Drinking Alone

Real Solidarity Is Harder Than It Looks
Andrew Hvozdovic at the North End Slovak Citizens Club in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, 2017 (Mark Peterson/Redux)

One night in August 2005, just after I’d moved to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, for a job as a theology professor, I needed beer. To get to the distributor, I drove over a concrete bridge, its four pylons etched with words like “Perseverance” and “Industry” and topped by monumental eagles. Once there, I wandered through the pallets of warm cases trying to find a thirty-pack of PBR until the thin, gruff man behind the counter asked what I was looking for. I told him, he pointed to the right pallet, and I met him at the register.

He asked for ID, and I showed him my Virginia license. He looked me in the eye. “I figured you had to be out of state,” he said as he handed it back. “The young people around here don’t drink Pabst.” I told him they did in Virginia. I didn’t tell him it was because hipsters fetishized white working-class culture. I mentioned instead that I’d just moved here. “Oh yeah? For good?” “Yeah.” “That’s too bad. You should go back. Welcome to one of the worst drug havens in the country.”

I told him I’d heard of the local drug problem. He then expanded upon his point, and began riffing on racist and misogynist themes. He told me there was no nightlife in town because the cops were always out waiting to nab you after you left the bar and tried to drive home. I stood impassively at the counter, hoping his rant would burn out if I didn’t feed it with dialogue. “And the people!” he continued. “Some of the most ignorant, idiotic people anywhere. They’re petty and vindictive, and they got no personality!” When I said I’d just gotten a job teaching at a local college, he told me to stay one semester, then get out. He was getting out, he said. “I might not be here next time you come in. I’m going to Arkansas.” At that, I bid him goodnight, threw my beer in the trunk, and went home.

The next time I came back, weeks or months later, he was still there.

 

Wilkes-Barre is in the middle of Northeast Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley, guarded by high ridges on either side of the Susquehanna River. Its nickname is the Diamond City, a reference to the “black diamonds” of anthracite coal once mined there. I came to the Valley in fulfillment of a longstanding dream. I had grown up in the suburbs of Buffalo in the years when industry was leaving. I went to college in Washington D.C., then graduate school in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I was initiated as a member of the bourgeois-intellectual class—a resident of that archipelago of prosperous cities and college towns where people drive Subarus and subscribe to the New York Times but not their local papers. I never meant to come back to the Rust Belt. But I was committed to the academic profession, and Wilkes-Barre was the one place where I could practice it, because the college there was the one place that offered me a job. Graduate school didn’t train me for life in cities where there weren’t cafes filled with people reading or typing or grousing about David Brooks. Why should it? The brain drain is meant to carry people in one direction only, away from towns like Buffalo and Wilkes-Barre to towns like Charlottesville and D.C., not the reverse.

Hearing the beer-store clerk’s plan to escape the Valley deepened my misgivings about moving there. After I brought my PBR home that night, I called my girlfriend, who had recently moved to Berkeley to pursue a PhD, and said to her, “Two years. I can stay two years at most. Hold me to that.”

In the meantime, living in the Valley was too often synonymous with drinking. The local culture around alcohol is, shall we say, well developed. Every man I know who grew up in Wilkes-Barre in the 1970s and ’80s has a wistful memory of being sent to the corner bar at an early age to pick up a six-pack for his father. Older men tell stories of their dads going off to work in the mines, metal lunch pail in hand, and returning at the end of the day with the pail full of beer. St. Patrick’s Day is a two-week binge. The parades begin as early as March 3 and erupt into frequent brawls and occasional stabbings. One year, at Scranton’s parade, some drunk picked a fight with a horse. When I ask a former student who left the Valley after graduation what she thinks the culture of the region is, her first words are “binge drinking.”

Alcohol defined the contours of my social and professional life. After my first faculty meeting, the president of the college held a reception for us on campus—full bar. I ordered an Old Grand-Dad on the rocks. The bartender threw a few cubes in the glass and then filled it to the top: a triple, at least. As the semester continued, I often met with colleagues for happy hour at bars near the college that offered dollar drafts, and on Fridays, free pizza and pasta. On Sundays I went alone to a pizza place to watch football, drink twenty-two-ounce glasses of Labatt, and exchange epithets about the games with whoever else was sitting at the bar. At the end of my first year, I learned that the college always sponsored a kegger on the night before graduation. Graduates, professors, and parents played beer pong and ate pretzels out of paper boats, downing pitcher after pitcher. At one of these events, late in the night, the mayor, an alumnus, showed up with his entourage. One of his hangers-on, a beefy middle-aged guy in a nylon warmup jacket over his dress shirt, muscled past me to the head of the beer line to grab a couple bottles for him and His Honor.

