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From Issue #17 May 23, 2013

6 a.m. Bars

Don’t take the regular’s chair.

By Matthew Latkiewicz Twitter icon 

Sure enough, the neon beer signs are on and the door is unlocked. I check my phone: it’s 6:30 a.m. Ace’s is one of the few bars in San Francisco that caters to the hour when the graveyard shift gets off work. Lit Budweiser signs look strange and intimidating this early. By the time I arrive, Ace’s has already been open half an hour.

The morning has barely dawned and the sky is slate gray. I hesitate, more anxious than I thought I would be. People pass by, holding coffee cups. They walk with the focused weariness of people headed to work.

I have written about booze and drinking for 10 years — I am by all evidence a very experienced drinker — but I have never been to a bar before breakfast, and I am not sure I know anyone who has. Like anyone with a committed relationship to alcohol, I am haunted by alcoholism: What is it? When does it begin? When do I know? Those questions may have fluid boundaries, but there are lines most of us agree on, like drinking first thing in the a.m. is not good. But why?

We have an agreement in American society that some forms of morning drinks are fine — a Bloody Mary at a Sunday brunch, for instance — while others are bad, such as dumping whiskey into your coffee at the office. The 6 a.m. bar seems to sit somewhere in between: it is a line most people would not cross, but which is also legally acceptable.

Trying my best to appear confident, I enter the bar. It is now 6:35.

On the rocks

Pre-dawn light is not kind to the cluttered walls and scuffed floors common to dive bars everywhere. The place is empty. “As it should be,” I inadvertently think. I can’t even spot a bartender. From the door, it looks like a crime scene or a Twilight Zone episode. Everything appears normal — ESPN bellows from the TV, all the lights are on, the jukebox twinkles pink and blue — but it is desolate.

Then some movement from the corner of the bar. A youngish dude, backwards baseball cap and black hoodie, stands up from where he was sitting and makes his way around the bar. He had been drinking coffee and playing with his phone.

“How you doing?” he asks. “Doing good,” I say reflexively. That’s the normal thing you say when someone asks you how you’re doing. It is a phrase for normal day-to-day interactions. I’m not sure it applies at this hour. How well could I be doing if I were here?

“What can I get you?”

“I’ll have a Long Hammer,” I say, ordering pretty much the first thing I see. Beer feels right, although I fantasize about the awkwardness of ordering, like, a martini. Whoever drinks martinis in the morning, I am not yet one of them.

Specially licensed

All bars must obtain a liquor license in order to sell alcohol. The 6 a.m. bar, however, needs a special license in order to open that early. The idea behind this special license, the reason we have it at all, is to accommodate folks who work the third shift — often called the graveyard shift — and get off work around 7 a.m. Those people deserve a happy hour just like the rest of us, the thinking goes, and so certain bars are granted the 6 a.m. license.1

Regardless of this legitimate lineage, the 6 a.m. bar still seems out of place, wrong, depressing even. When peeking through an open bar door that early, we do not think of factory workers and night-shift nurses enjoying their “evening.” We see alcoholics. We avert our eyes and walk briskly to Starbucks. “Ugh, I cannot imagine having a drink that early,” we think. We respond with Pavlovian disgust to this morning–booze combo.

But of course, that can’t be entirely true. We drink in the morning all the time. Some instances where I have consumed alcohol in totally-socially-acceptable-but-also-totally-pre-noon ways include:

  • Planes and airports

  • Vacations in tropical settings

  • Cruise ships, the experience of which is a curated tropical vacation

  • Weekend brunch

  • Summer BBQs with fireworks promised in the evening

  • Watching football

  • Pretending to watch soccer

Drinking in the morning signals that it is a special day — a day in which any serious concerns are off the hook until the sun rises again. On a vacation, the sun may wheel overhead several times even. In contrast, grabbing a shot and a beer at Ace’s on your way to the office is not cool, because it overlaps with work.2

