You Want To Go Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Drinking With Rosie Schaap
Rosie Schaap, the New York Times Magazine’s Drink columnist and author of the forthcoming memoir Drinking With Men, tends the bar one afternoon a week at South in Park Slope. It’s a comfy neighborhood spot—the popcorn’s gratis, a modest television plays English soccer games, and on a chalkboard menu at the far end of the bar, listed under the grilled cheese, is “The Ryan”—the same thing but with jam on top. It’s named for a young guy I saw in there the other day sipping a hot toddy and reading the newspaper. Rosie said he works mornings at a coffee shop down the street.
I’d figured that getting a sandwich named after you was generally an honor reserved for Yankees legends and Broadway stars (RIP Stage Deli)—but really, there’s no reason a neighborhood kid that likes jam on his grilled cheese shouldn’t be the concept’s namesake. And what makes even more sense is the very fact that Rosie wound up at a place like this. A former teenage Deadhead with a history of serial regularity at the likes of Puffy’s Tavern, Liquor Store, and the Metro North bar car, she’s less a drink writer than someone who writes about people whom she happens to drink with.
In the book, she recounts lessons learned in the Irish tradition of good craic (bar discourse with rhythm and flow), and the New York tradition of buybacks (“Free drinks are like blow jobs—if you have to ask, you don’t deserve one.”). She spent most of her undergraduate schooling at a Bennington watering hole and most of her graduate schooling at an artists’ bar in TriBeCa. It was from the expats at Good World Bar and Grill that she acquired her love of Tottenham Hotspurs Soccer Club, and it was a brief affair with a haunt in Montreal that reminded her of the comfort of being a lone woman. But what’s consistent at each stage is the company of others who’ve had something to teach, and Rosie’s willingness to listen. That, and whiskey.
You were a budding poet, at what point did you decide that you wanted to write a memoir?
I never thought I wanted to write a memoir. Drinking With Men really started with one story, that first story on the Metro North. Over the years, as I recalled the story before writing it down, it always felt like a This American Life story to me. And I say that not just because it was weird to be this kid trying to fit in with grown-ups, and finding a way to connect with them really unexpectedly. It felt like a This American Life story because I knew what happened to me, I knew that what I took away from that experience—even though for me it came through tarot card readings—is something that a lot of people feel when they look back on their youth. That there was this time where I really tried to fit in with grown-ups and I learned I wasn’t one of them. That’s what I really remembered from that experience, was feeling really great for a few weeks, feeling like I could really hold my own among these adults, and then something happened that reminded me that I wasn’t ready for that.
Did you go back to that idea of wanting to be ‘the kid?’
Kind of. After that experience—I was really young, I was 15—I mean, I had walked into bars on my own just to see if I could get away with it. Before then and after then. I’m not going to name names, but most people who grew up here in New York when I did kind of had a list of places that didn’t rigorously screen its clientele. So I was always interested in seeing what I could get away with. After that, I didn’t really make it my business to try and fit in with adults. It kind of happened—again, after college when I moved back to New York and found myself at Puffy’s Tavern in TriBeCa, I just sort of fell in love with the place.
First, before I really started talking to the regulars there, I just loved the way it looked. Just a really classic, beautiful corner bar, with tile floors and a high tin ceiling. It felt very Edward Hopper, like an iconic bar, it was exactly the way I thought a corner bar should look. And then when I started to get to know the regulars—and they were, at the time, all older than I was, it was great. Here I was, twenty-four, twenty-five, and all of my new friends were in their 40s. And they had great stories, and a lot of them were artists. But they weren’t arty—you know, they were all working artists, but it’s not like we all sat around talking about art all the time. We talked about everything. And even though I was the only native New Yorker in the bunch, they all knew a New York that seemed so much cooler to me than the New York I’d grown up with. I’m perfectly at peace now with the New York I grew up in, and feel very lucky. But they had been at CBGBs in the early days, and Max’s Kansas City, you know, seeing, like, Blondie.
Do you get nostalgic or think that people moving here now have already missed out?No, I don’t. I don’t feel that way exactly and I want to guard against slightly premature old-fogeyism. Oh, you should’ve been there when—that can get a little tedious. At Puffy’s, it never felt tedious to me hearing the stories of my elders at the time—they’d hate being referred to as my elders. But I loved it, I couldn’t get enough, hearing their stories of the 70s and 80s, when things were just a little grimier and dirtier and people seemed to be having so much fun.
There are still great days and nights in bar culture. But I don’t think I lived through a time like that, where it was this wild, fun, decadent time. I don’t think it’s been that way in my lifetime as a grown-up, drinking person. But Puffy’s is still around, it’s still very beautiful, but it’s a very different crowd. So many of the artists who settled that area didn’t win their fights to save their lofts, as the neighborhood became so prosperous and so expensive.
And didn’t Liquor Store get turned into a J. Crew?
Ugh! It did, it did, which is still painful to see. And to hurt us Liquor Store regulars more, they kept the bar. The actual bar is still there, stacked with sweaters and stuff. Just to torture us.
