Writing in Bars

June 8, 2022 § 16 Comments

By Katherine Arnup

I write in bars.

Not just any bar will do. Fancy places seem to think my presence will discourage business, as if suddenly an army of students will invade the bar to do their homework. There, waitresses bring my bill too quickly, trying to give me what my father would call “the bum’s rush.” Sleazy bars with lecherous men are equally bad.

Buffalo Charlie’s was my first regular bar in Ottawa. It was conveniently located in the same mall as the grocery store, liquor store, drug store, and stationers, the only places a working mother needs to shop. There was plenty of free parking and a good selection of dry California wines.

One side of Buffalo’s was a family restaurant that seated well over a hundred people. The tables were covered with brown paper, and every table had a glass mug of crayons for drawing. The waiter would introduce himself by writing his name what was for him backwards and upside down. Then he would bring a bowl of Buffalo chips for snacking. The menu was huge, impossible to get through, and the food, generally tasty.  I often took my children there, especially for birthdays because the birthday girl gets to eat for free.

The bar was on the other side of the restaurant. Families almost never ventured there. At either end was a barrel filled with roasted peanuts. Customers scooped them up by the handful and took them to their table or their seat at the bar. The floor was dangerously slippery from the shells customers would shovel off their tables. When I first started drinking there, I would gather my shells on a small plate, trying not to make a mess. One day, when the waiter brought my bill, he took my plate and threw all the shells on the floor. “We clean up later. It’s just easier this way.” After that, I started throwing my shells on the floor too, though it never felt quite right.

I never sat at the bar. I chose a high-top table with a twirling, hard-backed bar stool. I would put my writing materials – a journal, my writing pad, my reading glasses and pen out on my table, leaving room for the glass of wine and tall glass of ice water. The music blasted and TVs blared from all four corners of the room. The noise never bothered me. You see, it wasn’t my noise. More importantly, I wasn’t responsible for anyone but myself. Not my children (at least not until 6 pm), not the faculty members in the university department I chaired, not the students begging for a re-evaluation of their grades. I was only responsible for writing, and for getting home at a reasonable hour with the chicken for dinner.

Most nights this worked out just fine.

One day, however, one of the regulars, a man who always wore a green John Deere baseball cap stained with grease from his straggling hair, decided it was time to pay attention to me. At first, I didn’t realize that’s what was happening. I felt something strike my leg, but, deep in my writing, I ignored it. When something struck my arm, I looked up in time to see John Deere preparing to throw another peanut at me. A peanut, I thought. Is he really throwing peanuts at me? What does he expect me to do?

As he prepared to hurl his fourth love object, I stared straight at him. “Don’t you dare throw that,” I said in what my children call my teacher voice.

“Huh?” he said, looking at me from under the brim of his hat.

“Don’t throw peanuts at me. Ever again.”

“Oh,” he said, turning back to his beer.

I have had many encounters in bars. Men have pulled a stool up to my table, and, failing to see the invisible shield that surrounds me, they’ve tried to strike up a conversation. Sometimes they buy me a drink without asking my permission. But no one has ever thrown something at me. Certainly not a peanut, as if I were a trained elephant.

The next time I ventured into Buffalo’s, John Deere approached me. He’d been sitting at the bar, as he always did, and he slipped off his seat to come over to my table.

“I think I offended you the other day,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “You did.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to.”

“Uh huh,” I said, turning back to my writing. I knew well enough not to encourage the conversation for one more second. I wanted to scream, “What were you THINKING? Do you usually find that peanuts are a real turn on? Has that worked for you before?” But I just kept writing, as he slunk back to his spot at the bar and nuzzled up to his beer.

Katherine Arnup is a writer, retired professor, and singer living in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of the award-winning book, Education for Motherhood and editor of Lesbian Parenting: Living with Pride and Prejudice. Her most recent book, “I don’t have time for this!” A Compassionate Guide to Caring for your Parents and Yourself, is a hybrid of memoir, research, and helpful advice on accompanying the people we love at the end of their lives. She has received residencies from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Vermont Studio Center. She loves walks by the river near her house, hanging out with her grandchildren, and playing her ukulele.


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