The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For 20 years, happy hour has seen us through work — and life

Happy hour at Bar Charley. (Deb Lindsey/for The Washington Post)

When I finished grad school — terrified that potential employers would not see value in my expertise in poetic enjambment or fractured narratives in the 20th century novel — I found a great animal protection nonprofit organization that was willing to employ me as an editor. I dug in there like a grateful tick.

That’s my full-time job, what I do when I’m not opining about cocktails (and sometimes, what drives me to drink them). I’ve been working there nearly 20 years now, which is weird. My dad was with the State Department, and our family uprooted frequently throughout my childhood, so I get twitchy if I stay anywhere very long. But here we are.

I could say I stay because the work is meaningful and I’m making a difference, and that’s actually true most days.

But also, I stay for the happy hours.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg might put it differently. In his 1989 book, “The Great Good Place,” Oldenburg identified people’s need for a “third place” — a space apart from home (first place) and work (second place) where you can relax beyond the pressures of either.

My two most reliable third-place buddies are both men, colleagues I’ve known for a good part of that 20 years. Rarely a week goes by when we don’t go for drinks after work.

A guide to the best happy hours in D.C.

The three of us (with a shifting crew of other co-workers) have long tracked the happy-hour options around our office. It has long been mostly chain restaurants and bad sports bars, so imagine our joy in the early 2000s when a new craft beer bar opened five minutes away. It had great IPAs, a smart server who was generous with her pours and a patio where we could sit in the sun, washing off the workday with rivers of hops.

We drank there for years — for birthdays, to farewell colleagues, to celebrate engagements, to commiserate over divorces and illness. We drank there after the Virginia Tech shooting, the death of Prince, layoffs and crises at work, multiple elections.

Gradually we came to recognize other regulars, to know the members of their herds. The group I noticed most was older than we were, also a woman and two men, also the most reliable members of a larger bunch. Over the years, out of the corner of my eye, I watched them laugh and debate and complain about work and tease one another and drink their beers, as we did. Occasionally we would exchange nods across the patio, or hold the door for one another heading into the restrooms, but mostly, we were in the other’s periphery, part of the scenery, like the maple tree near the patio that turned to fire each fall.

We sometimes joked they were us in 15 years, though back then the idea that we would still be drinking together 15 years later would’ve seemed preposterous to me.

I was more observant of my surroundings then (it was just before smartphones became ubiquitous), and over years at happy hours, I watched them grow older. Her blond hair became less natural in tone, her features coarser. The belly of the taller man protruded more; the other went bald. In the restroom, I would sometimes check my own face in the mirror, wondering if they had spotted changes in us that we — seeing one another daily at work — weren’t noticing in ourselves.

In my mid-20s, they were in their early 40s; in my early 30s, they were in their mid-50s; in my late 30s, one evening, one of the men wasn’t there anymore. Their crew huddled, ashen-faced. Our favorite server filled in the blank.

The death of this near-stranger troubled me for weeks: The frisson of surreal kinship that I’d occasionally felt, looking across the patio, was gone.

I thought: I need to find a new job.

That was at least five years ago. We’ve moved on to other bars. But I’m still here. We’re all still here.

Washington takes ambition to near-psychotic levels. Amid this culture of professional strivers, I blush to admit that when I get frustrated at work and find myself rage-muttering my lists of reasons to stay or go, “No more beers with the guys” is not the afterthought it should be for a true D.C. go-getter but one of the top three factors that keep me from bolting.

I tell myself that I could change jobs and still come back for happy hours. But I’ve seen how that goes. It doesn’t pan out. There’s a bond created by what you go through every day. Maybe more so in cause-driven work, but I suspect it’s the case most places, even when the bulk of office experiences seem insubstantial. Passive-aggressive emails and constant meetings and stressful workloads may be universal, but they are also particular; every dysfunctional workplace is dysfunctional in its own way. Those who leave can return only as interlopers, no longer embeds but tourists, and while we may be happy to see them and hear what they’ve moved onto, they are no longer us.

One of the common themes of our happy hours these days is how we’re going to open our own bar — with our favorite beers, Negronis on tap, a jukebox loaded with all the right songs.

We will never do this, of course. It is a fantasy, what my beer buddies jokingly refer to as “sweet drunk talk.” Actually owning a bar would be work, and that would make the bar our second place, forcing us to find a new third place, and likely new companionship, as we would quickly wish to murder one another.

What we really mean is that we would like to own our third place, so we could come and go as we like, drinking the beers that we like, making the jokes that we find hilarious, listening to the music that comforts us and ignoring the trio of 20-somethings who keep glancing over at us, as though they know us from somewhere.

Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.

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