My two years there became ten, then eleven. I applied for other teaching jobs, far away, without luck. Every year, I cursed the town. I got tenure. Friends who cursed the town right along with me got married, had kids, bought homes. The graduates I toasted at the keg party left and found their fortunes in the sort of places I wished I could be, places with bookstores and public transit. Places with, I don’t know, a Whole Foods. Places where there was more to do than drink. At the same time, I felt guilty about wanting to leave. I had survived the academic job market’s brutal caprice. Many talented friends from graduate school were not so lucky. Besides, I had grown up outside of a crumbling steel town. Who was I to turn my nose up at a crumbling coal town? And what did my enlightened liberal, democratic values mean if not that the clerk across the beer-store counter was my fellow citizen and brother?

My desire both to belong in Wilkes-Barre and to escape it reflected the conflicting cultural purposes of drinking. Alcohol is a social lubricant, easing conversation and widening circles of friendship. But drinking culture also reinforces boundaries around who belongs and who doesn’t. It polices the barriers between us, including race and gender, sexual orientation and income. Most of us have a subconscious alarm that rings when we take a few steps into a bar that’s the wrong place for us, where we’ll be eyed suspiciously or harassed or worse. We know where we don’t belong. And for reasons to do with my academic aloofness and the class distance I had traversed since leaving Buffalo, I found it hard to belong in the Valley. Partly, I didn’t try hard enough. But it also wouldn’t have mattered if I had lived there the rest of my life. In this city where many people leave but few move in, I would always be a newcomer, not from there. Of course, I didn’t want to be from there. Still, it was where I lived, and I didn’t want to be a permanent alien, either. I drank to fit in, and I drank because I didn’t.

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.

G. and I talk institutional politics, and intermittently exchange small talk with a grey-mustached drinker sitting next to me. He says something, and we respond, but we keep him at arm’s length. We’re there to talk to each other. 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. Much of what we know about ancient Greece, we know through designs on drinking vessels. Mesopotamian cuneiform documents the sale and storage of grain the Sumerians used to brew beer. Culture is also about unwritten rules, and there are a lot of them to do with drinking, from a Japanese office worker’s duty to keep the boss’s glass full to the Russian insistence that one take a bite of a pickle between vodka shots. All across Chicago, in straight, working-class sports bars and gay leather bars alike, the upside-down shot glass that weighed so heavily on me signals you’re owed a round on someone else’s tab. I once went to a bar in the Bronx where patrons grumbled that the new bartender didn’t get the rule, never stated explicitly, that every third drink was a buy-back.

These drinking rituals are meant to help you identify with the people around you. The anthropologist Mary Douglas called those bonds “group.” I pulled her 1970 book Natural Symbols off the shelf for the first time since grad school after I moved to Dallas, in an attempt to make sense of the rootlessness I felt in Wilkes-Barre. Douglas imagined “group” as one axis of a schematic for analyzing cultures. The other axis is “grid,” which refers to the extent to which a typical person accepts the “prevailing classification system” of rules and ranks. A high-grid, high-group society is a tightly bounded hierarchy, like an army or the Catholic Church. The world of entrepreneurs, by contrast, is low-grid, low-group; in it, each individual is meant to advance their self-interest, convention be damned. Most drinking rituals reinforce the internal identity of already-existing groups: fraternities and sororities, teammates, circles of brunch friends. When you buy someone a round, you create a temporary club of two members; when they reciprocate, they pay their dues and inch closer to you on the grid. Douglas might have said my discomfort in the interaction with the gray-mustached man at the bar resulted from conflicting visions of the human world. He was inviting me into the group. As a bourgeois academic, I wanted to maintain my individualism, but nevertheless capitulated to my latent wish to belong.

The institutional Church is a high-grid entity, but the cultural Catholicism in Northeast Pennsylvania is as low-grid as the working-class drinking culture it meshed with seamlessly. I approached this nexus with my typical ambivalence. The church I belonged to in Wilkes-Barre, an exquisite Gothic cuckoo clock, held a pre-Lenten German Night every year, with beer, sausages, and oompah bands in the basement. I never went. I did go every summer to the church bazaar, where people wait an hour in line for potato pancakes to soak up their beer and where you’ll see nuns walking around holding a bratwurst in one hand and a plastic cup of lager in the other. A friend who grew up in a conservative Evangelical community on the high plains came to the bazaar with me once. He knew church picnics, but the scene shocked him: free-flowing alcohol, games of chance, cliques of flirting teenagers. I regretted confirming every Catholic stereotype.

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.

