Tavern Culture (1966)

Lately, I’ve been looking into old research papers on bars and the people who frequent them. One that I found fascinating is transcribed below and was published in 1966. The paper deals with a typical New York dive bar called the Star Tavern, the people who sit in the chairs and an Irish bartender. The paper was written by a psychiatrist who simply wanted to answer a question. He picked the bar and frequented it a few times a week for about six months, without identifying himself as a researcher, and then detailed his observations in a paper. It is a very interesting and eye opening paper on the human condition.

Matthew P. Dumont, M.D. (August 12, 1966)

The needs of homeless men are not being met by health and welfare agencies. Observations of one community of such men reveals that a bartender and his tavern provide for many of these needs. Professionals can utilize the barroom as a point of intervention.

Homeless men cling to the underside of every major city. Their presence rarely intrudes on the individual and group forces that dominate urban life. When some of their unkempt or intoxicated members penetrate the more respectable downtown areas, they are given a wide berth by citizens and an aggressive scrutiny by the police. Their maintenance is the unwilling responsibility of public welfare departments and their medical care is perfunctorily administered in the emergency wards of public hospitals.

They are looked upon as a parasitic blight on cities, as social outcasts whose misery is self-imposed or, at best, they are tolerated as men of no importance. Their communities are the prime targets of urban renewal forces and rarely is their future whereabouts the consideration of even the most social-minded city planners.

Through what agency can a community psychiatrist approach this population? In what institution do these men congregate willingly and openly and frequently enough for study and intervention to be feasible? A glance at their community will provide an answer-the barroom.

The following is a psychiatric case study of a social system called the Star Tavern. As in every social system the presence of the observer is a definite but indeterminate factor.


The Star Tavern is in the shadow of an "el" in an area soon to be demolished by an urban renewal program. It is no escapist cocktail lounge with indirect lighting on tiers of delicate and expensive liquors. It is a typical lower class tavern with large bottles of third-rate whisky and brandy, illuminated beer displays, unstable stools, and a bar that is a mosaic of stains and cigarette burns.

The barroom is almost never empty. In fact there are usually two or three men waiting for it to be opened at 8 a.m. and a larger group having to be hurried out at midnight when it closes.

Rather than elaborate a strained approximation of naturalistic observation, I decided to simply show up at the tavern one morning, introduce myself to the bartender as a physician working at a nearby health unit, order a beer, and proceed to watch and listen.

Over a period of six months I returned to the tavern at varying times of the day once or twice a week and stayed about an hour on each occasion.

I rarely initiated conversation but responded amiably to greetings or comments when they were offered. The bartender, Peter, was open and convivial throughout. He seemed pleased at the presence and interest of this unusual patron and talked freely to me.

On one occasion I accepted an invitation to Peter’s house, and this seemed to further enhance the communication and mutual regard. I never identified myself to Peter as a psychiatrist and though I was explicit about my interest in the health and life of his patrons, I did not indicate that I was engaged in any kind of study.


Peter has worked in the Star Tavern for 15 years. For the same period he has owned a building two houses away in which ten rooms are let out to men at a cost of six to nine dollars a week. Peter, who is a bachelor, lives in a two-room apartment in his house. His lodgers make up the main contingent of regulars in the tavern.

Peter is 64 years old. He was born in a rural village in Ireland and though he has lived in this country for nearly half a century, he still speaks with a heavy brogue. His community is predominantly Irish so it is not difficult for old country habits to be maintained.

He is well liked by his lodgers and bar patrons. Most of his lodgers have been with him for several years and they invariably pay their weekly rent promptly. It is, in fact, standard for the "old-timers" to have their welfare checks sent directly to the bar where Peter deducts his rent and bar bill and dispenses the remainder to his lodger.

He does not often socialize with the men in his rooming house. Except when they are acutely ill and require hospitalization, he leaves them alone. He strictly prohibits cooking in the rooms but drinking is, of course, permitted.

Peter himself drinks moderately (two or three highballs a day) and though he permits the endless drinking in his house and serves it in the bar, he is extremely moralistic and constantly berates his regulars for their destructive drinking. At the same time that he serves it, he will make references to "alcoholics killing themselves with booze" or to "the old-timers hanging around a stuffy barroom all day" or to "the fact that liquor doesn’t keep you warmer in the cold weather."

These remarks, as frequent as they are, do not seem to annoy or antagonize his regulars. One wonders if these contradictory messages from Peter reverberate with earlier parental miscommunications and hostile-dependent relationships which may have played a role in their fate as homeless men and alcoholics.

