Saturday, June 18, 2016

We walk into a bar in New York

Afternoones, Staten Island, NY bar
Afternoones Restaurant and Bar
Staten Island

A couple of elderly women were sitting at the bar. I approached them the way I usually approach strangers at the bar, by saying my wife and I are going to a bar in every state, and we usually ask people three questions. I asked if I could ask them our questions, and one of the women nodded, the other did not. I asked for first names, and the woman who had nodded gave her first name. The other woman did not. Then I asked what makes for a good bar. The woman who hadn’t nodded or given her name said, “YOUR NOT BEING HERE!”

Will the bartender overheard this and said, “Welcome to Staten Island!”

We have been a little surprised by how rarely people refuse to talk to us. We, of course, don’t approach people deep in conversation or reading a book, and people in bars have (as a rule) been friendly and welcoming. We have been warned that people in the next state down the road won’t been friendly like the state we’re in at the time. In Kansas, we were told that people in bars in the South might not talk to us. In the South, we were told that people in Washington, D.C., would be aloof. And in various places we were warned that people in New York City might be hostile, but aside from this one woman, people at Afternoones in Staten Island were quite friendly.

I’m not saying there aren’t different attitudes and social norms in different places. Our daughter who lives in Brooklyn and has adapted to NYC norms is noticeably embarrassed by her mother’s tendency to smile at strangers she passes on the street. The Gotham norm tends more toward staring straight ahead as one walks, ignoring the magnificent architecture and humanity in its glorious variety that passes by. Perhaps it’s a bit like Victorian England when people would not speak to one another without formal introductions.

But bars aren’t like that. They’re places you can meet people and start conversations, and we depend upon that every week.

The first man I spoke to at Afternoones was quite friendly. Doug was eating at the bar next to us, and we found out he’s worked in Staten Island as a hairdresser for the last thirty years. When I asked him what made for a good bar, he didn’t say it was the absence of me. He likes “a comfortable atmosphere and good food.”  I asked what made the atmosphere comfortable, and he said “not too much noise, not too much activity. A little bit of peace.” He said he doesn’t like “a huge panorama of noise,” and he wanted to eat tonight. I asked Doug if when he said good food he partially meant comfort food, and he said the pork chops he had that night would fit that category.

When I asked Doug about what made for a good church, he talked about his church, Salem Evangelical Free Church. He said he was introduced to the church almost two years ago when some men excercising in a park across the street from the church invited him to join them. He was invited to the church as well, and he went. After attending for three weeks, he found that people already knew him. They knew his name and seemed to genuinely care about him. Doug said that after 9/11/01, he’d attended a large Episcopal church for a couple of years, but after attending for a few years, he realized that no one there knew him at all. He said, “It changed the way I felt about going there.”

His experience at Salem was a stark contrast, and he invited us to come to Salem on Sunday. He even gave us a church pen which had the church’s web address.

I ordered a West Brighton Sweet Tea from Will the bartender and Mindy ordered Afternoones’ special white wine sangria. While I talked with Doug, Mindy talked with Will. He had been working at Afternoones for a year, but he had been drinking there for four. He said that a combination of things make for a good bar: good service, good food, good atmosphere, and even some live entertainment. He said it was increasingly important to have a wide selection of beer as more people were into craft brews.

Michael, one of the waiters, made his way into the conversation to affirm the importance of a variety of beers. He mentioned the importance of a good bartender (adding some kind words for Will). “If the bartender has zero personality, I won’t be coming back, even if you do have the beer I want.” He said he’d been coming to Afternoones since he was a child, but working there for the past five years.

When asked what made for a good church, Will said, “church is not really my thing,” but he gave a shot at an answer nonetheless. “I would say -- especially in a small place like this -- most people who go to church want to be familiar with each other, so a sense of community.” He added, “I think it’s the people. If there’s good people, it’s a good place.”

MIchael said, “It’s been a very long time since I was in a church.” When Mindy asked what he thought might make a good church, he said, “Having the doors open always makes for a good church.”

Before leaving, we decided to talk to a couple sitting at the end of the bar. I asked if we could ask them a few questions for our blog. The woman said, “It’s not about religion, is it?” I told her that one of the questions was about religion, but we just wanted to hear what they had to say, and we weren’t there to give our opinions on religion. They seemed relieved by that assurance, and after that they were quite open and kind. Jose and Stacy are married, and were out to celebrate Stacy’s birthday.

Jose said he likes a place that is clean with a nice environment and, “of course, service that’s friendly and comfortable.” He likes a place where you can “hear yourself talk.” He also likes a place where you can meet new people. “If a bar is like Cheers, you don’t get to meet new people.”

Stacy likes a cool environment with “my age crowd.” (Afternoones’ crowd that night was an older demographic) She likes top shelf liquor and good music. Neither Jose or Stacy is a fan of dive bars.

When I asked what made for a good church, Stacy said she was Jewish. So I asked what made for a good temple. She said a good rabbi with “stories that are up to date, not the same old stories.”  She doesn’t like the Orthodox practice of separating men and women for worship, but prefers the Reformed tradition.

Jose is Catholic and said it is important that a priest knows his parishioners. “The church should do what they can for people in need,”, he said, whether that be financial help or help with a troubled marriage. He said a church should be a comfortable community where people can meet and get to know each other.

We were thankful for the people we met at Afternoones, even (perhaps especially) the woman who didn’t want to talk to me because she gave me a good opening for this post.

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