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Low Life

On commuter bars.

The Spectator of yore had an amusing device: the High Life/Low Life columns. What you got was exactly what it said on the tins. The irrepressible and apparently immortal Taki Theodoracopoulos (a founder of my own publication) would float on a cloud of champagne bubbles around Europe’s regattas, Grand Prix races, and balls—cool marble interiors and glittering gowns, a happy memory of a happy memory, to be sure, but still better than whatever passes for Society with a capital S now.

Alongside these missives from the beau monde ran Jeffrey Bernard’s hapless misadventures in beery dissolution—truly living down to the Low Life moniker. Evictions, divorces, illness, accidental deaths, fights, at flop houses, bars, race tracks, and various other dens of sin. Bernard eventually died of the complications of champion-grade alcoholism. (Taki, by contrast, is in rude health at eighty-seven and maintains a social calendar that would exhaust me.)

Unfortunately, my tastes and (more pertinently) budget and class run rather more towards Bernard-ism. (This has been a matter of mild disappointment for my wife, who had higher expectations.) I flatter myself that this is basically American; my countrymen who posture their ways into the old world’s social or literary firmament tend to seem like so many ridiculous nancy-boys. Has even the most ardent adolescent been able to take T.S. Eliot seriously after discovering that he was born and raised in Missouri? Show me, indeed.

In any case, I have through many years of sin and imperfect contrition, become a connoisseur of low and often frankly bad bars the world over. The Cactus Cafe in Pune, India, a dark little hole for watching soccer and drinking cold lager in the shabby capital of the once magnificent Marathi empire; the Dew Drop Inn in Washington, D.C., a dark little hole for eating chili dogs and drinking cold lager in the shabby capital of the once magnificent American empire; a hundred pubs and pool halls between them. The republic of letters is but a district in the empire of cheap beer.

A particular genre is the transit bar—bars in airports, bars in train stations. They are, by definition, marginal. Most terminals will support one, at most two, plus maybe one or two restaurants with a wine or liquor license. The market does not apply, and, without the relentless standardizing demands of competition, they grow in strange in often not very efficient or good ways, but ways that are their own.

Many of these establishments are grim one-offs: the Junction Bar at the Secaucus train station, a melancholy wood-paneled affair where you had best order something strong, since the first time you are served may be the last time; the staff have the sad, inattentive slowness one associates with the quieter orders of the damned. Other transit bars are jarringly hidden under the trappings of national chains. Washington’s Union Station, pitted with empty storefronts and frequented by the most dire vagrants our cruel and dilapidated era has produced, now feels like a suk housed in one of the great basilicas of Roman Syria; in it there is but a single bar: a franchise of the Uno’s line of Chicago-themed pizza restaurants. It has the sweet smell of spilled beer dried onto the floor and is invariably out of whatever your first choice of drink is; it does, however, have a very large clock, so you can race against your train. It’s a terrible bar, and a terrific one.

The pleasure of transit bars is, first of all, the feeling of sneaking a treat, of the rules not really applying—a tall one in the morning! Scotch in the afternoon! But, if you frequent these places, what you become most attuned to is the variety of the crowd. Salesmen, soldiers, security guards, architects, surveyors, chefs, lawyers, railroad workers, upholsterers, chemists, historical building restorers, and, of course, fellow gentlemen of the press—when there’s only one bar in the station, there’s only one bar.

Low lifes, every single one of us. But isn’t everyone a bit of a low life before the Most Highest? Will there be more than one purveyor of spirituous drink at the last station—the terminal terminal? Everyone is trying to get to the bar; the name of the bar—the bar is called Heaven. Even a bad bar can be a figure of something better.