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We’ve all felt lonely at some time in our lives, and for many of us, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these feelings. Since early 2020, we have probably ended up spending even more time online — often in a state of “connected detachment” — than we normally would have. Consolation can seem in short supply under such conditions. And they can make it hard to trust others, harder still to work through our divisions.
Fortunately, there is a solution. Reading and writing are generally solitary acts, but they don’t need to be lonely acts. On the contrary, at their heart is a wager that we can make connections and improvise communities around our best thoughts and experiences, our hunger to identify and understand.
So, over the next few weeks, let’s turn to Litro Magazine’s Loneliness issue for some much-needed consolation. As we read these compelling stories and essays — heart-breaking, funny, and sage in turn — let’s reach out and make some meaningful connections. Let’s be lonely together.
(If you haven’t heard back from us regarding your submission, worry not. The theme of “loneliness” inspired many writers and artists to send us work, and our editors are working through the submissions, which will be considered for other online sections of Litro Magazine. Thank you for your patience.)
AMONG THE LONELY PEOPLE
Here is a good idea that should be given to every nineteen-year-old in search of an education, rather than shunting them off into a university of college for three or four years. Instead, let them go and work in a dive bar for that time, and learn along the way all that they can. They will not have a degree at the end but will have learned plenty in the meantime about life and people.
If they do decide to go down this route – and they should – they must be sent out into the world to do it. There is no point in their staying at home and living with their parents; they will not learn anything that way. Cut the apron strings. Make them stand on their own two feet. Pick a small town or city a half-day’s drive from where you live, drop them off with enough to survive a week, and let them figure things out on their own. It will be tough at first, but they will eventually thank you for it.
And as you drive off, as you say goodbye to them, make sure they know that they are not to work in an office. Any job that requires a shirt and tie is asking for too much. Tell them to instead find a dive bar and go work in that.
The reason for this is that there are things that they will pick up in such places that they will not acquire anywhere else. When you are young – and nineteen is young, despite what most nineteen-year-olds think – the best thing you can do is to go out and learn as much as you can. In doing so, you challenge all the things about yourself that you thought were fixed and true, and in doing so you truly find out which things are fixed and true, alongside the parts of yourself that will be rewritten, or abandoned, or buttressed.
The other benefit it has over a more formal education is that it is less than free. Your bosses will be paying you to be there! Imagine a regular wage, paid weekly or fortnightly, while you receive the world’s best education. Of course, you will be doing many things during those hours and probably for little money, but it is better than running up thousands of whatever currency you use in order to gain a piece of paper at the end that states the title of your college, a subject that you now have some kind of competence in, and your name. And all you will have had to do in those hours is serve some drinks, clean some glasses and put them away, wipe up the bar, kick out the customers at the end of the night, break up some fights, and generally have the time of your life. It is not a bad way to learn a good thing or two, and possibly even a few great ones.
My first great dive bar, and which would in some ways become one of the great loves of my life, was a place in York, North Yorkshire, up in a nearly forgotten corner of northern England that is pretty far from any bright lights at all. I arrived there twenty years ago on the day following my birthday. I was young, somewhat naïve, definitely inexperienced, and away from home for the first time. I was also, in many ways, a blank slate.
There was a need for me to find gainful employment, and so I took myself into the city the afternoon I set my bags down in order to look for a bar job. I tried first the White Horse on Bootham, then the Hole in the Wall. The third place I visited was the York Arms. I was given an immediate start there by the manager, who promptly left a few weeks later while I stayed, largely uninterrupted, for the next three years.
And what a place it was! What a beautiful tapestry of people and lives! I glanced through the three years of my formal education, and it largely passed through me without touching the sides. But I read a lot and wrote some and discovered a lot – most – of the things that turned me from a boy into a man. Everything came to me in those years – first love, first time away from home, first lay, first time to try and survive standing on my own two feet. It was a good and great time.
