Earlier this week, the New York Times published an article arguing that COVID-19 is not a crisis, but rather an era, the effects of which human beings will deal with far after the illness fades. The piece includes an interview with Allan Brandt, a historian at Harvard University, who says that "we tend to think of pandemics … as episodic" when they are actually much more impactful and long-lasting.
"We are living in the Covid-19 era, not the Covid-19 crisis," Brandt says. “There will be a lot of changes that are substantial and persistent. We won't look back and say, 'That was a terrible time, but it's over.’"
There have been so many heartbreaking changes to our lives, but there have also been smaller, more nuanced shifts. Little details of life can seem inconsequential, even silly, when compared to the horrors of the pandemic. But they also give us tangible examples of how we will move in this new world.
Such is the case with bellying up the bar, a time-honored tradition that may become one of those "substantial and persistent" changes that happens once society fully reopens. Bellying up is the act of walking into a neighborhood dive, finding an open spot along the bar, and standing there. It's building a rapport with the bartender, striking up conversations with strangers, and finding communion in a sacred space.
It also means not standing in a single-file line like we're boarding an early-morning flight to somewhere terrible. Standing in line to order a beer is annoying. Before the pandemic, if there was a line, nothing thrilled me more than watching someone bypass it and head straight for an empty space. First, I was inspired by their gall. Second, they always — every single time — got served immediately because in my experience most bartenders hate lines, too.
In recent months, as we've reemerged from lockdown, masked and battling spike after spike, the line is everywhere. It makes sense — we needed to space out, bars are understaffed, and it helps tame the chaos of a packed room. But it's also a reminder that the experience of bellying up to the bar is likely gone, anesthetized along with everything else.
Since the country's inception, the neighborhood bar has always not only been a place for community, it's been the backdrop for some of America's most important moments. In an August interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Christine Sismondo (who wrote an entire book on dive bars called America Walks into a Bar ), discusses the cultural significance of a local watering hole.
"Bars have always been where people share news and discuss it. And there's an unwritten code in most neighborhood bars that people are supposed to check their degrees at the door," Sismondo says.
Standing around a bar, she says, is the great equalizer. It breaks down class structure and creates one of the only spaces for the “lawyer, university professor, taxi driver and dishwasher” to gather together without pretense and exchange ideas.
Sismondo also notes that nearly every American city has some bar with a historical marker, an illustration of the saloon’s place in U.S. history. Among the historic events that started in a bar include the American Revolution, the Stonewall Riots, and the planning of the Boston Tea Party. Would we still have seceded from the British if we were standing in line quietly staring at our phones? Probably not.
Is this romanticizing bars? Absolutely. But 18 months without something allows for a certain amount of idealization. Bellying up to the bar creates a space for possibility (the booze helps with this, too) whether we're on the hunt for a partner, a passionate discussion, or just a good time. After months in isolation, seeing patrons standing quietly in single-file just seems sad. They get their drinks, swipe a card, and return to their tiny little tables and the friends they already know.
If we weren’t still in this pandemic era, perhaps this story would end suggesting the next time you head out to your favorite neighborhood haunt, you bypass the line and belly up to that bar. But everything is still changing and suggesting that seems irresponsible. So instead we wait to see if this is just a blip on our way back to normalcy, or if the pandemic really did kill the great American dive.
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