What does your favorite bar look like? Who goes there? Will there ever be bars again?
Dutch tavern scenes color the way I think a bar should be. Darkened, earth-toned rooms with light from small windows barely illuminating carousing patrons. This faint sideways light obscures as much as it reveals. Yet these unkempt spaces are often the center of the community.
Children squat over chamberpots, dogs jump up to tabletops for scraps, and men and women recede to remote corners to get to know one another better.
Beer is tapped directly from giant wooden casks and poured into steins, sloshing and spilling over the floor as drinkers dance and jostle. It’s a merry, disquieting scene. Are they happily celebrating or just drowning sorrows or killing two birds with the same bleary stone?
Steen, Brouwer, and van Ostade painted their pictures to document the life of the cities they lived in. I always wanted to do the same. But is there any remnant of the wild abandon of 17th century Holland in 21st century Chicago? If I squint and ignore the firefly glow of cellphones—replace them with candlelight—I can see the rudiments of a classic tavern scene while sitting against the back wall of the Albatross. The heavy wooden beams buttressing the ceiling, the clusters of talkers and revelers, the hum of inebriated blather, it’s not so different from an inn in Leyden.
What I love in a bar is that people are both in public and not. We see one another but break off into smaller groups, forming private bubbles where we forget about others who can still see and hear what we’re doing. Behind the bar I’m often just the deliverer of drinks rather than a fully-fledged person. It gains me access in ways unavailable to those on the public side of the bar. They forget I’m even there between orders. As long as their glasses are full, conversation is flowing, or whatever’s occupying their attention on phone screens isn’t disrupted, they’re oblivious and let their guard down. They don’t know or care that anyone is watching or listening.
What am I hoping to catch? Some clue about what it’s all about. A true moment, when a person says or does what they mean rather than performing for others. I get glimpses now and then, but only when they’re sure no one is looking.
It’s this same thing I remember from the Dutch paintings. Halflit vignettes in a larger, tapestry-like whole whose edges disappear into darkness. Every group or solitary figure doing life’s dance. This humble scene repeats every day in many places over centuries.
We stop once we can no longer dance.