Death of the Neighborhood Bar

All over the city, Bostonians are forgoing pints at the local tavern for a night of Netflix at home—and corner bars are slowly disappearing. But in an era of increasing isolation, the co-owner of the iconic pub the Plough & Stars wonders what it is we’re really losing.

A quiet afternoon at the Plough & Stars. / Photo by Matt Kalinowski

It’s a Thursday night in April at the Plough & Stars in Cambridge, and time is frozen. The place has been repainted, wall art has rotated in and out, staff has come and gone, and the city, too, has changed over the past 50 years. Even so, someone has just ordered a Guinness and people abound, chatting, laughing, and connecting with one another, as they have in this space since man first walked on the moon. The night’s musical act, Will Dailey, is setting up for a show in the corner. I am there—as I have been so many times in my life—to meet old friends.

A staff member closes the curtains, cutting us off from the streetlamps outside and signaling that the music will soon begin. In the dimmed light that remains, Dailey tweaks his guitar strings, getting them just right. The place hums but is not overly loud; the crowd is relaxed but its energy is palpable, heating the room on another cool, cloudy night. I look past my friends, to where the bar turns into an “L” and the regulars congregate routinely. A few remain. A picture of a man they once knew hangs on a wall near them, framed only recently. Richard, I think. He should be here.

Richard first entered the Plough in the early 1980s, fresh off a stint playing professional football in Canada. He was attending divinity school at Harvard University and happened across the bar one day while strolling through Cambridge. To an outsider, Richard and the Plough might have seemed like an odd match. Young, religious, black, and from the Deep South, Richard wasn’t the archetypal Irish bar dweller. Filled with natives of Ireland and Irish-Americans, the Plough was unmistakably Hibernian, but it was also a place of musicians, writers, academics, blue collars, and white collars, as well as different religions, hues, and creeds. My father—a longtime owner and former manager—once described it while pulling a pint as a place to meet people “with failings more glamorous than your own.” In other words, it was somewhere an outsider could fit in. Richard had found a home. For the next three and a half decades, he was a fixture—a High Life in hand—at the Plough.

It’s possible, though, that stories like this are becoming a thing of the past: Neighborhood bars are disappearing in the United States. In 2015, Nielsen reported that one in six of what it defines as a neighborhood bar—regular clientele, no dress code, no obvious theme—closed between 2004 and 2014, a 17 percent drop. Boston lost another one this May when Brighton’s Green Briar Pub closed after nearly 30 years in business. Britain and Ireland, who gave America the concept of “the local,” are experiencing a similar cultural shift. In 2017, the British Beer and Pub Association reported that the number of pubs in Britain had fallen by 25 percent in the preceding 25 years, as the country’s population rose by 16 percent. In Ireland, more than 1,000 disappeared between 2007 and 2014. Across all three countries, drinking is down, exercise is up, and human interactions are increasingly funneled through the swipe of a finger and a follow-up text. Why go to a bar when you can go to a yoga class, WhatsApp your friends, crack open an inexpensive bottle of wine at home, and watch something on Amazon Prime?

There are reasons to celebrate this change. Bars can be dark, unforgiving places. Arguably, their lifeblood—alcohol—has destroyed more American families than any drug ever has. Now the owner of the Plough, I struggle with this truth. My own family has been afflicted by alcoholism, and while “the gene,” as it is often called, bypassed me, I worry for my four-year-old twin boys. Recently, one of them snuck a sip of my beer, then thrust his right fist in the air in triumph and shouted in his deepest voice, “I am a man!” before running away gleefully. I laughed, but the episode also stabbed me with worry that he may be carrying a ticking time bomb.

Still, there’s nothing quite like settling into a bar with a group of friends. After the first drink, when the food has arrived and the conversation has grown to a sustained rally of insult, story, and sideways confession, a warmth passes over me and triggers a stepback recognition of the connection occurring. The fact that I am out, rather than in someone’s living room, provides a shock of excitement at the additional opportunity for the unexpected.