This wasn’t always the case. Booze and work had a much closer relationship in the past than in our relatively abstemious present. The Greeks integrated wine into formal philosophical discussion; early Norse culture encouraged inebriation in warriors; many cultures have used alcohol as medicine at some historical point; early American and English laborers drank “small beer,” a food-like 0.5% alcohol beverage, all day for nutrients and hydration — and because water that hadn’t been boiled was often harmful or even lethal.3

But the industrial revolution replaced alcohol with caffeine. Coffee and then tea arrived in Europe and America. Many historians maintain that the revolution occurred in part because of a workforce that went from modestly and continuously slightly sedated to one that was full of energy to the last drop. It also meant that an alert workforce was in place when handling ever more dangerous factory equipment or poring over ledgers of numbers.

Beyond stimulation, both beverages were also safe: they require boiling water, and both have anti-microbial effects. Drinking coffee or tea meant more-productive workers who were sick less often. Hygiene in cities increased slowly, but ultimately meant that fountain, well, and tap water weren’t detrimental to drink. Booze was banished from the workplace in favor of productive beverages. Drinking during the workday was sinful, an excess, and just not done.

Midnight oilers

“What kind of crowd do you get in here?” I ask the bartender after I finish my beer. “Ah, it’s a pretty regulars crowd,” he says. “Some people come in for a shot and a beer before work. Some work nights and so this is their happy hour. You get guys who’ve been up all night. Some guys are in here all day.”

The first guys — and, do I need to clarify that all the patrons were male that morning and I would guess most mornings? — who enter after me seem to be the up-all-night sort. Both have thick, unruly beards and shuffle in with a decidedly tired gait.

“Morning,” I say to them after they sit and order Bloody Marys. “Hey there,” the smaller one says slowly. His eyes opened only about halfway. The other guy — larger, with long black hair — doesn’t turn my way.

“You guys having a good morning?”

“We are. It’s OK, yeah. You know, been playing music.”

They are in a band and have been up jamming all night (his words). As I ask more questions, however, the narrative becomes unclear. “Technically, I am not personally in the band,” the smaller one says.

It’s clear he is trying to find a story to tell me as to why they’re in a bar — a productive night of making music — but the reality is grimmer. They are stoned out of their heads. These guys fit my image of early-morning drinkers: people who crossed the line into alcoholism a long time ago and never looked back.

Not the right seat

A bunch of men in baseball caps enter; they look like off-duty cops. They chat loudly and lucidly, and greet the bartender warmly. He knows their order before they ask for anything: “Three tall boys?” “You got it,” one of them replies. They find seats around the bar from me and continue whatever conversation they were having before walking through the door.

The sun rises; the walls and windows brighten; the sound of people talking drowns out the television (or maybe the bartender had simply turned it down). The place becomes less depressing and less awkward. Or I am increasingly inebriated, as somewhere along the line I’ve already lost track of I’ve consumed another beer and a Bloody Mary. Likely both.

Another fellow — probably in his 50s, dressed in clothes that were once nice but had become a bit threadbare — enters and joins the three off-duty-cop-looking guys. He holds a to-go coffee cup out across the bar and the bartender tips a bottle of rum over it. The guy puts the lid back on the cup and takes a perch on the outside of the regulars. The bartender tells me he’s a regular named Glen, possibly a building manager.

Now a fifth guy joins Glen and his three chums. His clothing is a few notches better, though his style comes from the early 1990s. He sports a lot of rings and his clothes are made of loose, shiny fabric. After greeting them, he rounds the corner of the bar and walks my way. He grabs the chair next to me and carries it back to where the other three are sitting.

“You’re in his spot,” the bartender says.

“Should I move?” I’m concerned not about being beaten up, but that I have disrupted the order of things in a place where the order of things is very important and not often disrupted.

“No, you’re fine,” he says. “He got his chair.”

