I’m new enough to Portland that normal things still carry enough novelty so that I’m still distracted by my surroundings during any kind of a commute. Tonight, as my bike crests the Burnside Bridge, I can’t stop looking at how the last light touches the bridges on either side of me. It’s definitely a tourist’s appreciation—this is beautiful, this is new, does this get old to the people that live here? I guess I live here.
I’m headed to the Westside tonight. I’m going to some bars over there and because it’s Portland, I’m on a bike. I have a list in my head of some potential bars to visit. I’m not actually meeting anyone anywhere, although later if I do meet up with somebody, I’ll explain to that person I’m already buzzed because I had drinks with a coworker who left to say goodnight to her kids. It is a carefully planned excuse born from multiple discussions in my head about going out solo. After several failed executions, I’m going out tonight for the first time and I’m doing it because I can’t stomach the thought of spending Saturday night in my apartment alone.
As I hit the bar district, I forget that Portland is probably a little like Chicago in that the summer fever turns the streets into scenes out of the third world. From my bike, I can see and hear all of it. More people seem to be in the streets than in bars and many people seem to just be content hanging outside the bar. There’s a lot of yelling, honking and young couples making out on sidewalks oblivious to it all. I pass groups of homeless people who are barely making efforts to panhandle in between their own singing and laughter. People cross streets between crosswalks and taunt cars that approach by lingering and making rude gestures. I ride by some older couples with wrinkly tattoos. I ride by some men, who fifteen years post-college, are still best identified as bros. I ride by a substantial amount of diversity, a sight I am not used to anymore. Most importantly, I ride by a lot of women in heels. Portland is a city after all.
The first bar I’m headed to, I’m told, is a hotel bar with fine, crafted cocktails. This is an obvious hiding place for a loner. Travelers are loners by a circumstance that we can all understand and not judge too harshly or too suspiciously. But as I pull up to the place, I realize this is not the hotel bar I was hoping for. This is a trendy hotel restaurant/bar, so much so that it’s obvious that no one here is a traveler. Most of the place is the restaurant and most of the bar is squatted by couples dressed nicely for a date night, waiting for a table with a glass of Pinot. There aren’t any open bar seats available and there certainly aren’t open bar seats with open seats next to them. I say no words to anyone as I walk in and immediately turn around and walk out.
A little while later I have this interaction. [I enter an establishment. Stairs lead to a bar downstairs where music is playing. A man is cutting vegetables in a small room next to the stairs.]
“Hey man, the hostess just left for a second. She’ll be back in a moment. Is it just you tonight?”
“Well, if it’s just you, we might be able to get you in.”
“Do you mind if I just have a look downstairs first?”
“Well, actually man, there are a lot of people here and if I let you downstairs, you might bump into a server. I’m sorry, I know it’s frustrating, but I can’t let you down there right now to even just look.”
“Okay then. I’ll head out.”
That would be the only conversation I’d have the entire night.
I ride my bike towards the river, where the town gets a little seedier, which I suppose is what needs to happen when you go looking for a burlesque bar. Sourced from another text message recommendation, it’s actually a thoughtful choice. The clientele is of mixed age, color and money. There is entertainment, provided by leotard-sporting dancers who use ribbons or a hula-hoop suspended from the ceiling to do mini Cirque-de-Soleil like routines while echoey dance music blares. There is an MC straight out of a strip club, and each performance is followed by the same speech you hear at the clubs about “tipping your dancers, and pulling out those dollar bills.” The bar itself is the right amount of full with scattered open seats and people migrating back and forth to get drinks for the tables behind us. I buy a drink and watch the dancers climb their ribbons, twist, spin and tumble down, catching themselves, right before they hit the ground.