Not that being an artist necessitates bad manners, but does the etiquette in a place change as the clientele does?
I don’t think it should, you know, individuals will either have good manners or bad manners. I’ve met very well behaved, decent, polite stockbrokers, and extraordinarily rude writers. It’s a cliché—the richer a person is, the less they tip. I’ve seen exceptions to that. Groups are often hard, I mean, someone who behaves wonderfully as an individual might not in a group of loud, rowdy people. The people who tend to behave the best are those who work in other service jobs, you know. Other bartenders, people who work in restaurants, people who know what it means to have someone say please and thank you, which happens very seldom. You’ve probably heard a lot how people think your generation is so entitled. But there’s always the exceptions, there’s always the few who are like, I’m sorry about my friends.
What’s wrong with nightclubs?
Nothing! Well, nothing for those who like them. They’ve just never appealed to me. You know, by definition they’re places where one would go to hear music and dance, which is fine, but for me, going out drinking always means going out talking, and listening. And that’s not what nightclubs are for. Also, they tend to start their hours very late. And for all my love of bar culture—I love to close a bar a couple times a year, certainly when I was younger I could close them more often. There’s something I really love about the early, early hours of a bar. It can be a little depressing, but I think in a kind of appealing way. But for me, bar culture was this kind of after-work pressure valve, so my normal hours would be six in the evening. And I love afternoons in a bar—day drinking is my favorite when I can do it.
One exception for me was Don Hill’s. I liked the music they played, and a lot of people I’d gone to college with wound up in New York, so there were always familiar people. There was one party called Squeezebox—there was actually a documentary about Squeezebox—that was full of drag queens and interesting people.
Fish Bar has a great sign in the door that says “Please no loud talking.”
Inside the fish bar, I don’t think they care that much. But it’s so small that if you’re being really loud people are going to notice it. Its scale makes it kind of impossible not to get to know the people around you. I organized a reading series there for a couple years. And I always prefer the word organize to curate—somehow reading series started getting curated in the last 15 years. I think I prefer an organizer model to a museum model.
How do you feel about the word “mixology?”
I think it’s gross. I don’t know exactly when it came about, I think pretty early, I think an early guide to drink-making in the 19th century used mixology or some close variation on that in the title. So I think it probably came of age in one of the great eras of pseudoscience, you know.
Like phrenology, exactly! I’m not going to go around feeling the bumps on your head. I’m just going to make you a drink, I’m not going to mixologize it. I mean, there’s a lot of jargon and a lot of deep earnestness associated with drinking right now that I think is very much besides the point. The point is just to drink whatever makes you happy and have a good time.
Does that inform your approach to writing about drinking? There’s only so much you can say about the ingredients of a beverage.
It is, I feel being a columnist is kind of the luckiest things in the world, because I’m not a critic. I can have and express opinions, and I do, but nobody has to shudder when they see me walk into their bar. And as suspicious as I am of a kind of seriousness and complexity in cocktail culture right now—do you know about Booker and Dax? They have, like, a centrifuge. And they have purpose made hot iron pokers to heat up, you know, hot drinks. And it all sounds very space age, but when I went there, the drinks were delicious, the staff was fun and friendly, everyone there was having a great time. So, great. Let them do what they do.
What I don’t like is when that kind of cocktail culture takes place in a setting where people aren’t really talking. Or only talking about cocktails. A bar is where you come and complain about work, talk about sports, argue about politics and music, pour your heart out, talk about breakups. All of this stuff. Coming in and talking about the greatest Old Fashioned you had. You know, if it’s a great story, well told, terrific. But if it’s a kind of competitive sport, it’s not interesting to me.
Now what’s the deal with The Grateful Dead?
You saw Nick Paumgarten’s article?
Yeah, and I love the line about him thinking it was a metal band but that actually, the lyrics are about roses and bells and dew.
Yeah the lyrics are probably my least favorite part of The Grateful Dead. They’re pretty—yeah, they’re pretty florid.
Was your favorite part just, selling beads?
As with bars, my favorite part is always the people. The community. That’s what I loved, that’s what I was looking for. And I didn’t have the nerve to just run away from home and really make my own way, or join the circus or something like that. So The Grateful Dead was kind of a ready-made community waiting for more people to join and see the country. So when I look back on that experience, I’m most grateful for the people and I got to see so much of America that I never would’ve gotten to see otherwise.
Have you drunk about the country since?
When I was at that age, I was also far too young to be served by most places, so I didn’t really get to experience that much bar culture across America at that time. But you know how it is, when you travel and you’re writing or reporting, you wind up at a hotel bar. Which, in great cities with great hotels, they’re some of the best bars in the world. But you know, you’re average little hotel bar, in some small hotel in Des Moines—it may not have much to distinguish itself from other hotel bars. But the people are always interesting at hotel bars, because they’re coming from everywhere, and usually a little bit lonely, and happy to have a conversation.