Too many people wax poetic about their favorite "old man bars." They speak with authority, citing the dim lights, wood-paneled walls, and those eccentric regulars who sit in the corner for hours, sipping lukewarm drafts, pushing quarters to the barkeep with barely a nod of acknowledgment. They talk about bars like some people talk sports. And like the weekend jocks, the conversationally aggressive bar pundits don't actually play the game; they don't really understand what it's like to sit at a bar, alone, from two on a Sunday afternoon until ten that night. They've never taken a day off work and mysteriously found themselves by the bar at noon. They think that endurance means lasting until last call, when, in reality, endurance sits alone at the bar from seven 'til eleven, six days a week. On weeknights, when their friends aren't going out and there's no one to impress, they usually forget about those cool bars and, instead, sit at home drinking Pepsi.
People who most appreciate bars understand that the best bars have their own souls. They've got more than just atmosphere; even some of the most murky, surly bars don't offer shit in the way of barside comfort. And, sometimes, a brightly-lit, tin-ceiling tourist trap is the perfect place for a quick drink and meal. A good bar offers an indescribable something that corresponds with something that you need at that moment. That's why it's impossible to describe a bar--and, in the process, truly expose its character to the uninitiated--without first getting drunk there.
Three weeks ago, Brett wanted to meet for a drink after work. "Somewhere different," he said. We met at the Shark for a first drink, then pointed ourselves uptown via the Bowery. We weren't in any hurry, strolling past the Bowery Bar -- chuckling with that superior disdain common to low-key hipster jerkoffs like us--when we came upon Koop at Sixth Street. The chalkboard easel invited us in for $2 Happy Hour Buds; a peak inside revealed plenty of empty stools and a fairly dark bar.
We opted for a table along the wall opposite the bar. Seven o'clock, it wasn't crowded, so we could talk without raising our voices. Some people shot pool in the back; others read the paper or watched TV. We had a couple drinks, chatted comfortably about the jobs, the girlfriends, et cetera, slowly sinking into our chairs, working toward a too-quick, one-hour drunken stupor. Then, when I was just about to buy another round, we both got cagey and agreed that it was time to get the fuck out of there. It felt as if my lifeforce was being sucked out of me by that goddamn bar; if I didn't leave soon, I thought I would lose my soul.
I don't demand much from a bar. I don't expect witty exchanges with the bartender. I don't need waitress service at the tables. When I want to sit and drink, I don't want dancing girls or a bad acoustic act or a loud jukebox. I just want quick drinks at reasonable prices. In fact, my favorite bars are the most predictable: when I want to talk with a friend without walking too far, we meet at the Shark; if Amy and I want a little more noise, a little more life, we'll swing over to 7B or Joe's; on the way home, when one more drink is paramount, we'll stop at Milanos for that last pint before bed.
But Happy Hour at Koop had an altogether different atmosphere. It was comfortable enough, with good enough service and cold enough beer, but there was nothing there. Sure, it was pleasant on the surface, but it was hollow underneath, without any character or flair.
Not one to discount the role that my emotional instability plays when interpreting the world around me, I returned to Koop a week later. This time, it was even worse. The day after Halloween, the ceiling was covered with orange and black balloons; the track lighting above the bar was at its brightest, each lamp pointing directly at the bright white wall behind the bar. It was a visual nightmare, and I didn't stay for a second drink.
I was under a spell, I've decided, desperately hoping that Koop could weasel its way into my haphazard drinking routine. If not a Happy Hour bar, then why not a Starter Drink bar? It was convenient and cheap enough for a few rounds, it could be a sufficient beginning for the evening. That in mind, the next Saturday, Amy and I stopped there to grab a first drink, only to be faced with a $5 cover charge. It was the last thing I'd expected to fin -- for my money, bars should be bars, and clubs should be clubs. Clubs can have as many bars inside that they want, but I don't like bars that try to be clubs three nights a week. Needless to say, I felt betrayed by the dance beat pouring out of the Koop's front wall. We didn't pay the $5 each; instead, we took that $10 and put it toward the night's drinks at Joe's.
I haven't gone back to Koop since.
As I said, you can't really describe a bar without getting drunk there. And a good bar has its own soul, often made up of the souls of those people who spend most of their leisure time there. Maybe my problem with Koop is its relative youth -- it's only been open a year and a half, and perhaps hasn't yet defined itself. Maybe it's the weekday drink specials designed to lure in the larger crowds. Or maybe I just didn't go with the right people in the right frame of mind -- early evenings at Koop might not be conducive to small-time drinking with a friend or two.
Or, just maybe, that bar really was trying to wrest my soul away from me, having recognized me as the type who could, conceivably, spend most of his leisure time at a bar. Basically, mine would be a good spirit to have, if a bar were looking to build a solid foundation of regulars. If that's the case, then tough luck, Koop--I've got too many other places with previous claims on this drinking soul.