I’m a teetotaler—and I have been for basically all my life. My reasons for choosing not to consume alcohol have to do with family history, health, and certain personal convictions.
I recently moved from my hometown to a small suburb of Dallas for work. At first, the distance from my family and friends was appreciated; then loneliness started to creep in.
Late one night, shortly after the move, I couldn’t sleep. I decided to get out of bed, put my clothes on and drive—with no particular destination in mind. As I rolled down the road at midnight, a large, glowing, yellow sign caught my eye: Waffle House.
I pulled into the parking lot and went inside. It was mostly empty, with a few patrons at various tables and a large, bearded man sitting at the breakfast bar. After a visual parameter sweep, I decided to leave the tables for any groups that might come in. Maintaining a comfort barrier of one stool between us, I took a spot beside the bearded man at the bar.
First, there were the pleasantries of whether I needed a menu and then how I would like my eggs cooked. Shortly after that, there was a peacefully awkward silence.
The bearded man was gobbling down his waffle quietly while I waited patiently for my food, absent-mindedly scrolling through social media on my phone. There we were, two grown men—strangers—sitting together at a bar, saying nothing. Then the silence broke.
“Hey, Sherry, you been playing much pool lately?” the large, bearded man asked the waitress.
Sherry turned and smiled at my bar companion. She had a kind, wrinkly face, a thin pair of glasses, and a frail figure.
“I played yesterday, and I cleared the house!” she chuckled as she flipped my eggs on the griddle.
The light conversation continued between the two as my midnight breakfast was cooked. It was evident that my bearded friend was a regular at this establishment. Their laughter pushed me to break out of my social barrier and enter the conversation.
“So, you’re a pool shark?” I asked jokingly, directed at Sherry.
She laughed and modestly replied, “Honey, there’s a lot of people a heck of a lot better than me.”
My bearded companion chimed in, defending her. “Don’t let her fool you; she’s good,” he laughed.
The conversation continued. I learned that my bearded bar buddy was named Christian. Sherry began complaining about being so short-staffed and how no one wanted to work. Of course, the conversation shifted toward politics as she blamed the work shortage on the present administration.
Despite—or maybe because of—my eggs tasting faintly like cigarettes, I smiled and nodded as I listened to Sherry rant.
Christian asked what I did for a living. I told him I’m a communication teacher.
“Communication, hah! We could use some more of that around here,” Sherry chimed in.
Sitting in this quaint little diner where the company wasn’t sophisticated and the food was mediocre, I was reminded of philosopher and communication theorist Albert Borgmann. There was one common theme in Borgmann’s work—the fireplace.
Borgmann argues that people in society have grown removed from each other and decentralized through technology. He states that humanity needs to return to the fireplace—where the community gathers to be warmed and where common meals are prepared in tribal cultures. The words “communication” and “community” share their etymology: communis, a Latin word meaning “common.”
That’s when it hit me: the bar is the modern fireplace. The common gathering place.
I was reminded of another conversation I had with an acquaintance—this time at a coffee bar. Like me, this friend was (temporarily) a teetotaler. He had just been through a nasty break-up, and I could tell he was trying to avoid the alcohol bar—a previous crutch for him.
He admitted that he had braved a few visits to the pub even after resolving not to drink, ordering a club soda instead of an alcoholic drink. When I asked why he put himself in that position, he responded:
“It’s not so much about the alcohol; it’s about the community.”
People need other people. We’re just built that way. Sometimes we need to sit at a bar—or some type of communal gathering place—and talk to the pretty barista or the old woman who cooks our cigarette-flavored eggs. Sometimes we need to enjoy the humor of the person on the stool beside us. Sometimes we just need to share a warm cup of coffee with another human being.
That’s why, from this teetotaler’s perspective, we need more bars. But maybe it’s time to reconsider what qualifies as a “bar,” to distance the bar from the association of drunkenness and alcoholism. We need more places where people can go in the middle of the night when they’re feeling hurt, destitute, and lonely. The question remains: who is willing to take up the mantle if not the bar?
Perhaps we just need the places of community that we once had—churches, men’s and women’s clubs, neighborhood gatherings and community centers—to step up once again and be there for the lonely and displaced who just need some care and conversation.