But then I started to drink with strangers
by Flávia Monteiro
Sao Paulo, 08:40 PM, Sagarana Bar.
“Do you believe we are living in the Anthropocene?” asks the white-haired guy sitting next to me at the bar on this warm weekday evening. I’ve never seen him before in my life, and this is only the third sentence we’ve exchanged — the previous ones being unremarkable comments on the beer and the weather.
This sudden shift from banal to wonderful is precisely what I love about bar conversations. It explains my long-running habit of sitting at a bar, alone, determined to strike up conversation with the next stranger.
Sounds like just another drunkard’s tale, except for this: I’m shy. Or at least that’s what I tell everyone, and myself most of all. It will take me thirty years and countless bars to realize that I was, in fact, a closeted extrovert.
New York City, 05:30 PM, Dante.
I feel the need to be around strangers for longer than one or two cocktails, so I fly alone to New York for a couple days. I start my trip at Dante because Dante’s a cafe, and I want to look like a person who sits at a bright bar in the late afternoon and picks the stool closer to the window and lets the last dashes of daylight spread a layer of yellowness over their arm and their cup of coffee. Only I trade the coffee for a negroni, but otherwise I very much look like that person.
After I pay the check, I ask the bartender where else I should go. He gives me the name of a bar, and the cocktail to drink there. Not the name of the cocktail; the actual drink, a pre-bottled negroni: “Go to Existing Conditions, and tell whoever’s tending the bar to pour this over ice for you.” And just like that, in a bottle, he offers me a ticket to new strangers.
Yet, I don’t get his name.
A closeted extrovert: I’m forever curious about people, but for a long time I believe I am averse to the touch and sound of them. An idea I learned from my family.
Families are probably the oldest form of role-playing games. Each parent and daughter and uncle is assigned a label, which they’re expected to honor whenever one or more relatives are around. All families do that, and so does mine.
My family is about 70 people strong. On my mother’s side alone I’m counting seven aunts and uncles, plus their partners, and nineteen cousins, plus their partners, who have now produced twenty-one? Let’s say, twenty-ish kids.
Navigating this many personalities is daunting. So my family clusters the characters into smaller groups, reducing the mess of idiosyncrasies to three simple labels, which get recycled through the generations.
My sister wears the same label as an aunt and a few cousins: the beautiful, irascible girl. (I’ve never seen her lose her temper with her kids, or her dogs, or even a pushy store clerk.) My brother is the easygoing, outgoing dude. (He’s often away on solo three-hour runs because, in his words, it’s the perfect way to avoid people.) I am the smart, aloof kid.
My family’s ritual of assigning labels is not complex. All it takes is one instance for a label to stick for life. “Afraid of small insects. Just like his uncle.” Other times it only takes a nose. In my case, it’s the nose. Mine is exactly like my mother’s.
My mother repeatedly says that she hates being around people. She never entertains. She huffs whenever a neighbor rings the bell. If someone makes small talk in the grocery checkout line, she’s startled, and annoyed, and completely inept at it. Aloof.
For years, as a child, trusted family members say “Just like her mother,” until I’m convinced I’ll grow up to dread neighbors too. Aloof.
The evidence, though, doesn’t add up. I’m nine, and the sky is all I can see from my position in the club’s pool, where I’m hanging like a crucified bat: calves on the deck, upper body floating in the water, parallel to the ground, arms wide open, nose up. I linger like this for hours. If nobody approaches me, I don’t approach anybody either. If, however, a kid interrupts my bat-moment, I don’t mind; I’m happy to play.
Even as a kid, my introversion is an idea, more than it is action. As soon as someone knocks on my door, I’m happy to socialize.
Growing up, I live in conflict. On the inside, I long for interaction. I’m a kid that smiles to anyone who so much as turns in my general direction, hoping that my gratuitous abundance of teeth reveals how nice I am, and how harmless, and how easy it would be to approach me. But that longing is like a ghost only I can see. On the outside, I wear the label of the aloof kid, and that seems way more visible. With every repetition of the word, it becomes validated, official, pervasive, until at some point it simply becomes the truth.
That label is made of high-quality adhesive. It sticks on me as I become an adult, and no matter what I do, it won’t come off.
Miami, 02:20 AM, Mac’s Club Deuce.