The York Arms was the city’s second gay bar, although the brewery was very clear that we were not to advertise it as such. It was, I think, the only gay bar in the twenty-first century to have still been in the closet. But what a closet!
Most of our customers during the day were tourists, in from out of town to walk around the York Minster, to amble down the Shambles, stroll back along Stonegate, come over to us for a pint and a wee, then get back into their Volvos or Audis to go home. But after the lunchtime shift, from three onwards, the pallor of the place shifted and bled into different, brighter, and richer colours. As the tourists ebbed from the place, the long-term drinkers, the alcoholics, pimps, prostitutes, and the perpetually unemployed would come. It wasn’t far from Bootham, the main mental hospital in North Yorkshire, so many of those on day release came in to sit, get warm, and sip a little booze. And then, later, as the sky darkened and that part of the city began to empty, our regulars would come along, all of us members of the same dysfunctional, boozy, yet ultimately loving family.
I would eventually leave there in the summer of 2003, a month or so before I was to turn twenty-two, and I did not go back in for some time. Over the years, I have dropped back in intermittently and sworn, each time, that I would be back, some day permanently. Even now, looking back on those years, I fantasise about coming in one dark and cold night, wiping the steam from my glasses, and seeing standing all around every one of the regulars, who will welcome me home, make a space for me on a stool near the bar, and talk for the rest of the night, catching up on old times.
Not every bar is a dive bar, nor is every dive bar for everybody. It is vitally important to find the right type. Too nice, and there will be little to be learned. You will also learn too little if the place is too dark and violent. Although these are things that are different for everyone. The best advice I can give is to find the place that suits you best while also pushing and pulling some at your seams. All dive bars are perfect in their own way, but not all are perfect for everybody.
There are a few common, core things that you should look for in one of these places. A dive bar is a place with a steady stream of regular customers, many of whom have been going there for years, even decades. The bars tend to be on the outskirts of a city where the rents – and drink prices are lower – in those areas where the urban begins to butt up against the suburban, and they have their own gravitational pull for those drawn to them.
A good dive bar is an accumulation of many things. It does not need all of them, though. A handful will suffice. We are talking cocktails here, not recipes. A dive bar has only a little or no music, and it is never played louder than at half the level of a normal conversation. Similar rules apply to televisions, along with the added proviso that they are turned on only intermittently and when there is something on that everybody wants or needs to watch. In 2001, I watched the second tower fall on 9/11 while working behind a bar. Everybody was watching the television that lunchtime.
It is quite okay to serve food in a dive bar, but the menu should be limited and ideally it should be a sandwich or come in a packet. There should also be beer, and lots of it, but limited in selection – two bitters, two lagers, and a cider will be enough, although you could be exotic and add a mild and a stout, lest anyone fault you for not doing so. Nowadays, there are so many gastropubs with their wide and varied selections of beers and spirits, but the problem is that there is something untrustworthy about them and the people who drink in them that comes from their lack of authenticity.
Keep the spirits simple, too – the core ones are whiskey, vodka, and gin, after which you can add your bourbons, brandies, rums, and wine (one bottle of red, one of white).
The next part is the staff. They are also to be kept simple. Like a good dive bar, a good barman is an agglomeration of things. There is no magic formula or combination, but a good starting point is that a good barman remembers your name, what you drink, how much it costs, when you have had enough, and what upsets you. They should also have some basic arithmetic for calculating cost and change, a plausible manner, a sense of humour, and some schtick to keep the customers entertained. Everything else is a bonus.
The most important part of the dive bar is the people that drink there because, without them, it would only be an empty room with taps. Again, there is no magic formula or combination, but you will find all varieties of life. And all of them will have a story.
There is also a great camaraderie. You will soon know, from your first shift at the dive bar, that we are all lonely ships in the night. Most people end up in a dive bar when they have no home life. Often, they will have known the people in the bar for many years, even decades. These are people who have come to known each other well while under the lubrication of alcohol. People around the bar that will know more about them – and in greater honesty – than many of the people in the rest of their lives.