Peter, like most bartenders in lowerclass taverns, does not belong to the bartender’s union. The union, he feels, is dominated by hotel and restaurant people who depend heavily on tips. According to Peter, the union prefers tipping to decent salaries because cocktail lounge bartenders can make considerably more money that way. In taverns like the Star, tipping is extremely uncommon.

The Star is owned by a man who operates three other similar taverns. Peter, who alternates with the owner’s son in tending the bar, usually works from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., the shift that caters to the homeless men in the area. After 4 p.m. the workingmen begin to filter in for their predinner drinks. By 6 p.m. this younger crowd, who are family men, dominate the bar and the homeless lodgers who have been plateau drinking throughout the day have left and usually returned to their rooms.

The popular myth of the bartender is of an endlessly patient and nondirective listener to whom patrons may pour out their stories. This is not the case with Peter. Indeed, the amount of his attention that a patron may command is carefully prescribed by the culture of the barroom.

Two groups of drinkers are "shut out," i.e., not served. They are the "fighters" and the "pests." It is clear why the fighters will not be tolerated.

This is a stable and conservative environment and physical abuse or destructiveness is too threatening to a social system which must remain predictable and controlled to satisfy the needs of the regulars.

The "pest" or the "earbender" is the person who actually attempts to dominate Peter’s attention. The epithet does not refer to the patron who wishes to talk to other patrons, as there is no apparent limit to that kind of discussion. It is the talk quite specifically directed towards the bartender that is rationed. It is not only Peter who is sensitive to violations of this unwritten rule, but the drinkers themselves will complain about one of their members who is trying to draw Peter into a conversation.

Peter does indeed talk to the group but invariably on his own initiative. His explicit reason for this controlled involvement with the group is that he is too busy for an extended conversation. On the other hand he has also indicated his discomfort with talk that is too laden with affect. On one occasion he indicated a man who had just lost his wife. When I asked if the man talked about it much at the bar, Peter shook his head and said, "He tries to but I ignore him or change the subject. I don’t want him to get emotional here."

That this avoidance of personal involvement with the drinkers at the bar is in part a function of his role was suggested by an incident that took place one afternoon. A drinker was approaching the point of being a pest by addressing many of his remarks to Peter. Peter’s displeasure was indicated by his refusal to respond to even direct questions, by turning his back on the man and by interrupting him midsentence to say something to another drinker. Precisely at 4 p.m. Peter was relieved by the other bartender. He took off his apron, put on his hat and sat down on our side of the bar to have a drink himself. He no sooner sat down then he bought a drink for the would-be pest and began to engage him in conversation. Though his talk as a bartender may be carefully limited in amount and nature, Peter can still be supportive. One of the several regulars whom I have identified as being psychotic was saying to an adjacent listener and within earshot of Peter that he had lost his job as a dishwasher because the governor had discovered that he was on a secret mission for the FBI. Peter ignored the paranoid content of this communication and simply asked the man if he had applied for unemployment compensation. When he replied that he had not, Peter gave him directions to the appropriate office and urged him to get down there.

Peter is highly esteemed by the regulars. Their reasons for this esteem are that "he will not strong-arm you if you’re drunk and act up," "he lends money if you’re broke," and "he knows how much you should drink." It is clear that his firmness is a major reason for their respect. All the regulars know that once you have been shut out by Peter you stay shut out "forever."

That he is indeed popular among the men is indicated by the observation that the only times the bar is empty is when he has a day off.


At any time between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. there will be about ten men at the Star Tavern. This is the hard core group of regulars who spend most of their daylight time in the bar. Their average age is 60 years and they have the unkempt demeanor and haggard look that mark the homeless, unemployed, alcoholic population that counts them as members.

Their hours in the barroom are virtually obligatory in that, during the winter at least, they literally have no place else to go. Their rooms are frequently unheated and in this area there is no mission or Salvation Army post or public reading room that will provide them with a daytime shelter. During the summer they may wander around the square or make their way to a park, but it is only in the barroom that they can freely commune with one another and do not have to avoid the police.

A major provision of the bar is the unrestricted opportunity to urinate. When they are not in their rooms these men, who often have urinary frequency from the combination of alcohol intake, prostatism, and urinary tract infections, have little opportunity to empty their bladders. They do not have the license that more respectable-looking people have to use gas station or restaurant washrooms. The old-timers are occasionally arrested for exposing themselves while attempting to urinate.

