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 Senunasâ€™, Senunasâ€™s, or Senunaâ€™s. The place isnâ€™t busy yet. We cross the ceramic-tiled floor and settle in at two stools at the corner of the bar. Weâ€™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 donâ€™t say â€œYuengling lager,â€ because in this region, where itâ€™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 usâ€”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 barâ€”all of us white, paunchy except for G., and between thirty and sixty years oldâ€”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 weâ€™re owedâ€”and what weâ€™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 Iâ€™m on the hook for one. I canâ€™t bail after I finish the one he buys me. At least, I think I canâ€™t. That would violate the way of things here. Owing him ties me to him. And I donâ€™t want that tie. I would much prefer to settle the debt immediately, or even to act as if I donâ€™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 weâ€™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 Americaâ€™s elite.
Throughout my years in Wilkes-Barre, I believed the area had no culture. But I was mistaken. What I didnâ€™t realize was that drinking alcohol is culture. …
Iâ€™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 â€œglobal cityâ€ signals a thin, flattened-out drinking cultureâ€”of a piece with a thin, flattened-out culture here overall. In the sort of bar I go to now, straight guys donâ€™t buy rounds for other straight guys they just met. Thereâ€™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 friendsâ€”only they canâ€™t clink glasses by text message.
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 15Â¢, and I knew bars in Shamokin where you could get F&S beer for 10Â¢ a glass.