Bar Scene Wildlife: the Brutally Lonely

When evening plans fall through, I often head out to a local bar and pass the time. I don’t have TV and of course I don’t know how to read, so books are out. Being out and around people is as good a pastime as any.

I’m no psychologist. I’m not a behavioral scientist. I have no official qualifications that would land me on anyone’s spectrum of experts when it comes to analyzing the reasons why people say or do what they do…just unofficial qualifications.

I have a metric crap-ton of time logged at bars. Often alone. I went through a few years of chatting it up with women-folk when eyes would meet, but not anymore thanks to smartphones. Everybody just buries themselves in FB status updates and checkins when not immediately around people.

So, apart from the normal groups of friends, the only thing for the single guy at the bar to see is the soft glow of electronic devices on detached faces…or the solemn dispositions of the only other people available: the brutally lonely.

As this entry is number two of my anecdotal discussion of the American Bar Scene, I decided to describe a common type of bar patron: the brutally lonely. These gents tend to be a little older—old enough that they don’t bury themselves in technological distractions when there’s a pause in conversation. They are either chatty regulars, knowing all of the bartenders by name, or they’re the more buttoned-up, “just off of work” types. They’ll be alone—sometimes forming loose tribes at the ends of the bar, away from the clustering throngs of pre-made groups. Sometimes they’ll just look forward or at the TV. Sometimes they’ll be turned around to watch people.

The gregarious ones will start to chat if you’re close by. The reserved ones will take a “hi” or bit about the weather to smile and perhaps start in. You usually have to bait out the reserved ones, though sometimes they’ll turn out to be more gregarious with a small effort.

Regardless, once you show yourself as a willing ear and engage one of the brutally lonely, you’ll have some real talk. Sometimes it’s a fire hose of information. Sometimes you’ll have to employ some interview techniques to keep things going.

You’ll hear about wife troubles, women troubles (or wife and women troubles), troubles with their kids, troubles with the law, troubles with their jobs. You’ll hear about betrayals, cheating spouses, how one of their daughters just had an abortion, how their son is in prison, how a partner stole money from them or even a tearful telling of the loss of a truck to the repo man.

Sometimes the stories are pretty severe. Sometimes I don’t know if they’re just making it all up. Either way, it’s a bit of raw exposure to the person. Even the ones who I think are lying are telling me something about themselves: that they feel the need to concoct this incredible story to chat with a stranger.

They’ll say they feel irrelevant at their jobs, they fear their wife will never want to have sex again, they feel that this diagnosis is just the start of something bigger. And they’re at the point where they tell gobs of information to a total stranger.

The overarching theme through most of these stories, though, is loneliness. Sometimes they’ll just come out and say it.

“I’ve never been so lonely until I got married,” one guy said to me earlier this week.

As an aside, this lonely-while-married thing is a concept I only recently wrapped my head around. I mean, I knew it happened—I’ve seen some nasty, NASTY breakups and divorces in my time (the military marriage/divorce cycle can be insane). I guess I’ve always focused on the idea that having someone around would be less lonely than sitting alone in the house. I’m still naive about a lot of stuff. Still have lots to learn. Had a guy tell me once, “You don’t really understand how marriage should work until your first divorce.”

Anyway, there was a video that was being passed around recently called “The Innovation of Loneliness” (link). It wasn’t one of those “ZOMG changed my life” sorts of videos, but it was pretty good.

It touches on the old concepts that hyper-connectivity is actually just the illusion of connectivity. It also quickly mentions Dunbar’s Number (link), which perked up my ears.

Dunbar’s Number was discovered by the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar. He proposed that human’s can only comfortably maintain about 150 stable relationships…which is interesting since many of us have ten times that many “friends” on Facebook, right?

Neolithic villages would grow to about 150, then split. Roman army units would be limited to about that number. Companies after the 16th Century typically function best when limited to groups of that size. There are others that peg the number at closer to 300, but the general idea is that humans can only handle a relatively small number of connections. Once additional ones are made, others atrophy.

The video goes on to say that here in the West, people are celebrated for their individuality—individual achievement, individual acumen, individual capacity. Collectivism is seen as anathema.

The video concludes that we’re more lonely than ever because of things like social media and technology. How the contest to be celebrated individually and connected virtually leaves us empty shells of unengaged potential and miasmic loneliness.

So perhaps all this technology and Internet stuff is why they’ve reached this point. Perhaps we’re all destined to spin and spin in our frenzied busyness just to end up farther apart. Perhaps these guys are just a symptom of deeper social issues.

WHO KNOWS? I can’t say. I still feel for these guys I see at the bars, though. I don’t know what to do with them other than just be there to listen. Maybe that’s enough.

The talks are innocent, just venting. There’s usually no mention of meds or suicide or anything crazy. We’ll chat. Sometimes we’ll go into spiritual stuff. Sometimes I’ll just let them say their piece. Most of the time I learn something (even if it’s what not to do) and I feel my life has been enriched in meeting someone new.

And it’s less lonely than sitting at home, at least. Or is it?

Man, at what point do I just become one of these poor bastards? Maybe I need to invent another category of bar patron to put myself in….

(Update: Someone mentioned a Louis C.K. talk about loneliness that just posted. Thought it was apropos. Check it out HERE.)


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About salemonz

Born in San Diego, Calif. Raised as a Navy Brat, I jumped ship and crossed over to the Army. Served as an enlisted journalist for a bunch of years, then helped the DoD figure out what the hell to do with social media. After the Army, now I drift down the river of life, trying not to be a jerk.

4 responses to “Bar Scene Wildlife: the Brutally Lonely”

  1. Jeff Reininger says :

    Funny enough, I use to be one of those poor bastards earlier in life. Guess I’m doing it all backwards! ha

  2. alolkus says :

    Great post, Josh!

    It reminds me of a class I took when I was back in college called the Evolution of Psychology. It touched on many different topics, but mainly the evolution of psychological traits that increase one’s chance to further their gene. One topic you mentioned specifically dealing with the number of people in a community was discussed as well. I found it pretty fascinating at the time (I still do, in fact, but have not gone back to see what is new in the field).

    At any rate, It was is interesting to see how you are able to pick up on some of the same concepts. To see it from afar while still being very much involved. Thanks for sharing your perspective. If you ever make it back to DC, I would be happy to go out and have coffee. I might even set down my phone and have a conversation. 😉

    Warm regards,


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