I always joke that dark, divey bars are where I'm most at home because that's where I first learned how to talk to people. I mean, we learn speech at a young age, on the mats at preschool, or at home, mimicking our parents. But forming phonemes is different than talking to people.
Most of my life, I've supported myself through talking: talking my way into AP classes, and talking myself out of a trespassing charge when I pretended to be a caterer in order to eat leftovers after a banquet. Talking as a courtesy clerk at my first job when I was 15, and talking myself through college as a barista and as a bartender.
Talking to people—the kind of talking I learned in bars and from barflies—requires quick wit, sure, but it’s also about what you do when you’re not speaking. It’s impossible to be a good talker without being a good listener. People, especially strangers, find you much more likable if you seem to like them.
My mom calls it the "gift of gab," but I think it's more like "the skill of sticky bartop socializing."
I mean it when I say that I grew up in bars, and that I grew up talking. When I was two and three years old, my grandfather, a salty old Marine with a majestic mustache—grey, wiry, combed and waxed into a kind of grin on special occasions—used to take me to the bar with him when he was babysitting. I’d hop in his truck—always a Ford and nothing else— and ultimately, we’d make it to our final destination: the Tiny Tavern in Eugene, Oregon. A dim and peanut-smelling place, he’d sit me at the bar and put me to work.
"Tell them a joke, Hanna Brooks."
He'd taught me all my jokes. With a cloud of curly hair and freckles, I'd charm the patrons and the workers. I had one really good one—my bread and butter and one that I didn’t fully understand until I was at least 10.
“Why did the chicken cross the road? To show the possum it could be done.”
He showed me that good conversation is like a river, it just keeps going. He showed me how to tailor the material to fit the audience. Just the other day, I drove him to the V.A., the roles reversed, and, as we walked by the concierge desk and a gaggle of helpful volunteers, he made a fitting joke.
“You’d better scatter, if a bomb goes off, you’re all toast!”
I found my way into bars before I was 21; in college, I got a job as a cocktailer in a fancy restaurant. Too young to legally open any of the bottles, I could still serve drinks and wink at older men and hustle my way to rent. It was a really nice place and a not-bad job, but I couldn't quite get the banter down. There's a kind of patience required when talking to rich guys who think they own the world, and because you're in that world, they own you. I don't have it.
So I applied to work in an all-night diner that's known for its tough-love attitude. It’s a place where the clientele is gritty and the servers are grittier. In my interview, the manager, a greasy little man in gold chains, told me I needed to “have some cojones” to work there. I stared him dead in the eye and told him I was a lot tougher than I looked. I proved it in the face of his relentless sexual harassment.
Still, that was, to this day, my favorite job.
The patrons were crusty and they expected a bit of sass. They reminded me of people I knew, people like my dad and my grandfather. Working-class older men are my target demographic; I find that they get me, probably because that's who raised me. After blue-plate dinners, they’d tip in coins, in cash, and in weed. Occasionally, they’d buy me a shot to do with them.
The day I graduated from college, I worked at the diner instead of walking in a cap and gown I couldn’t afford to rent. Some of the retired fishermen who’d regularly come in for Friday dinner brought me a balloon, a card, and $25.
I threw my first and last punch in the alley behind that place because a drunk bully dared me to (he went down like the Titanic). I 86ed a snotty college girl for calling me "trashy." I made friends with an old cabbie who'd give me rides at bar close and never let me pay. I'd stash dollar bills in the seats and hope he found them.
And then there were the napkin notes: love notes from drunken suitors, hate notes from everyone else.
“Let’s go out some time!”
I still have a lot of them in a shoebox.
“You’re smarter than you look.”
Once a hunched-over woman wrapped in a scarf wrote to warn me that I had a curse put on me.
You might also be surprised how much a good bartender sees. Who's coming in? Who's skipping out on their tab? Who's getting a little too drunk, too handsy, too loud, too rash?
Now I’m 30 and I’m a writer and that's basically just a different kind of talking. I don't work at a bar anymore, but I work in bars all the time. Most bars—even the really grimy ones—have WiFi these days and I like to post up in a particularly dark booth and bang out my assignments. There's something about alternative rock on the jukebox and a frosty PBR that is just conducive to stringing together sentences and finding the right word. I think every writer should work in a bar for at least a year, if only to be better at setting scenes. I know a lot of writers who love coffee shops, but they're too bright, and too clean ... and there's not enough beer.
There’s something eminently comforting to me about a bar. The low light, the familiar smell of cleaning fluid, stale alcohol, and second-hand smoke that’s miraculously more than a decade after the smoking ban, and the fact that there’s usually at least one person whose job it is to make sure everyone’s safe. And there’s something I love about the role of a bar, too. When you need it, the bar is there for heartbreaks, for gossip, for the swapping of advice and insults. It’s there for talking. Really talking.
When I was about 22, my grandfather and I went to smoke cigarettes and drink Coors Light in the Goshen Tavern just outside of Eugene. It’s the kind of place that still has a hitching post outside, and it was our first time sharing a drink in a bar when I was of legal age. He told me that he liked that bar because it’s “good to have a port in the storm.”
I think about that a lot. When I first moved to Seattle and could barely afford to eat, one of my first tasks was finding my port in the storm. I’d stash away $3 for a cheap beer and a tip and go there once a week to catch up on the neighborhood gossip and make myself feel more at home. Now, whenever I’m traveling, I still look for neon bar lights. I find Budweiser and Miller Lite signs, lottery displays, and sports logos more comforting than a rest stop. I’ve had a lot of ports in the storm over the years and I’m always looking for more. I’ll still stop into a dark, damp dive—with posters of last year’s sports schedule and dingy dollar bills pinned to the ceiling—wherever I am, play pull tabs, and talk to the person behind the counter. Sometimes I’ll ask if they’ve heard any good jokes lately.
If you ever see me at the bar ever, come say hi. I’d be glad to talk and, if you ask, I might even tell you a good one.