Academic and professional cultures get people like me to locate our identity within them, in part by separating us from people and place. The business scholar Gianpiero Petriglieri (Sicilian, married to an Englishwoman, teaching in France) calls his elite MBA students “a peculiar tribe. A tribe for people unfit for tribalism.” To ease their careers in multinational corporations, they’re tied to no country. They identify themselves by their skills, intellect, and work ethic, which they’re always ready to take to their next job, wherever it might be. In the cosmopolitan ideal, you belong to the world, equally at ease in Berlin or Bangkok, knowledgeable of local customs, ready to join a conversation anywhere, with anyone. It’s an ideal of connoisseurship. It’s knowing to pronounce the Czech capital Pra-ha, not Progg, when you’re chatting about Bohemian pilsners.

But it also means being equally ill-at-ease anywhere, including among citizens of your home country. The desire to belong is incongruous with the individualistic culture of America’s elite. To live out the cosmopolitan ideal means you know someone everywhere but have close ties nowhere, because you’ve moved so many times for work. It means you never realize the dream of the Cheers theme song. There’s no place you can go where everybody knows your name.

 

The flattened-out, low-group drinking culture in our large, cosmopolitan cities goes hand-in-hand with the power of capitalist exchange to smooth over the folds in our society. Hard valleys resist these trends, albeit to their economic detriment. Global capital either can’t or won’t come to Scranton and Wilkes-Barre—at least, not beyond the big-box stores, the warehouses along the highway, and the gas drills in the cities’ northern hinterlands. Local politicians nevertheless kept proposing ventures that would bring the prosperous, cosmopolitan world into the Valley. The biggest was a complete backup system for Wall Street banks and brokerages that could keep the markets running in the event of another 9/11. The project’s boosters pointed out that the region was safely beyond the fifty-mile blast radius of a nuclear explosion in Manhattan, but still close enough to conduct instantaneous transactions via fiber optic cable. Ten million New Yorkers could be reduced to shadow and cinder, but trading would continue. Finally, Northeast Pennsylvania would again have its moment.

The project was proposed in 2006. A report commissioned by the Department of Labor was optimistic that the local culture would learn to accommodate itself to the project’s needs: “Perceptions are gradually changing within the region, which is beginning to envision itself as a high technology economy and beginning to understand the benefits of regional thinking.” In other words, it will be assimilated. Needless to say, within two years, Wall Street had other priorities, and the project went nowhere.

The death of the region’s economic hopes a few decades ago portended the deaths of its working-age residents. Like the beer-store clerk told me during my first week in town, drug abuse was a problem in Northeast Pennsylvania before I arrived. But over the subsequent decade, people living there began turning with alarming frequency to the solitary and dangerous escape drugs offer. The Luzerne County Coroner told NBC News in 2017 that as things continued to look bad economically in the region, “people have gradually gone from the corner bar mentality to ‘I’m going to do some drugs’ to escape the situation that they’re in.” The rate of death by overdose nearly tripled between 2010 and 2017 in Luzerne County, which includes Wilkes-Barre. The coroner could barely keep up with his autopsy caseload. As the morgue filled up, I heard longtime white residents blame “outsiders”—by which they meant black and Hispanic people who had moved in from New York, Philadelphia, or abroad—for bringing drugs to the Valley.

Mary Douglas saw antipathy toward an out-group as a common characteristic of the low-grid, high-group societies she called “enclaves,” a category that can encompass both small, traditionalist communities and terrorist cells. In a lecture she gave a few weeks before her death in 2007, Douglas said that an enclave under threat will often put up “a strong moral wall against the outside. This is where the world starts to be painted in black and white, saints inside and sinners outside the wall. It is a strategy aimed at making exit seem frightening.” With the mines shuttered, the Church weakened by attrition and scandal, and opioid deaths surging, the Valley’s social classification system was in disarray. To preserve their group identity, those who imagined themselves as “from here” cast the outside world as impure, and they dug in.

 

I had accepted that I would always be an exile, or possibly a missionary, from the world beyond it.

As I struggled to find a place in the Valley’s local culture, I turned my apartment into an outpost of the republic of letters. Magazine subscriptions—the New Yorker, the Economist, n+1—were my citizenship papers. At least at home I could decide who, if anyone, I drank with. I could try to form my own group. The building where I lived the longest was called the Wheelmen, named after the cycling club that built the three-story, seafoam-green-shingled Queen Anne mansion in 1897. An architect bought the building in the 1990s, turned it into ten units, and got it placed on the National Register of Historic Places. A perfectly conical roof tops a turret on one corner of the building. A deep covered porch wraps around it. I picture the Wheelmen sipping sherry on the porch in their wool coats and knickers after a ride. Beneath an archway, a wide set of stairs spills out from the porch to the sidewalk. In the bushes, you might find a used heroin needle, or empty bottles, or human shit. Up and down the street, well-kept townhomes alternate with boarded-up duplexes and triple-blocks. Several lots in the neighborhood are vacant. In a building two doors down, a single grandmother cares for half-a-dozen kids, who play and scream all day long in a tiny yard.

