Rosie Schaap is not a celebrity. Not even close. She's a writer who happens to moonlight as a bartender. Or, if you prefer, she's a part-time drinks-slinger who happens to pen The New York Times Magazine's Drink column and contribute to NPR's "This American Life."
These career boons, while enviable, do not make for a tell-all autobiography. Heck, Schaap has barely made a dent in her 40s. Yet "Drinking with Men," her first-person chronicles of living life — the first few decades of it, at least — with a glass in her hand, somehow manages to turn its own pages, perhaps because Schaap is good at documenting what many seldom pause to think about: real life.
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Organized chronologically, beginning in suburban Connecticut with the 15-year-old Schaap's weekly-commute-to-therapy-turned-bar-car-fortune-telling-venture, the 270-page memoir bookends 10 vignettes in the life of a New York City-born, non-practicing Jew who was much more interested in following the Dead than finishing high school (see Chapter Two — a great read, no matter how you feel about Jerry Garcia or his dancing bears).
"We drank and danced, bartered bootlegs, got high and hung out, lived in vans and slept in cars under piles of stripy Mexican blankets in need of a good washing," Schaap writes, and we're reminded why coming-of-age stories are so enthralling: We either lived our own version of these moments, or wanted to.
"Drinking with Men," whose unwittingly precious title isn't explained until the final chapter (after which it's forgiven), is much less one-dimensional than is suggested. Schaap isn't so much hung up on drinking with men as she is on drinking in bars, and her favorites — from a craic-filled poet's pub in Dublin during her study abroad to a fabled piano lounge in Montreal discovered on a revelatory solo journey — are spun into yarns as rich as relationships.
After coming to her senses and saying peace-out to the Deadheads, Schaap dedicates the remaining eight chapters to bars with which she falls in love on her journey toward adulthood. That word, love, is dropped more often in conjunction with the bars than the men she encounters there and with whom she winds up drinking (and, on occasion, shagging), and there comes a point along the way when we can't help but consider the bigger picture: Are all these men (or bars, or both) meant to be placeholders for Schaap's father, who is conspicuously absent from most of the book? And what about her liver? Surely, with the amount of time Schaap spends in bars — away from family (she considers drinking buddies as her second family), away from friends (ditto) — it's taking a beating.
Schaap raises her own red flag exactly halfway through the book, coinciding with her grad-school years, when she's startled by a friend's observation that alcoholism might be a real concern.
"I considered the facts," Schaap writes, literally spelling out the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's characterization of the disease. "Yes, I was drinking almost every night. How much? Hard to say. I hadn't been counting. … And yes, I was able to stop — as soon as I left the bar. And that was the hard part: leaving."
Good news: "Drinking with Men" doesn't wind up taking some predictable, mushy memoir turn down the substance-abuse rabbit hole. The remaining chapters contain no preachy lessons about the dangers of drinking early and often, and Schaap doesn't wind up at Betty Ford. She can hold her liquor and she doesn't wind up holding it against herself that she takes solace in bars, her "community centers" for people who happen to drink.
Instead, she embraces it. She comically spells out the rules of bar patronage; she introduces us to her favorite characters — her bar family — as they outgrow one dive and build a roost at another. And just when it feels like it's all getting too long-winded, like Schaap has ordered us one too many when we're more than ready to call a cab and head home, suddenly we're reliving her post-Sept. 11 world, a pendulum shift to a time when hanging out at the bar takes a back-seat to bigger matters.
That chapter, "Bar Chaplain," offers the most honest glimpse of Schaap as a born-and-bred New Yorker during an incredibly difficult time in that city's history. It's far more captivating than another self-conscious anecdote about trying to fit in with the guys while being a girl — a self-deprecating issue that, even at the book's close, Schaap still hasn't seemed to solve. No matter: I still get the sense that if I was to pull up an empty bar stool next to (or in front of) the author, I'd wind up staying for more than a round. She's a good storyteller.
Lauren Viera is a Chicago-based journalist who writes frequently about spirits and cocktails.
"Drinking with Men"
By Rosie Schaap, Riverhead Books, 270 pages, $26.95Copyright © 2015, CT Now