Depending on the bar, free snacks can be a high-end symbol of hospitality or a blue-collar fact of life. In either setting, the intention is the same: setting out a bowl of cheese balls, some mixed nuts, pretzels—it’s a simple means to hold onto your patrons, to keep them from getting hungry and drifting off into the night. But for the legions of kids who move to the big city too young, too poor, too dumb to make it on their own, free bar snacks are a lifeline.
I started drinking in New York City—which is to say that I had my first drinks in college, from shabby jugs of barely-vodka and Solo cups of mis-mixed highballs. But I learned how to drink as an adult in the happy hours and free-meal dive bars of New York.
My best friend and I shared a post-college Queens apartment that cost no more than our previous year’s combined dorm fees. We worked, in precarious part-time jobs that paid little and offered even less in terms of personal fulfillment. We scanned the pay phones in Grand Central for change, side-eyeing the homeless who were doing the same. We inhaled bowls of Chex Mix set out for us by dead-eyed dive bartenders, relieved we could go another night without having to pay for dinner.
We were broke in the way most college kids are broke, the kind of poverty that years later can be reduced to a handful of fun, not-so-sordid tales of squalor. But unlike seemingly everyone else I knew, my brokeness came with layers of baggage, shades of guilt I’m still trying to sort my way through, a decade later. I’d chosen to leave Canada, land of subsidized tuition, for a precious liberal arts college in New York—the third most expensive school in the US. I signed my name to student loan applications with too many zeroes, numbers I couldn’t fathom, let alone imagine being able to pay back. I was terrified, guilty and so crippled by anxiety that I couldn’t even look for work, which doesn’t do much for one’s money-related anxiety.
An anxiety clings to kids who survived the post-college gauntlet at a time when jobs were scarce and expectations were sky-high. We hide it, for the most part, but for those of us who ran that gauntlet with a drink in each hand, it rises with the small thrill that comes every time a bartender sets down a bowl of snacks with your first round.
So I turned to alcohol, feeding that brilliantly vicious cycle that lets you tune out the problem for a day or night or both, only to have it all come roaring back the next morning when you’re staring into your purse, trying to remember what happened to that last $20. Pour, rinse, repeat. If we were feeling flush we’d spring for the happy hour fried olives at Gusto. If we were down to the last thin dime and unable to cadge another refill from the exasperated bartender we’d almost definitely been undertipping, we’d convince a fellow drinker to buy us dinner, sure it was our gamine sex appeal that lured them in, not our Oliver Twist-like orphan eyes and hollow bellies. In the calculus of our New York City living, drinks came first. Everything else was a distant second.
If it weren’t for the dismally doughy cheese pizzas at the Alligator Lounge, the perpetually rotating Hebrew Nationals at Rudy’s and the Sunday bagel brunch at DBA, I’d have wound up trapped at home, watching free public access TV and eating cereal. The desperation I felt, the fear I’d made all the wrong choices, would have been multiplied a thousandfold. The lure of cheap drinks and a free meal got me out of the house—but it was the being out of the house, taking in the city I’d so desperately felt I needed to be a part of, that got me out of myself. I met successful people who proved a life in this city was possible. I got a real job. I started to write. I dragged myself out of despair, one bowl of pretzels at a time.
The generation who survived the Great Depression lived the rest of their lives with a creeping, low-level panic: This might not last. Decades later, it’s what spurred well-off adults to keep their freezers crammed with dried-out heels of bread and endlessly reused tin foil, down to its last crinkle, drying in the dish rack. A similar anxiety clings to kids who survived the post-college gauntlet at a time when jobs were scarce and expectations were sky-high. We hide it, for the most part, but for those of us who ran that gauntlet with a drink in each hand, it rises with the small thrill that comes every time a bartender sets down a bowl of snacks with your first round. I can afford better meals now—and do, freely and joyfully—but when faced with free cheese cubes, my lizard brain rejoices at a few bucks saved.
That said, I haven’t been back to Rudy’s in years, and since a bad break-up there I don’t spend much time in the East Village; I’ve heard a rumor DBA doesn’t do their bagel brunch anymore but haven’t bothered to see for myself. I don’t talk much about my intense despair during that period, the guilt and fear—it’s not great cocktail party conversation—but I feel a twinge of betrayal every time I reduce these places to the backdrop of one of those casual “we were so poor…” punchlines. I owe them the life I have now—a fulfilling, happy one I couldn’t have begun to imagine back then. I owe them respect.
Last weekend, I went out for drinks with that friend, the one with whom I’d shared all those well drinks and Chex Mix. We met at a hotel bar, where the snacks were varied and plentiful, refilled by a cheerful bartender. This time, we tipped extravagantly. And rather than cling to those few scrimped dollars the way we once would have, we spent the money on a cab ride home.