A few months after my wife and I moved into the place, we awoke to the sound of glass breaking outside. I looked out the window and saw a firefighter standing on a roof of the triple-block home around the corner from ours, holding a hose and backlit by flames. The house adjacent to the triple-block had been vacant for who knows how long, and now it was on fire.

The Wheelmen’s residents descended our grand staircase and went outside to see what was happening. Among us were a doctor, a chemist, a counselor, and various other professionals, some from the region, some not. We gathered on the porch, and the longer-term residents ran down a list of nearby houses that had burned down. One or another person would shuffle out to see the ladder truck dump sheets of water onto the burning house. A fire truck pulled into our parking lot to keep watch and make sure the flames didn’t leap onto our building. We went around the corner to talk to the families who lived in the triple-block. They stared at their waterlogged homes, trying to console their kids and keep an eye on their dogs.

It was the first time I really met the other people who lived in my building. We pulled patio chairs together and talked. Someone brought out beer. Someone else, a ukulele. From where we sat, on the side of our building away from the fire, the burning house smelled like a campfire. At some point, it started raining. By dawn, the fire was just smoldering, and we went back inside, vowing to get together again more often.

The next day, city workers started clearing away the wreckage. They found two bodies. The victims were both fifty-two-year-old men, both veterans, both fathers of four. Their friends said both were hard workers. One had been a machinist; the other worked odd jobs. And both were described as homeless and having “a bad problem” with alcohol. Neighbors told the local papers that the house wasn’t really vacant. Homeless people and drug users occupied it, they said. In fact, the month before the fire, police had found the machinist in the house, intoxicated. I don’t know how the fire started. I don’t know what the men were doing on the night they died. All I know is that they drank, too, but they didn’t belong, and they couldn’t escape.

 

In the summer following the fire, my neighbors and I started sprucing up the Wheelmen’s porch so we could spend more time on it together. One woman set up a living room of cushioned, faux-wicker furniture on the corner of the porch that faced the street, like a Better Homes and Gardens spread. She put down a floral-patterned rug. In another corner, she set out a plastic dining table and covered it with a cloth. She hung plants from the arches. Someone else bought a grill and invited all the tenants to use it. I contributed a metal café table and chairs for the back end of the porch, where I would read during the day and serve drinks to friends in the evenings.

One wine-drunk night out there, a thin guy with a rough gray beard and a ballcap walked up to us off the street, squatted near our table, and told stories about when the building housed the Franklin Club, another private social venue for the managerial class that opened after the cyclists moved out. There were bowling alleys in the basement; there was great food upstairs. The guy said he had worked there decades before. When he wrapped up his story, he asked us for a drink. We demurred, and he got up, walked down the steps, and continued on his way.

By this point, six years into my stay in the Valley, I had accepted that I would always be an exile, or possibly a missionary, from the world beyond it. I wasn’t fully part of the culture of the place, but that also meant I was shielded from its miseries by my citizenship in the other culture. At some point in my early adulthood, after I left Buffalo, I had crossed a threshold that I could never cross back. Drinking PBR—or Lion’s Head, the cheap Wilkes-Barre beer I’ve seen on tap in hipster bars in Brooklyn and D.C.—doesn’t put you in solidarity with the working class. That’s an easy mistake to make in places where bourgeois culture dominates, where you don’t encounter working-class people or feel estranged from them every day. You may admire or long for their group identity—as, on some level, I do—but you made your choice. Our economic system depletes communities, and you can gain wealth and status within it if you’re willing to pull up your own roots again and again, even living suspended in the air, while others, more firmly planted, wither together.

Over the course of that summer, everything we had put out on the porch got stolen: the metal furniture, the plastic furniture, the grill, the replacement grill we chained to the railing, the chain itself. The hanging plants stayed. When my neighbors complained to the building’s maintenance guy, he blamed drug users and mentioned that the scrap yard down the street would buy anything metal, no questions asked. At a residents’ meeting in the building’s lobby following the thefts, a neighbor proposed tearing out the steps and closing off the porch.

Published in the July / August 2020 issue: 

Jonathan Malesic is a writer living in Dallas. He is working on a book on burnout, to be published next year by University of California Press.

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