In 1996, Rosie Schaap was a 25-year-old graduate student who started frequenting Puffy's Tavern, a storied New York City dive bar. For weeks, she sat by herself at a banquette, grading papers every day over a pint of Guinness. The regulars sitting at the bar, including artists and ironworkers, noticed her but left her alone. In a life-changing moment one day, Schaap pushed aside her term papers and went up to the bar, joining the conversation.
"I can almost see that moment in slow motion," said Schaap, the New York Times' "Drink" columnist, from South, a bar near her home in Brooklyn, N.Y. "I heard the regulars talking. They seemed to know each other and were having fun in a relaxed way. I went to the bar, started talking to people and was kind of smitten." Schaap had crossed the line, moving from patron to regular at Puffy's.
In her witty and turbulent memoir "Drinking with Men," the Puffy's experience is part of Schaap's 25-year chronicle of drinking in bars from Dublin to Vermont, from upstate New York to New York City. The book is a vivid study of both Schaap's life in bars, often as one of the few women regulars, and a gimlet-eyed exploration of modern bar culture.
Our interview took place on a freezing winter day, but South, which is Schaap's local, is a warm and welcoming oasis in the gritty Polish and Mexican neighborhood of Greenwood Heights. "Becoming a regular at your local bar can just be the decision to engage," said Schaap, 42, sitting in a booth over a pint. "If you develop a quick rapport with the bartender, it is like having an endorsement or a referral."
Schaap bartends at South once a week. As the late afternoon light faded, the young regulars started coming in after work and greeted Schaap, some reaching over to hug her. In the background, Roger Miller's "You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd" played on the jukebox.
Schaap's book starts with her wild childhood, during which, at age 15, she read Tarot cards to commuters in the bar car of the Metro-North's New Haven line in exchange for beer. At her guidance counselor's suggestion, she dropped out of high school to follow the Grateful Dead. At 16, she sold beads and tie-dyed T-shirts, went to Dead concerts around the country, smoked pot and drank.
In one dizzying and graphic scene, Schaap came to in a motel room after doing 21 shots of Jack Daniel's in Los Angeles. "That was a real binge," said Schaap, chuckling at the memory. "It was by far the most I have ever drunk. The next day, when I woke up, it took me a while to realize that I was in Santa Cruz, 350 miles away from where I drank the shots. There were dangers, but youth makes you forget that. I am grateful I am not dead."
The book profiles the eight major bars that forged Schaap's life. Schaap wound up at Bennington College, and went to Dublin to study. "I was obsessed with the poetry of William Butler Yeats, even though his politics were awful," said Schaap. "I was also mistaken for being Irish. Part of it had to do with the stereotype about drinking." Schaap found a Dublin bar named Grogan's Castle Lounge, where she argued politics late into the night and met and moved in with an older poet.
It was at Puffy's in lower Manhattan where she truly immersed herself in bar life. "It was the single most intense period of bar patronage in my life," Schaap said. "I was there every day."
Schaap bonded with her fellow regulars and learned about bar pick-ups. Puffy's, however, was prone to dark nights, where the despair of struggling artists could become palpable. "An older artist friend asked me why I was hanging out at the bar, and should I really be doing this at my age?" said Schaap, recalling her days as a graduate student. "At first I was offended, but then I realized that he was looking out for me. He saw where he was in his career and wasn't happy. He didn't want me to still be at Puffy's 15 years later. That did make me think, is this a healthy environment for a 25-year-old to be in? I aged a lot in that year, but I don't regret a minute of it."
With some other Puffy's regulars, Schaap shifted her loyalty to the nearby Liquor Store Bar, where the conversation was more scintillating. "For me, Liquor Store was the sweet spot," Schaap said. "It reminded me of what the European cafe society in my imagination might be. You might start with two people at a table, but by the end there would be five more people at the table, with everybody frantically smoking, talking and joking."
