The Magazine

On the House

Why Americans are at home in a bar.

Dec 5, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 12 • By MARTIN MORSE WOOSTER
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Prohibitionists were so eager to close taverns that they ignored a basic question: Where would all the clubs and groups meet if bars were outlawed? Some expressed vague hopes that movie theaters would serve as a suitable replacement. G. K. Chesterton dismissed this notion after he visited the United States in 1922: “The cinema boasts of being a substitute for the tavern, but I think it a very bad substitute,” he wrote. “Nobody enjoys cinemas more than I, but to enjoy them a man has only to look and not even to listen, and in a tavern he has to talk. Occasionally, I admit, he has to fight; but he need never move at the movies.”

The post-Prohibition chapters are less interesting. A chapter on gay bars of the 1960s most notably reveals that Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn, famous for the 1969 raid that catalyzed the nascent gay rights movement, was not a place where most people would want to drink. The primary “investor” in the tavern was the Genovese crime family, and its owners purportedly paid over $1,200 a month in bribes to cops and inspectors to stay open (a practice Sismondo calls “gayola”). The tavern charged customers a $3 cover, for which he got

two watered-down drinks served in glasses that were “cleaned” with a dip into a bucket of soapy water that was rarely changed throughout the evening. The plumbing in the bathrooms was constantly backed up and the floors were covered in raw sewage most nights. As a result, unsurprisingly, the place was said to reek.

Sismondo concludes with a chapter about why parents should have an unquestioned right to bring their children to bars. This surely should be an individual matter, left to the bar owner’s discretion. She would have done better if she had focused on the practice of mandatory identification checks at bars. By forcing scores of grey-headed boozers who came of age in an earlier century to prove that they’re over 21, this ridiculous form of security theater does little or nothing to catch underage drinkers but a great deal to undermine the rule of law.

Martin Morse Wooster is a regular contributor to Mid-Atlantic Brewing News and American Brewer.