family, we’re not friends of longstanding, we’re not necessarily friends from any other part of our lives, but there’s something in all of us that responds to whatever that bar had to give us and we stay there and we come to love each other. There is this kind of real closeness, but a distance at the same time that can feel safe. I think of this most urgently in a way with the Fish Bar chapter because the Fish Bar was the sweetest, nicest community of drinkers you’d ever find in New York and such a tiny, tiny, tiny bar. And after visiting my dad in the hospital or putting in a shift at the Red Cross Family Assistance Center, I didn’t want to talk about it.

We all knew what was going on in each other’s lives in some ways, but I really just wanted to have a drink and talk about music or the normal stuff you talk about in a bar. You know, a bar is a strange kind of sanctified space where certain things don’t have to be let in. But you can make friends with someone at a bar and be surprised by how that friendship deepens. I haven’t been a regular at Puffy’s since the mid-90s, but some of the people I met at Puffy’s in 1995 and ’96 remain some of my closest friends.

BNR: And you write so beautifully about the education you got there in the arts from meeting all these older people who had been painters primarily for so many years and who had all these frames of reference that weren’t familiar to you. It made me feel I’d shortchanged myself artistically by not spending more of my youth in bars! 

RS: The people at Puffy’s, who were mostly almost a generation older, they were just so smart and so cool, but not in an aggressive way. They had just really lived lives. And even though I was a native New Yorker, they knew so much about New York that I didn’t know. I had this kind of arrogance that I think kids who grow up in New York and get to go to museums and do this interesting stuff have. I went to the Museum of Modern Art all the time when I was a kid. But I knew nothing really. So Puffy’s became my art history class and helped me make up for all the art history I didn’t do in college, and in the most fun way.

BNR: I bet you held your own when the conversation turned to poetry. 

RS: There might be some kind of reader who looks at this book and thinks oh, this is going to be about drinking and hanging out in bars, and then wonders, why is she talking about poetry all the time? Because that’s what we bring to bars. We bring the things that we’re excited about. In my case, that happens to often be poetry, and my bar friends over the years have been very indulgent, occasionally exasperated. 

BNR: You always loved poetry.

RS: Always. When I was really  young my father was a wonderful reader. Poetry wasn’t his big thing, but you know those really cute blue little Shakespeares? We had those and he would read from them, and he loved things like Ogden Nash, he loved limericks, he loved nursery rhymes, so we heard a lot of that. As I recall, I wrote my first poem in kindergarten. It was about the color green.

BNR: Do you remember how it goes?

RS: I do, but I can’t recite it with a straight face. But religion and poetry were two things I was always into from very early. When I arrived in college I was consumed by Irish literature – fiction and poetry – especially Yeats. I really immersed myself in Yeats and I memorized a lot of his poems. And I was fascinated by Ireland generally. Of course, I had spent that summer there that was so formative and important to me. But you know, I was much younger than I am now and not as instantly suspicious of things like nationalism, of so many of the things that were absolutely crucial to Yeats that I can’t really stomach anymore

 I didn’t do any Romanticism really until my junior year. My advisor at the time said, “you really should take Alvin’s Blake seminar,” and it was like the whole world exploded. It was in these classes that I stopped worrying about what poetry means and worried more about what it does, and Romanticism really invites that. What is this doing to you? Don’t worry about what it means. After Blake, I did Wordsworth and Coleridge. There’s so many poems that I love, but the ones I reach for most still are Blake and Wordsworth. If Blake saved my life in the really peculiar, surprising way that I talk about in the book, I feel that Tintern Abbey kind of does it all the time. When I’m really feeling distant from people and from the things that are the most important to me, Tintern Abbey is my go-to.

BNR: Your dad was a sports writer and your brother also writes. And so you knew writing was possible. And at first you wrote poetry.

RS: I still write a little poetry. It’s still important to me, but I’m not one of these people who just wake up inspired every day. I do find that when I’ve tried to really sit and write a poem, it doesn’t work. I have to have something troubling me. I have to have something that I feel I can only sort out that way. So yeah, I always thought about being a poet. My parents separated when I was very young and there were a few years when I really didn’t see my father a lot, then we saw each other on and off. But I remember my father living with our family until I was seven and he often had his gigantic IBM Selectric 2 –- a typewriter I’ll always love, the nosiest, clunkiest, most wonderful thing –- at one end of the dining room table, which was one thing that drove my mother crazy, and writing all the time. And I really am grateful that I have this working model for a writer. My father was a fantastic writer, and as I said, a great reader. I think a lot of people thought of him as a sort of thinking person’s sports reporter. He loved great books; he loved to read. I’m sure he was proud of his writing when it was going well. But the model I saw was that a writer was someone who sat at the table writing.