Free as in beer

Most drinking in the U.S. begins as a transgressive act. It is the rare person whose first drink occurs on or after their 21st birthday. For those of us with a relationship to alcohol, it almost always begins illicitly. Going to a bar at 6 a.m. is not unique from this perspective; it is simply one more in a series of “I shouldn’t be doing this” moments with liquor.

Every life is full of moments in which you walk up to a line you never thought you would cross, and step over it. You hope you won’t have many of those, but you will have a few. It might be entering a porn shop; it might be stealing something from your employer; it might be cocaine on a CD case; the first time I saw that, it was clearly something I had been raised not to see. It might be — it just might be — a Long Hammer at 6:35 a.m.

When I was eight, I was with my mother while she and her friends downed a few margaritas and I realized, perhaps for the first time, that she was drunk. I had internalized somewhere that inebriation of any kind was wrong. Perhaps it was those “Just Say No” commercials. I was not sure why it was wrong, but I knew there was a line.

“When I am older, I won’t drink,” I told her that day. In my memory, she has a comically red nose. “You’ll be surprised at what you will and won’t do,” she said, which is a pretty profound thing to say to an eight-year-old, but which is also profoundly true. At the time, I took her statement as a challenge and held out against drinking even when my friends took it up about six years later.

Friends let friends dive drink

“A lot of the old lessons are being lost,” Glen says to me in a rare break from his silent observation. He still sits sideways at the bar and holds his coffee spiked with rum. “Used to be that an old-timer would take you under his wing and teach you how to drink without things getting out of control.”

Glen manages a building a few blocks away. He doesn’t have a specific time or place he needs to be on any given day. Instead, he keeps his phone handy and deals with building issues as they come up — a leak somewhere, somebody locked out, a cleaning service needs to get in. Every morning he gets up and comes to Ace’s and waits for calls. He begins his day with rum in his coffee, switching to rum and cokes as the day wears on. “I’m back and forth here all day,” he says.

I leave Ace’s at about 9:00 a.m., two beers and two Bloody Marys in. The bar has filled up, and the sun is high enough in the sky that the space no longer feels awkward. I say goodbye to off-duty-cop-looking guys and Glen. I do not say goodbye to the not-technically-in-a-band stoners. I don’t think I’ll be back.

Line dancing

Events eventually conspire to bring you to a line you may cross, and now there you are. At 16, I had my first drink. A group of friends and I waited in the car while the oldest-looking of us went in and bought the most ragtag collection of booze you can imagine: cans of Keystone Light, bottles of Boone’s Farm, Mad Dog 20/20, and brightly colored stuff I would not drink on a dare today.

We went to the house of one of our group when his parents were out. We drank and we laughed and I stood up and, whoa, the world was different and I went to a mirror and, whoa, I was different. I had crossed a line my parents would have found unacceptable, but in the moment, looking in the mirror, my friends behind me, that line didn’t seem that sharply defined at all. In fact, why hadn’t I crossed it earlier?

This morning, I walked into Ace’s in San Francisco and ordered a beer, and after I finished that, the bartender asked me if I wanted anything else and I said, “Yeah, can I get a Bloody Mary?”

You are surprised by what you will do, and that is how it begins.

Photo by Andrew Mager. Used under Creative Commons license.


  1. The number of these licenses, and of the bars that apply for them, is dwindling. Much of this can be attributed to a decline in American manufacturing. As any resident of a mill town can tell you, national manufacturing employment peaked in about 1970 and then shrank consistently until 2010. Since then, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the figures have moved upward a little, but employment remains well below its peak. 

  2. Unless maybe you are a novelist, in which case: nobody’s checking. 

  3. For a thorough and enjoyable historical rundown on how beverages from early beer to Coca-Cola shaped humanity, see Economist editor Tom Standage’s book, A History of the World in Six Glasses

Matthew Latkiewicz is a writer and maker of comedy Web-things. His work has appeared in Grub Street, McSweeney's, Wired, Time.com, and Gastronomica. His first book, Drinking, A Manual, will be published by Running Press in 2014. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife.

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