14 Jul 2020

Coal Region Drinking Culture

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Jonathan Malesic has an interesting article, in Commonweal, on the hard times and drinking culture of The Anthracite Coal Region, focusing on my hometown’s Northern neighbor: Wilkes Barre.

On a typical Friday afternoon during my time in Wilkes-Barre, after the curriculum-committee meeting adjourns, my friend G. and I walk across the street to a bar whose name is variously spelled Senunas’, Senunas’s, or Senuna’s. The place isn’t busy yet. We cross the ceramic-tiled floor and settle in at two stools at the corner of the bar. We’re flanked by solo drinkers, men watching other men shout at each other on ESPN. The TVs are muted and closed-captioned to clear aural space for the jukebox, not that anyone has spared a dollar to make it play.

We each place a ten-dollar bill on the bar and order a lager. We don’t say “Yuengling lager,” because in this region, where it’s brewed, that would be redundant. The bartender, M., is a student of mine. She pours our beers and slides our glasses in front of us—each of them an ounce or two short of a pint. She picks up our tens and then sets down a stack of bills and coins totaling $7.75 in front of each of us. The other men sitting at the bar—all of us white, paunchy except for G., and between thirty and sixty years old—have similar stacks in front of them. …

Halfway through our drinks, M. sets shot glasses, upside down, in front of me and G. The grey-mustached drinker has just bought us a round, and the shot glasses signal what we’re owed—and what we’ll owe. M. pulls four singles and two quarters from his stack.

Now I have to talk to him. And not just through this round. Two rounds, because now I’m on the hook for one. I can’t bail after I finish the one he buys me. At least, I think I can’t. That would violate the way of things here. Owing him ties me to him. And I don’t want that tie. I would much prefer to settle the debt immediately, or even to act as if I don’t know how this economy works, say thanks as I get up off the stool to leave, and forget I owe him anything. Instead, I grit my teeth, buy him a round, and bear it. We make small talk: sports, work, where we’re from. M. takes a few dollars and coins from my stack. I leave her the rest.

I never initiated this sort of exchange. On a different day, at a different bar, I would walk away without reciprocating. And, over time, I did that more and more. When I finally moved away to Dallas, Texas, miserable in my academic job and ready to follow the career of my Berkeley girlfriend, now my wife, I was several beers in the red.

The desire to belong is incongruous with the individualistic culture of America’s elite.

Throughout my years in Wilkes-Barre, I believed the area had no culture. But I was mistaken. What I didn’t realize was that drinking alcohol is culture. …

I’ve never had a beer at my new upper-class parish in Dallas, surrounded by office towers and condo complexes. The relative lack of binding customs in the urban brewpubs and $15 cocktail bars of this sun-blasted “global city” signals a thin, flattened-out drinking culture—of a piece with a thin, flattened-out culture here overall. In the sort of bar I go to now, straight guys don’t buy rounds for other straight guys they just met. There’s only one unwritten rule: leave each other alone. The smartphone helps enforce this taboo. It allows educated urbanites to go to bars and carry on conversations with their closest friends—only they can’t clink glasses by text message.

RTWT

Wow! $2.25 for a draft beer back there. When I was young, you could get a beer anywhere in Shenandoah or Mahanoy City for 15¢, and I knew bars in Shamokin where you could get F&S beer for 10¢ a glass.

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3 Feedbacks on "Coal Region Drinking Culture"

bob sykes

My dad knew many rat-hole bars in slummy Boston where you could get a shot and a beer for 50¢. That was in the 60’s.



JDZ

I could get a beer for ten cents in Shamokin in 1969.



gwbnyc

Rolling Rock/75¢ Mentor, Ohio, ‘71.

worked as a bouncer, nyc late 70’s-80’s, greenwich village. if you worked in a joint (3 for me) you knew everyone who worked in all the other saloons. when you went to their joints, you ordered a drink, put a twenty dollar bill on the bar as the “floating twenty” and drank for free otherwise for as long as you liked. some disgression was expected.



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