Their health is uniformly poor. Cirrhosis and tuberculosis are almost universal in this group and rarely does a winter go by before each of them is hospitalized with pneumonia. Diabetes mellitus, peptic ulcers, and bronchial asthma are also common.

Being a deviant group their tolerance to deviant behavior is high. At least three of the regulars have had repeated state hospitalizations. They are referred to as "off but harmless" by the others. One old man who is voluble about his paranoid ideas is referred to as "The Town Crier" and though the owner has objected to his noise, the men and Peter permit him to stay and often buy him drinks.

The lucky ones of the group are on medical disability or social security pensions. The remainder, the larger number, get by on general relief. This amounts to $15.60 per week, and with a minimum of $6.00 per week for a room, they have precious little for food, alcohol, and cigarettes. Their staple diet is coffee and doughnuts. They occasionally have a plate of soup, rarely a hot dog or hamburger. (One analysis of the hot dogs and hamburgers served to such a group indicated that they are filled with cereal and do not provide a minimal requirement for protein.)

The "admission fee" in the Star is 15 cents for a 12-ounce glass of beer. Except for Peter’s lodgers, who are a privileged group, a drinker who does not reorder within an hour may be asked to leave. This rarely happens because bar credit is easy to come by and it is the pattern for any patron with extra money to stake the less fortunate drinkers as needed. Also an occasional "live one" will come in and buy drinks for everyone. This pattern of sharing is so regular that expressions of gratitude are barely present.

An ounce-and-a-half shot of whiskey with a beer chaser at 35 cents is the most popular drink. For the plateau drinkers who are short of money, a glass of wine with a beer chaser is common. This is a cohesive group and it is rare for its members to have a severe alcohol withdrawal condition because they cannot afford a drink to "feed their nerves."

Obviously too, the daily routine requires a certain stability of drinking pattern so that an equilibrium will not be disrupted by a constantly increasing need for alcohol. Most of the men seemed to have established their own level of plateau drinking. I saw only one or two of them ever severely intoxicated.

The men usually wake at 6 a.m., and by the time they have dressed and gone to a lunchroom for their morning meal of coffee and doughnuts, they are ready to begin waiting for the tavern to open. They may return to their rooms for a midday nap and have another meal or a short walk, but for hours at a time the tavern is home base. They spend about six hours a day there and they are usually in bed again by 7 p.m.

Their inadequate diet is not affected by a local center that supplies surplus food to welfare recipients because the food requires preparation and the men are not permitted to cook or store food in their rooms.

The Star is closed on Sundays along with package stores so that a certain amount of preparation for that hardest day of the week is necessary. Peter’s lodgers usually pitch in for a couple of bottles of wine to help see them through the day.


Alcohol may be the most potent instrument of social communion known to mankind. Whatever might be said of the countless families, nervous systems, and lives it has devastated, there can be little argument against alcohol’s tendency to mitigate the psychological and social forces that cause people to preserve their separateness, unique individuality, and loneliness.

The regulars at the Star Tavern form a cohesive and durable social system. They are their own and their only reference group. They are almost universally alienated from their families. Except for occasional spurts of unskilled labor they have no identity as part of a work force. Most importantly, they are a group without a future. Most of them have no idea what they will do or where they will go when their shabby rooms and the tavern fall to the bulldozer.

For these men the tavern provides the only opportunity for socialization. It is a distortion to say that they spend their days in a barroom only to drink.

Conversation is always going on in the tavern. There is a constant flow of talk that may start between two members, widen to include eight or ten men, and break down again to smaller groups. It is usually Peter who acts as the carrier of the thread of conversation as while standing at one end of the bar he interjects a comment directed to the far end, stimulating a response at his end as well.

The themes of conversation are remarkably few though with endless variation. The hopelessness and helplessness of the men’s appearance, drinking, diet, and excessive sleep is reflected in their talk. This is a chronically depressed group, and characteristically their talk revolves around loss, illness, isolation, and death.

