My solo bar sitting started because I was lonely. I was in my early 20s and I lived in Bangkok with my boyfriend who volunteered with children in a slum until late in the evening. Our apartment was close to Patpong, one of the city’s most famous sex districts and each evening I went for long walks, wandering aimlessly as the people on the streets turned from blue-shirted Thai office workers to older white men in sweat-soaked T-shirts.
Cautiously, I began to stop for a drink on my way home at one of the open-air bars in the small alleys near the main drag. These places were the smaller, less overtly sexual bars, where instead of choosing from a platform of women wearing numbers, men could go and have a beer and pretend they were picking up women in a “fancy meeting you here” sort of way, even if they were just finding themselves a prostitute.
Soon I was nearly a regular. At dusk I would cozy up in front of an oscillating fan next to men with veiny red noses and sloping shoulders and order a beer from a bartender with a nickname like “Rat” or “Ice” or “Porn.”
To pass the time I played Connect Four with the women as they waited for a man to come and buy them a drink. I listened to the transactions taking place around me and learned how some men will talk to women when they have no chance of getting a restraining order. Most of these guys were simply on a mission to get laid, but others really were just lonely and like me found themselves drawn to the strange world of sleaze and sex and tattooed women in miniskirts that thrived below those awnings.
These guys would tell me their life stories over beers. They would explain to me why they were sitting there and who they loved and who had hurt them and occasionally how much they missed their mothers as behind us, on the main drag, the neon sign for “Super Pussy” flickered to life. Perhaps I should have been revolted by this kind of atmosphere, but mostly I was fascinated and hooked to my new bar behavior. After Thailand, I moved to Cairo where I drank beer in the company of gigantic Samoan NATO soldiers and oil workers in a covert rugby club. Drinking alone in bars quickly became one of my favorite pastimes. I loved meeting new people for a short period of time and learning about their lives.
People at bars, I came to understand, would confess the most intimate details of their lives when they were alone and you were a stranger. Even if we had nothing in common other than a love of cold beer. Through them I was exposed to new and unfamiliar aspects of the world. I learned what it was like to live through a hurricane while at sea, to be a famous concert pianist, to have parents who are fundamentalist Muslims and to work on a Nigerian oil rig. I was told what it feels like to have sex with men you don’t find attractive, to have your wife walk out on you, to hold your baby for the first time. I learned to distinguish the people who were earnest from those who were full of shit and I learned to pay attention to when this was even important. It wasn’t just that I liked the stories. I also liked myself on these occasions. I can be shy in groups, awkward around those I am meant to impress. A stranger is not someone who needs to be cajoled or complimented. The conversation you have with someone you are unlikely to ever see again doesn’t need to be treated with caution. Because of this, I feel like a better version of myself when I’m alone and engaged with someone for the first time. I’m suddenly funnier, more charming and less self-conscious. I easily say whatever I want and my own stories pour out as well. It wasn’t until I moved back to the US in my late 20s that I realized some people regard going out alone, especially as a woman, as kind of weird.
Before that, I had been surrounded by expats and travelers -- people who were by nature lonely and full of interesting stories. It never crossed my mind that what I was doing would be construed as pathetic.
I’ve realized that to some, a woman choosing to go out alone is kind of intimidating or maybe even confusing. Perhaps because I’m usually the loner, I’m still not quite sure why. I think people who see it that way are missing out.
When I am sitting at some foreign bar and a stranger leans over and says something to me, I get a shiver of excitement. I might not end up having anything in common with this person, I might not even like them, but I will hear something brand new and because of this I will feel more connected to the world and somehow more free.