In my head, when you’re alone at the bar, there is really only two ways to go about it. You can pretend to be waiting for someone. You look at your phone every few minutes and fire off a few meaningless texts. You might glance at the door. You act like everything is fine because this is a temporary state. At some point though, the gig’s up and you have to leave and pretend like you’re now meeting that person somewhere else. I am generally too proud to take that route, but also, how are you supposed meet someone by looking unavailable? Alternatively, you can act like you’re just there to booze and everything that’s happening is exactly the way you hoped it would happen. You make an extra effort to not look at your phone. You stay focused on the glass and you try to curb your impulse to look around—because you supposedly don’t give a fuck about anyone else. Quite frankly, you’re basically saying, “I’d rather seem like an alcoholic than a loser.” Tonight this means watching the dancers way too closely, clapping, handing out dollar bills and pounding bourbon. But the real problem is unchanged. Unless you’re at one of those depressing alcoholic bars where old men drink, more than likely, your entire time spent at the bar will feature you as the only soloist, and as time passes, you grow more and more self-conscious of this fact until inevitably, you lose the battle with your own paranoia. Frankly, it would be weird if drinking alone at a bar full of people drinking together didn’t make you feel tremendously self-conscious. And even if you’re able to recognize that no one else at the bar is probably paying any attention to you, it doesn’t save you from feeling out of place. Eventually, it becomes time to leave.
I think about riding home. But I’m a few drinks in and getting tipsy is within sight. I walk around the block and then I get back on the bike. I ride though Chinatown; pass the strip clubs and the big dance clubs with lines down the sidewalk. I pass more people loitering in the streets. I pass the cops parked on corners, leaned back on their cars, passively enjoying the scene.
I’ll admit that going out for me has a “clinging to the past” quality to it. During segments of my ride, I couldn’t help but have my usual thoughts, “Jesus what was I thinking?” “I’m too old to have fun at these places.” Sometimes I feel like a young virile me crawled into a time machine and four years later a perpetually tired, cynical version emerged. Most people would have no trouble acknowledging this as just obvious consequences of aging, but not me. I feel a little like my energy wasn’t so much aged out as it was stolen from me by four years of 5 AM wake-up calls and twenty-four-hour Saturdays. And now that I’m not living that nightmare, I feel like if I just try hard enough, I can unthaw my mojo. I think, maybe just one good night will do the trick—if I get adopted by a group of fun people, if I charm one girl with my vibrations, if I fill a bar with laughter—I can have it back. It is just a matter of remembering how to be myself again. It’s just a matter of memory.
I go to one more bar on the Eastside where I have that magical hit of ethanol that makes me simultaneously super buzzed and super sleepy. There’s not much to say about that last bar except that on the ride home, I resolve to never go to bars alone again. I spend most of the ride assigning the blame. It’s one part me because a better me would have struck up conversations and had that night I was hoping for. I know it’s one part the American bar myth—that people meet random people at bars like they do in the movies. It was definitely at least one part amnesia—it certainly wasn’t the first time I was swearing to never go out alone. Also, not a small part was due to the conscious denial of reality. But as much as I thrive during the daytime on being more mentally prepared for life’s realities, at night I still live for the surprises.
The night ends with a six-pack of Bud Light from the liquor store across the street. I decide that what will make me feel better is if I go to bed drunk. I head up to my rooftop with beers in hand and think about being alone. I have a hard time defining loneliness. I try to avoid the same logic that led to Billy Corgan confusing it with emptiness. Meanwhile, I perform loneliness in its most archetypal form. I’m drinking alone, on my building’s rooftop, after midnight, looking at the silhouette of the city like it’s a 3D picture, fixating on nothing I see, contemplating the meaning of loneliness. Maybe twenty minutes of this blind staring goes on before I’m able to conclude that despite the self-absorption, I don’t really have self-pity. I’m deeply fixated on being alone, and I feel perhaps a little sad, but I’m not sad for myself. That final thought comforts me enough for me to head downstairs.
My last thoughts before bed, surprisingly, are reasoned. Being alone is a natural state, a universally shared state, but one that many of us are completely uncomfortable with. Being alone by choice is wonderful. But being alone by circumstance is one of the most uncomfortable feelings in the world. It’s why people walk with cellphones and headphones to their ear everywhere. It’s why FOMO exists. It’s what SNL is for, what hostels prey on, why coffee shops have computer outlets. It’s what smart phones saved us from.
But that’s not the entire reason why I went out tonight. It wasn’t just a loathing of unwilling isolation. For me, overshadowing the fear of being unable to escape a lonely island is the fear of complacency with living on it. I see a slippery slope of being comfortable in solitude to ultimately preferring it. And not that there is anything wrong with such an existence—not that solitude doesn’t have its own benefits, but I guess I have hard time imagining that state, without projecting sentiments of loneliness and longing for something more. And so I close my eyes, determined tomorrow when I wake up to find other ways to not be alone.