Breaking Down the Bar Line Ecosystem

As an astute anthropological observer of the bar scene ecosystem, I find there’s no more curious, frustrating or irrational a phenomenon than the ultra-long bar line. To be sure, normally I am not the type of person to wait in an ultra-long bar line because to do so is a stupid waste of time.

This is Chicago, a city with more neighborhood and dive bars per square mile than anywhere else in the world (that may or may not be true, but it feels right). You can’t walk outside your door without being inside a bar. So the idea that a bunch of us Chicagoans are going to huddle in line under a piddling heat lamp while it’s 11 degrees outside and wait to get in to a sweaty, overpriced pit of gelled hair and lip gloss feels ridiculous. We have a bar-based economy. We’ve discovered what happens with capitalism when you release a bunch of 22-34 year-olds into a city with only 80 days of decent weather annually, and it’s that they drink all 365.

What capitalism doesn't seem to explain is the ultra-long bar line.

Every once in a while you’ll get dragged into the ultra-long bar line, usually because of a birthday party or some other “special occasion” which somehow warrants waiting in a preposterous line. This is how I found myself at one of those bars this past weekend in River North. For the sake of anonymity we’ll call this establishment Han Tarleyporn. Keep in mind, this is not the Han Tarleyporn in Wrigleyville or Lincoln Park. This is the River North location, which means its line-length/hair gel factor is substantially higher than its northside counterparts.

As we arrived, the line for this place was just broaching “around the block” status, requiring a 45 minute wait. Even more peculiarly, once we actually got inside we had to go wait in yet another line to get “upstairs,” which for whatever reason is viewed as a superior drinking location to a first floor bar. There has to be some kind of economic principle behind this strategy: creating demand by forcing an appearance of exclusivity. “You must wait a grand total of an hour and a half to reach this bar where you will purchase a $5 Bud Light,” says Han Tarleyporn, and we Saturday night lemmings all go, “Of course.”

What’s even more bizarre is that bar lines never operate as the straightforward, simple lines you learned about in elementary school where the person behind the person at the front of the line is “next in line.” In all hip bar lines, there is always the “amorphous blob line” to the side of the entrance. The amorphous blob line is just a bunch of people—usually women forgoing coats in the 11 degree weather and wearing heels intended only for crush porn—who don’t feel like standing in line. So they go to the side and kind of plead and cajole the bouncer (who they sometimes know or have slept with or have a cousin in common) until he pulls aside the little rope cordon thingy and let’s them in. 

For the poor saps stuck in the primary line, this is extremely frustrating because you’re counting the people coming out of the bar like nuclear inspectors making sure all the isotopes in some ex-Soviet satellite’s shuttered reactor are still there.

“Three came out! Three came out, and we have four, so we’re one person away from getting in. Just one person has to leave, and we’ll totally be inside and can get $5 Bud Lights—”

And then the bouncer let’s a group of seven in from the amorphous blob line.

Of course, I shouldn’t judge since the amorphous blob line is how we eventually got into the bar. Han Tarleyporn bouncers, though not inclined to listen to dudes, will always listen to a girl with a sexy shirt who claims it's her birthday, which is why you should never approach a bar line without this inside (wo)man. 

But I think it must all go back to creating an artificial sense of scarcity. Surely, the bars with the ultra-long bar lines do not have better alcohol or music, and naturally the ratio of attractive women to hair gel guys couldn't be much better than any other bar where you can walk right in the door, and even if we did see New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas there, that can't be all the appeal, right? Hell, I didn't recognize Pierre Thomas!

Karl Marx must have written about this. I'm going to go read "Das Kapital" again.