When I was growing up, my recently-divorced mother had a group of recently-divorced friends who all used to go out and try to meet men together. All of them were looking for love — or whatever rough approximation of it that they could fit in between work, family, and some surprisingly contentious PTA meetings — but my mother had one friend who seemed to be looking a little harder than everyone else. Her name was Lydia, and her drive for companionship seemed to make her a bit of a pariah among the singles mixer crew (all of whom were legit looking for second husbands like it was their second job). How could I tell that Lydia was "desperate," as my mom often described her? Because Lydia went to bars by herself. "That's just trashy," my mother had told me nonchalantly, the hidden meaning obvious even then to my My Little Pony-loving self: Lydia was a slut.
Decades later, now grown up into an introvert with a "colorful" personality, I do tons of things alone. I eat out alone, go to the movies alone, and I once traveled to Austria alone. But somehow, going to bars alone to relax has never made it into my regular rotation. I mean, I had gone out to bars alone in the past — but always with the express purpose of getting laid, and generally after I had drinks with a group of friends beforehand. In fact, I met my boyfriend of four years while alone at a bar ... which kind of ended my doing that. But even when it was a regular part of my life, I had never really enjoyed doing it. I always saw it more as a means to an end than anything else. And now that I was partnered, I had a hard time imagining what I'd get out of drinking alone.
I'm a feminist, and believe that everyone should be allowed to do whatever they want, whenever they want. And yet, in my own life, going to a bar alone feels unseemly. Even though I am no longer out on the prowl for fresh peen, when I enter a bar alone, it feels like everyone must assume that I am. Bars are many things — refuges from the working world, places in which to hide your secret drinking problem — but they're also highly-charged sexual marketplaces. And I can't tell which frightens me more; the idea that some men might try to put the moves on me, or the idea that no one will.
We women are told that any male attention is risky, but also that a lack of male attention makes you worthless. And nowhere does that horrible package deal seem to play out more sharply than when we're alone at the bar.
And so, when I was asked to go to some of New York City's top hookup bars by myself for the sake of this experiment, I took all of those complicated (and, frankly, embarrassing) feelings along with me.
We laid out the rules: Go in alone. Stay for a minimum of 20 minutes or one beer; whichever comes first. No books or playing around on your cell phone. See if anyone talks to you.
My Preparation: Before I could do my first solo Jaegerbomb, I had to figure out how to get people to talk to me. I have many (or at least several) good qualities, but appearing approachable is not one of them. Even when I was very actively single, coming off as hateful and unapproachable has always kind of been my "brand." I have an affliction just a hair worse than Resting Bitch Face, which I think of as "Resting Murderer Face." Here I am trying to appear friendly and relaxed inside my own home:
This perma-frown is not because I go through all of my days thinking of nothing but pain, mayhem, and Tim Burton. I've just always had a hard time appearing friendly. See?
And so I Googled the second-saddest phrase I have ever Googled in my life: "How to look more approachable at bars." (The saddest phrase I have ever googled was "Is Mad About You streaming?" — the answer to which is "No, of course not.")
Some of the first advice I came across was from the Millionaire Matchmaker herself, Patti Stanger. She noted that you shouldn't cross your arms if you want to meet people — "It clearly sends a message of disinterest." Remember to smile and only cross your legs "strategically." What counts as "strategic" leg-crossing? Like, when you have to pee? To show that you're a sexy sex lady who has all of her joints in working order?
Also on Stanger's list of no-nos? So-called "extreme appearance," which includes stuff like dark lipstick, and extreme emotional behavior, like oversharing. Since dark lipstick and oversharing are pretty much my only hobbies, I decided to go back to the smile thing. A Match.com article recommended practicing smiling in front of a mirror to make sure that your smile is "natural and welcoming." And so I tried. I really, really tried.
Hey, you people thought it was cute when that cat from the Internet had a shitty attitude! It's hardly fair to start changing the rules just for me.
Eventually, I gave up and decided to just not wear lipstick and hope that would read as "friendly" enough.
But as I read further about the art of bar approachability, I found that a nude lip gloss would only take me so far. The number of people you're out with is also a factor. Apparently, rolling in a group of five is too large to seem approachable, and one to two are too few. Setting out solo, the experts warned, could potentially give off the vibe that you're a scary man-eater, or there to drink away your troubles alone because your cat just died.
So, scary man-eating cat-mourner that I am, I set off into the night to see what happens when a lady rolls into a hookup bar alone. Here's what happened.