It is in these places that you will also discover the meaning of true happiness. It is not grand, nor eloquent, nor prone to large gestures and displays. It is the type of happiness that descends on you when you realise the smallness of your life in the great and grand scheme of things and are happy with that. I once wrote that true happiness and contentment burned as true and deep as a log fire, and that is a description that I find difficult to improve upon. These are people who have come to an agreement in life not to expect more from it than they already possess, and that acceptance has made them happy. Some of the happiest couples I have met have been in dive bars. The happiest couples are always those who could match each other drink for drink.
Perhaps the happiest pair I have ever known was a gay couple I knew two decades ago called Gary and Stewart. The pair had been together for ten years, and I have no doubt that they would have been married if that legally had been on the cards for them then. They lived together in a nice, terraced house that they owned, and one drove buses for a living and the other was a chef.
They had both been married when they were younger, and each was still on good terms with his former wife, with whom they met up with quite often. Gary had also had two children – a son and a daughter – with his wife. He told me once that he had been straight his entire life until he ended up in bed one night with another man, discovered that he liked it, and never went back. I never knew what part it had played in his divorce, but I met his children once, and they were lovely. So lovely, in fact, that they sent Stewart a card each year on Mother’s Day.
I knew at the same time a man called Carl, who came to the same bar. He was about fifty, lean, and had long, grey hair that was pulled back always into a ponytail. He worked with his hands and often did not shave during the week and came in often with his ex-wife with whom he wanted to reunite. He drank bitter, and he was a nice guy, and I liked him.
Every few weeks, Carl would appear in full drag, usually a PVC corset with fishnets, a Dolly Parton-style blonde wig, and heels. He would also be perfectly, carefully shaved, his face painted thick with make-up. The crowning jewel in his getup was the water-filled bra that he would invite people to test the heft of. I have no idea where he would go after leaving our bar those nights – York is a small city and there were few places as open as we were. We referred to him on those nights as Crossing Carl. Even when made up, he still drank bitter.
There was a point when I did not see Carl for a long time. I think the relationship with his ex broke down further and he retreated into himself. He had changed the next time I saw him, and all the niceness had soured into something nasty and bitter. It was not long after that he took his dog to the vet and, when told the cost for treatment, said he would do the job himself. The vet called the authorities after he left, and they came to his home and took the dog. Carl went to the shelter later that night with a sword, a can of petrol, and a lighter. He terrorised the staff and threatened to set the place on fire. Armed police were called. Carl was arrested and after the trial and conviction, the judge gave him fifteen months. I like to think that he was dressed in his corset and fishnets when he went to the shelter.
These three men I all met in the York Arms when I was nineteen. It closed last year and, in doing so, took with it a large part of myself. It sat at the foot of York Minster and had reportedly the second-cheapest pint within the city walls.
Our clientele were mainly the older faces in York’s gay scene, people from their mid-thirties onwards who wanted largely to have a quiet drink with friends. We had other regulars, too, some down on their luck, some just alcoholics that has mastered the art of holding it together through the day as long as they had enough to drink. Since we did not play much music at the York Arms and whatever we did play was always turned a little low, conversation dominated the smoky, blue air. And since we were cheap, cheerful, and friendly, we continually attracted new regulars who became our firm friends. We had Arsenal Alan, the football fan from down south who would occasionally get drunk, give Nazi salutes, and goose-step from the pub; the Two Stephens, father and son, long-term alcoholics who lived together; and Bishop Michael, who had founded his own religious sect of a few hundred people.
Of all the things that the York Arms taught me, the most universal is that we all have some sadness that never goes away. It is what makes us human.
Sadness is a half-step away from regret. The presence of both is a good indicator of wisdom. Never trust a person who says that they have no regrets; they have learned nothing from their mistakes.
Sadness, as a common experience, is a great bonding agent because we all, in our own ways, carry some sadness. People are drawn more to others who are sad. Misery loves company. As a species, we bond in failure and are divided by success.
