Everything I Need To Know About Life I Learned in Bars

The following piece was presented at Jersey City Writers’ literary event – Blackout! A Night of Memoirs. Please enjoy.


Tavern.  Saloon.  Watering Hole.  Pub.  Dive.  Joint.

Everything I need to know about life, I learned in bars.  Well, bars in popular culture.

John Travolta’s Tony Manero character had dance moves triggering envy in men and sexual desire in women in Saturday Night Fever, a 1977 movie capturing the disco craze against the backdrop of Manero slowly discovering that sex and dancing lack the substance he requires in his life.  When Manero orders his standard 7&7 drink in Brooklyn’s 2001 Odyssey discotheque in Saturday Night Fever, he shows that coolness can be largely, sometimes solely, defined by choice of liquor.

And it happened in a bar.

When Archie Bunker goes to Kelcy’s Place on the 1970s television show All in the Family, he affirms that a bar is more than a gathering place.  It is an oasis from the working class woes, an undercurrent embraced on other bar-centric shows, including Shameless, Sullivan & Son, The George Carlin Show, Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, and, of course, the place where everybody knows your name—Cheers.  

For Archie, a conservative battling a liberal son-in-law and daughter on Watergate, the Vietnam War, and any other sociopolitical topic, Kelcy’s offers a sanctuary where like-minded men can gather.  Or so he thinks.  In an early episode, Archie’s idol Steve, an ex-NFL player, reveals that he is homosexual, shattering Archie’s preconceived notions that muscularity equals macho and that effeminacy and homosexuality are joined.  

And it happened in a bar.

M*A*S*H, a 1970s television show that became a prime time Goliath, had the constancy of liquor, which bandaged the psychological wounds sustained by suturing the other kinds of wounds caused by bullets and shrapnel in thousands of Korean War soldiers barely out of high school.  Doctors at the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital #4077 found respite at their Officers Club, a dive down the road called Rosie’s Bar, and, closer to home, a still in their tent.

In one episode, Hawkeye, the main character, vows abstinence after getting an astounding bar tab at the Officer’s Club.  To the horror of his colleagues, Hawkeye asks for a drink after a grueling session in the Operating Room.  “I’ll come back when I want it, not when I need it,” declares the 4077th’s Chief Surgeon.  It is a lesson in will over weakness.

And it happened in a bar.

Don Draper began the 2006-2015 television series Mad Men as a dominant ruler of the advertising jungle from his throne at the Sterling Cooper advertising agency.  It was a time capsule that showed American tastes in culture, fashion, and consumerism in the 1960s.  Booze was omnipresent—one character went to rehab after urinating in his suit while passed out in the office.  One secretary said that when they emptied the trash, the clinking of the liquor bottles made so much noise, it sounded like New Year’s Eve.

It was, of course, liquor that opened the door for Draper to ascend from fur salesman to copywriter at one of New York City’s most prestigious agencies.  When Roger Sterling, son of Sterling Cooper’s founder, shops for a fur coat for his mistress, Draper prods him for a chance to work in advertising.  Unimpressed with Draper’s in-house work for the store, Sterling denies him.  But he agrees to have lunch, where Draper plies him with enough liquor to make Jim Beam, Johnnie Walker, and Jack Daniels blush.

The next day, Draper waits for Sterling in the lobby of the agency’s building.  Frustrated, Sterling tells him to stop pestering.  In turn, Draper says that Sterling hired him at the lunch; Sterling’s drunkenness prevents him from confirming Draper’s truthfulness or falsity.  It is, of course, the latter, affirmed by Draper’s sideway glance at Sterling.  Unlike the creative genius we see throughout the series, this flashback episode depicts Draper as an eager though clever man who uses booze as a lubricant for his entry into advertising.

And it happened in a bar.

Mike Peters lacks the finesse with women that his best friend Trent enjoys in the 1996 movie Swingers.  He mourns the breakup with his girlfriend of six years—Michelle—as he pursues a stand-up comedy career in Los Angeles, 3000 miles away from his home in Queens.  It becomes an obsession, soaking Mike in a quasi-depression preventing him from taking any significant step towards a relationship.  Or even a date.

When Mike, Trent, and Sue—named after the character in the Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue—go out drinking, Mike swing dances with a pretty blonde named Lorraine.  It’s a moment freeing Mike from the past, allowing him to live in the moment, and pointing him towards a future with possibility of romance.

And it happened in a bar.


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