The Hipster Watering Hole: Black Rabbit
Choice Yelp Quote: "I would not recommend venturing here alone late at night, as it can be a little depressing."
The Black Rabbit once hosted a speed-dating event aimed exclusively at fans of the Smiths and Morrissey, which should tell you pretty much everything you need to know about it. It's a bar for slightly older indie rockers who may or may not be on mood-stabilizing medication. So needless to say, I have been here a billion times — though I've never picked up more than a hangover.
What Happened: I sat down at the very end of the near-empty bar, ordered a beer, and within moments, overheard a man talking about White Russians. "You can call them Caucasians," he said to his companion. He then turned to me. "Right?" "Yeah," I said, "like in The Big Lebowski." "Exactly," he said. "'You make one helluva Caucasian, Jackie.'"
Within seconds, Lebowski and I were outside, smoking cigarettes and discussing why we had both stayed in the city for Christmas. We talked about our dysfunctional families. We even talked, for a second, about the Smiths. We went back inside, where his two very friendly (married) friends told me that Lebowski had been a three-time winner on Jeopardy. I had been afraid of feeling vulnerable if I went out to a bar alone, but this evening was already presenting a very different challenge. Bars are full of people who are sexually attractive and who are also not your partner. Part of me was able to picture a moment of temporary insanity in which I'd grab Lebowski, pull him into a booth, and ruin my entire life.
Lebowski pronounced himself "too drunk to hit on me," and then offered to buy me a beer. "You shouldn't," I said. "I have a boyfriend." "Women make 70 cents to a man's dollar," he told me, slapping down some ones and handing me a beer. "Until the world rectifies that, you should let men buy you a beer."
I left an hour later, kind of flushed and embarrassed, but confused and happy. The idea of bars being a minefield of temptation was messed up, but infinitely more thrilling than the idea of a bar as a minefield of rejection.
The Sports Pub: Joshua Tree
Choice Yelp Quote: "Now that I'm not in my early 20s anymore, this environment is more annoying than entertaining."
What Happened: Remember that thing I said about bars being a minefield of temptation rather than humiliation? I spoke too soon. I walked into Joshua Tree, settled down at the only open seat I could find, and ordered my beer. Things seemed as chill here as they had at the Black Rabbit — it was a weeknight, and people seemed clustered in small groups, watching the game on the big overhead TVs — but try as I might, I could not summon the same degree of comfort that I had at the other bar.
Joshua Tree is a sports-bar-cum-infamous-pickup-spot aimed at post-frat types and the women who love them, and I had avoided it for many years not because I thought I was too good for it, but because the thought of being so far out of my element made me uncomfortable. Going to bars alone is a lot like being a new kid in a high school cafeteria. It's thrilling if you find your table, but if you don't, the urge to just to call the whole thing off and eat lunch alone in the bathroom is overwhelming.
I was afraid of having no one talk to me, I was afraid of having someone talk to me and ask me a question that I couldn't answer. I was afraid, period.
A very attentive male bartender doted on me — not in a "you are a sexy pile of sex" way, but in a "you appear to be a sad lost Victorian orphan" kind of way — and handed me a plate of complimentary popcorn. To my left, a group of guys around my age watched the game, ate burgers, and tried to explain the Iggy Azalea "Fancy" video to each other. "So it's making fun of Clueless?" said one guy in a blue shirt. I watched the game, understanding nothing.
I had vowed not to use my phone during this experiment, but after 10 minutes in the bar, I caved. I paired my texting with frequent glances at the doorway, as if I was expecting someone, putting on a show that mattered to no one except me. What the hell was I doing here? I felt embarrassed for myself. I was so clearly not interested in the game being shown on TV. I could only imagine the other patrons thinking that I was cruising for D or drinking away the pain. Either way, they steered clear of me.
I waited until the bartender was in the bathroom to leave, because I was afraid of him sweetly asking me if I was okay. "So wait," I overheard the guy in blue say as I left, "is that video about Clueless or what?"
The Rock 'N' Roll-ish Dive: Niagara
Choice Yelp Quote: "This place is your typical dive bar, there is absolutely nothing special about it."
Niagara was the site of some of my own youthful debauchery — I got bounced from there in 2003 after I tried to pay for a $7 drink with quarters. So I thought that rolling in here after the anxiety of Joshua Tree would be easy like Sunday morning.
What Happened: I went in around 8 p.m. on a weeknight, and found the bar dotted with clumps of attractive men, all in intimidating groups of five or more. I sat at the first open spot I saw at the bar, and was almost immediately asked to move one seat over by a couple on a date.