To find her place at Liquor Store, Schaap had to pass muster with a guy named Ed, an artist and one of the ringleaders in the bar's social scene. "I first thought he was a jerk, but then I realized he told great stories, and he was a great listener, which is a rare commodity in a bar."
By drinking with older men, Schaap found her ideas taken more seriously than by her peers. "I had never thought of myself as a cute kid," she said, "and I thought of myself as more sophisticated than I really was." When she got involved with her future husband, Frank, she brought him by the bar for her drinking companions' approval.
Schaap and Frank were together for more than a decade. "We were in the middle of a trial separation when I got the book contract in 2008," Schaap said. "Soon after, I received a phone call from Frank, where he was teaching in Pennsylvania. He said, 'I have cancer.' It was the best professional news, followed by the worst personal news." Frank lived for two more years. His death is movingly noted in the book's epilogue.
"In the time the book was due, I wasn't ready to write about Frank's death," said Schaap. "I was not up to the task of writing a grieving book."
Schaap was hired by the Sunday New York Times Magazine in October 2011 as the inaugural "Drink" columnist. The wildly popular column looks at drinks and bar culture, including the joys of subversive daytime bar drinking and the proper way to make a Rabbie Burns Cocktail, a Scottish drink honoring the poet Robert Burns. Schaap's column writing is so lush, you can almost feel the beads of moisture on the drinks she describes.
"The novelist Kate Christensen recommended me to the Times editor," she said. "I totally love the job, and I am not a person who loves working. I wish I were."
At the end of the interview, the sun had completely set and all the stools at the bar were filled with regulars, both hipsters and locals. Schaap stepped behind the bar to pull a pint of Guinness for the bar's owner.
When she bartends at South, Schaap occasionally sees women who remind her of a younger ghost of herself. In the book, she recounted noticing a young woman who knit by herself in the corner for several weeks until she stepped up to the bar, eventually becoming a regular.
"I don't give advice to the customers, but if I see someone screwing with them, I'll break that up," Schaap said. "That is what's expected from a good bartender. Nobody gave me any advice. No bartender ever said to me, 'Here you are, a girl hanging out in a bar, don't go home with So-and-So,' or 'Don't have that last Jameson's.'
"When I see a person truly hammered, I will put them in a taxi or have a barback walk them home, but it is not my job to tell them how not to screw up their lives in the way that might make them more interesting."
Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"Drinking with Men"
By Rosie Schaap, Riverhead, 272 pages, $26.95
Straight from the bartender
Rosie Schaap, author of "Drinking with Men," talks about the books that influenced her drinking and writing:
"My husband Frank had found a copy of David Embury's "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks" at a flea market for a quarter. Embury is a very funny, hilarious writer with a great style. He is very opinionated, but not in a malicious way. Embury opened up my eyes to drink writing as this imaginative vocation.
"I think it was Embury that turned me on to Kingsley Amis' "Everyday Drinking." Some of his pieces, like "How to Avoid a Hangover," are very funny. I disagree with Amis on a lot of things about food and drink, but I find his capriciousness part of what is interesting about him. Sometimes he's loose and free — drink what you want, none of it matters, don't be snotty about it. Other times, he'll be very particular about things.
"Ciaran Carson is a poet, fiction writer and nonfiction writer. He's one of my favorite living writers. "Last Night's Fun" is not exactly a memoir, but his life is pretty big in the book. It's a book on Irish traditional music that's a meditation on family, culture, food, drink and sport. All these things have to come together to make the main topic valuable and rich.
"I loved Kate Christensen's 'The Epicure's Lament' because I love a great debauched story. Hugo Whittier is the best antihero I have read in a long time. How wonderful it would be to escape to a decaying mansion to eat, drink and smoke yourself to death.
"M.F.K. Fisher's drink writing is easy to read and so beautiful. I recommend "M.F.K. Fisher: Musings on Wine and Other Libations," edited by Anne Zimmerman. With Fisher, the story comes before what she is eating or drinking."
Rosie Schaap will appear at 7 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Book Cellar, in Lincoln Square.