Roughly 80 percent of American adults drink alcohol. It is by far the most destructive drug in our society but also the most enjoyed, and many would agree its moderate use can enhance life in general and social interactions in particular. While it can be nice to share a quiet drink at home with a partner or small group of friends, or, for that matter, to have a solitary one while reading or relaxing, many people prefer to drink in public.
Taverns and pubs serve a real purpose in many communities. Like cafés and other local hangouts, they provide that “third place,” beyond home and work, in which to socialize. Europe has more of a tradition of such places, along with more public parks that serve a similar purpose.
In Provincetown, this purpose is complicated by the surge of visitors that descend upon us for at least half the year. They often have neither home nor work here, and so they seek public places with different motivations.
Almost 100 businesses in Provincetown have been granted alcohol licenses, but only a handful do not serve food or provide lodgings or run package stores. This handful makes up what we call bars.
The oldest bar in town is undoubtedly the Little Bar at the Atlantic House, which was built in 1798 (according to David W. Dunlap’s Building Provincetown). The Crown & Anchor began life as the Central House in the mid-19th century. The original Pilgrim House opened in 1810 — Thoreau stayed there — but is no more. A partial list of other establishments that have fallen by the way includes the Moors, the Flagship, Rosie’s (formerly the Colonial Inn), Piggy’s, the Rumpus Room, the Pied Piper (formerly the Ace of Spades), Cookie’s Tap, the Wreck Club, the Town House, the Vets (VFW) Club, the Whaler Lounge (Holiday Inn), the Surf Club, and more that I am missing. Each deserves a column to itself.
Provincetown bars come in wide variety, but perhaps the first distinction to be made is that some predominantly attract straight people and many more attract mostly gay people. Of course, no one (to my knowledge) is refused service anywhere. But the distinction remains. Funny — you would never refer to a “straight” or “gay” restaurant. But there is something about drinking that makes people want to be where they are most comfortable.
It would be foolish not to take into account the pick-up aspect of bars (how many of us originated as the result of a beer or two on just the right evening?), but there is a great deal more to public drinking than that. To have a couple of drinks is to let your guard down, to destress, to ease up and relax, and this may be more likely to happen when people are with “their own.”
History, however, can put all things in context. A headline from a long-ago local newspaper, The New Beacon, dated Aug. 13, 1959, reads “Men Lose Retreat in Tavern Change.” The article (provided to me by Dan Towler) goes on to state: “In the name of progress and better business, the New Deal Tavern at 335 Commercial Street … has removed the weather-beaten ‘No Ladies Admitted’ sign and put up a bright new ‘Ladies Invited’ sign.
“It was a question of moving with the times …” the new owner explained, and with the change of policy came a name change: “The Fo’csle.” The article went on: “For a quarter of a century, the tavern catered strictly to the male sex and particularly to the fishermen of the town.” The owner added: “One thing we like about the new set-up is that we no longer have to tell fibs on the phone.” That is, a fisherman’s wife was free to step in the door to see whether her husband was there or not. The Fo’csle became Fat Jack’s, which became the Squealing Pig. Lots of ladies go in there.
We are still “moving with the times.” Women have for quite a while had their own bars, and, in a way those fishermen would not have comprehended in 1959, so have men. But in the spirit of Provincetown, I think we are happiest when we are in a mix.
Wherever I go — whether to the Old Colony, the Harbor Lounge, the Aqua Bar, George’s, or somewhere else — whenever I hear the rich and blended tapestry of peoples’ voices all around me, when I hear the unique and wonderful quality of human laughter, when joy is in the air, I have to smile and declare myself for democratic drinking!