When I consider the downslide of neighborhood bars and how this reflects changing American mores, I am also thinking about Richard. If the Plough provided him with a home in Boston and a community that was his own, it also helped him toward his demise. When he died at 60 in 2017, booze played a starring role in his precipitous decline. It is impossible to weigh accurately the abstracts of help and harm. But Richard’s death made me consider again: What role, exactly, do neighborhood bars play in people’s lives?

Why go to a bar when you can go to a yoga class, WhatsApp your friends, crack open an inexpensive bottle of wine at home, and watch something on Amazon Prime?

Everyone who knew Richard through the Plough called him “The Good Reverend” because he was both a part-time preacher and a self-proclaimed habitual eulogizer at funerals. He often pulled people close to quote scripture, or his mother, when telling a story, many of which were accompanied by a bit of spittle when he was tipsy and excited. He told the same stories time and again—it’s hard not to, over the years. Through these retellings, the present-day doings and deep roots of Richard’s immediate and extended family in South Carolina came to line the Plough’s walls. So, too, did the exploits of the girls’ track and cross-country teams at the elite prep school where Richard coached. A fan of country music, he routinely asked bartenders to play George Jones’s “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)” and “Bartender’s Blues,” and sang along when they did.

Through his soft-spoken, day-to-day interactions, laughter, and warmth, what shone through most was Richard’s loneliness. Unmarried. No children. A southerner up North. A poor man at a rich school. A believer among apostates. He was an enigma and a charmer, a magnet who unknowingly drew people toward him.

Seasons changed, the years passed, presidents, financial crises, and wars came and went, the Sox won the World Series, the Plough’s ownership and management morphed, the neighborhood got richer, patrons talked, argued, laughed, married, procreated, divorced, dated, fought, kissed, held grudges, and swayed to live music day after night. While some familiar faces faded, their barroom days ending as they settled down and started families in their twenties and thirties, Richard remained. He stood at the bar, right near the window that fronts Massachusetts Avenue, 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, dignified, with an athlete’s gait, wearing—when weather permitted—a T-shirt, dark-blue nylon runner’s shorts, white tube socks, and running shoes, the embodiment of a regular.

Regulars are a different breed. Often, they haven’t settled down, or don’t have kids, or have come through the crucible of child-rearing with an impulse to be out again. Some have drinking problems. Many others enjoy a drink but are not afflicted. Some nurse pain, but others are simply looking for human connection. For decades, sociologists have agreed that three conditions are essential to making friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in others. College presents these conditions, but as people get older, pair off, change jobs, move, and race through days, it can be difficult to maintain a life in which all three conditions are present. The interactions regulars have—unpredictable in date and duration, but not in place, and with a splash to ease away their guard—allow for connections to bloom.

What results is both more and less than friendship. In friendship, one chooses whom to see, and when and where to see them. But when a regular walks into his bar of choice, he has no control over who else will arrive, when they’ll arrive, or (in some cases, though protocols are strong) where he will sit. A regular cannot avoid another regular completely unless he is willing to abandon his chosen bar. In this way, the relationships among regulars resemble those of family. You spend a lot of time with people with whom you develop a deep connection, and there is almost nothing they can do that will result in a complete termination of the relationship; family might be annoying or enraging, but most people still show up for Thanksgiving. At the Plough, years of interactions meant that everyone knew Richard’s name, story, predilections, and, of course, his drink of choice—and he knew theirs.

Over the past few years, an avalanche of studies has highlighted the importance of this kind of connectedness. The health service company Cigna surveyed more than 20,000 U.S. adults recently and concluded that America is plagued by “epidemic levels” of loneliness—echoing former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who recognized loneliness as a “growing health epidemic.” Research has shown that persistent loneliness increases the likelihood of heart disease, stroke, immune system problems, depression, and early death. According to Julianne Holt-Lundstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University, the harm of loneliness is comparable to a multitude of vices, including smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. “It exceeds the risk of alcohol consumption, it exceeds the risk of physical inactivity, obesity, and it exceeds the risk of air pollution,” she wrote in a 2017 article.

