The Lost Art of Buying a Round for the Bar

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The Lost Art of Buying a Round for the BarSlim Aarons - Getty Images

My wife's labor lasted through the night. Around 6am, I left the hospital and walked down the street to pick up two-dozen bagels, a tub of cream cheese, smoked salmon, and whitefish salad for the hospital staff who had been working tirelessly. By 11:30 a.m., Lulu came into the world healthy and screaming. Our baby girl was born on an overcast May morning on the Upper East Side.

Everything was perfect. I felt as hopeful as I was thankful, and I spent nearly the next twenty-four hours staring at this beautiful human my wife and I had created together. I don’t recall sleeping, and I barely remember when day turned to night, but I did doze off for a little while.

When I awoke, it was nearing noon. My daughter was now a day old. She and my wife were resting, so I decided to take a walk. I had mostly forsaken booze over the last nine months out of solidarity with my wife, and I knew exactly where I had to go.

For years, I had a vision of how I’d celebrate a major milestone in my life—that milestone being the sale of my first novel. The vision goes something like this: It’s the afternoon, and I walk into a bar. A mix of blue-collar guys and a couple of businessmen, three or four Manhattans deep before they head back to Westchester to resume their John Cheever existence, occupy the stools. I post up at the bar, slip the bartender a Ben Franklin, and give a grandiose speech about accomplishing my dream. Then I buy everyone a round of drinks. I am sharing an intimate moment with strangers by practicing a lost art: buying a round.

In late April, I got the news that my debut novel sold (Kaplan's Plot, coming soon from Flatiron Books). It was the biggest moment of my career. The book represented twenty years of learning and grinding, hustling and sweating. I was as proud as I’ve ever been, but I didn’t carry out my vision in the bar. Something even bigger was about to happen in my life. Less than two weeks after the news of the book’s sale hit the trades, Lulu, my first child, was born in that hospital on the Upper East Side.

After leaving my sleeping wife and child, I headed south from the hospital towards JG Melon on Third Avenue. I’ve been going there for nearly as long as I’ve been of legal drinking age. The first time I went I didn’t even realize it was a local institution; I just thought it was a perfect bar. Since then, I’ve tried to get to the cash-only Upper East Side haunt of famed New Yorkers like George Steinbrenner and Ben Gazzara at least once a month despite living in the middle of Brooklyn. They serve beer in thick mugs; it’s cramped but cozy, and the burgers are so famous they’re called either the best in the city or the most overrated. Their cottage fries are so beloved that a shortage of them became big local news.

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Inside JG Melon on a much more crowded day than when the author went in to buy the bar a round. Astrid Stawiarz - Getty Images

JG Melon is also one of the best places in Manhattan to enjoy a Martini, which I ordered after taking the one available bar stool as the clock inched closer to noon. When the bartender asked if I wanted anything else, I paused for a second, then sheepishly asked her if I could buy a round of drinks for the bar. Despite my years of imagining such a moment, I felt silly as something obvious dawned on me. I grew up in bars in which my family worked, and I worked in them when I was an adult. The few times I’d seen guys buy the bar a round was what you might expect: some dude had won big on a sports bet, another had earned a promotion, that sort of thing. I wanted to convey to the bartender that I wasn’t trying to act like a big shot, nor was I about to pull out my phone to film the whole affair so I could attempt to go viral. So I quickly added that my wife had just given birth. She smiled and asked the other people at the bar if they wanted a shot or a beer compliments of the sleepy-looking guy with the beard and glasses. He’d just had a baby, she explained, and he wanted to buy everybody a drink to celebrate.

Maybe six people took me up on the offer. To my left, a pair of guys who were visiting from Atlanta told me one of them was a doctor, and he could tell I’d just had a baby because of the hospital bracelet on my wrist. They drank beers, and as one of them took a sip, I heard him say, “This is why I love New York.” The guy sitting next to me was only there for a burger, but he congratulated me and asked if he could pick up my personal bar tab. I thanked him but told him it wasn’t necessary. Another guy, about sixty-five or seventy, who looked ready for a long day of golf, opted for a shot of whiskey. He walked over to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and asked what we’d had. When I told him a daughter, he smiled and said: “A blessing. Daughters are truly a blessing. I’ve got three kids and the oldest is a girl. She’s my world.”

For thirty minutes, I made small talk with strangers. It was enjoyable. A thought flashed through my mind that the act of talking to people I’ll likely never see again, just for the sake of killing time, was an act I normally detested. In this specific context, however, every word was said with a tone of affection. I bought a group of strangers drinks to celebrate the greatest achievement in my life, and for that short time at JG Melon, it was like we’d been friends forever.

When it was time to leave, the bartender told me she bought my drink and then handed me the bill for the couple of shots and beers I’d purchased. I had $200 in my wallet; the total was nowhere near that. I handed both bills to the bartender and said the rest was for her. I wasn’t trying to be a big shot; it was the capstone to a perfect moment. The bartender obliged my fantasy, and I wanted to show appreciation. I thanked her, stepped outside in the afternoon air, took a deep breath, and walked back to the hospital, ready to be Lulu’s dad.

Need some dad advice? Check out Esquire's new fatherhood column, Ask Dr. Harvey Karp.

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