A cafecito, or cuban coffee, is an infusion made of sugar, more sugar, very strong coffee, and served in a thimble-sized cup. Being slightly sensitive to caffeine, I generally avoid any coffee after dark, but here I am holding a cup of cafecito at 2AM, in this bar that doesn’t serve coffee.
The cafecito is courtesy of my bar buddy. We’re talking, then he disappears and reappears cheerfully balancing five tiny plastic cups in his hands. Next thing I know, our whole corner of the bar is doing cafecito shots.
I’d usually find this intrusive. Not with this guy, though. He’s a harmless version of the dude who buys everyone a tequila shot — but instead of getting us wasted, he wants us to sober up. Like a child that doesn’t want a sleepover to end; like he’s asking all of us at the bar: “Would y’all stay up so we can play just a bit longer?”
I do. However, I don’t get his name.
I’m 29 when I pick up the habit of going out to drink with strangers. I’ve just left my full-time job to become a freelancer, which means taking several projects from home. Some unpredicted side effects: I can work barefoot; I no longer subject myself to the daily horror of drinking office coffee; I don’t spend my days surrounded by people.
I habitually say that plants and dogs are better company than people. But once my days start to feel off, I don’t adopt a schnoodle, nor do I bring home a small palm tree in a terracotta pot. I go to the bar, instead. I go looking for booze of course, but also for human beings.
I surprise myself by doing this, and above all by wanting this. Truth is, I crave these interactions. When a conversation makes that shift from banal to wonderful, I can feel my soul being filled to the point of overflowing. It’s like I’m quenching a thirst I didn’t even know I so badly had.
It seems I’ve long let my family’s description of me override my desires. Here, I feel like a bottle of bootleg scotch: the label doesn’t correspond to what’s inside.
Mexico City, 12:01 AM, Artemisia Bar.
It’s 2016, October to be precise, and this Californian assures me Trump will not win the election. This time, for no special reason, I get his name. We promise to stay in touch. We never talk again. I guess the spell has been broken.
Oddly enough, I’m exceptionally good with names. I only need to get a name once, and I’ll memorize it to the point of sounding like a stalker when I meet that person again, and they don’t remember our sole water cooler chat from two years before. But what happens by the water cooler doesn’t apply to the bar.
Outside of bars, most conversations look a lot like a form to open a bank account: name, age, marital status, profession, birthplace, phone number. We fill out each field, looking for any piece of data that signals the potential for future connection.
Bar conversations scramble the form. At a bar, we’ll only be with someone for 10-oz worth of time, and we know it. So we don’t need to start at the top of the form and exchange names; in fact, we don’t need to fill out the form at all.
I know the cliche is that people meet lovers or potential hook ups at the bar, but that’s not the appeal for me. Quite the opposite: Bar conversations are so powerful because they’re disinterested. Ideally, we’re not there to convince others to give us money, or to give us approval, or to go to church with us, or to go to bed with us.
The past also has limited relevance in bars. When I talk to my fellow drinkers, they’re not measuring me against some predefined label. They’re not even aware there is a label. I don’t see how I act with them, but I see how they react to me: they smile and laugh and open up. Not the expected reaction to aloofness. I’m surprised to see myself through their eyes.
I guess the rusty mirror behind the whiskey bottles is better at reflecting who I am than all the mirrors of my childhood home.
Sao Paulo, 07:10 PM, Sagarana Bar.
I know the name of the guy who asked me about the Anthropocene: it’s Tharsis. I bump into him again — same bar, different day — and he tells me. Not because he wants me to address him by it, but because he wants to spark a conversation about the universe. Tharsis is the name of a volcanic region on Mars.
I didn’t know that, as I didn’t know many of the things he tells me, as I didn’t know many of the things I tell him until they leave my mouth. Talking to him is a rare privilege to think out loud in front of someone else — an act that requires feeling comfortable with the other, and that ultimately also helps me feel comfortable with my own self.
I don’t think he ever got my name.
Flávia Monteiro is a Brazilian writer living in Miami, FL. She has no pets besides the mealy bugs on her monstera plant, who take up most of her time anyway. You can find her tweeting erratically @flavia_monteira.
Image: Dan Barrett/Unsplash
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