The bartender, again, was kinder to me than any bartender I had ever encountered in my life. While I had met funny bartenders and chill bartenders in the past, I had never before encountered so many male bartenders who treated me tenderly, like a puppy with its leg in a cast. "Our stereo is having problems," he told me sheepishly, which is how I came to drink my beer in that most terrifying of bar environs: near-silence.
As I watched the overheard TV (which here silently played old classic rock videos instead of sports), I began to obsessively wonder what I looked like to the people here. Must they be wondering what's wrong with me? The bartender certainly seemed to. Did people think I was a loser for being here alone? The fact that I had many friends and a boyfriend and had gone here on purpose without any of them didn't seem to ease my nerves.
The bartender came over and passed me a drink token. "Happy hour's over," he said, "but I thought maybe you could use this extra one." I smiled, thanked him, and again waited until he was in the bathroom to grab my coat and leave. The closest relationships I had formed at these bars were with the bartenders, and like all relationships that get too intense too fast, I couldn't think of any way to end it besides ghosting.
The Hookup Bar To End All Hookup Bars: Union Pool
Choice Yelp Quotes: "Packs of strangers roam around looking for whoever wants to fit their parts inside of each other." "Kinda reminds me of a middle school auditorium-gymnasium, but maybe it's all the grinding and makings-out."
About ten years ago, Union Pool was the place in the greater Brooklyn area to find no-strings-attached sex and some-strings-attached cocaine. Though it has lost some of its louche luster in the intervening decade, when I rolled in at 10 p.m. on a Monday night, the place was still absolutely packed, which seemed like a good sign. Surely, this wouldn't be the site of yet another lonely humiliation, right? Goddamn it, I've already had sex with strangers I met at this bar! I'm pre-approved!
What Happened: Here, the bartenders were too busy to feel sorry for me. They had to pay attention to the seemingly millions of couples on sloppy-drunk second dates instead. Without an attentive bartender to indulge my feelings of infinite sadness, I leaned back and took in all the coy elbow-touching and tipsy "I love this song!" enthusiasm going on around me. Young women pushed past me to order drinks — not rudely, but like I just didn't register. The woman closest to me rubbed her huge mane of curly hair across my face by accident as she ordered. I could smell her fruit shampoo. I felt like a ghost of a single person.
I didn't have to wait for the bartender to go to the bathroom to leave this time. In fact, when I went to the bathroom, I came back to find that my seat had already been taken.
I didn't feel shame as I walked away from Union Pool, the way I had leaving Joshua Tree or Niagara. I also didn't feel the pang of "Still got it!" that I did upon exiting Black Rabbit. I simply felt a wave of relief. I was ashamed about how happy I was to be done with going to bars alone.
What I'm Taking Home: During this experiment, I was reminded of guys in college who would make declarations like "women can have sex whenever they want," and then followed it up muttering "except the ugly ones." So many of us women spend so much of our lives trying to figure out if we are one of "the ugly ones." I have spent so much of my life trying to figure out if I am one of "the ugly ones."
And while I know plenty of women who like going to bars alone for completely nonsexual reasons, for me, a bar was still a place to trade attention for self-confidence back and forth with some man in sick, sad loop. A place to do research on my own beauty or worth. A place to try to finally establish for myself that I'm not one of "the ugly ones."
We women are are told that any male attention is risky, but also that a lack of male attention makes you worthless. And nowhere does that horrible package deal seem to play out more sharply than when we're alone at the bar. I was sent into a shame spiral by being ignored (I spent a good half hour after getting home massaging various pricey creams into my face), and yet also felt tremendous relief that I hadn't been hit on or harassed by someone who didn't see me as a person, but merely as a body whose anxieties could be exploited — or worse, as a potential victim.
We're supposed to accept trading risk for approval, told that these are the rules of going out. This is supposed to be the life of a woman alone at a bar.
I thought back to Lydia. "Lydia thinks she's hot shit," my mother, who never went to bars, would mutter. She pictured Lydia trading risk for approval on a grand scale, hooking up with every dude she met, receiving confirmation that she wasn't one of the ugly ones. Looking back on it now, I think that Lydia probably just wanted a place to drink a beer away from her seven-year-old kid. We all want a place to be alone with our thoughts and away from the people we live with, although it's still pretty taboo for women to admit it.
But for me, a bar still doesn't feel like a place where I can safely be alone with my thoughts. Going to bars alone didn't feel like a refuge for me, but merely another place in life to put on my makeup and ball gown and await the judge's score.