The most common form of sadness is that of the people who used to be something. Every dive bar is filled with them. They used to be in the army, or the police, or they were artists or writers. The saddest were those that used to be parents and spouses.
Perhaps one of the saddest men at the York Arms was John the Sad Policeman. He was a security guard at the university and he would come in early on his days off to drink. He would be polite and sociable at first, but then his speech would begin to slur and his gait would become unsteady, and when that happened, we would politely tell him that it was time to go home, shaking our heads when he pointed at the beer taps. Most times, when this happened, he would slouch and stumble out, and the next time we would see him again would be a week later when we would repeat the routine.
We did this performance many times, but he would occasionally turn aggressive and swear at us, and we would hold firm until he gave up and left. We never held it against him; he was sad more than anything else. But then he came in on a day when we had security, got aggressive, and was picked up and thrown out. He came back a few minutes later, was thrown out again, and told to never come back. He returned a week later, and we shook our heads when he came in, and that was that.
I heard later that he was closeted, that he had been divorced, that he was an alcoholic, and that he had been forced to leave the police. I do not know, however, what order these things had come in or if and how they were related. The fact was that he was a sad man and that he had been something, had become something else, and was now a nothing, someone who used to be a person.
The last time I saw John the Sad Policeman was a few months after he had been barred. I was locked out of my flat so I called the security office, which had the keys to all the buildings. It was late at night, and cold, and it was fifteen or twenty minutes before a van pulled up.
John was inside. He got out and walked over to me but said nothing. Then he unlocked the door of the building, went to the door of my flat, unlocked that, turned, and left.
That was one of the sad and lonely people that I knew, and there were others. So many others. I knew mothers who had had their children taken from them, people afraid of families that had disowned them for being gay, widows and widowers whose one great achievement had been that they had been married. There was one talented singer I was friends with whose voice went and, fearing unemployment and homelessness, went home one night and killed himself. I went to the funerals of at least three of my regulars.
Among the sad and lonely people, there is a subset who are possibly the most poetic of all of them. They are always men since it is so hard for men to find someone to fall in love with them.
These are the Men Who Have Had One Relationship Too Many. Every bar has them, but you do not know that you are speaking to one of them until the time is right and they bloom sadly at you.
These were the guys you got speaking to late at night, in the moments before closing. The ones who can tell you about all the things that they had learned the hard way, who were waiting for an end that they had already accepted would be theirs. They usually revealed themselves among other sad men in the hour before closing, when many of their brethren had drifted off and they were lubricated enough to talk to you about the great tragedy of their life, which was usually a woman lost or gone.
There were plenty of Men Who Have Had One Relationship Too Many, and I can see them in every bar I go into. Maybe, one day, I will also be one of them. But the saddest of them I have met was at The Elmbank Hotel in York in 2002. Though he was not yet one of the Men Who Have Had One Relationship Too Many, he would be.
I had taken on the role of night porter over the summer. It was a mile or two from the city centre, and I would work there each night after leaving the York Arms. I would arrive at eleven, close the bar to the public, tidy the corridors and common areas, then wait until dawn when I would open the kitchen, order the papers, and turn on the lights. In between, I would look after anything needed by the residents. But, mostly, I read books or watched television.
We had two long-term residents, a couple. His name was David. I do not remember her name, only that they were living at the hotel while their new home was being built. They were in their fifties and stayed in a quiet room at the top of the annex building across the street. She was dying of cancer and did not have long left.
David had a true and honest love for his wife, and he was losing her. He came down each night to the resident’s bar after she had fallen asleep, and he and I would sit and talk about almost everything, but usually sports. The one subject we did not broach was his own life.
I stopped working at that hotel at the end of the summer and, when I left, David and I made a vague promise to stay in touch. A year or two after, I saw him late one night in the centre of the city. He was drunk and yelling at someone. I stopped and looked closely to see that it was him. He stared back but did not recognise me. I walked on and left him yelling in the street, and at himself, and for his ghosts.