These are a few representative samples of their overheard conversations:

Don: Cancer is from too many cigarettes.
Jack: John Wayne smoked five packs a day and they took a piece of his lung out.
Don: I just take a couple of drags from each butt.
Tom: I heard of a guy who got cirrhosis of the liver and he never took a drink in his life.
Jack: Yeah, but most of it’s from too much booze and no food.
Don: You get holes in your liver.
Larry: Remember Smitty? He was a nice guy.
Peter: He died in my place. He was sitting up in bed with his hat and coat on.
Dick: There’s a wake now for Frank.
Peter: I guess I’ll go.
Ed: They close those places at ten.
Peter: They used to stay open all night.
John: Remember the guy who used to drive that blue truck? He got cancer.
Dick: Once you get it it’s only a matter of time.
Steve: You live as long as your parents did. I’m due any time now.
Mike: After you’re sixty it’s downhill.
Ed: That hospital stinks. If you turn around for a second they’ll steal your cigarettes.
Don: And try to get a glass of water from a nurse.
Tom: I lost a thousand dollars in that fucking bank down the street in the depression. The financial experts didn’t lose anything. They knew it was coming. The workers and longshoremen lost everything.
Dan: This neighborhood once had thirty-five thousand people. Now it’s down to eighteen. Stores are closing all over with the renewal.
Jack: This city is dying.

It was characteristic of the men to see urban renewal there as a death of the city. It would, in fact, be a death of their city.

Arguments were uncommon in the tavern. The men’s hostility was either internalized or focused on the establishment they were so alienated from. The forces of urban renewal, the police, and the welfare were, in particular, the targets of cynical contempt.

There was a color television set over the bar. It was always turned on but it served more as a background stimulus than a center for attention. Peter once said, "If I owned a bar I wouldn’t have a TV, just a radio. When the set was broken, I was the only one who missed it. The boys didn’t care. Look at that, twelve men at the bar and not one is watching it."

I did note one occasion when the television seemed to play a central role in the group process. A 15-minute religious program was broadcast every morning. This consisted of a sermon by a different clergyman on each occasion and was usually ignored. One morning, however, a minister talked about lonely and isolated men. The substance of his talk was a detailed description of the film "The Pawnbroker," a story of an embittered man whose state of mind resulted from terrible concentration camp experiences. As the minister abstracted this story to the level of all alienated men including deviants and alcoholics, he seemed to strike a chord in the Star Tavern. All conversation, drinking, and cigarette puffing stopped. The only sounds were the reverend’s voice and the husky breathing of these broken men. There was an air of a common destiny, of a tacit recognition of their shared misery that seemed intensely religious. It was a while before conversation began again. There was no reference to the sermon.

It is probably easier for a social scientist to engage in such a study than a physician. During and after my encounters with the tavern, I found myself thinking of unmet needs and potential remedies rather than accuracy or generalizability.

As an indication of this, when I reached the point of feeling that I had observed enough of the culture of the Star to write a case study, I decided to shift roles and use my relationship with Peter to make an intervention. I convinced him to stock a supply of thiamine tablets and dispense one each day to those of his regulars whose diets were most deficient. I obtained the vitamins for him and he began to give them out regularly.

Such issues as how to maintain this operation, how to engage other agencies in it, and what its effects on the social system of the tavern might be are obviously matters for further study.

I suppose we have not yet reached the point when a barroom can be part of a network of health agencies. For many, the idea of using a bartender or his bar as a health and welfare resource may be construed as lending official sanction to a phenomenon that is ordinarily considered a social evil.

On the other hand, anyone who has attempted to deal with the emotional, physical, and social ailments of this population through traditional channels knows what a futile exercise it seems to be. If we are actually to be concerned with the well-being of a popUlation and not with the preservation of cherished institutional techniques then uncomfortable innovations will have to be tried.

The barroom hangout of homeless men does not exist only to exploit and aggravate social pathology. It performs a life-sustaining function for men who have literally nothing else. It may provide their only opportunity for a tolerant and supportive environment, for socialization, for rest and warmth.

When urban designers reach the stage of planning for these men as well for the more established poor, they will have much to learn from the taverns. In the meantime, those health professionals who already feel a responsibility to deal with the well-being of all people should not pass up the opportunity to use taverns as outposts.


1. BOGUE, D. J. 1963. Skid Row in American Cities. Community and Family Study Center, University of Chicago.

2. CHAFETZ, M. E., ET AL. 1962. Establishing treatment relations with alcoholics. J. Nerv. and Ment. Disease. 134: 395-409.

3. CHAFETZ, M. E. 1965. Liquor: The Servant of Man. Little, Brown, Boston.

4. DEMONE JR., H. W., AND E. BLACKER. 1961. The Unattached and Socially Isolated Resident on Skid Row. Boston Community Development Program.

5. GOTTLIEB, D. 1957. The neighborhood tavern and the cocktail lounge, a study of class differences. Amer. J. Soc. 62: 559-562.

6. WALLACE, S. E. 1965. Skid Row as a Way of Life. Bedminster Press, Totowa, N.J.

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