Neighborhood bars may be one antidote to this epidemic. My father was born into a culture—Ireland during the 1940s and ’50s—in which the pub was paramount. When he came to America, he opened and managed two bars before moving on to other work. For him, bar life was about connecting with people in ways unforeseen and marrying ideas that might have been reluctant partners in the light of day and without the lubricant of booze. With this as my background, and raised in the Boston area, where bar and pub culture has been central, this method of connection has always felt natural.

In 2016, an Oxford University social psychologist researched the pub-goers of Oxfordshire and found that regulars at small, local pubs are “significantly” happier than others, have more friends, have better life satisfaction, and are less likely to drink to excess. Many could be forgiven for rolling their eyes at the conclusion, given that the report was funded by the Campaign for Real Ale, a British organization that touts its successes in staving off pub closures. But the author’s predicate conclusions—that “friendship and community” are the two essential factors influencing our health and well-being—are consistent with loneliness findings over time. And his final conclusion rings true: “Given the increasing tendency for our social life to be online rather than face-to-face, having relaxed accessible venues where people can meet old friends and make new ones becomes ever more necessary.”

In the months leading up to Richard’s death, the Plough’s regulars became concerned. He was not coming around as much. When he did, he was unkempt, and often inebriated before he entered the premises. The Plough’s manager contacted me and urged me to find out what was going on. Richard had hit rough patches before; a year earlier, I had been near the Plough unexpectedly in the middle of a weekday and I ran into him as he wove back and forth on the sidewalk, as if performing a minuet to an unheard melody. We sat down on a bus-stop bench and chatted for 20 minutes. He was semi-coherent. A few weeks later, however, he seemed himself again—not an uncommon routine for an alcoholic.

When I heard that Richard was in a bad way, I figured he was at a low point in another cycle. I expected that I would just see him at the Plough the next time I dropped in. Instead, he died.

News of Richard’s death shot around Cambridge and beyond. The Plough’s Facebook post about him garnered thousands of views. Hundreds posted loving reflections. The words of a young African-American man stood out: “Also from a southern Baptist family, I wandered into the Plough at one of the lowest points in my life—a lonely transplant struggling to settle into my new community. Meeting this warm man who looked like me, with whom I had so much in common, in what was to me the unlikeliest of places, no less, left me feeling hopeful that there was indeed a space for me…. It has been over four years, and actually several of the people I met that very night have become like family.”

Just over a month after Richard’s death, more than 200 people gathered at the Greek American Political Club, a few blocks down from the Plough, in the heart of Central Square, to celebrate his life. Richard’s family came up from South Carolina. Most years, Richard would travel down at least once to catch up with them. As he did at the Plough, Richard told stories of his other life while home. He talked of the Plough, of his track and cross-country girls, and of the various luminaries he came to know through his life in Cambridge and coaching.

Richard’s family knew that the stories were more or less true, but they needed to witness the alternative universe in which he had immersed himself and to celebrate his life with his other family. Before the ceremony, one of Richard’s sisters confided that she had always taken comfort in knowing that he was never alone up North; that his Plough family and others in Cambridge would look out for him and let the family in South Carolina know if something went wrong. Sure enough, a former Cambridge bar owner was among a small group who cared for Richard in his final months, alerting his family of his death and organizing the memorial.

At the service, speaker after speaker rose to recall Richard’s life—his occasional ministry in Boston, the quiet words and booming stem-winders at athletic practices, his gentle nature and his deep laughter reverberating within bar walls. At the end, the crowd rose and made one final toast to celebrate Richard. We then trickled out into the late-afternoon sun. I walked down Massachusetts Avenue, past City Hall, the YMCA, and other Cambridge landmarks that had been fixtures on Richard’s journey in his adopted city. I stopped into the People’s Republik, another of Richard’s haunts, to say hello to a former manager of the bar who had driven up from the South Coast of Massachusetts to attend the service. Steps later, I landed at the Plough, where, like so many others, Richard had spent untold hours trading stories with friends, cementing connections with them, with the space, and with the city outside. A few people had gathered to continue their remembrance. All changed utterly, everything constant, I ordered a drink from the bar and sat down.