Column: The saddest places to drink

Some friends and I were at a bowling alley in Los Angeles a few years ago. We wanted a drink and went to the bar. I feel like I am understating when I say that this bowling alley bar was the saddest place I ever entered. I am not sure I can do the utter and complete melancholy of this room justice. I will try.

The red velvety-pimp décor of the bar dated back to the 1970s. The furniture, floor and signs – all of which I’m pretty sure were made of vinyl – had never been updated or dusted. It was the type of room in which a drug dealer would feel comfortable selling cocaine to the young star of the local high school basketball team.

The five or six people who were sitting at the bar looked like they had just had their souls crushed. Their faces were a mixture of despair and apathy. It was as if they had just witnessed something awful, but had not yet processed their emotions and maybe never would. I know this look because it is the look on the face of every Cleveland Browns fan around 4:30 on Sunday afternoons in the fall.

The bartender – she had the cold, lifeless eyes of a great white shark. I could tell she was going through the motions, hating life, praying every day for a car accident on the way to work. Then she would take the settlement money, travel Europe for a summer and maybe go to community college, anything so that she would never have to return to that bowling alley bar, to the soul-sucking reality that occupied the space between the Galaga machine and the men’s room, to her personal hell on earth.

The beer was cheap, so it was not all bad.

My experience that night got me thinking. Is this the saddest place in which I have ever had a drink? I do not mean saddest place like the back of my buddy’s car, in the park, with no girls around, wondering what is inside the Burger King bag on his dirty floor that is making the bag shake sporadically. I mean sad like, “What are the saddest places – in public – where people gather to drink legally?” Below you will find my answers. Feel free to add your own.

First up, the honorable mentions: strip club bar, bar in a Chinese restaurant, pool hall bar, casino bar, chain hotel bar and theme park bar. More often than not the people in these places just look depressed. But they have less reason to be depressed than people in a …

5. Mall bar
Mall bars are sad for many reasons. First of all, there’s the location. Twenty yards from your bar stool, mocking you with its joy and innocence, you can probably find a candy store or a toy store or a Build-A-Bear. If you’re any type of man, you have to think to yourself, “Would Sinatra have ordered a drink in a gin joint that faced a Build-A-Bear?” You know the answer.

(Above: Typical view from the inside of a mall bar. Photo by Jim Moore.)

Even worse, mall bars remind you how much your hometown sucks. You don’t even have a real bar in your town. You have to go to the mall bar. Nothing cool happens at mall bars. At a real bar, fights break out. At a real bar, people hook up. At a real bar, everything doesn’t smell like Panda Express. The best night ever at a mall bar probably would involve some type of drunken escapade with the mall Santa. That’s the good-times ceiling on a mall bar – Santa getting wasted and making dry love to the Golden Tee machine.

4. The neighborhood sports bar that time forgot
Thanks to ESPN and satellite television, back in the 1980s neighborhood sports bars sprang up across the country as quickly as comedy clubs. Much like those comedy clubs, the sports bar scene fizzled out when cable made quality home entertainment cheap and plentiful. Comedy clubs never mounted a comeback. But a second generation of sports bars – most of them the size of a Best Buy – have succeeded where the first wave failed. The era of the small neighborhood sports bar is dead – almost. In every town, there is one sports bar owner who refuses to give up the dream. He owns the neighborhood sports bar time forgot. The pennants and team photos on the walls are from the late 1980s. Some of the neon beer signage advertises beer that is no longer available. The bar has three levels of sunken floors, pretty much guaranteeing that at some point you will break your ankle. The only piece of technology in the building that dates past Dec. 31, 1989 is the flat-screen television. That includes the condom machine in the bathroom and its Miami Vice-brand prophylactics, which I just made up, but if real would contain the slogan, “Got a Crockett in your pocket?” The bar is known for being cheap and almost always open. In an ironic twist, the rummy daytime regulars do not give a shit about sports.

3. Airport bar

(Above: The airport bar – so welcoming, so happy, so filled with various animal skin patterns. Photo by Burns.)

The airport bar is the mall bar’s cousin. It is a victim of its environment. Airport bars tend to blend into the rest of the airport. Over at the bar you might see a guy drinking his third scotch in an hour. Ten feet away where the bar randomly “ends,” little kids run around and play. The juxtaposition is heartbreaking. Enjoy childhood, Jacob, because this will be you in 40 years, drunk, alone, away from your family, nothing to comfort you but three fingers of single-malt scotch while you wait in vain for a plane that won’t actually arrive from Chicago until tomorrow morning. Run, Jacob. Run as far as your little legs will carry you. Also, airport bars are horribly lit. Why are they so bright? Bars are dark for a reason. Dark is soothing. Dark is sexy. Dark hides ugly. Neon lighting provides none of those benefits. Even worse, if there was ever a bar in which you did NOT want to see what the other patrons look like, it is an airport bar, with its mix of its road-weary middle-aged consultants from Boston and hammered cougars on their way to Miami. The other big downer is the reason people go there. One of the main reasons people drink at an airport bar is to get so loaded they fall asleep quickly on the plane. I understand that, but it does not make for a festive atmosphere. If you see someone at an airport bar smiling, probably they were remembering a time when they were at another bar.

2. Chain restaurant bars
People do not go to Applebee’s or T.G.I Friday’s to drink. They end up there. There is a big difference between going somewhere and ending up somewhere. You go to a bar because you are meeting friends there or you know there will be sexy people there or because the people there know you. You end up at a bar when you have run out of friends to meet at bars, you do not care if anyone around you is sexy and you do not have anyplace better to go. It is a matter of intent. I like Applebee’s and T.G.I. Friday’s as restaurants. You can get a decent meal at an affordable price anywhere in the country. That is a valuable service. But when I walk by the bar area of these restaurants, I get mixed feelings. On one hand I am looking at a group of people whose presence is saying, “I want to get out of the house. I want to have a drink. I want to live, even just a little.” On the other hand, their presence also is saying, “There is nowhere better to go.” They did not go there. They ended up there. Still not sold on the go there/end up there dichotomy? Here is a quick list of places that people go to: movie theaters, restaurants, concerts. Here is a quick list of places that people end up at: hospitals, jails, cemeteries.

1. Bowling alley bar
I am sure the bowling alley bar is a fun place to hang on league night or during a company outing. I just never have been inside one when people were having a good time. On a weekend night, when bowling alleys are populated by teenagers, twenty-somethings and families, the bowling alley bar is a wasteland of tortured souls. The average bowling alley bar is populated with people whose lives are filled with 7-10 splits. Circumstance has removed the bowling ball from their hands and they have been asked to convert life’s spares with a Peanut M&M. Maybe this is why they drink at the bowling alley. Perhaps there is comfort in shared futility, in knowing that bowling and life deal out more 115s than 300s. The gutter – in all of its forms – is quite visible from the stool of a bowling alley bar. On the plus side, the beer – I remind you – is cheap, and there is little chance that you will wander off at the end of the evening and construct a grotesque five-headed Build-A-Bear.

I cannot end without adding one more thought.

All of the sad places that I have listed here are potentially great places to drink if you are with the right people. My brother Dan has a theory that when you are in a group setting, watching awful television is more fun than watching smart television because you can make jokes and rip on awful television. His theory also works for bars. You can get a solid hour of entertainment alone from a pre-1984 jukebox or from interior decorating that appears to have occurred by accident. Bottom line: You can make a sad bar the best bar ever. It just takes the right people, the right frame of mind and about 17 pitchers of beer.

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