07 November 2010

i was at a bar

This is the beginning of a story I've been trying to tell for over a week. I've been on a work trip in Miami, and as glitzy as that sounds, it turns out you never have as much free time as you want when you're on a work trip. And all the free time you do have, you want to spend lying down not talking to anyone because you're a bit social-ed out.

So I didn't spend my free time writing; I think I knew in the back of my mind that I wouldn't have time, but I always have hopes that I'll wake up early, go for a run on the beach, and then write by the pool before getting to my first meeting at 8am. I don't know how I thought that'd be possible.

In these few moments I have before I board my plane back to Chicago, I'm going to get the beginning of this story out. Finally.


It was Friday night, and I was at a bar.

I realize this is a completely normal statement for a 28-year-old to make, but not for this 28-year-old. I probably have less than five stories that start with, “I was at a bar.” Maybe even less than three, and most of them take place in a foreign country: “I was at a bar in…Barcelona.” That’s because people do abnormal-for-them things while studying abroad, all under the guise of learning more about the culture. (Helpful tip: don’t point out to anyone who studied abroad that most of their pictures and stories are filled with other Americans studying abroad.)

To put this in perspective—in case I need to prove more that I am not a bar girl—I probably have 117 stories that with, “I was at a museum.” And I have maybe 562 that start “I was at a café.”

This would be a non-exciting Venn diagram (are they ever really exciting?), but there’s most likely a sizable intersection of stories that feature both a museum and a café. Arty coffee makes for a good story.

But this one Friday night in October, the day before Halloween, I was at a bar in Lincoln Park, which is a trendy part of Chicago.

A sidetrack of a geography lesson, for those of you not familiar with Chicago’s neighborhoods and the stereotypes associated with them: Most fresh-from-college kids move to Wrigleyville, the neighborhood around Wrigley Field. They go there, I presume, because you drink to celebrate a Cub victory and drink more to commiserate a Cub loss—and of course, the latter happens more often.

It doesn’t hurt that there are also lots of hot dog stands in Wrigleyville, places that stay open way past my bedtime and are known for yelling at you if you want ketchup on your hot dog because everyone knows that a true Chicago hot dog comes with relish, onion, pepper, and mustard—and never, ever any ketchup. The yelling bit is part of their character and fame, and I bet it’s a hilarious experience at 2am—to be yelled at over cased meat product.

After awhile, though, the extended Greek life, all this excessive partying as if they were still 21 and could start the weekend on Thursday night, this starts to wear. This is when people move to Lincoln Park, which is classier. More grown-up feeling.

There are still bars, yes, but they’re more upscale: there are more wine bars and fewer bars with a floor that makes you wish you could levitate because you can’t stand the idea of touching it, even with your shoes.

Lincoln Park is more refined, but it’s also like your cousin who pretends that she’s no longer from a small town just because she’s been in the Big City for a minute. You know that under the overpriced skinny jeans is someone who drops her g’s, hangs out at the Dairy Queen, and went to parties in cornfields when she was in high school.

And like your cousin, Lincoln Park still knows how to party, especially on a Friday night.

I was not in one of those classy wine bars. I was in a neighborhood bar, the kind where you could set a sitcom about late 20-somethings trying to figure out how they’re going to make it after all. This bar would be where they come every Thursday night after work to sit at the corner bar and to play darts.

Not that this bar had a dart board, but I’m sure the props department could take care of that for the show.

The bar—called The Store, I’m guessing because it used to be a store—had one of those arcade basketball games, the kind where you have 45 seconds and a lot of small basketballs to make as many baskets as you can. There’s a soundtrack of cheering and whistles and buzzers, a soundtrack familiar to me from Friday nights in high school.

I wasn’t at the parties that took place in cornfields; I was on the sidelines of a football field or a basketball court in a short purple skirt shouting from my diaphragm: “Defense! Defense! Get that ball!”

A band—a French gypsy jazz band—had just finished their set in the back room, which was decorated with twinkle lights and Halloween stuff. There were fake cobwebs stretched across the windows and decals of ghosts on the mirrors. It's difficult to feel that you're in an edgy bar when it's decorated like a second grade classroom on the day of the big Halloween parade.

I am easily enamored by places that burst with quirks, places that feel like conundrums, and this place qualified.

For starters, it had a small town feel sitting squarely in a neighborhood that puts the chic in Chicago. Then there was the French gypsy jazz that transported me to this little cafe I used to go to every Tuesday when I lived in Normandy—but in reality, of course, I was still standing in Illinois, holding a rum and coke, a fake spider dangling next to my shoulder.

At The Store, there were people in costumes and people still in work clothes (which is kind of like wearing a costume, I guess) and then there were the people all dressed up to go out, tall heels and small shirts.

I felt, standing there next to the arcade basketball game, that anyone could feel at home in this bar, and I felt so—part of something larger—just by being there.

I get this swirling excitement about a seemingly ordinary place or event or object a lot, and it usually builds up to expressing my general love of humanity in a way that would make Anne of Green Gables proud: a poetic effusion on a diner or a city park on a Saturday afternoon or two thick-handled coffee mugs on a table between two friends.

When this happens, I tend to get this big shine of a smile that doesn't show my teeth, making my face all cheek. My eyes dart everywhere, as if I were trying to categorize and file away every detail about this memory. Well, that's what I am doing.

I become a stalker of my own experience at times, and I came up with a term for the reverie I fall into: pre-nostalgia. I feel nostalgic for a moment before I'm done living it.

You know when you're in a good moment, don't you? When you look around at the people with you and the arcade basketball game beside you and think—I have a pretty okay life. I get to laugh, dance a little to French gypsy jazz, and that boy just offered to buy me a drink.

Yeah, this is more than okay, and that's when the pre-nostalgia sets in. While you're in the moment, you start thinking about how you'll describe the moment later on, how you'll tell the story so that other people feel like they were there, even if they've never been to a bar in Lincoln Park.

Perhaps this is just a problem for writers. Or—and I hope this isn't true—just for me.


I do actually have a story from this bar—not just poetic effusions on how it was one of those quintessential nights. My newest story that starts with "I was at a bar" is coming soon. Perhaps even tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. I definitely find myself at times already shaping how I'm going to tell what's happening to me right now. My friends accuse me of leaving out big chunks of stories to make them more interesting, but I see it as leaving out the boring parts because that's what stories do.



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