There was no great end, no one-night-that-finished-everything for me when it came to that world. I got older and grew up some and gradually drifted out of it until one day I woke up and I was someone else entirely.
And there was no great lesson I learned from all these sad people, just many small-but-good ones. Those four to five years in that world did much to set my compass for the parts of my life that have followed.
What I did glean from that time is that I left it too soon in order to move on to other, more-respectable parts of life, the things that I should have been doing. It was the right thing, but I would, if given a time machine, head straight back to those years. I suspect, however, that age and distance have turned them into something better than they were.
The last, great bar that I was in during my twenties was the Melting Pot in Minami-Gyotoku, in the northwest corner of Tokyo. It is, I think, no longer there, and that is no surprise. Good things are often defined by the fact that they do not last.
It was the last few weeks before I headed back to the UK after a year teaching English, and I was spending that time sleeping on the floor of my friend’s apartment.
The place was a few hundred yards from Minami-Gyotoku station and up a few flights of stairs in a building recessed from the main street. It was dark inside and had a small entrance that led into two medium-sized rooms with a long bar that ran from the end of one to the bottom of the other. The beers it sold came in huge glasses that were kept, wet, in a freezer and, once filled, had ice the size and shape of rose petals that detached themselves and slid down your hands and wrists and onto the bar when you drank. The owner, a Canadian, had been in the navy but looked then like the guitarist in a Danish heavy metal band.
There was no real sadness in that bar, but it was full of people heading that way. Some trains are never on time, but they always arrive eventually. There were plenty in failing relationships, or just out of them, and there were those that were beginning to lose contact with their children and were scheming contrived legal strategies to regain access. I met the nephew of one famous writer there – or so he claimed – and he was headed in that direction, having not seen his daughter for six months.
That the Melting Pot was an expat bar in Asia meant that it was full of those who were teaching English as a foreign language. Some were there with the intention to teach for one year then return home. But there were also the lifers – those who had come in their early twenties and were now pushing into their mid- and late-thirties, with no family or career to show for their time there.
On one of my last nights there, I was drunk in the bar when the friend I was staying with introduced me to one of his colleagues. I talked some rubbish at her and her friend for a while, until we, my friend and I, left the place and stumbled back to his apartment.
I got home from Japan and, a few months later, that young woman was murdered by someone she had given an English lesson to. I did not realise it was her until my friend told me a week later. They had been good friends, and he had liked her a lot. He liked her so much that I was worried for a while that he might have become one of those sad men that you meet in places like that.
I live in Berlin now, and there are no good dive bars here. Or not any more since the city started changing. It is unrecognisable today to the one I stepped off a plane into. There were some good dive bars then, places like the Melting Pot. There was Hairy Mary’s and KDR and all these little places, run by the person standing behind their bars, that have since gone, dissipated. They do not really exist here anymore, at least not in the centre of the city, or Prenzlauer Berg. And down in Neukoln and F’Hain, the people there are too young. Give them twenty years and some pain and maybe they will get there. But maybe not. The city is changing so quickly and drastically that it seems there will be nothing broken or cracked or beautiful here two decades from now. The place is becoming shiny and clean, all symbols of success and wealth, and as ugly as you would expect.
T.S. Eliot said that with the end of our exploring comes our return to where we started and our knowing of the place for the first time, and he was right. Go on a journey through the world of dive bars and you do not so much change but get stripped down to your vital elements that are then matured, cauterised, and hardened to the world. It is a good education.
So let us do it then for every nineteen-year-old. Say to them: “Go out into the world and go into a dive bar. Let it educate you. But make sure that you engage. Whatever you do, do not leave yourself outside the door when you go in. Take in your authentic self, the part that you are still trying to develop, and introduce it to that world. And let that world try to change you, and it should, otherwise as an education it has no use. And when you think you have changed and grown enough, sit and change and grow some more for the hell of it, then maybe even continue if it feels good. You may not have a degree or something equally as tangible and insubstantial to hold on to, but you will have at least learned a real thing or two.”